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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Progressive No More: Brief Thoughts on Adaptive Christianity

adaptive christianity

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

A confession: I’ve never taken to the term “progressive” Christianity. 

A bit too highhanded and dismissive for my tastes, even if I agree with the need to move beyond certain conservative Protestant ways of thinking. 

“Progressive” has also become one of those no-win, dead-in-the-water, polarizing labels, like “socialism,” “woke,” or “critical race theory.” I don’t find it useful.

Instead, I prefer “adaptive Christianity.” 

Why?

Because it describes what we are all already doing.

At the risk of losing some of you, I like “adaptive” because, at least for me, it suggests an analogy with evolution: change and increased complexity over time due to inner (genetic) changes and external (environmental) factors.

Adapting one’s Christian faith also occurs over time due to internal spiritual/emotional factors as well as our experiences of the world around us. The result is a faith that survives by adapting and increasing in complexity—and by complexity, I don’t mean using big words and convoluted sentences, but a growth in faith that is marked by an increased capacity for non-binary thinking and tolerance of ambiguity.

If that doesn’t help, feel free to ignore it. The more basic reason why I prefer “adaptive” is, as I said, that adapting is something all have in common already.

We adapt in every aspect of our lives. None of us is (ideally) emotionally the same as adults as we were as teenagers. We all adapt intellectually when we go through the education process and begin seeing the world differently. And who of us has not adapted to the explosion of personal technology over the last generation? 

When are we not adapting? I don’t think I need to say more about that, but it raises the question:

Is our understanding of God somehow shielded from this same process of adaptation?

I think not. We in fact adapt our theology throughout our lives. Even the most conservative Christian will likely confess that their understanding of God at the age of 50 is not what it was at 20. My own faith is different now at 61 than it was when I began seminary at 24—simply because I have lived, experienced, and ruminated. 

Whose conception of God stands still from childhood to young adulthood and from young adulthood to old age? I’m sure people like that exist, but it seems to me you really have to try hard to stay set in stone.

More important, the histories of Judaism and Christianity, which includes their Scriptures, are well-documented journeys of adaptation. 

The towering example of adaptation in the Hebrew Bible is the profound effect the Babylonian exile—with its loss of land, kingship, and temple—had on how Judaism would adapt again and again over the centuries. 

And what is Christianity if not a number of rather serious adaptions of Jewish tradition in light of a crucified and raised messiah? Christianity’s distinctives rest in no small measure on adapting Jewish tradition, such as the nature of Law or the decentralizing of temple, land, and Torah.

Adaptation is not simply an acceptable dimension of faith—let alone a destructive influence. Rather, without adapting, faith cannot thrive and survive. A faith that does not adapt dies.

Speaking of Christian faith as an adaptive process has the potential for encouraging conversations among people who disagree about God, if at least they can agree that adaptation is a normal part of human existence. Then the real discussions can happen—not whether to adapt, but how and under what circumstances. Working all that out is the task of theology. 

“Adaptive Christianity” describes what our traditions have always done. Acknowledging as much can provide some common ground.

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