Recently I got to ask Dr. Randal Rauser several questions regarding common myths and misconceptions about progressive Christianity. Dr. Rauser has just come out with a book on this very topic titled Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too. My questions are in bold.

You recently published a book which defends progressive Christians and their devotion to Jesus. What led you to write this book?

The book is titled Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too: A Response to Alisa Childers (and the Heresy Hunters). I wrote it as a response to Another Gospel? by Alisa Childers. Childers’ book came out two years ago and has proven to be very popular. In it, she argues that progressive Christians are not Christians at all, but rather adherents to another religion that promotes another gospel.

These are extraordinary claims. And they are also absolutely false. To be sure, there may be some folk who identify as progressive Christians who are not actually Christians. But that’s true of any group of nominal Christians, evangelicals included. The visible church is always a mix of wheat and tares.

The problem is that Childers claims this entire enormously diverse group of people, including figureheads she calls out by name like Peter Enns, Brian Zahnd, Rachael Held Evans, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, William Paul Young, Richard Rohr, and many others, arenot only in doctrinal error, but they are not even Christians at all.

This is outrageous. For example, I know Peter Enns. He is a respected biblical scholar and a tenured professor at Eastern University, an evangelical Christian university. To teach at Eastern, faculty are required to sign an annual statement of faith. Furthermore, Enns attends an Episcopalian church. To claim he is not even a Christian is absurd and deeply offensive.

As bad as that is, it gets worse. Childers also claims that progressive Christians, people like Peter Enns, have an evil, deceptive intent to trick real Christians into accepting the false religion of progressive Christianity. She goes on to describe progressive Christian leaders as wolves. At one point she even describes them as longing to feast on “sheep steak”. The incendiary and dehumanizing nature of this rhetoric is very disturbing.

Needless to say, I have long sensed the need to respond to Childers. While I had previously reviewed Childers’ book on my blog and posted video critiques of her work, in March 2022, I decided that I needed to take the next step of writing a book-length rebuttal to her incendiary claims. And Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too is the result.

Could you name some other common caricatures and misconceptions about progressive Christians that you come across?

Definitely. While the term “Progressive Christianity” has gained currency in the last few years, it doesn’t refer to another religion. Rather, it refers to a process of theological deconstruction and reconstruction that is typically undertaken by Christians coming out of a conservative evangelical tradition as they begin to wrestle with some of the weaknesses or limitations in that tradition.

So what are they wrestling with? Consider for example, the way that American evangelicalism has been closely wedded to right wing American politics over the last forty years. This has led to the popular impression that Christians should vote Republican down the line. The truth is, however, that Christians exist across the political spectrum.

The rise of Donald Trump in the Republican party over the last six years has illustrated the glaring weaknesses of wedding Christianity with a political platform. Time and again, evangelicals have looked the other way when Trump has engaged in profoundly unchristian behavior. When younger Christians raised in this tradition witness the way evangelicals have effectively made a Faustian pact with Republicans for political power and social relevance, it creates no shortage of cynicism. That, in turn, spurs on the necessity of the deconstruction that forms a central part of the progressive Christian journey.

Or consider the example of science. I was raised young earth creationist: when I was a kid, I thought that was the only option for Christians. Eventually, I came to recognize that Christians have always endorsed a variety of views on the age of the earth and the origin of life. Back in. 1996, I took a seminary class with two Christian historians, Mark Noll and David Livingstone, and it was a revelation to learn that Christian theologians and scientists have defended the congruence between Darwinian evolution and Christian theology since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. This is another big area where progressive Christians today find themselves engaging in some serious deconstruction and reconstruction.

With that in mind, progressive Christian John Pavlovitz makes an important point when he says that progressive Christianity just is Christianity. His point is that the process of theological reflection, of deconstruction and reconstruction, just is what it is to be a thinking Christian. He’s right about that. Every thinking Christian needs to ask the question anew for their generation: what does it mean to believe, live, and preach the Gospel in our day?

What’s your take on the progressive/fundamentalist divide dominating much of modern Western Christianity, particularly in America? What do you feel has paved the way for this divide?

