Progressive Christianity Lecture Sep 2009

Progressive Christianity Presentation September 2009 Alex McCullie © 2009

(Abridged version)

Talk Introduction

Tonight’s presentation is about comparing two distinct versions of a Christian religious worldview within a backdrop of today’s secular society. They should be considered as two separate positions on a broad spectrum of Christian beliefs and practices. Traditional (or Conservative) Christianity defines religious faith and salvation in terms of believing clearly-defined church doctrines. Faith is equated with acceptance. Progressive (or Liberal) Christians emphasise religious experiences from Christian practices over the acceptance of formal church doctrines and faith is seen as trust.

Traditional Christianity

Traditional Christianity has been the public face of Christianity for the last few hundred years. It is dominant if not universal in countries of South America, Africa and southern Asia and the Orthodox Christianities of Eastern Europe, Russia and former Russian republics. Even in western countries like Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe and the US, Traditional Christianity forms a significant part of Christian practice.

Nature of God
The God of Traditional Christianity is personalised as an ultimate being without peer, existing “out there” beyond our everyday senses. God is typically in a male leadership role as a father, master, king, law-maker and law-giver as well as judge and punisher with human-style feelings, reactions, knowledge and intentions, prescribed to an infinite degree including moral perfection. We, atheists, enjoy referring to this type of god derisively as “sky-god” to emphasise its simplistic conception.

Significance of Jesus
Of course, Christianity had an additional problem of integrating Jesus within the monotheistic tradition of Judaism. On one hand the followers of Jesus wanted to be and, probably, needed to be part of Judaism, a long-established and respected religion. As well as being part of their traditions, Judaism helped to maintain historical credibility for the Christian followers. Let us not forget that, unlike today, tradition was highly prized in the ancient world while innovation was treated with great suspicion. On the other hand, Christians needed to explain the centrality of Jesus and his untimely execution. Somehow they wanted to see Jesus as fully human – how else could he suffer for us through his death? And he had to be fully divine – Jesus was the Messiah and the only son of God. Resolving Jesus both as human and as God simultaneously, while retaining the Jewish God as the father led to years of struggles, disputes and fighting until a series of councils starting at Nicaea in 325 CE provided the orthodoxy necessary to explain the many contradictions and gave us a triune God. And so, this is the supernatural God that almost instinctively comes to mind in Western society when asked, do you believe in God?

Attitude towards Doctrine
Traditional Christianity also emphasises the acceptance of and the belief in religious doctrine, Christian Bible, creeds and church teachings. Even though many would be familiar with the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, here is an early creed from Ignatius around 105 CE:

Therefore, stop your ears when anyone speaks to you contrary to Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born and did eat and drink.  He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate. He was truly crucified and died – in the sight of beings in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father raising Him to life – in the manner as His Father will also raise us up, we who believe in Him by Christ Jesus. (Bercot, 1998 p. 181)

Compared to other religions, Christianity is a very “bookish” religion. Even from the early days there has been a well-established practice of Christian Apologetics, the rational defence of the faith. Justin Martyr, Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas have all written apologies, defending Christianity against opposition. C.S. Lewis of Nardia fame is a more contemporary example.

Interpreting the Bible
Regardless of denomination the Christian Bible is central to Christianity. The traditional view sees the Bible as either the divine word of God, similar to official Islamic doctrine, or, alternatively, written by authors who were divinely-inspired. Both involve a literalistic interpretation of the Bible as a historically factual document. Marcus Borg (2003, p.8) characterises these literal understandings as ranging from hard to soft. Hard interpretation sees the Bible as the inerrant word of God. They often see the Earth, all living things and humans were created by God some 6000 years ago. Not surprising they tend oppose any naturalistic explanations that contradict the Bible stories like the theories of evolution.  Soft interpretations, on the other hand, take a slightly more metaphorical view of scriptures. For example, they are likely to see Genesis stories as Israel’s aetiology rather than the literal origins of our Earth. But even soft literalists accept Christianity’s most important biblical stories as fact – the virgin birth, healing and food-shortage miracles and Jesus’ physical resurrection.

Being a Traditional Christian and Responses to Others
Another common characteristic of Traditional Christianity is their constant living in judgement. In Traditional Christianity all people are born “fallen”, innately sinful, for which they need to seek forgiveness throughout their lives, to receive God’s grace. Theologies vary as to whether grace is given freely or needs to be earned. Christian lives are driven to achieving the unattainable goal of perfection. Ultimately there will be a judgement after physical death where God will deliver an eternal reward or punishment. Many consider heaven and hell real places.
Furthermore morality comes from God and without God there would be total nihilism, no basis for good and bad moral behaviour. We would revert to the “law of the jungle”. Morality depends on God in three ways. Firstly, God defines the concepts of right and wrong, without which we would be unaware of the difference. Secondly, God provides moral guidance through scriptures and church teachings. And, finally, God gives us motivation to be moral. Many Christians believe that evil is something that exists in reality and not just a word for harmful human behaviour.

