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Progressives in Search of an Identity: A Wild Goose Chase?

Say goodbye to the “progressives” and “conservatives” and hello to the “convergent” and “wild goose” Christians. That’s the suggestion of Eric Elnes in an interview with Christian Piatt on Sojourner’s blog God’s Politics. For Elnes, the labels “progressive” and “conservative” have become virtually meaningless in today’s Christian climate.

Darryl Hart made a similar point with reference to the word “evangelical” in his excellent Deconstructing Evangelicalism. This erosion of significance has led to an identity crisis of sorts. In a recent post titled, “Mainline Celebrity Blues,” Hart illustrates this struggle in the mainline.

Previously, the mainline could turn to celebrities for brand identity and loyalty. But this isn’t the case any longer. As David Heim notes, “mainline Protestants don’t really have celebrities” (HT: Carol Howard Merrit and Hart). Where can they turn? Enter “movements.”

For a while it was “progressive.” But that has already worn thin, which brings us back to Elnes’s suggestions. His “convergent” or “wild goose” Christians are coming to terms with the fact that they are finding themselves in agreement with those from the other side of the progressive/conservative divide. Within the post-evangelical and post-liberal movements people are finding they have a lot more in common than their theological forbears. The new terms are a way to signal that these groups are more fluid and merge together at points. This is always the problem when we start to define theological groups in terms of brands rather than by confessional documents.

Instead of thinking about these shifts as some sort of theological advance, perhaps we should consider whether both sides simply gave up on the same foundational doctrines years earlier. For instance, when a post-conservative pulls the plug on inerrancy what really holds him or her back from embracing post-liberal distinctives? In practice it seems the distinguishing mark between post-liberals and post-conservatives is primarily where they came from, not what they believe.

That’s why confessional documents are more useful in distinguishing groups. Granted, at times we need more specificity than what “Three Forms of Unity” or “Westminster Standards” offer. Still, it seems like a much better place to start. The dangers of identifying with a celebrity are many, but perpetual reinvention through socio-theological branding is a poor alternative. Either way, we may lose sight of what really matters.

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