One of the incredibly frustrating assumptions I hear from Christians who hold more traditional views is that progressive theologians and Christians just want to be more “palatable.” This feels like a relative of the idea that those who deconstruct or leave the faith just want to go do all the sins.
I haven’t heard of deconstructed or deconverted Christians going out and purposely breaking each of the 10 commandments, although the list of professing Christians who have used their faith based ideology as an excuse for committing crimes is long. Most of the folks I know who have deconstructed or deconverted have actually faced a lot of heat for changing their views. Many of them have lost friends and community support and even family relationships over it. This isn’t a path chosen for ease and comfort. So all that remains of this “yay sin!” argument is an easy excuse to minimize the questions, concerns, and experiences of those deconstructing.
The argument that progressive Christians just want to be “palatable” does the same thing. It's also a really interesting choice of word, since every person in the world has a different taste palate. There are people who dislike chocolate and ice cream (I've even met some.) So being universally "palatable" isn't even a thing. Maybe "acceptable" is a more accurate description of the dynamic being described, and if so I think that's telling.
This feels like a classic case of projection - what many more traditional faith spaces really want is full acceptance without accountability. Progressives may or may not prioritize their beliefs being widely accepted, but that's exactly what the traditionalists are after.
Look, I get it. Holding space for dissonance and questions and varying belief systems (especially within a massive faith tradition) is hard. It’s easier to find ways to discredit those who disagree than it is to listen. Heck, people may say I do this too - but the honest difference is that I spent my childhood and young adult life immersed in different versions of mainstream Christianity. As much harm as I’ve seen it cause, and as heartbreaking as my own spiritual journey has been at times, I have learned to respect and hold space for those who still find the system somehow serves them.
The problem is the reverse is rarely true.
Again, I’m not surprised when this doesn’t apply in reverse, because of the mainstream ideological and theological teachings which make it really difficult to appreciate diverse ideas and applications of faith. Let’s unpack three major ones:
Mainstream Christianity needs to have (and claims to have) the Definitive Right Answers.
I’ve talked in previous posts about how there are over 700 Christian denominations in the USA alone, and many if not most of them claim some secret key to heaven in this life or eternity that everyone else is missing. Maybe we are all created in the image of a God who can only be represented by stunning diversity in ideas and practices, or you know maybe one out of 700 has found The Answers. Who knows. But being told repeatedly that you have the exclusive set of beliefs that literally unlock paradise will have the most humble among us fighting a superiority complex. Giving up assurance of being right can be really terrifying, especially if your belief system heavily relies on what I sometimes refer to as “guilt trip theology” - the idea that the main and sometimes only reason we should love Jesus and God is because Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sin.
Okay I know this is a super prevalent and foundational belief that I’m poking at but stay with me. My sister in law is Jewish, and we have had some conversations I really treasure about living faithfully. Several years ago she said Jewish people don’t follow God because they’re afraid of hell, they follow God because God asked them to. This has stuck with me ever since, and every time I hear the repeatable theme of thanking Jesus specifically for salvation from hell, I remember that some people follow God and God’s commandments simply out of devotion and love, not out of fear or guilt.
Boiling faith down to an eternal guilt trip drains it of meaning and life. If God is love, and perfect love casts out fear and there is no fear in love, I have a hard time believing we were intended to spend our short lives on earth searching for the magic handshake to get into heaven to the detriment of everything and everyone else. If anything, it seems like following Jesus without a guarantee of what comes next might take a different level of commitment. Trusting God without a golden ticket could push us to grow deeper roots in our faith. Would we still be in if we didn’t have a promise of eternal happily ever after? If not, do we really love God, or do we love the idea of being saved from eternal torment? Do we love God or do we (very naturally) hate pain?
The problem is most of our church services and teaching are SO focused on this one application of what we term “gospel” zooming out and considering other approaches can feel incredibly destabilizing and scary. It also teaches us the stakes for being wrong can literally damn us to hell. So yeah, there are some intense defense mechanisms at play, and they keep us from being able to show up for each other (which makes me question their fruit and outcomes in the world but that’s another whole post.)
I’m not claiming the theology is wrong, but our obsession with the afterlife and this specific application of salvation can block us from actually delving into a deeper faith walk if that’s where we stop (and it’s where we stop a lot of the time.)
This leads to the second block mainstream Christianity has to holding space for diverse thought: Contemplative and non-dualistic thinking is a practice that’s rarely developed in mainstream Christianity.
