The Common Good

There is No Longer Post-Evangelical or Post-Liberal: Talking 'Convergence' Christianity with Eric Elnes

Eric Elnes, author of Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of the Christian Faith and Asphalt Jesus, always has something brewing. I sat down with him over a hearty cup of his own Darkwood Brew coffee at the recent Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina to find out more about Convergence Christianity, a new concept he’s developing, and which is gaining traction across many traditional ideological and theological lines.

Photo by Creatista/Red Star Studio
Eric Elnes and Christian Piatt at Wild Goose Festival 2013. Photo by Creatista/Red Star Studio

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Here’s what Eric had to say about the current state of the Christian faith, as well as where he sees it heading.

You once walked across the country. Why?

I walked across the country in 2006 with a group called CrossWalk America, which included a network of 150 churches from a dozen or so denominations and over 11,000 individuals. We walked to raise awareness that not all Christians are alike, and that large — and growing — numbers of Christians embrace a more “progressive” vision of Christianity than what one finds portrayed in the media.

Did anything surprise you on that walk?

When we started walking, we thought we knew what “progressive” and “conservative” Christianity was all about – what each stood for and who found the messages compelling. By the time we ended our walk in Washington, D.C., we had become convinced that labels like “progressive” and “conservative” do more to distort people’s understanding of Christianity than clarify it. They were caricatures at best, and didn’t seem to adequately define the beliefs of most of the folks we met along the way.

What do you find unhelpful about the word “progressive?”

Don’t get me wrong when I back off of the word “progressive.” This has been my adopted label for years, and the walk was made in the name of Progressive Christianity. But I’ve had to come to terms with its weaknesses. For many Christians, “progressive” is just another term for classic Christian liberalism. They have adopted the label because it’s more publically acceptable than “liberal.” Christian liberalism was an important movement in America in the 19th and 20th centuries, and without it, Christianity would be struggling even more than it already does to embrace science and issues of social justice. But like any movement, liberalism has had a certain lifespan. We gleaned the best insights of liberalism and moved on long ago.

Many of us who moved on from liberalism happily adopted the term “progressive” because we consider ourselves neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” but something harder to define and categorically different than either. We also appreciate many of the fruits of liberalism, like social justice, inclusivity, and openness to other faiths. We affirm the positive role that doubt and uncertainty play in a healthy faith, recognizing that faith and science can be allies in the pursuit of truth.

Yet when you dig a little deeper and start talking about who God is and how — or if — God is actively involved in life on earth, the two groups are sharply divided. You can see this particularly from the standpoint of conscious awareness to which someone might connect through prayer, Bible study, and other spiritual disciplines. The former group could be called “liberal progressive” and the latter one “post-liberal progressive.” “Liberal progressives” tend to find the whole idea of having a “personal” relationship with God to be a remnant of primitive superstition we must move beyond before Christianity can “progress” forward. The other group may have thought this way earlier in life, but have become convinced that they threw out the baby with the bathwater.

They believe that Christianity cannot truly “progress” without actively reclaiming spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible study, and so on that develop a connection with the Holy Spirit. While many of these Christians were, or had been, associated with the historically “mainline” Christian traditions, they felt deeply disgruntled with their tradition, like refuges wandering in the wilderness looking for a new expression of faith. Many had adopted the term “progressive” because they thought it meant that they were neither conservative nor classically liberal, but the label wasn’t working for them like they thought it was, because it was too closely associated with liberalism.

This is a huge tension that no one is talking about. It has rendered the label “progressive” nearly meaningless.

You mentioned that the term “conservative” is equally problematic. Say more about this.

Within “conservatism,” the tension is even stronger, and again, the tension centers on the role of the Holy Spirit. While we found plenty of Christian “conservatives” who believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Bible to produce a book that is the literal, inerrant Word of God, we kept running into a significant number who are no longer reading the Bible in this way, and who were seeking to connect with a God who had more present-day light to shed on their ancient faith. They were “taking the Bible seriously, but not literally.” 

This later group was experiencing profound alienation within their native “conservative” traditions. Many had been ostracized from their churches. Many more were simply keeping silent for fear of being shunned – especially in small, rural towns where failing to toe the party line meant not only a loss of one’s faith community, but a loss of one’s social and economic network. Like the post-liberal “progressives,” these folks felt like they were out wandering in the wilderness looking for a new expression of Christian faith.

