Sermon, St. Mark's Anglican Church, Buderim, March 6, 2016
What a gift for a preacher! The prodigal son as the Gospel reading (Luke 15: 1-3: 11b-32)! This story is so much part of our culture that it is used as the example for any child who goes astray, a rebellious teenager who moves back home, or a politician who returns to his original ideas. Yet the word "prodigal" is not in the bible story - it only appears in the section heading. These headings were added much, much later by editors to separate sections of the Bible and suggest what the passage was about; and they can actually be misleading, deflecting our attention from the original intent of the story.
This parable is one of three linked parables that talk about the loss and recovery of something important. In the other two, a shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep to find one that strayed; and a woman sweeps her house thoroughly to find one of her precious ten coins. Why were these parables told, and who was listening? The story says that tax collectors and sinners had been gathering around to hear what Jesus had to say and the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling that "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them". The word "welcome" here can be more scandalously translated as "Jesus hosts them". The first two parables begin with the incredulous question - "Whoever would do such a thing", search diligently for something of so little worth, yet Jesus was hinting that there is more joy over finding someone less important in the scheme of things than "ninety-nine righteous people".
We usually read parables as straight-forward stories, imposing a meaning on them according to our own ideas and culture. We justify this straight-forward reading because we think these parables were told to uneducated, simple people, but that says more about us than about them. We don't share the world of Jesus and we forget that his audience would pick up slivers of irony, offence or challenge to the status quo of the time in ways we can never understand - like us laughing at a political cartoon that highlights the latest political stumble. We read Shakespeare today, dissecting his plays in school and writing large books on a few of his words, but there always remains that gap between then and now. Shakespeare was popular with his everyday Elizabethan audience because he pointed out local ironies and foibles his hearers would quickly grasp, but are more hazy to us today.
The prodigal son story has, for the most part, become a conversion or repentance story - a sinner living a life of depravity and then, hallelujah, returning to the fold. Think about how we interpret the popular hymn -- "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saves a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see"?
But parables were not so straight-forward. They were riddles. In Mark's gospel, Jesus tells his followers, " to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything comes in parables" (Mark 4:11). So what might really being challenged in this parable and why three parables joined together indicating a similar message? Scholars who study these things tell us that if we look more closely, they are not about a lost sheep, coin or son, but about inclusivity and hospitality, welcoming everyone and valuing the least without distinction - one sheep despite the 99; one coin despite the other nine; one wayward son despite the other faithful son.
The Pharisees had been grumbling about Jesus eating with "tax collectors and sinners" - something very offensive when food rules separated the observant Jew from others. Jews who collected taxes for the Roman Empire were despised for this profession and always suspected of overcharging the people. Thus they were called "sinners" - a title for a socially despised group rather than moral failing - this was an "impure" job. In this story, however, these social outcasts were hearing words from Jesus that included and celebrated them - there is more joy at God's table over one of them than ninety-nine supposedly righteous.
And what of the older son? You'd think the older son might be punished for challenging his father's actions, although he had a jolly good right to be upset - that is our conventional wisdom. However, in those days, the younger son asking for his inheritance was a violation of Jewish inheritance laws that gave the eldest son 2/3 of the family property, to protect the property from being divided up. Any younger sons - and there probably would be a few - shared the remaining 1/3, often forcing them into poverty. But it seems we are dealing with a dysfunctional family here, in Jewish eyes. This fool of a father grants the son's request. The son squanders his share, hires himself out to a gentile, tends ritually unclean pigs and even eats their food! Horror on horror is shovelled onto the hearers as to how unacceptable their actions are under Jewish law! The son finally came to his senses, it says, not that he repents as a sinner. He formulates a survival plan - ask to be a paid servant rather than a son.
But this crazy father pays no heed. He has been watching for his son. When the audience would be waiting for the son's punishment and banishment, the father interrupts the son's planned speech and calls for a party to welcome him back, no questions asked, no retribution sought. The coin and sheep parables also end in celebratory parties of rejoicing friends and it is this that holds the parables together - the inclusive hospitality of God to everyone. Rather than a lost sinner, as the Christian story has become, it is a Jewish story of God's faithfulness and hospitality.
The elder son is angry. He was not even informed of the party. He criticizes his father for welcoming back the son - and you can imagine there has been plenty of complaining from him already of his inheritance wrongly divided - yet the father simply assures the elder son of his ongoing love. This angry son, of course, represented the grumbling Pharisees who are now being told there is room for everyone without distinction - like those other stories of offering the other cheek, a party where outcasts are invited, giving away our coat and shirt and welcoming the stranger. Jesus broke all the rules in order to make peoples' lives whole and their circumstances better - and this social experiment of his amongst peasant communities would eventually pose a serious threat to Roman rule. We have domesticated this radical parable of divine hospitality in the coming community of God because the heading "the prodigal son" tells us to read it another way - a story about a repentant sinner. We have missed Jesus' invitation to an alternative world, an inclusive empire of equals, a banquet table where the unclean, foreign, inferior or socially unacceptable can all gather. The "sinners" of Jesus' time - the excluded - did not need personal salvation in an afterlife but inclusion and justice now.
For me, looking at this parable today, we can remove the heading the "prodigal son" and substitute something like "God's inclusive hospitality". It is a story where exclusion and selectivity are not the divine house rules but rather where everyone is important, like the lost coin, sheep and son. Jesus' hearers lived under both the oppressive reign of the Roman Caesar and discriminatory Jewish purity laws, so Jesus is floating the question - what would the world look like if God sat on Caesar's throne; and if righteousness meant "Love God and your neighbour" - no exclusions, no class systems, no religious hierarchies or gendered rules? What would a social welfare program and budget look like in this reign of God?
Who are the coins, sheep, sons and daughters who need to be restored to their rightful place in our community and world today? For whom should we leave everything in order to find them and bring them to the table? What pictures are forming in your mind - refugees, boat people, Nauru, those with mental illness, suffering domestic violence and sexual abuse, those below the poverty line, without proper education, the persecuted, the homeless, those trapped in religious rules that exclude, subordinate or condemn them? And what will it mean for each of us to sweep every inch of our world to find these lost coins; to scramble over cliffs to recover one sheep; to stand against societal displeasure and rules to welcome in those who broke the rules? The parables of Jesus imagined a world that could be, rather than the one in which his followers lived. What world that could be will you take from this parable today?
For further reading: Bernard Brandon Scott, Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the parables of Jesus (Santa Rosa, California: Polebridge Press, 2001)
“And God saw that it was good":
Searching for a theology of beauty
for the twenty-first century
Dr. Val Webb
When I was young, my favourite book was Coles Funny
Picture Book, an illustrated catalogue of amazing, informative
& weird things.
One illustration has always stuck in my mind -- two boys standing sideways,
one shrunken, stooped & sad & the other tall, well-developed & smiling. The ominous caption said, “This boy smoked. This one did not.” Christianity sometimes appears like the sad cousin to other religious traditions, having “smoked” too heavily in its developmental stages on a tobacco of suspicion of beauty & aesthetic harmony, even though, at the end of creation, according to the Hebrew story, God paused with satisfaction & “saw everything that [God] had made, & indeed, it was very good” Genesis 1: 31).
In the North American Navajo tradition, the Creator Spirit Begochiddy called the creation “beautiful,” meaning that all its parts were in harmony. Thus Navajo people’s central concern, reflected in their prayer “May I always walk with beauty all around me,” is the preservation of “beauty” at all levels. The Upanishads, one of Hinduism’s sacred texts, describes “joyful play” as the motivation of the Divine for creating & re-creating the universe in different eons. This was no capricious act – that would have been subject to the law of karma -- but rather a Divine act of joyful spontaneity & fun, complementing the Hindu images of Lord Shiva dancing, Lord Krishna playing his flute & the Divine Couples delighting in sexual love (Hinnells, 272). According to Muslim Sufi poet Rumi, “God is like a beautiful woman in search of an undistorted mirror, so she can enjoy her beauty. God wants to enjoy his generosity.” Not only does God enjoy divine beauty, but “each human being, each animal & each plant is beautiful, if that creature is living as God ordained.” Thus, said Rumi, “we can worship God by loving all that is beautiful” (Van de Weyer, 74-5).