Because mainstream Christianity is so focused on searching for the Right Answers, contemplative approaches to faith and scripture are at best an afterthought. If you’re new to the terms of dualism and contemplation, dualism is the categorization of things and ideas into good or bad, light or dark, holy or sinful, sacred or secular, etc. Contemplative belief systems hold space for and instead of or. Contemplative spirituality seeks wisdom, understanding, peace, and resonance. This is often a flash point between progressive and more traditional faith spaces. The traditionalists are frustrated by the progressives lack of interest in Right Answers, and the progressives are frustrated by the restrictive lens the traditionalists insist on looking through.
For me personally, applying a contemplative and expansive lens to spirituality and scripture felt like everything came into focus. It was the lightbulb moment of realizing the Bible is unclear on so many things because the Bible was never supposed to be a checklist of rules. That maybe things are murky and conflicting on purpose not to try and trick us, but to invite us deeper into conversation and relationship.
But contemplative and expansive spirituality is an ongoing practice. Holding space for diverse ideas and theologies is an ongoing practice. It takes intention and effort, and doesn’t happen by accident. Contemplative spiritual practices of all different kinds keep us humble and offer us sacred space to grow spiritually, which brings me to the last big disconnect: mainstream Christianity often sees spiritual growth as a threat.
I really wish this one weren’t true but… Most mainstream / evangelical denominations have very specific criteria for what they consider acceptable spiritual growth. This often coincides with the requirements for church membership and what it means to remain in good standing in the community. Taking these quantified steps are what they consider spiritual growth. Once you follow that path, you’re expected not to change or grow any further. Don’t get me wrong, you can take on more responsibility, you can serve in more ministries, but your beliefs are supposed to remain basically the same. This doesn’t line up for me with the pursuit of an Infinite God. If chasing the complexities and nuances of an Infinite Divine is actually your aim, you’re probably not long for mainstream Christian ideology which is a real shame. When progressive or contemplative Christian ideology rubs up against the rule list of mainstream Christianity, instead of considering the above differences traditionalists dismiss us as seeking easy and comfortable answers… when we are just asking deeper questions.
The question of adapting ancient religious beliefs and practices in the face of new, modern challenges (which is what most traditionalists are referencing when they clutch their pearls over progressive ideology) is a really exciting opportunity for discussion and growth in contemplative faith. Questions like:
We have lots of biblical examples of what love and peace looked like in ancient times, but what does the fruit of the spirit look like in our world?
Where do we see Jesus and who do we see a reflection of Jesus in today?
Who was on the margins of ancient civilizations and how did Jesus engage those groups?
Who are on the margins of our societies today and how can we mirror that radical love and acceptance?
How can we physically embody a pervasive and radical love for humanity?
How do we show those we disagree with on fundamental things that they are loved and valued? What does the fruit of the spirit feel like in our bodies, how is it embodied in our communities, do we know how to recognize it? What spiritual practices bring us into greater peace and community? With the gift of hindsight, where have we missed the mark as a collective, and how can we make amends and seek restoration?
There are lots of unpalatable answers to these questions. Most of them require self awareness, historical awareness, care for the contextual analysis of scripture, and maybe most importantly the ability to listen and accept what others tell us about what is loving for them specifically. It requires humility which many also find deeply unpalatable.
These topics go far beyond what and who is and isn’t acceptable, but often that’s where dualistic ideology wants to camp out. But when you ask shallow questions of your religion and faith tradition you get shallow answers.
This is also why the question of being "acceptable" or "palatable" as a faith tradition comes up so frequently. Social consciousness is changing and growing, which requires our ideas about faith and religion to grow and change too. The problem isn't that the culture at large has rejected core tenets of Christianity - love, caring for marginalized communities, generosity - it's that Christianity is being called out on not abiding by those tenets, and it seems like we're putting off the reckoning as long as we possibly can which isn't a good look. Jesus and the Bible don't make Christianity look bad or outdated or silly, but the ideas we make up about them sure do. Saying we believe something when history shows we've done the opposite for centuries does. Preaching love and then proving we don't know what love means in our actions does. So when I hear this deep desire to belong to something presentable and acceptable like, I get it? But also I want to investigate where that's coming from, because if our faith is working for us why is this such a pain point?
In the story of the last supper the disciples are said to be arguing about who was the greatest, which is almost always framed as “those silly disciples, always two steps behind and missing what Jesus was really up to!” And yeah, that tracks. But also this is an example of a dualistic worldview trying so hard to categorize themselves and their experiences into contemplative, expansive spirituality. This is what we do when we’re stuck checking boxes. We argue about who is in and who is out, who sits on Jesus right and His left, who is holy, who is sinning, who is allowed to speak and pray and lead.
And we miss what Jesus is up to.