Progressive christianity

© Revd Rex A E Hunt
The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought
Canberra ACT

• A presentation to Christian Jewish Dialogue ACT,  4 February 2007


Thank you for the invitation to be present with you all tonight and for the opportunity of sharing with you some of the personal passion which has shaped my life for more than 40 years.

I wish to pay my respects to the Ngunnawal People
and to those who have cared for this part of the land
from time immemorial.

A progressive christianity is not new. In one form or another it has been around for three hundred years or so.  What is new about its current expression now called ‘Progressive’, is this open and inclusive faith is ‘coming out’ or resurfacing in thousands of congregations in mainline churches around the world as a dynamic grassroots movement.

While many can name those who are closely linked with its popular expression: John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Lloyd Geering, Karen King, Elaine Pagels, John Dominic Crossan, and the American Westar Institute, especially its famous (or infamous) ‘Jesus Seminar’ - the movement itself does not have any clear leadership, although national bodies are forming and international events happening. Neither is its ‘coming out’ in response to:
“an overarching collaboration among the various religious bureaucracies. Rather... [its membership comes] from an unorganized but broad-ranging kind of Christian response to felt needs for vital spirituality, intellectual integrity, new ways of expressing gender, an alternative to Christian sense of superiority, and a desire to act more justly in relationship to the marginalized” (Taussig  2006:2-3).

Three books from the many published, have almost become a manifesto for progressive christianity: Marcus Borg’s The heart of christianity, Jack Spong’s Why christianity must change or die, and Matthew Fox’s Original blessings.  While a DVD collection of studies under the title ‘Living the questions’ is now seen as a liberal/progressive alternative to the evangelical/fundamentalist material available.  All these emphasise intellectual and religious/spiritual integrity.

Those who make up the movements in Australia at their grassroots are often involved in mainline or old-line churches: Catholic, Anglican, Uniting, Lutheran - where they are usually in a minority in a local congregation.  But many are not.  They come from the growing ranks of the disillusioned, those who “love the Christ and leave the Church” (Murray 2000) as New Zealand songwriter Shirley Murray puts it.  Or who hold membership in the “church alumni” as Jack Spong calls it.  And many others as well.  From my experience it is by and large a grassroots ‘lay’ movement with few ordained ministers or priests able or interested in joining.  While the movement itself stands in contrast to the christianity which gets the majority of media coverage both here and overseas, those called conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists.

My personal journey started in the mid to late 1960s while I was still in seminary in Melbourne.  A group of four of us, all former Presbyterians, agreed to establish an editorial committee and commence the publication of an informal theological journal called: Catalyst: A journal of progressive religious thought.  It had a small circulation, around 100 or so, and remained in publication until the end of 1974.  From what I can discover this was probably the first time the term ‘progressive’ was used in relationship to christianity in particular. Prior to that the term used was ‘liberal’.  But as you would know, using that title may not always be helpful in Australia!

There have been several individuals in Australian who have worn or been given the title ‘liberal’, more often than not in a pejorative sense: Charles Strong, Samuel Angus, Lloyd Geering, Ted Noffs, Charles Birch, Peter Cameron - just to name some from the past.  So threatened by their existence, the institutional church often charged them, or threatened to charge them, with heresy - the holding of doctrine ‘contrary to straight thinking’. 

The main progressive religious groups which we now know of in Australia, include:
Sea of Faith in Australia
Progressive Christianity Network, South Australia
The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Canberra
The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Sydney
Pearlseekers, Maitland
Progressive Spirituality Network, Brisbane
* The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Brisbane
Australian Reforming Catholics
Progressive Christian Network of Victoria
Progressive Evangelical Network, Sydney

The Aim of one of those groups - The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, is:
• to be a forum that explores progressive religion and spirituality in a way that provides a safe place for those who have found organised religion irrelevant, unresponsive, repressive or damaging.