I begin the book with a critique of the binary mindset which is manifested in the tendency to reduce complex matters to overly simplistic either/or categories as if every position, movement, or person can be readily categorized as good or evil, right or wrong, true or false. The problem is that reality often comes to us not as black and white but rather as shades of grey. If we nonetheless insist on fitting everything into the binary mindset it will blind us to the weaknesses or errors with our view as well as to the strengths or truths to be found in alternative perspectives.

The binary mindset is central to Childers’ book: in fact, you see it on display in the subtitle: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity. Note the absolutism in that statement: according to Childers, progressive Christians have nothing of interest to share, no truths, no insights, no goodness. They offer only error that is opposed to truth.

On the contrary, as I point out in the book, progressive Christians bring many insights to the table and there is much that other Christians can learn from them. To be sure, that goes in the opposite direction as well: more conservative evangelicals who disagree with their progressive brothers and sisters can bring an important challenge to them. But we do this best when we are open to learning from the other rather than preempting the discussion by categorizing the other as an outgroup that is defined only in terms of errant beliefs and evil intentions.

You also asked what paved the way for this divide. No doubt, there are many reasons but one huge catalyst is found in the echo chambers that we create with our media and social media choices. When we spend all our time watching news that is tailored to reinforce our perspectives (Fox News or MSNBC, for example) and we spend all our time on Facebook or Twitter talking to people we agree with and sharing dismissive memes about those we disagree with, we impoverish our perspective and inhibit our ability to learn from others who may offer a good challenge to us.

At the risk of broad-brushing, what do you find wrong or unhelpful within much of modern evangelicalism? On the flip side, are they aspects of evangelicalism that you embrace?

The politicization of contemporary evangelicalism that I mentioned above is very concerning. For example, in a 2019 poll, the Pew Research Center found that 65% of non-religious respondents believe the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees. But that number plunges to a mere 25% of white evangelicals. In fact, white evangelicals have the lowest acceptance of refugees of all groups polled. While this comports closely with Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric and his “Build the wall” mantra, it bears no relation with Jesus’ teaching on how his followers should welcome the least of these.

While I have a lot of criticisms of contemporary evangelicalism, I enthusiastically identify with historic evangelicalism as represented in individuals such as John Wesley, William Wilberforce, and William Booth. This historic expression of evangelicalism did not focus on culture war issues like attacking transgender people, fear mongering about refugees, and denying climate change. Rather, it emphasized the centrality of Scripture and the atoning work of Christ, the importance of conversion and a vibrant life of personal discipleship and holiness, and a commitment to living out the Gospel in acts of social justice (including the welcome of refugees, by the way). That is an expression of evangelicalism that I can definitely get on board with.

Are there aspects of progressive Christianity that you find troubling?

It depends on what you mean. If progressive Christianity just is the process of theological reflection (including deconstruction and reconstruction) then I’d say no, I am not troubled by that process: on the contrary, I think it is necessary. We do need to progress in our theological understanding just as we need to progress in our sanctification.

However, if you are asking whether I am ever troubled by any of the theological positions that have been endorsed by those within the progressive conversation, the answer is certainly yes. For example, some Christians within the progressive conversation have endorsed process theism according to which God lacks the power to bring about good without the cooperation of human beings. I think that is a deeply flawed conception of divine providence. And thus, I am disheartened when folk are drawn to that theology.

While I think process theism is faulty, I also hasten to add that we all have theological errors in our understanding; we all have planks in our own theological eye. So even as I seek to offer a critical response to what I take to be the errors of process theism, I also strive to become more aware of my own theological errors. And I can learn from those with whom I disagree as surely as anyone else.

Do you feel that it’s possible for progressive Christians and non-progressive Christians to overcome their differences, or has the gap simply grown too wide?

I am hopeful and that’s why I wrote Progressive Christians Love Jesus Too. The book is a call to set aside the simple binary categories that dismiss other people and to recognize that outsiders to our in-group have much to teach us as we continue to work out our own theology.

I cited Pavlovitz above making the point that progressive Christianity just is Christianity. In other words, being a thinking Christian inevitably involves one articulating their theology in a complex process of reflective equilibrium between Scripture and various other knowledge sources (e.g. tradition, experience, reason, science). In that sense, I trust that we are all seeking to progress in our understanding of Christianity. There is no “us vs. them”: we really are all part of the progressive conversation.