What could be more beautiful than the story of Divine ecstasy & satisfaction on completion of each act of speaking the world into existence -- “And God saw that it was good?” What does goodness mean in this context? Is it a moral, aesthetic or physical category? Of the three, it is least likely to mean morally good, yet early in Christian history, the creation story went sour, first with the taste of forbidden fruit & then under an evolving theological overlay of sin & fallenness. Despite its other meanings, good became irrevocably paired with evil in a far-reaching obsession with morality. By making the story of the first couple a moral story, we not only lost its original significance but also our ability to celebrate, without reservation, the aesthetic goodness & beauty of human life & even creation itself. We have emphasized a great, impregnable gulf between the Divine & humanity because of human sin, thus have marginalized any ideas of a beautiful intimacy with the Sacred about which Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, "Thou ever pourest for me the fresh draught of thy wine of various colours & fragrance, filling this earthen vessel to the brim. My world will light its hundred different lamps with thy flame & place them before the altar of thy temple. No, I will never shut the doors of my senses. The delights of sight & hearing & touch will bear thy delight" (Tagore, 89).
Divine beauty is certainly not foreign to religion. The psalmists repeatedly waxed lyrical about this – “Honour & majesty are before [God]; strength & beauty are in [God's] sanctuary” (Psalm 96: 6) or, “One thing I asked of the Lord ... to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, & to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27: 4). According to Turkish poet Fazil, “Beauty, wherever it is seen, whether in humanity or in the vegetable or mineral world, is God’s revelation of Himself; [God] is the all-beautiful” (Happold, 253). For Rumi, “... once you have perceived the beauty of God, the sciences lose their fascination” (Van de Weyer, 79) & medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, while inheriting Christianity’s moral negativity towards humanity, called the Divine the most beautiful thing in the universe. Alfred North Whitehead, whose process thought gave Christian theology fresh images, described God as “the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by [God's] vision of truth, beauty & goodness” (Whitehead, 346). And for a contemporary voice, Bishop E.J. Cuskelly says, “There is nothing more real than true poetry. There is nothing more poetic than the theology of God’s Word working through all that is good & true & beautiful in our created world” (Kelly, vii-viii).
While such lines celebrate the beauty of the Divine, what about the beauty of humanity, that good creation made in the image of God, into which the Creator Spirit deigned to breathe the Divine breath, so the story goes? How did such a positive beginning for humanity spiral into such entrenched negativity? For an answer, we need to revisit Christianity’s central doctrines of creation. The Hebrew creation myth, like other creation myths across time, sought to explain how humans came into being; why they differ from the Gods & what their place & purpose in the world might be. Such stories did not ask whether the events recorded were literally true (our fixation on literalism is a relatively new phenomena), but rather, what could be learned from them about living in the world. This Hebrew creation story is shared with Christianity & Islam. It is borrowed intact by Christianity, whereas in the Qur’an, there is no single narrative, but scattered references to human creation & a first couple. The Hebrew story is not a single story but two different stories (Genesis 1 & 2) from different strands of oral tradition, both included when Hebrew stories were being assembled around the Sixth Century BCE. There was no compunction, apparently, to blend them into a single “orthodox” account, but rather an invitation was offered to debate the differences & possible interpretations – for example, why were male & female created at the same time in Genesis 1 & invited to enjoy all the fruits of the garden, yet were created in sequence, one from the other, in Genesis 2 & forbidden to eat certain produce from the garden?
One rabbinical explanation suggested the first humans were androgynous (Genesis 1), since adama meant collective humankind, while the second story tells of their separation into two halves -- the Hebrew word translated into English as “rib” can also be translated as “side.” This explanation parallels the ancient Greek myth that humans were originally hermaphrodites, with two faces turning outwards & four hands & feet, until Zeus separated them. This casts a quite different light on the centuries of subordination of Eve (& all women) in Christian history on account of being created second & from an odd part of Adam’s anatomy – but that’s another long story. The host of rabbinical questions flourished because there was no pressure to determine a single, literal “truth” for all time, but rather allow diversity of opinion to enhance the story’s usefulness for life in different contexts. Apart from keeping the debating rabbis happy, the Adam & Eve story was never central to Judaism. It was recognized simply as a “once upon a time” story to set the scene for human beings inhabiting the world, with men tilling the soil & women, because of their desire for their husbands (& also the need for workers in the family’s field), bearing children. Adam & Eve are not mentioned again after the first few chapters of Genesis, nor is their story re-hashed as the “cause” of Israel’s sinfulness in the many subsequent episodes of Israel’s disobedience.
In the Qur’an, there is no detailed explanation of how Adam & Eve came to be, apart from scattered verses referring to a mutual creation of man & woman for each other’s comfort, their relative worth depending, not on their gender, but on their conduct (Surah 49). In Surah 7, disobedience is a joint effort with joint blame, although a later passage describes Satan inviting Adam to taste the fruit which they then both ate (Surah 20). As in Judaism & Christianity, verses from the Qur’an about the first couple were expanded over the centuries by commentaries borrowing heavily from later Jewish & Christian writings. While the Qur’an says that both were created for each other, later commentaries argued Eve’s creation for Adam & second to him in sequence & authority. In the Hadith (the sayings & deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), Adam & maleness are elevated, causing the original Qur’anic blessing on a mutual relationship from the beginning to develop a definite list to one side, even though, when the authenticity of the Prophet’s sayings are traced back, women were often the first generation trusted eye witnesses.
So what is the history of the story in Christianity? Since neither the term “fall” or “sin” appear in the original creation stories in Genesis, did Jesus introduce the idea that Adam & Eve caused the rest of humanity to be flawed from conception? In the four New Testament Gospels, Jesus never mentions Adam & Eve in the context of sin nor calls himself the second Adam. Of course, as contemporary scholarship tells us, all of what Jesus says in the Gospels may not have come from his mouth but from later Gospel communities interpreting his significance for them. However, if the “fall” as we know it was central to the theology of these communities closest in time to Jesus, they surely would have included words from Jesus about it or from their collective reflections on Jesus. Yet the only Gospel mention by Jesus of the first couple was in response to a question on divorce. The Hebrew Bible permitted divorce if a wife “no longer found favour in her husband’s eyes” (Deuteronomy 24:1), but what constituted “finding no favour?” Was it her barrenness, her immorality or adultery, some inefficiency in the home, or simply the attractiveness to the husband of another woman? When Jesus was drawn into this debate (Matthew 19: 3 - 15; Mark 10: 1 - 12), he did not argue about legal loopholes, but about the positive value of relationships – becoming one flesh like the first couple.
If Paul had not been searching for a metaphorical image to describe the importance of Jesus to an audience much wider than Judaism, the story of Adam & Eve in the garden would probably invite little interest today, but Paul did borrow the myth of how humankind (adama) became mortal, arguing that, because of his conviction that Jesus was now alive in the Divine realm, adama had regained immortality through what Paul called a “second Adam” – “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all [i.e. mortality or death], so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Romans 5: 18). Paul’s metaphor would take on a life of its own, far beyond the original intent, something metaphors tend to do when transported across cultures & worldviews. It would be reinterpreted in the eclectic religious climate of Roman sacred rites, emperors as divine sons of God, dying & rising saviours of mystery religions, human perfectibility & sexual control (celibacy) within Stoicism and Epicureanism and Gnostic ideas of dualism - light and darkness, spirit and matter, good & evil. This metaphor of two contrasting types of adama (humankind) would become a cosmic drama involving two actual men, Adam & Jesus, even though Jesus never made this argument himself. By the 4th Century, thanks to St. Augustine’s idea of original sin (an idea not previously held nor advocated by most of his contemporaries), church dogma was arguing a literal Adam passing “defective genes” through tainted seed to all humans. Jesus, who was declared to be conceived in a virginal woman by Divine Seed, avoided such corruption. For Augustine, “original sin” was sexual desire, non-existent in Paradise, thus this pessimistic evaluation of human nature from Augustine had strong links with negative attitudes to sexuality. With such an explanation of the human condition, the Adam & Eve story emerged from centuries of silence in Hebrew history to become the pivotal moment around which all Christian beliefs revolve -- most traditional Christian theology is still organized around the categories of creation, fall & redemption.