And it tries to be that as it:
• Build a network of support for those who seek to discover and live by a progressive faith, sharing ideas and pursuing questions and answers.
• Create an open and welcoming community which respects the faith position of all participants, and encourages authentic interfaith engagement.
• Promote progressive religious thought as an agent of change and renewal in faith communities and society.
• Link with other groups and Centres of progressive religious thought.

In a relatively new book by Hal Taussig called A new spiritual home. Progressive christianity at the grassroots, Taussig lists five characteristics of progressive christianity:
1. A spiritual vitality and expressiveness
2. An insistence on christianity with intellectual integrity
3. A transgression of traditional gender boundaries
4. The belief that christianity can be vital without claiming to be the best or the only true religion
5. Strong ecological and social justice commitments

Let me briefly mention them.

1. A spiritual vitality and expressiveness
The wide range of churches and groups express themselves spiritually in meditation, prayer, artistic forms, and participatory worship. They often reclaim discarded ancient christian rituals and use a wide variety of non-christian rituals and meditation techniques.

2. An insistence on christianity with intellectual integrity
This new kind of christian expression is nourished by a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and critique. It interrogates christian assumptions and traditions in order to reframe, reject, or renew them.

3. A transgression of traditional gender boundaries
These groups are explicitly and thoroughly committed to feminism and affirmation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

4. The belief that christianity can be vital without claiming to be the best or the only true religion
Progressive christians take pains to claim simultaneously their own christian faith and their support of the complete validity of other religions.

5. Strong ecological and social justice commitments
This movement is committed to social justice, peace advocacy as well as having a passion for environmentalism.

In general, progressive (or as Borg often calls it - ‘emerging’) christianity/religious thought, seeks to:
(i) provide local, open, inclusive and safe places where pushing theological boundaries is encouraged, and
(ii) encourage people to understand themselves uniquely sacred within the context of the sacredness of creation (Sherri Weinberg).

As such much of the traditional doctrines, statements of faith, creeds and biblical understandings are questioned and rejected.  So for a few moments I wish to look at some specifics and offer a brief, personal comment, on each.

1. Christianity
From early days there was not one unified group or vision called ‘christianity’.  There were several.  Separate, often not knowing of others existence.  And when these different visions met, it was often a clash!   For instance, the clashes between Paul and Peter over the very nature of what it means to be ‘christian’, continued to rage in one form or another, from group to group, for nearly 300 years.

“Since the fourth century, Christians, in the main, have championed Paul’s view... [And] since Paul and his disciples wrote virtually half of the New Testament, it is little wonder that modern Christians regards the Jewish Christians as the ‘villains’ in the story” (Hedrick 2006:5).

‘It’... did not begin as a separate organisation but came “to birth on the margins of the Jewish cumulative tradition...” (Geering 2000: 143).

A new era of biblical scholarship on christian origins is opening up as we speak.  And some existing propositions have already been tested (Patterson 2006)  by the ‘Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins’:
Did christianity begin with the resurrection? No.
Did christianity begin with Pentecost? No.
Did christianity begin with Jesus? No.

Stephen Patterson, one of the scholars, reports:
“The Fellows rejected the simple proposition that ‘Christianity began with Jesus’, but... endorsed the thesis... that Christianity began when Jesus used imaginative language to call into question his received life world in favor of the life world that emerges in his parables and aphorisms. In other words, Christianity began with the preaching of Jesus” (Patterson 2006:19, 20).

The origins of christianity, understood as a movement among Jews, not as a new religion, lay “in the ideas and practices of Jesus and his first followers”  (Patterson 2006:20) But in reality, Jesus of Nazara contributed very little to what emerged as orthodox christianity! (Funk 2006:183).

2. God
God is not a supernatural being outside of the world/creation/universe.  Neither is the word G-o-d the proper name of a supernatural being.  It is a metaphor used to address the sacred in life, often, but not exclusively, using anthropocentric language.

And it is the term used more often than any other to identify the sacred or “the ultimate in reality and value and meaning for humans” (Kaufman 2004:1). Progressives accept that the biblical texts have been the most influential source of christian and western thought about God. 