Curiously, no one was talking seriously about this deep tension within “conservatism” just as no one was talking about the tensions within “progressivism.” Yet we believed an amazing alignment might develop between the two groups of refugees on either side of the Great Theological Divide if people would start talking to one another.

Both groups of refugees connected strongly to the values of social justice, inclusivity, openness to other faiths, and were embracing science as a potential ally in the pursuit of truth, and both were deeply committed to connecting with the Holy Spirit through classic spiritual disciplines. Yet neither group was particularly aware of the other group of refugees. They all thought that they were the only ones who believed the way they did. Those of us who walked across the country knew otherwise because we kept encountering both groups.

Have the refugees within “progressivism” and “conservatism” ever found each other and started talking?

There are places where such folks are, in fact, finding each other. One of the first significant places was through Sojourners. Yet those meeting places were still few and far between. Today, large groups of refugees from either side of the Great Theological Divide are starting to find each other and discover the common ground they share in lots of exciting and unexpected ways.

What are some other places?

Two places in particular stand out. The first is at Darkwood Brew. Darkwood Brew is an interactive, online Web television program that broadcasts live to the world on Sunday evenings at 6 p.m. EST. Darkwood Brew is attracting both groups of refugees in significant numbers. There, each group is finding that the other group bears gifts that the other has been looking for. Post-liberal “progressives” are loving many of Darkwood Brew’s guests whose home base was formerly in Christian conservatism, who still love Jesus, the Bible, and connecting with the Holy Spirit – “post-evangelical” guests like Brian McLaren, Rachel Held Evans, Frank Schaeffer, Melvin Bray, Yvette Flunder, and Doug Pagitt.

And many “post-evangelical” viewers are loving guests who reflect these same classic values yet bring post-colonial values traditionally associated with Christian liberalism to the table – like social justice, racial and LGBT-equality, pluralism, and non-liberal readings of the Bible to the table – guests like Diana Butler-Bass, Parker Palmer, Phyllis Tickle, James Forbes, and Phillip Gulley.

Another place these two groups of refugees gather in significant numbers is at the Wild Goose Festival, which has been meeting in North Carolina for the past three years. Pretty much all of the Christian leaders I just listed and many more speak at the festival, and the audiences they attract converge at the festival. So many are coming, in fact, that it gained the attention of Krista Tippett, who conducted interviews at this year’s festival for her show, “On Being.” At the same time, a documentary about the festival was being produced for PBS.

You have written elsewhere that a new form of Christianity is arising within these “post-evangelical” and “post-liberal progressive” refugees that requires a new label.

At some point, you have to put a label on a phenomenon just to shift the conversation and get people seeing what’s happening in front of them with new eyes. I think the jury is still out on what term adequately describes the people who are now finding common ground together, but I do think we have arrived at the best term to describe the process that is bringing them together: Convergence.

Convergence is the coming together of these two groups of refugees from Christian liberalism and conservatism. It also describes the longer-term process that underlies what made them refugees to begin with: the convergence of faith and science, of faith and race and gender issues, of faith and human sexuality, of the Christian faith and other faiths, and so on. Really, convergence has been happening for about 150 years.

While I used to think that the term “progressive” could describe this grassroots movement, the label is, in essence, too large. It doesn’t take seriously the insurmountable tensions within progressivism between liberals and post-liberals, and this tension is a block to many post-evangelicals who would gladly jump in with the post-liberals.

Convergence is the meeting place out in the wilderness where God is inviting two groups of escaped slaves, so to speak, to share what they could not leave behind in order to build a tabernacle together that will take them on the next stage of their journey to the Promised Land.

Like the ancient Israelite tabernacle, Convergence is not a static thing, and not everyone who gathers in this tabernacle agrees on each and every theological point. Yet it is where they are meeting God, particularly God in the form of the Holy Spirit.

In the future, I think we’ll all look back and see that both the Emergent Church movement (associated with post-evangelicals) and the Progressive Christian movement (associated with liberals and post-liberals) were critical bridge movements to the new thing that the Holy Spirit is brewing up.

So what do you call yourself, if not a “convergent” Christian?

Personally, if I were to call myself anything at this point, I might call myself a Wild Goose Christian – in the more ancient sense of the term, not in terms of the festival. After all, the Wild Goose is an ancient Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit seems to be driving all this. Yes, Convergence best describes the process that brought me to this place in time, and “Wild Goose Christian” may just describe me as a person! 

I think I may try that out this coming year and see if it sticks.

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

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