What does this long preamble on Adam & Eve & how we inherited such a negative evaluation of humanity & creation in Christian theology have to do with a theology of beauty? Everything. If there is no literal moment when all humanity was doomed, we are free to re-read the creation myth for new clues about its metaphorical meaning for human life. Many scholars today read the story as human beings, created in the paradisal garden of the Gods, growing up & rebelling against parental control (as all children do). Acquiring the tools of knowledge of good & evil, they leave the parental home before they also discover immortality, the prerogative of the Deities. Thus they live in the world, tilling the soil & bearing children, with death the inevitable human end. They were not abandoned by the Divine – God made skins for them as they left & was present when Eve gave birth “With the help of the Lord” (Genesis 4:1). The angel guarding the garden gate was not in the pay of an angry God, but was preserving this new distinction between the divine & human realms. When this was later compromised with sons of God having sex with human women, God regretted making human beings & sent a flood. The story therefore becomes a scenario of human potential where men & women are launched together into the world with the joint mandate to live humanely, work, give birth, nurture & replenish the earth & respect the dignity of every living being.
We are still dealing with centuries of negativity spawned by the interpretation of Eden as humanity’s downfall. Sexuality was labelled as evil or the lesser path as celibacy was exalted. All the senses became suspect. Fourteenth Century monk, Thomas à Kempis, wrote in his Imitation of Christ, the most widely translated & influential book in Christian literature beside the Bible, “... to eat, & to drink, to sleep & to watch, to labour & to rest, & to be subject to other necessities of nature, is doubtless a great misery & affliction to a religious man who would gladly be released & free from all sin” (à Kempis, 49). Any hint of self-esteem was condemned as hubris -- à Kempis wrote: "If I abase myself & reduce myself to nothing & shrink from all self-esteem & grind myself to the dust that I am, thy grace will be favourable to me & thy light near my heart, & all self-esteem, how little soever, shall be swallowed up in the valley of my nothingnesss & perish forever ( (à Kempis, 197). Although we were commanded by Jesus to love our neighbour as ourselves, we have for so long been taught not to love ourselves, that we are not worth loving, so we do not know how to love others in a deep, confident, unself-conscious way.
A theology of beauty demands that we move beyond the moral categories of good & evil in which Christianity has been buried & rediscover categories of harmony, richness & wholeness in creation -- we, because theology is not something only scholars do. We have hopefully moved beyond the limerick reportedly out of Cambridge Trinity College, “I am Master of this college/and what I know not/is not knowledge.” Theology, according to contemporary theologian Sallie McFague, “that most pretentious, abstract, & obscure enterprise, is merely attempts by human beings to speak of God from their own experience in light of Christian faith ... All Christians must have a working theology, one that can actually function in their personal, professional, & public lives ... The question is, how good, appropriate & functional it is” (McFague, 17, xiii)
Imagining a theology of beauty must begin with reimagining the prime focus of theology. Since no one has seen God, anything said about God is a metaphor, a construction of language & concepts drawn from a particular worldview & context. Our metaphors matter because how we describe the Divine determines how we act towards God & whether we can believe in a God at all. Many traditional images of God & their accompanying doctrines are crumbling today because people realize that many of the metaphors used & explanations offered were formulated within outdated cosmologies using obsolete philosophical arguments & based on theological assumptions now proven incorrect (Webb, 15)
The recent rash of popular anti-God books, such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is not great: How religion poisons everything, together with a global proliferation of terrorist acts by militant fanatics claiming mandates from a warrior God, remind the world that the vindictive, bloodthirsty, genocidal God of monotheism, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, no longer works in our Twenty-First Century context, even though many mega-church gurus continue to use such Divine images shaped by tribal desert mentalities & ancient worldviews. The contemporary anti-God authors, however, move directly from this critique to the conclusion that belief in any God at all is obsolete, but this is not the only possible trajectory, especially if we are prepared to think beyond usual Divine images. Traditional Christian theology with its creation-fall-redemption motif has described a theistic God - a human-like Being external to the world, intervening to save some & not others, sending floods on some & blessings on others in answer to prayers - but this is not the only or dominant biblical metaphor. In the Hebrew Bible, we first meet a formless Spirit brooding over the waters; Life breathed into humanity; then Voice, Cloud, Wind, Fortress, Eagle, Rock; Comforter Spirit & Pentecostal Flame in the New Testament – not a human likeness amongst them. The Bible overflows with many images, including some human images, but all are metaphorical & none privileged to describe God in actuality or exclusively.
Any contemporary theological reflection needs God-images that are plausible in a Twenty-First Century scientific & technological context, taking account of our current knowledge of the universe. While traditional Christianity highlighted John 3:16 in yellow marker pen as the Gospel-in-a-nutshell - a single-parent male God offering up His only offspring as a blood sacrifice in the name of love -- there are two other metaphors of Divine activity in human transformation (salvation) in the same chapter – humans birthed from the Divine womb into new life (verse 3) & humanity as the offspring of the Spirit described as the free wind filling the universe (verse 8). Because of the shaping of Christianity into a cult of original sin, sacrificial death & blood sacrifices, these beautiful images of birthed from the Divine Body or energized by the Life-breath of the universe have been buried for too long. The psalmist also advocates similar imagery - “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning & settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, & your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm.139: 7 -10). This does not suggest a judging, external Father God but a Life Force pulsing through us, Energy within the Universe, un-tethered Free Spirit, Presence & Ground of everything in this beautiful creation.
A metaphorical image of Formless Energy within everything in the universe maintaining & nurturing life, or the Universe itself as the Divine body energized by life-giving breath, sits more comfortably with a scientific worldview. While many scientists will not commit to ideas about Something More since this is beyond science’s stated aims, they do share awe & wonder with spiritually-orientated people at the beauty & majesty of the universe – if they did not, they would not do what they do. Contemporary science has discovered elements of unpredictability & chance in the workings of the universe at quantum level & also unexplained “constants” that stabilize the universe’s building blocks, such that the end result is not a random “soup.” While science describes such phenomena in its particular metaphors, they can also be described by religious metaphors, such as Spirit, Life or Love working in the world urging towards richness, harmony, wholeness & beauty. It is not the task of science to determine whether or not God exists (although some scientists highly visible in the public arena go beyond their mandate in this matter), many agree that there are elements of meaning beyond scientific enquiry, what British theologian John Hick describes, "The Real, or the Transcendent – whose nature is transcategorical, beyond the scope of our human concepts – is that which there must be if human religious experience globally is not delusion. We cannot know it as it is in itself, but we know it as it affects us" (Hick, 206).
If God is the Life-Force within everything (or however we describe this), urging our ever-changing universe to choose transformation instead of destruction, beauty instead of chaos, our universe is a vast interconnected organism where what we do affects everything else, including this Life-Force within the world. This turns the old theologizing on its head. No longer are we sinful pawns in the hands of a judgmental, predestining God peering down on us from the clouds, deciding whether or not we will qualify for heaven as a result of our performance here on earth, but rather we are co-creators with this Life-Force, responsible for living our lives fully & caring for each other & the planet. Our choice in each moment is to be open to Persuasion towards beauty, richness & wholeness, thus celebrating the “divinity” within humanity & the world & helping to mend brokenness in ourselves & our environment. While we are not predestined to choose the optimum in each moment, our refusal of the Divine nudge affects not just us, but the whole interconnected universe. When we do answer such calls to transformation, we are moving towards the deification of us & the universe. To quote Sallie McFague again, "The good life … is life in the process of becoming like God (deification) ... What we have struggled for all our lives – to establish the self as worthy – has simply been given to each & every one of us unconditionally ... Deification … is not mystical ascent to another world. Rather … it is attending to the others here on planet Earth …finding out what makes others flourish … Deification, if it is principally loving the neighbor, is a worldly, secular, mundane process of knowing the beloved others & feeling with them in their pain and joy (McFague, 22).
This very Biblical imagery of something within us & the universe working through us to mend & re-create the planet changes everything. It is like moving from a lifetime of focus on sin & judgement against a back-drop of a world to be dominated for our salvation, to looking out an entirely new window on our fragile world as the Divine body nurturing all life within it – how Paul described the God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28), or as the Sikh sacred text, Adi Granth, describes the Divine. "You are the ocean, embracing all, knowing & seeing all. How can I, a fish in the ocean, ever perceive the limit of what you are? Wherever I look, there you are. If I leave you, I gasp and die" (Bowker, 123).