As a progressive/liberal theologian I understand and experience ‘G-o-d’ as a universal creative process, continuously at work in the world, in the ordinary, giving rise to new forms of existence.  Thus the new metaphor I find helpful in speaking about the sacred is “serendipitous creativity” (Kaufman 2004:42) as suggested by theologian Gordon Kaufman.  Kaufman says:
“The concept of creativity... enables us to connect important theological concerns with central features of modern/post-modern thinking about the cosmos, the evolution of life, and the emergence of biohistorical  development of human life and culture on planet Earth”  (Kaufman 2004:76).

Thus its features are expressed and experienced in three strands or trajectories:
creativity1 - cosmic evolution
creativity2 - biological evolution
creativity3 - cultural/symbolic evolution

“We do not know why or how creativity comes about: it is a profound mystery. The mark that identifies the occurrence of creativity is its consequences: something strikingly new, something transformative has come into being and has become a significant feature of the ongoing world”  (Kaufman 2006: xiv).

3. Jesus
Jesus was a Jew not a christian.  He never rejected his Jewish roots.  He made no theological statements.  Neither did he set out to establish a new religion, appoint clergy or inaugurate celibacy.  Although it appears he did encounter opposition to his perception of religion and reality from the authorities of the day, just how hostile this opposition was, is a matter of speculation.

As a wandering secular Galilean sage, he belonged more to the ‘wisdom’ stream than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism.  His language is indirect and highly metaphorical, while the primary information regarding Jesus comes from the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and the Gospel of Thomas.

Progressive thinking distinguishes between the historical Jesus (pre-Easter Jesus) who lived in a particular time and place, and the mythical Christ (post-Easter Christ). In the traditional church the historical Jesus is smothered by superimposing the heavenly figure of Christ on him (Funk & Hoover 1993:7).

“Jesus is displaced by the Christ, as the so-called Apostles’ Creed makes evident... Nothing between his birth and death appears to be essential to his mission or to the faith of the church” (Funk & Hoover 1993:7).

Some of the best (I reckon) current progressive christian scholarship comes from the Westar Institute and its various seminars.  Its founder, Robert Funk (Funk 2000) has compiled a short list of insights about Jesus.  Among them he lists:
(i) Jesus as sage, teaching orally
(ii) trust is the horizon of the kingdom
(iii) kinship in the kingdom
(iv) celebration rather than apocalyptic
(v) humour, humility and morality
(vi) the cross as symbol of integrity

But, Funk concludes, “christian conviction eventually overwhelms Jesus: he is made to confess what Christians had come to believe” (Funk & Hoover 1993:24). 

In recent years there has been less talk about a ‘divine’ Jesus resulting in Jesus having been given a ‘demotion’.
“Such a demotion of Jesus in relationship to God has kept Jesus’ value as a centrally exemplary human being, often compared with the Buddha, Mohammed, or Moses.  In other words Jesus has remained a central figure for the faith of [progressive] Christians, while becoming more human than divine” (Taussig 2006:27).

4. Bible
In progressive christianity the Bible is not the literal Word of God.  It is an important  collection of writings produced over a period of at least two millennia, and includes many different images, concepts and ways of thinking about G-o-d or the sacred.  And its stories arise out of many sociocultural contexts.

Marcus Borg (Borg 2000) suggests five ways of re-visioning the Bible.  By ‘seeing it again’ as:
(i) a human product
• the product of two ancient communities
(ii) a combination of historical memory and metaphorical narratives
• some events really happened
• some, no particular event lies behind them
(iii) stories about the divine-human relationship
(iv) in a state of post-critical naiveté
• hear the stories once again as ‘true’ even though not ‘factually true’
(v) and, as a lens and sacrament
• a way of seeing rather than an object of belief
• in its function not its origin

The Bible also carries two different portraits of Jesus: one painted by John; the other painted by the synoptics - (Mark, Matthew, Luke). “In the synoptic gospels, Jesus speaks in brief, pithy one-liners and couplets, and in parables... In John, by contrast, Jesus speaks in lengthy discourses or monologues, or in elaborate dialogues prompted by some deed Jesus has performed” (Funk & Hoover 1993:10).

