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A Short glimpse of the Common Dreams Conference 4, Brisbane, Australia
The fourth Australian Common Dreams Conference of Progressive Christianity was held in September this year in Brisbane. Conference attendees came from many denominations – and none – but the majority were current or past Uniting Church members. Rev. Dr. John Bodycomb, a retired Uniting Church minister and theologian, describes Progressive Christianity as a momentum, “a stream of thinking that is slowly but inexorably spreading over the religious landscape like a river spreading on a flood plain”. This momentum is not confined to one country, denomination or set of beliefs, but is emerging in many places around the world in response to people asking searching questions about church doctrines and tradition in light of contemporary knowledge and experience.
Christians have been asking such questions since the beginning of Christianity. There has never been only one way to talk about God or Jesus and his message. This is why I wrote my book Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology: finding your own voice, a lay-friendly sweep through church history to show how ideas about God (theology) have changed over the centuries and keep changing. So many people think there is only one version of Christianity, the one they were taught, but if we claim the Spirit is always at work in our world, our ideas about God will always grow with new experiences and knowledge.
Talking about God must always hold two things together – the story of God; and making sense of that story in our changing cultural, scientific and social understandings. When slavery was declared cruel and unjust in the nineteenth century, Christians could no longer legitimate slavery with Bible quotes from an ancient world. Since science has demonstrated that heterosexuality and homosexuality are biologically determined and not a choice, we can no longer quote condemnatory Biblical passages from a pre-scientific era. Unfortunately, many ancient doctrines have been kept in place by power and authority, silencing new ideas; and many people have left churches because what they hear has become unbelievable for them.
This is what “progressive” Christianity is about – progressing, moving forward, continually adapting to changing contexts and knowledge, as the hymn says, “God has still more light and truth to shed forth from God’s word”. Doctrines based on fourth century Roman culture, medieval cosmology, or Reformation worldviews, must be constantly re-examined to see if they depend on cultural and pre-scientific ideas we reject today. With our expanding knowledge of the universe, it would be strange to insist only on the science of Aristotle or Galileo; and what we say today may also be obsolete next century.
Progressive Christians come from many religious heritages and denominations. They are young and old, of different ethnicities, educational levels and sexual orientation. Although there is no uniformity as to what they believe, commonalities have emerged:
Insistence on personal integrity, listening to our reason and experience in our conversations with traditional teachings and contemporary scholarship
Resistance to claims that Christianity is the only/best religion and openness to interfaith dialogue
Advocacy for social justice issues and inclusion for all, including women and LGBTQI people
Care and protection of our planet
A desire for spiritual vitality and inclusivity in our communities
Acceptance of doubt as a necessary part of being human and being comfortable with uncertainty as a more authentic and open stance than dogmatic certainty.
This Conference - “Progressive Spirituality: future directions” - featured speakers from the UK, USA and Australia on a diversity of topics. As first keynote speaker, I pondered what we actually meant by “spirituality,” a word also used today in business, health and well-being. Is there really a distinction between our spiritual and our secular life, or are we each an undivided person? As for future directions, I asked, with the decline and changing nature of “church”, what might a future “church” without/beyond walls look like. An American Jewish scholar pondered the digital age Bible where online translations can be changed overnight and people can construct their own Bible by adding, subtracting and reinterpreting with “cut” and “paste” computer commands. Another speaker asked where the millenials (born between 1980-2002) have gone from churches. By 2025, 75% of the workforce will be millennials who, statistics show, call themselves spiritual not religious; see Jesus and his teachings as one pivotal point in history amongst others; care about the planet; but do not see need for church. An Australian Muslim woman explained Sufism, Islam’s mystical path, emphasising commonalities with Christians and our need to be friends, working together through conversation and education. A Uniting Church minister from Adelaide reminded us that humans are a part of the universe, not superior to it or separate from it as previous centuries of Christianity taught. When we look at a flower, it is the universe looking at itself in intimacy and interconnection. Within this universe we see/experience God. Another speaker encouraged us to recover the Biblical language of “Mystery” for God, rather than pretending we know all that God is.
A British speaker, in discussing the closure of churches in England, told how village churches are becoming community centres instead, addressing various practical community needs – which was, of course, the way of Jesus. Churches spend so much time on things that don’t matter, focusing on bringing people into church buildings on Sunday, that they miss opportunities to create spaces of rest and recreation – “Sabbath” - for busy families within the community – “breakfast, bike-riding and Bunnings”, one theologian said.
As for ongoing resources, “Beyondering” (www.beyondering.com.au) is a series of podcast interviews of church leaders and theologians produced by two young Victorian ministers and aimed at the younger generation. David Felten, co-creator of the DVD series Living the Questions (www.livingthequestions.com), introduced their new study resources for people and groups. David stayed with us in Mudgee for a few days before the Conference and elicited suitable gasps of horror from the audience when he told of nearly stepping on a red bellied black snake on his morning walk. The horror accelerated when he said he kicked stones on the snake to make it move to a better “photo” pose!
Conference participants left energized by new ideas and new ways to progress in faith. You can hear/read the Conference presentations on the Common Dreams website – www.commonmdreams.org.au - click on “Brisbane Conference Proceedings” in the right side bar. Val Webb