If the Divine is that which energizes our universe, spiritual people must actively commit to preserving this universe & showing reverence for its beauty, not something to rape for our benefit & greed. The current ecological crisis & climate change are crucial theological issues. Thomas Berry says, "The renewal of religion in the future will depend on our appreciation of the natural world as the locus for the meeting of the divine & the human. The universe itself is the primary divine revelation. The splendor & the beauty of the natural world in all its variety must be preserved if any worthy idea of the divine is to survive in the human community" (King, 172).
When theology becomes eco-theology, our wonder & awe at the beauty of our planet & the ever expanding universe that science is unpacking for us becomes silent worship. “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” John Muir says, “ places to play in & pray in, where nature may heal & give strength to body & soul alike” (King, 166). Rather than fighting against advances in science as threatening to ideas of a God, we can embrace, along with the scientist, the wonder & awe which such discoveries bring. Thus comfortable with this cutting edge knowledge, we can also embrace the wisdom of indigenous people who, for eons, have revered the throbbing, living land. “This land is not empty,” Australian aboriginal artist Wandjuk Marika explains, “the land is full of knowledge, full of story, full of goodness, full of energy, full of power. The earth is our mother, the land is not empty. There is a story I am telling you – special, sacred, important” (Kelly, 112).
Such transforming imagery also offers a completely new slant on the word “incarnation.” No longer has a Father God, external to & unaffected by the world, become enfleshed in one Divine-human being, Jesus, for one short moment of history in an obscure part of the globe. Incarnation means that the Divine is inevitably & always within everything in the world & the whole world within God. While the man Jesus offered us a radical example of how to live a “God with us” life, we too are energized by that same Spirit incarnate in us. Furthermore, this Life-Force is in all people, not just those who are like us believe the “correct” religious creeds. The Indian greeting namasti, with hands placed together & a slight bow means “The divine spirit within me greets the Divine Spirit within you.” No longer can the “other” be seen as an enemy or beneath us in creed, race or intellect if they are also carriers of the Divine Beauty. The biblical injunction to “love our neighbour” has wide repercussions for wholeness -- “Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony,” the writer of Colossians said (Colossians 3: 14). Treating strangers with hospitality because they might be angels in disguise also extends far beyond our usual comfort zones if “incarnation” is universal. We are invited to celebrate the beauty & humanity of others who also seek the Divine & describe their search in different metaphors.
A theology of beauty diverts our focus on a religious suppression of all that is within us, opening us up to wonder. According to Sam Keen, "To wonder is to perceive with reverence & love (eros) & in wondering we come close to the feeling that the earth is holy. Historically, the notion of wonder has been closely bound up with a religious mode of being in the world …In my experience, the substance of wonder is more frequently found in the prose of the secular than in the often quaint poetry of religion. The sacred is in the profane; the holy is in the quotidian; the wonder is in the world" (Keen, 15).
For many conscientious thinkers today, this can only be achieved by moving far beyond any God-language at all. “Spiritual” has become a preferred description to “religious,” since the latter is so confining in its imagination & scope. Spirituality in its plethora of expressions is "… the longings of the human spirit for the permanent, eternal, everlasting – for wholeness, peace, joy & bliss. These ideals have haunted human beings throughout history. They have fuelled their deepest desires & called them to heroic efforts to transcend the limitations of ordinary human life, seeking to reach extraordinary levels of consciousness, interiority, & intensity of experience enlightened by the fire of spirit" (King, 28). Rather than simply wafting off into transcendent realms like much spirituality in the past has been described, contemporary forms of spirituality are about becoming fully alive, fully human, fully receptive to all the senses & more radically non-religious, or at least free from traditional religious language except, perhaps, reinterpreted terms such as Life, Spirit, Love. Don Cupitt, the inspiration behind the global Sea of Faith movement, defines this new spirituality as “the coming of a time when the sacred world & the ordinary human life-world simply coincide & we say a wholehearted religious Yes to this mortal life … a really truthful love of life combined with a full acceptance of the facts of life would be the highest form of religion, if we could but achieve it … ‘Life is God;’ that is it" (Cupitt, 117). Cupitt’s description of abundant living brings to mind the words of Dostoevsky from another century, "Love all God's creation, the whole & every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come to love the whole world with an all-embracing love" (Maine, 100-1).
“Spirituality is no longer a luxury of life, of mere interest to religious minorities or mystics,” Ursula King says, “but it now appears as an absolute imperative for human sanity & survival” (King, 56). It is not about withdrawing from the world but engaging it fully. Such involvement in the world challenges any ostrich-like-head-in-the-sand theology of beauty read simply from the wonders of nature or of human love because both nature & human experience do not proclaim a Designer-above-reproach, a sea of harmonious calm. As Victorian reformer John Stuart Mill pointed out, "Nature impales men, breaks them as if on a wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death … with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and justice, emptying her shafts upon the best & noblest indifferently with the meanest & worst" (Webb, 40). The beautiful life is simply a dream for most of the world’s population struggling with devastating poverty, disease, lack of education & endemic oppression. No amount of beautiful thoughts will change this reality. Any theology of beauty must address this silencing of the Spirit within much of our world, this ongoing global aborting of the Divine Urge.
Traditional theology has always had to face that thorn-in-the-flesh theodicy question - if God is all-powerful & does nothing in a tragedy, can God be all-good? And, if God is all-good but does nothing in a tragedy, can God be all-powerful? The usual totally unsatisfactory solution was to divert or silence the question, calling it a Divine mystery or God’s predestining will, thus not open to challenge. With imagery of the Divine within the world, however, the question does not arise because we are working with a persuasive, empowering language rather than controlling, coercing, manipulating metaphors. If human beings refuse the Invitation to strive for beauty, richness & harmony, God is rendered impotent & also suffers the resultant poverty & pain in the world, God’s body. The future is always open & depends on human choices for transformation or for retaining the status quo. Bad things happen to good people because nature does not differentiate between good & bad people. In this year of the one hundred and fiftieth celebration of Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species, we can be thankful that Darwin helped us let die that far-off God who created every species from scratch & interferes at whim in the workings of nature with no requirement to account for Divine actions. Darwin’s close observation of nature dared him to seek a more reasonable explanation for creation. Although vilified during his life-time by religious leaders, his conclusions freed us from powerlessness under a Divine will that orchestrated good & bad at whim & opened us to a more wondrous & intelligent view of the universe & our ongoing importance in its preservation & transformation.
Bad things also happen to good people because entities, individually or corporately, reject opportunities to work for change. Evil is not something inflicted as punishment or a test of endurance by a cosmic Power, whether God or the Devil, but the result of life-denying, beauty-rejecting choices. This “cause and effect” is obvious in some instances, such as driving too fast & causing an accident, or persisting with destructive habits, like smoking or building on earthquake faults. We can also simply be in the wrong place when a natural disaster happens. Other causes are hard to interpret, resulting from a trail of choices made by unknown people stretching far into the past. The Divine does not cause the resulting suffering but suffers with us, endlessly enduring the ugly things humans do to themselves & the planet. Many people have borne unbelievable horrors & oppression because they believed this was the will of an all-powerful, all-loving God for them, rather than listening instead to the beautiful biblical imagery of the intimate Spirit that knows us even in our mother’s womb, surrounds us behind & before, challenges our alienating ways & directs us towards ongoing transformation - “Search me, O God, & know my heart; test me & know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, & lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139: 23 - 24).
Buddhism does not ask “why me” questions because the first Noble Truth says that all is suffering – it is a given of being human, not something to be interpreted in view of a Deity, "Birth is suffering, old age is suffering, sickness & death are sufferings. To meet a man whom one hates is suffering, to be separated from a loved one is suffering, to be vainly struggling to satisfy one’s needs is suffering (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 74).
If suffering is an inescapable part of being human, as the Buddha taught, we must do something to free ourselves from what causes suffering – clinging to things and desires - & follow a path of right living & harmony. This is not so different from responding to Persuasive Power within in order to transform life. While Buddhists find “power” within themselves through meditation & right living, Christians name that power God.
