reframing the “progressive” divide in a new dimension

The recent discussion of ten “progressive” questions has me finally wanting to write something regarding the ways in which we use the word progressive, especially in our fellowship, and the general confusion it often causes.

Generally, we think of people’s viewpoints in linear terms. We might say someone is a “lefty”, or “right-wing”, implying that they are either “liberal” or “conservative” respectively. This view generally places “conservative” or “traditional” viewpoints on the right side of the line, and “liberal” or “progressive” viewpoints on the left. It also implies that there is some gradient on the scale. A typical understanding of this idea is shown in this picture:


This view leads to certain problems, both politically and religiously, however. Because the recent discussion was religious, I’ll try to stick to those terms. Much as the person who wrote the original ten questions that sparked this discussion, many people tend to see “progressive” as an attitude that centers largely on worship. However many people who have extremely forward views on worship also have extremely traditionalist and even reactionary views on social agendas. How would a person be classified, for instance, who promoted an extremely forward and contemporary worship style, but felt it wrong to read Harry Potter, feeling that it promotes witchcraft? What about a person who feels it is wrong to have a female minister, but who feels equally strongly about actively ministering to homosexuals and inviting them into our churches? Clearly, a single line cannot adequately represent the viewpoints these people have, yet we try to force them onto the line anyway.

One possible way to reform this divide is to add a second dimension. When we start thinking in terms of planes instead of lines, the picture becomes more clear. Consider the following picture:


In this conception, the person who promoted a contemporary worship style (progressive worship) and opposed Harry Potter (socially conservative) would be on the bottom left. We need not stop at two dimensions, however. Consider the following graphic:


Imagining the third axis heading back into the page, we now can place people in three dimensional space, giving us another point of information. Certainly this can be carried on ad nauseam, but as we talk about “progressive” and “traditional”, we need to take care to make sure we’re not discussing different things while using the same word.

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