Progressivism, Liberalism, and Revival

“Progressive” –
favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, especially in political matters; characterized by such progress, or by continuous improvement; going forward or onward; passing successively from one member of a series to the next; proceeding step by step.
favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs; of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism, especially the freedom of the individual and governmental guarantees of individual rights and liberties; favoring or permitting freedom of action, especially with respect to matters of personal belief or expression; of or relating to representational forms of government rather than aristocracies and monarchies; free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant.

The idea of “progressivism” has been on my mind in recent weeks. And, as with most things that I ponder, there is a spiritual slant and not merely a political view that defines my belief system.
As I was considering interpretational schemas of scripture, “progressive” revelation by God of his plan for humanity is something that I have believed for a long time. It seems clear that there is a flow of God’s redemptive work that leads us from one step to the next in terms of our understanding of God’s will and purpose and his means of accomplishing it. Looking back over the long arc of history, there are revelations that bring a new perspective on our part from time to time, giving greater clarity but not invalidating what has been known before. Viewed in light of God’s character, those “new” revelations are consistent with all that has been revealed in the past. I call it the “red thread” of redemption that God is weaving through all of history. There is also God’s self- described nature as unchanging, steadfast, or immutable. But being unchangeable doesn’t mean that we know all aspects of God fully now or that God isn’t continuing to show us more and more of himself and his will over time. That is the essence of “progressive” – positive change, improvement, step by step successive advancement being unveiled over time with greater and greater gradual understanding.
So, I am a “progressive”… to the continuous improvement, the refining work of God….in relation to my personal life, in the ministry I do, and in the world, politically, religiously, and otherwise. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an ebb and flow or swinging-of-the-pendulum effect that occurs over time. There is. Few things progress in a linear way. Instead, the trajectory of progress is observed as a trend line, moving forward or upward over time – season by season, generation by generation, century by century.
With regard to “liberalsm”, in the classical sense of liberalism, I probably am that, too. “Favorable to progress or reform”….The nature of the fallenness of the world is such that entropy is the natural order. Except for the restraining hand of God, the world and all that is in it would, I believe, have destroyed itself many times over. And so, we need reform, renewal, and revival regularly to even exist. That, I believe, is accomplished by the intentional, intervening hand of God. But those in our midst today to whom the word “liberal” has been applied have often denied God’s work and even his presence and care for his creation and have so perverted the original meaning that word “liberal” that it has become itself a negative word for many. So those who have used it to describe themselves and their policies have sought to replace it with a more favorably nuanced word…”progressive.”
One may apply any tag desired to oneself or one’s movement on its banner, its brochures, its Twitter page or any other promotional instrument. Any individual or group may market itself how it wishes. But the truth of the contribution of the individual or the movement to history will be written in the footnotes and defined by how it ultimately impacted others over time.
Liberalism, as defined in many quarters today in the United States, has not served our country well in the opinion of many like myself. The very definition we have known as “classical liberalism” has been perverted so that we hardly recognize what passes for liberalism today. Part of the definition of liberalism is that of “free from prejudice or bigotry, tolerant.” And yetthose who wear the label in our society seldom are tolerant of beliefs that do not match their own. It has become a smear to be applied to the people and policies of some by those who wish to be as far as possible from association with it. The same is becoming true for what has been positioned as its polar opposite…”conservatism.” Both have come to be viewed as extremist views. And so we have “progressive”…..a linguistic marketing move intended to restore a favorable meaning to the concept of step by step improvement in society. As is the case, however, anything that is considered an improvement by some will have unintended consequences upon and be the target of criticism by others.
An old friend and fellow grandparent who has lived alone for a long time was expressing his dismay in the direction of our country, especially in the leadership of some whom he identifies as “liberal” or “progressive”. He spoke as one who, like Rumpelstiltskin, is just stirring from sleep. When he expressed his concerns about what the future holds for his grandchildren and bemoaned the conditions of the culture in which we live, my husband said, “Where have you been for 40 years? Yeah, the world is in a mess. But God is still sovereign. There is still good in the world and we can still have a favorable impact on their lives and their future.” Our friend was not convinced. Somehow becoming a grandparent gives us a different desire for the future, a reason to pray for “progress” on a number of fronts. But. it also points out the ways in which our own generation and perhaps we ourselves have neglected to build wisely for the future of our grandchildren.
Humankind is wonderfully adaptable to efforts to coerce it in a particular direction. Evil gotta do what evil gotta do. And God will do what God does, redeem it. And when we catch glimpses of God at work, doing what God does, we Christians can smile and know that we’ll eventually get where God intends the world to be. It is our hope, our confident expectation, and a promise from God in which we believe.
Our church community held a four-day Renewal Conference last week. We had a notable religious speaker, teacher, and author come to lead us in exploring revival. Attendance at sessions varied from 100 to 150. He found among us a spirit of revival already at work. As our staff debriefed the sessions afterward, we ramped up our prayerful expectation that God is going to do a progressive work of revelation in our midst, that more and more people will be stirred to personal revival that leads to community revival and leads to change for the better within us and beyond, into the world.
Our pastor spoke to us about some of the great moves of revival in history and their impact on the world. He observed about one such great revival that it had begun with the persevering prayers over decades of “two old women.” Then he added that significant change somehow often occurs as a result of the persevering prayers of “two old women.” We all laughed. And it occurs to me that he is not yet a grandparent. This week as I turned 64, I have been thinking about age, wisdom, the refining work of God over time and the impact that my own grandparents had on my life and beliefs. As grandparents ourselves with many friends who are grandparents, too, we find ourselves concerned for the future of our grandchildren and their children and generations to come. It is part of the psychological and spiritual task of late middle-age and early old-age adulthood…concern for generativity and legacy. And for those of us who pray, we long to see a move of God that will correct some of the excesses of our own lifetime. We pray, we kneel before the throne of God and we earnestly plead for the spark of revival that has already been birthed in our hearts, that it will extend across generations and geographies and become the next progressive Holy Spirit move of God.
I meet with a spiritual friend from another church, both of us grandmothers, in ministry, and teachers of the Word. We share celebration, encouragement, and exhortation together for mutual growth in Christ. When I told her about the staff meeting, our prayers for revival and the pastor’s comment about change often coming about because of the prayers of two old women, she laughed. We observed that we have been praying for our community, for revival, for a move of God for quite a few years together. Maybe we are those two old women? Or maybe it was our grandmothers, who we have been convinced prayed for us, just as we pray for our grandchildren. It has been said that Christianity is always only one generation away from being completely lost. But as long as grandparents grow in “wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52), as Christ did, and as God has intended for all of us to grow and as long as grandparents pray for their grandchildren, I have hope that the faith of our fathers will survive and our children’s children and their children will see the continued, progressive self-revelation of God in history.
It has also been said that “God has no grandchildren.” Each person must come to God himself or herself and be adopted into the Kingdom of Heaven as a child, becoming a brother or sister and heir to the Kingdom with Christ. As much as I enjoy being a grandparent in this realm, I look forward to the day when time will no longer exist and all the generations, past and future, will be one great worshipping company before the throne of God for eternity!