We can’t talk about suffering without including violence, something which litters the Bible. The all-mighty God destroyed Israel’s enemies so “the righteous will rejoice … & bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked” (Psalm 58: 10). Although some enemies may have invited violence, some were simply in the wrong land & were destroyed, “both men & women, young & old, oxen, sheep & donkeys” (Joshua 6: 21). This tribal God defending one special group against all others has justified violence & slaughter in God’s name down the centuries, even today, claimed as a Divine mandate. A culture where institutional violence is sanctioned by appeals made to a Divine Being approving or advocating such behaviour produces a people who accept violence as a necessary part of societal norm. German theologian Dorothee Soelle, teaching in a German High School in the 1950’s, was appalled at how few students knew any Nazi history. Despite opposition from parents & staff, she introduced Holocaust studies, having students count off in threes to emphasize that every third Jew went to the gas chamber (Soelle, 24). What God-images reigned in Christian Germany to spawn & justify that culture of violence & anti-Semitism & lull so many Christians into complicity? “What is so disturbing is not the appalling actions of the ‘bad’ people,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “but the appalling silence of the ‘good’ people” (Brown, 55).
There is another strong God-image in the Hebrew Bible which turns from a theology of violence to one of harmony & wholeness – that of the Prince of peace, "In days to come, many nations shall come & say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord . . . that [God] may teach us [God's] ways and that we may walk in [God's] paths’ . . . They shall beat their swords into plowshares, & their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Micah 4:1–3). While the prophets spoke against violence & injustice, Jesus extended the traditional rules against killing to being angry with a neighbor (Matthew. 5:22). Pacifism was a platform of the early church until the Fourth Century Emperor Constantine became its protector & the Church became part of the war-like imperial court. From then on, theologians developed arguments to justify war, whether through the ruler’s divine mandate, the mystery of God’s “bigger picture,” or the ends justify the means. The Hebrew word for peace – shalom – means more than the absence of war. It expresses the hope that we have everything necessary for our well-being & that our relationships with ourselves, others & God are harmonious. The Jesus of John’s Gospel also talked about peace as a way of life, not simply the removal of strife - “I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33). Harmony within ourselves is something desperately sought today, given the flood of self-help books on the market. A theology of beauty must also recognize the beauty of every human being, the recovery of self-esteem & the acceptance of our own worth.
The Qur’an also dreams of a time of peace - “It may be that Allah will ordain love between you & those of them with whom ye are at enmity” (Surah 60:7) – but the best-known image, for people of Jewish & Christian heritage, of a world where peace, harmony, beauty & wholeness reigns is both a metaphorical exaggeration & an invitation to hope, "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf & the lion & the fatling together, & a little child shall lead them. The cow & the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; & the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, & the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain". (Isaiah. 11:6–9) We are invited to add to this list our own dreams for a Twenty-First Century theology of peace, beauty & harmony for human beings & the planet. What might these dreams be – the cessation of war, the restoration of a living, green planet, the acceptance of all humans as people of dignity, beauty & worth regardless of colour, creed or political persuasion? What is “good news” for our particular time & place? As the Hebrew prophet said, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news." (Isaiah 52: 7)
In the past, theological method was called “systematics” -- the devising of a cohesive framework of ideas into which the thinking of generations of male scholars could be incorporated, with nothing hanging out embarrassingly. Theological education consisted of examining & re-examining centuries of varying theological opinions, as if these were irrefutably applicable for all time. But theology has moved over the last decades to something we call contextual theology. Rather than re-frosting a particular set of doctrines formulated in language & worldviews from ancient pasts, theologians identify the varying circumstances & concerns in which we currently find ourselves &, from those contexts, reflect on what Divinity & humanity might mean or be. What sort of theology can authentically exist today in the face of violence, war, terrorism, domestic abuse & hatred? Certainly not a theology that enlists the Divine as the cause or permitter of such obscenities. To do theology for today, we have to turn instead to our own experiences, both within ourselves & in the world, claiming the authority of the Divine within us to lead us into new “truths.” Bernard Lonergan says, "There lies within [a human’s] horizon a region for the divine, a shrine of ultimate holiness. It cannot be ignored. The atheist may pronounce it empty. The agnostic may say that he has found his investigations inconclusive. The contemporary humanist will refuse to allow the question to arise. But these negations presuppose the spark in our clod, our native orientation to the divine" (Lonergan, 103).
We must leave behind negative theologies of sinful humanity, an evil world & a planet whose sole value is as a human resource, & move instead towards a theological vision of beauty, richness & harmony, not just for humanity but for the planet itself. The writer of Philippians described such theologizing very well - “ Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence & if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4: 8
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Brown, Robert McAfee (1987). Religion and violence, 2nd edn. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Buddhist Promoting Foundation), ed. (1987). The teaching of Buddha. Tokyo: Toppan Printing.
Cupitt, Don (2006). The old creed and the new. London: SCM Press.
Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press.
Happold, F. C. (1963). Mysticism: A study and an anthology. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.
John Hick, John (2006). The new frontier of religion and science: Religious experience, neuroscience and the Transcendent. Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hinnells, John R. ed. (1995) Penguin dictionary of religions. London: Penguin Books.
Hitchens, Christopher (2007). God is not great: How religion poisons everything. Crow’s Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin.
Keen, Sam (1969). Apology for wonder. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.
Kelly, Tony (1990). A new imagining: Towards an Australian spirituality. Melbourne, Australia: Collins Dove.
à Kempis, Thomas (1955) The imitation of Christ. New York: The Macmillan Company.
King, Ursula (2008), The search for spirituality: Our global quest for a spiritual life. New York: BlueBridge.
Lonergan, Bernard (1972). Method in theology. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.
Maine, G. F. ed. (no date). A book of daily readings: Passages in prose and verse for solace and meditation. London: Collins.
McFague, Sallie (2001). Life abundant: Rethinking theology and economy for a planet in peril. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Soelle, Dorothee (1999). Against the wind: Memoirs of a radical Christian. Minneapolis: Fortress.
Tagore, Rabindranath (1971). Gitanjali: A collection of Indian songs (New York: Macmillan.
Van de Weyer, Robert, ed. (1998). Rumi. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Webb, Val (2007). Like catching water in a net: Human attempts to describe the Divine. New York & London: Continuum.
Whitehead, Alfred North (1978). Process and reality: An essay in cosmology. New York: Free Press.
“Making sense of the Progressive Movement” Val Webb
Presentation at Orientation session of Common Dreams Conference, “Progressive Spirituality: future Directions”, Brisbane, Australia, September 2016
I have been asked to make sense of the progressive movement, a big task by anyone’s standards! Rev. Dr. John Bodycomb’s description suits us well. “To call it a movement is misleading. Instead, it is 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 place or one denomination or even one set of beliefs, but has been emerging in many places around the world, in response to people asking questions about church traditions in light of our contemporary world and being open to what other religions say about what they call God. By the way, I use these letters G-O-D for however people imagine the Something More, the Divine or Sacred, or what people refuse to imagine.
Although this momentum has been labelled “progressive” in recent years, it has been happening since the beginning of Christianity. There has never been only one way to talk about God, or to understand who Jesus was and what he was about. Forgive the plug, but this is why I wrote my latest book “Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology: finding your own voice”. In a broad lay-friendly sweep through church history, I show how theology – talking about God - has changed over the centuries and keeps changing. So many people are trapped in believing there is only one version of Christianity, the one their church preaches, and have no idea that theology has evolved over the centuries and keeps adapting with new contexts, despite efforts to keep the status quo. Many doctrines have been kept in place by fear, power and authority, silencing other ideas; and many people have left churches because what they hear has become unbelievable, restrictive or even harmful, yet they still want a sacred connection - something to give meaning to their place in the universe. We all need to find something transforming for us, rather than having to accept someone else’s rules.
People have been challenging the theological status quo ever since the disciples began following “the way of Jesus”. For the first centuries after Jesus’ death, different apostles and teachers produced different explanations, each interpreting the story of Jesus and his message in their context. With little contact between Christian communities around the Mediterranean, stories could be different. For the sake of unity, however, Bishop Irenaeus, at the end of the second century, declared what he saw as “orthodox” teaching, based on John’s gospel, and wrote a thesis “Against Heresies”. This did not mean that the supposed heresies lay down and died. By the fourth century, bishops across the Mediterranean were still debating the questions, until Roman Emperor Constantine demanded a single statement of belief, hence our fourth century creeds. Again, this did not stop the debate, but now people could be punished for heresy – and they were. This has been the history ever since. Christianity has never been without debate, silencing, rebel groups in the margins and brave theologians challenging the powerful centre.