Both can not be historically accurate.

5. Non-canonical
Non-canonical - those writing which did not make it into the accepted biblical Canon -  or the so-called ‘gnostic’ gospels, has caused some excitement of late.  To mention just two:
• The gospel of Thomas:
A collection of 114 sayings and aphorisms with no narrative framework, no account of Jesus’ trial, death and resurrection, no birth or childhood stories, and no account of his public ministry. Of the sayings, 65 are unique to Thomas

• The gospel of Mary:
Presents a radical interpretation of Jesus’ teachings as a path to inner knowledge, rejects Jesus’ suffering and death as the path to eternal life, and honours the legitimate and positive contribution of women’s leadership

Much of this excitement is due to the 1945 discovery in Middle Egypt called the Nag Hammadi manuscripts and the recent work done on them by scholars.  These 4th century christian papyrus books, almost all of which were previously unknown, offer new perspectives of christian beginnings.

And as I have said previously, those beginnings “were much more diverse then we had ever imagined” (King 2003).   Karen King explains:
“Early Christians intensely debated such basic issues as the content and meaning of Jesus’ teachings, the nature of salvation, the value of prophetic authority, the roles of women and slaves, and competing visions of ideal community.  After all, these first Christians had no New Testament, no Nicene Creed or Apostles’ Creed, no community established church order or chain of authority, no church buildings, and indeed no single understanding of Jesus” (King 2003:1).

However, as history is usually written by the winners, the
“viewpoints of the losers were largely lost since their ideas survived only in documents denouncing them.  Until now” (King 2003:1).

Progressive christians study and use some of these writings in scholarly work as well as in worship services.  Because they offer an alternative voice in ancient debate.  A voice which the winners declared as ‘heresy’ as they sought to marginalise their impact.  And then enacted their decisions through force - even death.  And progressive christians study these writings because “much in Christian belief and practice rests upon historical claims [and] an accurate view of history is crucial”  (King 2003:3).

6. Prayer
Prayer for progressive christians is not talking to a supernatural being, Harry Potter style, hoping if one uses the right gestures or says the right words, he (traditional images of God are nearly always in masculine terms) will manipulate the situation for us.  Neither is it Santa style - be good and get what you ask for.

For progressives prayer could be described as poetry or the ‘language of the heart’.  Not just in some interior realm.  And certainly not is some oral heavenly escape.  But as an invitation to sense the connectedness of the whole of life - and the “in-between-ness of God” (Taussig 1999:131) - the “always present God” rather than “an elsewhere God” (Morwood 2003:8).  The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard once commented ‘prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays’.  Others have refined that a bit, to: ‘Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things’.

Inclusive language is used in reference to God and humankind in both prayer and meditation.  And rather than an emphasis on a petitional form of prayer, many progressives experience prayer as:
• listening in silence
• giving insights into ourselves and possibly others
• connecting us to each other.

In a worship service there is also often a free time for sharing joys and concerns.

7. Worship/Sunday morning experience
After more than 40 years as a progressive, shaping and reshaping liturgies, I have come to the position that worship is not about the praise of G-o-d.  It is about the celebration of life, the whole of life.

I recently wrote about my understanding of worship:
• Worship is a human activity, celebrated in the presentness of God/sacred. Rather than praise required of us by God/sacred.
• Must be broad enough to create a co-operative experience (rather than collective) - cognitively and emotionally.
• Be a celebration of whole of life (in ordinary times).
• Have form/shape.
• Use of artistic media/symbols highlights the 'art/creativity' of worship.
• What is brought to the service can be as important as content.
• Be 'landscape' and 'intellectually' honest (RAEHunt web site).

And the goal of worship?   To help us know and feel how we relate as individuals to ourselves, others, the world, the universe.  To celebrate that relationship.  To touch sources of creative transformation.  To reinterpret our experiences.  To reaffirm living in this world.