Christian theology has two aims that must always be held together – firstly, critical reflection on the story of God; and secondly, how or whether that story has meaning in our present world. Today we call the latter task contextual theology. Rather than simply accepting an unchanging, inspired bundle of beliefs relevant for all time, we need to consider what is happening in our world – new knowledge, changing cultural and social understandings – in order to allow these new contexts to impact how we interpret scripture and tradition to make it relevant today.
At the end of the 1800’s, the label “progressive” was applied to those challenging traditional interpretations of God, the Trinity, Jesus, virgin birth, bodily resurrection and an inspired, inerrant Bible. Such challenges were influenced by German biblical criticism - using literary historical critical methods to study and analyze the scriptures in their historical contexts, rather than texts that cannot be questioned. This included the search for the historical Jesus – what can we really know about Jesus of Nazareth? Darwin’s On the Origin of Species” had also been published which further challenged an uncritical reading of scripture. In America, some Protestant clergy, including Harry Emerson Fosdick, were called “progressives” and in Australia, Charles Strong, Peter Cameron, Samuel Angus and others were also labeled for challenging traditional doctrines. This current “progressive” movement began as a counter voice raised to the influential American Religious Right in the mid 1900’s. Australians like Rex Hunt and others accessed the American progressive literature, including the scholarly biblical studies from the Jesus Seminar, for Australia.
So what does “progressive” mean? The term “progressive” suggests the idea of moving forward, continually adapting to changing contexts and knowledge bases, without feeling we have arrived – the idea behind the hymn “God has still more light and truth to shed forth from God’s word”. Doctrinal truths from outdated philosophical frameworks, from the culture and cosmology of fourth century Rome, from medieval monasteries, or the Reformation, have to be constantly re-examined to see if they make sense today. When we think of how much more we know about humanity and the universe, compared with Aristotle, Galen, Galileo or even Darwin, it would be strange to say we should accept only the science they understood. And what we say about God today may be obsolete in a hundred years as knowledge expands in unexpected turns. Context and culture do not stay still. Neither must our ideas about God.
Today, “progressive” is a wide-ranging term for any groups that see themselves moving beyond their tradition, whatever that might be. Just search “progressive Christianity” on the internet and you will be amazed at what comes up. There is no uniformity in terms of what you believe. In fact, progressives are often more about what they are moving from than where they actually arrive! I have done two tours of Progressive Christian groups in the UK and am off again next spring. Like many groups here, UK progressives are an ageing population, just like our churches, since young people see less need for church – or at least what is offering as church. Because of this age bracket, I have been inclined in places to call it remedial Christianity as the people gathered, for the most part, are recovering from the not-to-be-questioned Christianity of their childhood. Most of their children and grandchildren have been raised in a less sin-filled- more love-based theology that does not need the same remedial help.
When I look, however, at American blogs from the blossoming new progressive momentum calling itself Emerging Christianity, there is a surge of younger people now moving from fundamentalist/conservative mega-churches and the religious conservatism of the South. We don’t see as much of this in Australia because we have always been a more secular society and many of our young people were never in church in the first place. You can find blogs from Emerging Christianity that offer tests to check if you are a progressive Christian, mostly revolving around ecological concerns, LGBTIQ rights, interfaith dialogue and challenges to a literal reading of an inerrant Bible.
Because of the diversity of ideas and places from which people are progressing – with the emphasis on moving forward rather than beliefs - there has rightly been hesitation to define progressive beliefs, but some commonalities have emerged:
An insistence on personal integrity, paying attention to reason and experience in conversation with traditional teachings and contemporary scholarship
A resistance to claims that Christianity is the only or best religion; and a desire for interfaith dialogue as an avenue to global understanding
An advocacy for issues around social justice and inclusion for all
Advocacy for the care and protection of our planet
A desire for spiritual vitality and inclusivity in our communities
The big challenge for all those who call themselves progressives today is to take a serious look at the commonalities we share, rather than focusing on what divides us – I will talk more about this tonight.
Progressives challenge the traditions. What sorts of issues do progressives question? Again, there is no homogeneity here – we agree more on the need for questioning than on the answers! “Living the Questions” has become a progressive slogan, thanks to the marvellous video series and book by that name by David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy. Progressives think about how the Bible came to be and what genres of literature we find in its pages – narrative, poetry, myth, parable – as opposed to divine words dropped from heaven. They ask what can be known of the historical Jesus of Nazareth and how the understanding of him evolved in the early church into one part of the Trinity. They ask whether fourth century creeds, based on outdated philosophical ideas, are suitable statements of beliefs for today’s context. They examine traditional doctrines of the atonement, resurrection, virgin birth and life after death. They raise questions about interpretations of Adam and Eve and the fall; about Jesus as the only way of salvation; about the need for dialogue with other religions who also seek the Sacred. They talk about imagining God in a contemporary scientific world; about the gendering of God as male; about outdated images in hymns and liturgies; about whether we can believe in something called God at all. There is a joke you may have heard me tell – why are progressives such bad hymn singers? Because they have to read ahead all the time to see if they agree with the theology. Progressives raise issues about care of the planet, justice for all, including women and LGBTIQ people. They care about social issues, poverty, refugees, terrorism and the demonization of the “other”. I could go on and on, stressing all the time that there are no single progressive answers – we have freedom to think for ourselves. Above all, progressives celebrate doubt as a necessary part of being human and see uncertainty as a more authentic stance than certainty. Interestingly, when I first wrote my book In Defence of Doubt: an invitation to adventure in 1995, Christian books only talked about how to overcome doubt. Today, doubt is an acceptable topic in most quarters.
This questioning challenges many Christians who hold traditional interpretations or fundamentalist positions. The label “progressive” has become, in some church circles, a negative label, as a momentum that threatens ancient creeds and confessional statements, suggesting an elitism that implies other positions are regressive. Progressive has also been seen as belief in nothing at all, especially when some progressives who call themselves atheists are quoted as representative of all progressives, which is simply not the case. Some progressives themselves do not like the label.
Progressive groups are in many countries. American progressives have several websites and blog sites across the broad meaning of the term. www.progressivechristianity.org, headed by Fred Plumer, reaches out nationally and internationally, offering articles, resources and encouragement to progressives across the world, the beauty of social media. In Great Britain, the Progressive Christian Network has over 65 groups scattered across the country with a fine online newsletter to keep them in communication and for sharing excellent articles. I have visited many of the UK groups and they are enthusiastic people, mostly associated with churches and providing spaces for discussion. There is a Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, a Jamaican Centre for Progressive Christianity and many Asian progressives across a spectrum of what it means to be progressive. We are all part of this world momentum and we should be eager to be in contact with these different groups.
I have said “Progressives think this and that …” to introduce general themes. However, Progressives sit at all points on the spectrum on every issue and that is fine. Don’t be afraid if you cannot agree with all the ideas you encounter at this conference. I probably won’t either. Progressive groups grew out of the need for safe communities where questions can be asked; and this is the aim at this conference – not to provide correct answers or to introduce speakers all in agreement, but to provide a space where your questions can be raised and you can expect a sympathetic and constructive hearing. We have some wonderful days ahead. Enjoy the moment; create opportunities for good discussions; make new friends; visit the bookshop; tap the wisdom of the presenters; feel free to speak up if you disagree; have fun and take home lots to encourage you in your journey.
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How to be a progressive Christian in the church and in the world.
(Posted October 2017)
This presentation was given in Perth in September 2017 to a progressive group at Wembley Downs UCA. Rather than describing the progressive momentum and the various theological differences, I was interested in talking about how the progressivessive movement could celebrate many groups of people who are "progressing" - moving from one place to another in their faith journey - what can draw us together rather than us retreating into specific groups according to differences.
For a talk on this topic in Sydney in August 2007, the organisers chose the title - “New Directions, New Faith Paths and New Catalysts”. I like new catalysts. It brings to mind my long-ago science background where the addition of a substance, a catalyst, initiated a sometimes dramatic chemical reaction from a state of inertia. We have borrowed this metaphor for many things– we talk about a person or event being a catalyst, an agent of change, whether in business, politics or church, but it is also a good metaphor for progressive movements across the world. I also like Rev. Dr. John Bodycomb’s description of “a momentum, a stream of thinking that is slowly but inexorably spreading over the religious landscape like a river spreading on a flood plain”. Both these metaphors remind us of the original meaning of the word “progressive” - moving forward, whether like flood waters or from the injection of a catalyst.
While progressive groups with which I have been involved formed around the writings of the late Marcus Borg, Jack Spong, John Dominic Crossan and the Jesus Seminar, the “progressive” momentum is much bigger than this. A great cloud of witnesses from many contexts are on the move, all calling themselves “progressive Christians” because they see themselves progressing from one place to another. When I typed “Progressive Christianity” into Google, there were 293,000 results. For example, the Emerging Church movement consists of evangelical progressives from fundamentalist or conservative churches, whatever those labels mean, seeking new ways to “do church”. They want a flexible approach to theology with questions welcomed and different beliefs accepted, and an emphasis on social justice and care of the planet. They are progressing, even if they do not make the same theological moves I might. There are progressive Catholics interested in peace and justice and wanting institutional change – they see doctrines and moral precepts more as flexible guidelines, not eternal rules. There are progressive Seventh-Day Adventists, disagreeing with some key church beliefs, including the observance of a seventh-day Sabbath. The Unitarians, of course, have been around for centuries, saying what many progressives are now saying. Recently, I found a survey from the publisher Chalice Press to check if you are a progressive Christian. It asked questions about care of the planet, inclusivity, openness to other religions, yet no theological questions about God or Jesus which others see key to their progressing. This is the diversity – many people on the move, not leaving from the same place or arriving at the same place, or even wearing the same uniform.
Why this increasing momentum? Despite voices that cry louder than others, the majority of intelligent, engaged people move with the times and need access to new ways of thinking to make sense of their world. In a recent Eremos magazine, a woman described leaving Sydney Anglicanism when the teaching did not line up with her life experience. She said, “Someone mentioned the word ‘integrity’ to me and I grabbed hold of it – I wanted to arrive at a place of integrity in my identity, beliefs and behaviour!” She calls this progressing - “a journey into greater authenticity. For some, this this has taken us out of the Christian faith tradition; for others, it has taken us more deeply into it. Or maybe we are still in that very valid process of ‘becoming’ a newly constructed identity”. [i]
Given this diversity, what do we mean by progressive Christianity? Firstly, “progressive” is an adjective, modifying a noun to define it more specifically. Progressive Christianity therefore, suggests a type of Christianity setting it off from other types of Christianity, whether conservative, evangelical or mainline. But the progressive momentum from the beginning never wanted to be a new type of Christianity, a new orthodoxy – it was about people progressing, moving forward. Fred Plumer from The Center for Progressive Christianity USA says “progressive” reminds us “we are on a spiritual journey into the Great Unknown. The idea that we are always progressing helps us not only from becoming complacent about our faith, but hopefully it keeps us from assuming we have arrived”. [ii] We need to reclaim this emphasis on people moving forward rather than suggesting a set of ideas or type of Christianity that separate us from others. In this way, we can embrace the variety of people seeing themselves as progressing, and find what we have in common in our moving forward, rather than emphasising our disagreements.
For example, the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union declares itself a pilgrim people on the way, open to “contemporary thought” and “ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds”.[iii] As for social action, the Uniting Church is a leader in Australia. It is progressive, “constantly moving forward”, even though some may not see it “progressive” in its theology, while others within its walls would shrink from calling themselves “progressive” because of negative connotations associated with that label. Opponents of progressive Christianity have called it elitism by suggesting the opposite is “regressive” or clinging to the “status quo”. Some say Progressive Christianity smells of intellectualism because it challenges traditional doctrines rather than guarding doctrines of the One Holy Catholic Church or insisting the Bible be read literally. Some say progressives don’t believe anything or are revisionists and un-Christian because of their different check list as to what is “Christian” and which are the necessary doctrines. As I have said before, despite teaching the history of Christian traditions at university level, I am avoided in some parts of the Uniting Church because I have been described as a “progressive” theologian, suggesting I teach only a certain type of theology.
I would like us to recover this meaning of “progressing” and celebrate all who are moving forward. To do this, I will take some general descriptive guidelines that have come out of some progressive groups and suggest that many churches and Christians who are moving forward could affirm them. Let’s go briefly through them.
Seek God, however understood, guided by the life and teachings of Jesus.
As I have already said, with our increasing knowledge of our ever-expanding universe and the natural laws that hold it accountable, we can no longer think about a big man in the sky intervening in this world to change its laws for some and not others, nor limit God to ancient biblical metaphors - warrior, fortress, shepherd - from a small tribe fighting for survival against bigger powers. It is imperative that anyone claiming to be moving forward today seeks God language that fits with our understanding of the universe. This affirmation also says we seek God, guided by the life and teachings of Jesus, which is carefully worded, because the God that Jesus talked about is not the God of the later Trinitarian doctrine. Jesus did not claim to be God, but one sent by God to proclaim what God’s reign would be like, just as the prophets were sent before him. Almost three hundred years after Jesus’ death, Jesus as fully human, fully divine was still debated by the bishops. Many scholars are revisiting the Trinity metaphor and are focusing more on the life and teachings of Jesus than on our fourth century creeds. If we see ourselves as followers of the way of Jesus, rather than believing certain things about Jesus, we will be addressing in our world what Jesus addressed in his – justice against unjust powers, and loving God and neighbour. This is fulltime work and can progress across all sorts of theological boundaries which would otherwise keep us arguing.
Affirm many ways to experience the Sacred, drawing on diverse sources of wisdom
The 2016 Australian census shows nearly one third of Australians wrote “no religion”. Total numbers of Christians are 51%, with only 60% affiliating with any religion. This is a reality check about our multifaith/no faith country. Can we continue to insist on Christian superiority and priority in the public arena? And what about our First nation people? We have demoted and destroyed their spirituality and law with our white Christian norm that has filtered down into every aspect of Australian life. Rev. Chris Budden, in the latest Uniting Church Studies magazine, questions whether our present paradigm of reconciliation is adequate, because it suggests we can just say sorry or talk about reconciliation to our First peoples, as if it draws a line in the sand and we can move on. Budden says, “[This] tends to assume that once people agree on what happened in the past it is then possible to make amends for the past and then leave it behind. There is little recognition of the presence of the past in the present. That is, colonisation is described as a ‘past event’ and there is little sense of the way it continues in today’s society. There is even a recognition of our racist past, but little understanding of how that past still shapes racism in our society”. [iv]
Progressing forward means we move beyond such barriers of exclusivity, whether with our First People or those of religions other than our own. This is not just about interfaith dialogue, because these statistics tell us we are part of interfaith living, with God as Presence within our world also in the Buddhist, the Hindu and the No religion. The wisdom of other seekers can offer language to enhance our own journey and see how our God appears in other lives. Theologian Ursula King says, “If we do not look at religions exclusively from the outside, but discover their deeper spiritual core and wisdom, we come to realize that all the spiritual traditions together present an immensely rich, global heritage that belongs to all”. [v] Being progressive today means being inclusive of all, not just for their benefit but for ours.
Recognize that following Jesus leads us to act with compassion and confront evil
This one seems a no-brainer for all people of faith, but it begs the question - what is compassionate action in a situation, and what is confronting evil? In the current same sex marriage debate, LGBTI people did not want the plebiscite or the postal vote because of hurtful things that would be said about them and their families, and they have been proved correct. Does compassion for these people and their families override what others see as confronting evil, the ignoring of biblical instructions and the breaking down of traditional marriage? What about refugees we have locked away in dreadful conditions? Does compassion for them override political desire to stop the evil of people smugglers? What about the sacredness of the confessional? Should priests be allowed to withhold information about child sexual abuse because of a canon law created by the church? Does forgiveness of sins for the perpetrator take precedence over abused children? Showing compassion was the priority for Jesus - we have to decide how best to follow Jesus in this today. Interestingly, along with all the hate speech in the same-sex marriage debate, we have also discovered many unlikely people “progressing forward” because loving their neighbor has won over the teachings of their church.