The form or shape of my liturgies offer six encounter points:

Other aspects of my liturgies include:
• both biblical and non-biblical/contemporary readings consistent with the spirit of Jesus
• use of contemporary affirmations or celebrations of faith rather than traditional creeds
• new hymns and hymn tunes which use progressive language and new metaphors for God
• Holy Communion as ‘celebrating community’
• Baptism as ‘celebrating belonging’
• the rediscovery of lament
• centering silence
• a spiritual vitality earthed in the Australian here and now
• non-anthropomorphic prayers and God-talk
• an insistence on church with intellectual/biblical integrity

8. Social responsibility
Progressive christianity continues the interest and action in issues of social responsibility, ecology, feminism, justice, and works of compassion, of previous generations.  But it also asks systemic questions: what is fair, what is just.  And attempts “to address them through protest and the creation of new, more just, structures” (Taussig 2006:49).

Of concern to many is the degree of violence at the heart of both the Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures) and the New (Christian scriptures), as well as in much christian theology, worship, music and liturgies.  While there are many positive themes in the Bible, progressives express concern that violence is its most prominent theme “and the dominant characteristic of God” (Nelson-Pallmeyer & Hesla 2005:22).  And that biblical stories are often used as ‘building blocks’ for contemporary politics and violence.

Progressives are reclaiming the long-ignored non-violent stream “within the Gospels evident in the words and actions of the historical Jesus... [and this stream]... says hope rooted in God’s violence is false hope” (Nelson-Pallmeyer & Hesla 2005:50).

Unfinished business
One of the earliest theologians to excite my senses beyond the curriculum of the  seminary, was Henry Nelson Wieman - a professor from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.  In a second book, published in 1927/28 - which I might add is just a little before my time!, Wieman says:
“With respect to religion there are three classes of people: the religious rationalizers, the irreligious rationalizers and the religiously inquisitive. The first class may think about religion from the outside to defend it; the second class may think about it from the outside to destroy it. But only the third class thinks about it from the inside with a view to discovering precisely what may be the good of it. It alone honestly inquires into its validity, its conditions and consequences...” (Wieman 1927:35).

Seeking to explain his comments a bit more, Wieman goes on the describe, in general terms, each class or group.  The first group, the religious rationalizers, are generally very devout and earnest people.  They acquired their religion in childhood or youth, or in some profound experience later in life, and it is a very precious thing.  But it is complete and finished.  They have nothing more to learn about it.  They have only to enjoy it and use it.

All their religious discussions are not forms of inquiry but devises for stimulating further experiences.  They want the experience and yearn for more and more of it and are eager to transmit it deeply and widely to others as self authenticating truths requiring uncritical assent.  The ultimate worth and significance of their religion is never a matter of inquiry.  Anything that has the hint of intellectual investigation about it and which is then applied to their religion, they bitterly resent.

The second group, the irreligious rationalizers, also refuse to enter into any form of inquiry.  Some of them studied it, in Sunday or boarding school, but it was presented in such a way they became sick and tired of it.  For them it is a frightful bore, a foolish superstition, an evil influence.

They have no understanding of it.  They have made up their minds they want nothing to do with it.  They are unable to ‘listen’ and resent ‘being forced’ to give the matter any further consideration whatsoever.

On the other hand, the third group, the religiously inquisitive, are intellectually alive.  They do not think merely in order to defend.  They think in order to understand.  Wieman says:
“Religion may be no less precious to them than to the first group, but for them the most precious things are subjects for investigation” (Wieman 1927:37).

And again - and please excuse the non inclusive language:
“... the first class, the devout and unthinking, have been the happiest, strongest and most effective of religious folk... For as soon as a man begins to think about anything, it begins to change for him. It takes on diverse shapes and hues. It swims about like a fish in the sea. Only if he refuses to think about his religion... can it remain unchanged like sardines in a can.

“But the man who thinks about his religion will not find it always the same. Like fish in the stream it not only changes but it may come and go... It is plain that he must live a much more adventurous life of the spirit than do the devoutly unthinking” (Wieman 1927:37-38).

Being a progressive/liberal christian has been and continues to be, a ‘more adventurous life!’

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