Practice hospitality, celebrating our common humanity
Hospitality in biblical times was more than having people for dinner - it was the intentional process of receiving “outsiders” and changing them from strangers to friends. Who is the stranger, in this country, the other in political speeches, in your professional circles, your local community, your relationships? How do we change them from stranger to friend? How do we celebrate our common humanity? This is a challenge to the way we see church. Recently, I asked a lay leader in a small country church about their goals for the year. He listed five things, all of which were projects to bring people into their church building. We sometimes think a bigger sound system, heating in winter, more activities, better scones, will entice people in so we can minister to them. Does it occur to us that people may not want to come in? I once gave a community lecture in our local church. My daughter said, “Mum, no matter how radical and interesting your topic may be, my friends won’t come. They are suspicious of the church trying to get them in, so if it is in a church building, they will opt out.” Dwindling churches of the future will have to decide where to change strangers into friends - in the community, or spending their limited energies creating better worship services and programs in the church? It is always easier to control things on our own turf, rather than following Jesus out into the jungle. It may also mean rethinking Sunday. Frank Rees, retired principal of Whitley Baptist College in Melbourne, says that breakfast, bike-riding and Bunnings may be a better way to experience the Sabbath than sitting in church [vi] - a time for families, friends, activities, or simply maintaining family life. [vii] Remember that Jesus challenged the way the Jewish Sabbath had become, saying “the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath” (Mark 2: 23-28). Rees sees God as Divine Breath filling the world rather than an elsewhere Being communicated through priest and church sacraments, so ordinary lives are filled with the Divine Breath and therefore centres of meaning and value - “… we need to rethink the idea of the Spirit’s presence precisely to embrace the ordinary, the practical and physical”, he says. [viii] This challenge will move us from our comfort zones, but those moving forward need to think about it.
Build communities that accept anyone, without insisting on conformity
Let me ask you a question – what would be a bridge too far for you in accepting everyone? It brings up the question of tolerance. My dictionary tells me, “Tolerance is willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them”. For many Christians, tolerance is bad – a political correctness that means anything goes. For others, tolerance sounds progressive and accepting, but when, if ever, is intolerance OK? What happens when free speech becomes hate speech? When people use bible verses to subordinate women or vilify Muslims? What about when politicians rule in favour of the rich at the expense of the poor, or allow mining and other industrial deals to ruin the earth? A further question: how can we discern whether our intolerance in a situation is more about us and our fears, than about the actual situation? Progressing forward may mean conformity becomes more vice than virtue.
Know that how we behave towards others is the best expression of our faith
We sang, as little children, that the church is not a building, the church is the people – and this means all the people. Churches have not been good at recognizing the role of laity in the world. Ministers wear a clergy collar down the street so people “out there” know they represent the church, but there is no uniform for lay Christians as they work in their trades, professions and homes. Well over 90% of the church are laity and, if we believe that how we behave towards others is the best expression of our faith, there is more preaching of the gospel done by laity working in the world than ever happens in church buildings. Today, because there are not enough clergy and small churches cannot afford full time ministers, we are celebrating the work of lay leaders within our churches, but what about recognizing the witness of laity beyond church walls? Why not, each Sunday, recognize in worship some tradespeople, builders, doctors, mothers and teachers for how they follow of the way of Jesus in the world. We claim the priesthood of all believers, but that is usually quoted in terms of various tasks within the church. We celebrate community projects our church has launched or participates in, but what of the daily work by lay Christians in hospitals, aged-care homes and schools – is not this about lay people living out the gospel message? At a lecture I gave in the UK, I met the church staff, but then I met an elderly woman who was a street walker. Each night, she walked the streets of her large city looking for intoxicated women whom she could help get home, rather than leave them vulnerable. Is not she in ministry, following the way of Jesus, so why do we not stop to celebrate her ministry? To give another example, when I was in the Queensland Synod years ago, an In Vitro Fertilization clinic was proposed at a church hospital. My husband was a gynecologist and on the Hospital Board. He had attended medical conferences for years where the ethics of IVF had been thoroughly and sensitively discussed by doctors, many of whom were devout church members. When this issue came into the church’s view, however, rather than consult their lay medical professionals, all discussion halted until the theologians researched IVF from scratch to give the “church’s” opinion. The ‘church’ is people in the world, not just gathered.
Search for understanding rather than insist on certainty
The dictionary says, “Certainty is perfect knowledge that has total security from error, or the mental state of being without doubt”. This is impossible when dealing with the Mystery we call God – it is arrogant and naïve. I have already talked about uncertainty as both a freeing banner for those progressing forward and a big step for many who have spent their lives striving for certainty. The tendency in many churches when challenges are made, however, is to circle the wagons and declare certainty rather than let fresh winds blow. I see this happening with some theological issues in the Uniting Church where a small number of faculty theologians and our Doctrine Committees can declare truth for us all through official statements. I have already mentioned the neurologist Robert Burton’s book “On Being Certain”. In an interview with Scientific American called “The Certainty Bias: a potentially dangerous mental flaw”, Burton says:
"I suspect that retreat into absolute ideologies is accentuated during periods of confusion, lack of governmental direction, economic chaos and information overload. At bottom, we are pattern recognizers who seek escape from ambiguity and indecision. If a major brain function is to maintain mental homeostasis, it is understandable how stances of certainty can counteract anxiety and apprehension … Sadly, my cynical side also suspects that political advisors use this knowledge of the biology of certainty to actively manipulate public opinion. Nuance is abandoned in favor of absolutes … In short, please run, do not walk, to the nearest exit when you hear so-called leaders being certain of any particular policy. Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas". [ix]
Work together to achieve a just and sustainable world
This is where progressing Christians can find their place. People bemoan why young people are not involved in churches, but how much attention do we give to this issue about which young people truly care - justice for all and justice for the planet. Christianity has done a poor job speaking up for nature and the planet – we have focused more on a better world in heaven. Yet if we imagine God within everything, we not only effect ourselves when we rape the planet and ignore scientific warnings - we affect God as well. Of course, those who see God safely in control in an elsewhere heaven simply refuse to accept planetary destruction, or else see them as signs of God’s end times. Biblical scholar Norman Habel, in his book An inconvenient text: Is a green reading of the Bible possible? critiques what he sees in biblical stories as violence to the planet - “It is time we [humans] read [the Bible] as Earth beings in solidarity with Earth not as God-like beings who happen to be sojourners on Earth” [x] Many indigenous people have a much better grip on the earth as sacred, having long built their theology and ecology on this. “You ask me to plough the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s bosom?” a Native American asks. [xi] Being progressive is to take seriously what our First Peoples can teach us about care of the land and planet.
By looking at these general affirmations of people who see themselves progressing, I hope I have shown that all are progressive who are moving forward, following the way of Jesus. We have the blessing of the Uniting Church Basis of Union as pilgrim people on the way and this can be our banner against those who insist on conformity of belief. Progressing means to be radical - from the Latin word meaning “root or source” - arising from or going to the source which, for Christians, is the life and teachings of Jesus. Radical also has that rich meaning of challenging the status quo and it indicates to others we have something different from the usual to say. I end with a quote from Prof. A. J. Brown, quoted in the newsletter of St. Mary’s in Exile in Brisbane: “We should always remember that the future is not somewhere we are going; it is something we are creating. Every day we do things that make some futures more probable and others less likely… As sailing lore says, we cannot choose which wind will blow, but we can set the sail.”
[i] Linda Turton, Review of “Josie McSkimming’s Leaving Christian fundamentalism and the reconstruction of identity”, Eremos, 40, September 2017, 13-14.
[ii] Fred Plumer, “Asking the Question … Why ‘Progressive’? Aren’t we all Christians?” in Rex A.E. Hunt & John W.H. Smith eds., Why Weren’t We Told: a Handbook on ‘progressive’ Christianity (Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press 2013), xxvi
[iii] Basis of Union, Uniting Church in Australia, paragraph 11.
[iv] Chris Budden, “Reconciliation and Reparation: Building Just relationships between First and Second Peoples” (Uniting Church Studies 21: 1, June 2017, 39-52), 44
[v] Ursula King, The Search for Spirituality: our global quest for a spiritual life (New York: BlueBridge, 2008), 64-65
[vi] Frank Rees, “New Directions in Australian Spirituality: Sabbath beyond the Church,” Colloquium 47:1, May 2015, 75-88, 76
[vii] Ibid., 77
[viii] Ibid., 85
[ix] Richard Burton, “The Certainty Bias: a potentially dangerous Mental Flaw”, Scientific American, online.
[x] Norman Habel, An Inconvenient Text: Is a green reading of the Bible possible? (Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum Press, 2009), 58
[xi] Val Webb, Like Catching Water in a Net: human attempts to describe the Divine (New York & London: Continuum, 2007), 95