Problems for Traditional Christianity

So what are the problems for Traditional Christianity in our twenty-first century secular society?
Mostly it is credibility and irrelevance, especially with young people. Firstly, unlike earlier societies we use secular, empirically-based knowledge to explain much of our world, seeking explanations from physical causes and not supernatural dogmas. Secondly, most people reject a hierarchical model of power and reverence. The days of “father knows best” and “divined to rule” are long gone. Thirdly, despite some vague deference to the books of the Christian Bible, most people today cannot take seriously that they tell many, if any, historical facts. And, finally, there is the problem of suffering or evil. Despite Christian theodicies, people cannot reconcile the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving, morally perfect Christian God with the on-going presence of natural and human-caused pain and suffering. The innocent, the good and the bad all seem to prosper and suffer equally.

Progressive Christianity

Progressive Christianity is a response by many theologians, scholars and laypeople who are unable to reconcile the doctrine of Traditional Christianity with today’s understanding of the world.
My survey comes from the writings, lectures and sermons of key figures in this broad-based essentially Protestant Progressive Christianity movement as well as referring to an affirmation of faith, written in November 2008, by the Centre for Progressive Religious Thought in Canberra. It provides a useful, local framework to survey the ideas of progressive Christians.
Unlike Traditional Christianity Progressive Christianity emphasises personal experience over acceptance of doctrine. By rejecting the authority of Christian doctrines and church teachings, progressives make their understandings of God, Jesus and the Bible more personal and less institutional.

Nature of God
God is portrayed as an all-inclusive, pervasive conscious essence, undetectable by any physical means and unable of being cast with human-styled characteristics. To reinforce its ineffable nature progressive Christians use terms like “the sacred”, the “more” (James 1982 p. 511), “is-ness”, “the spirit”, “Spirit of Life” and “God-presence” to refer to God. They prefer the roles of “lover”, one who gives and receives love, and “illuminator” (my term) as one who lights a new reality. Generally, though, progressive Christians believe that God exists distinctly from our physical world and therefore made of different “stuff”.

I struggle to understand how we have an engaging two-way loving relationship with a God beyond our understanding. Most human models of loving are with living beings – other people or conscious animals. Even with animals we tend to anthropomorphise the relationship to make them more familiar. Perhaps it is analogous to the love for one’s country. Or, is it, in reality, their way of describing an overwhelming feeling of universal acceptance and love? Christians may argue that analysing this relationship is missing the point and should be accepted as a “mystery”, a common aspect of religious worldviews.

Significance of Jesus

“We honour the one called Jesus, a first century Galilean Jewish sage, nurtured by his religious tradition. A visionary and wisdom teacher, he invited others through distinctive oral sayings and parables about integrity, justice, and inclusiveness, and an open table fellowship, to adopt and trust a re-imagined vision of the ‘sacred’, of one’s neighbour, of life.  As we too share in this vision, we affirm the significance of his life and teachings, while claiming to be ‘followers of Jesus.’”
(The Canberra Affirmation)

It is worth noting that there is no claim about being either God or the son of God. Integrating the traditional centrality of Jesus – essential to any form of Christianity – within a progressive and ineffable understanding of God seems complicated and, perhaps, problematic.
On one hand progressive Christians accept that little can be confirmed about the historical Jesus – itinerant Jewish preacher, lived in the early first century Palestine and executed by Roman authorities – remarkably little considering the momentous claims of the scriptures. Progressive Christians also, in the main, reject the supernatural claims about Jesus – virgin birth, miracles, and bodily resurrections. A popular approach is to disassociate the implausible supernatural claims from Christian practice.

Status of the Bible

“We receive the Hebrew and Christian scriptures known as the Bible, as a collection of human documents rich in historical memory and religious interpretation, which describe attempts to address and respond to the ‘sacred’.  It forms an indispensable part of our tradition and personal journeys.  We claim the right and responsibility to question and interpret its texts, empowered by critical biblical scholarship as well as from our own life experiences.  We accept that other sources – stories, poems and songs – imaginative pictures of human life both modern and ancient, can nurture us and others, in a celebration of the ‘sacred’ in life.”
(The Canberra Affirmation)

Notice that the Bible is not claimed as the word of God, directly or indirectly, but as the product of human authorship. Also note that other documents are considered valid sources for Christian spirituality along side the Bible.

Being a Progressive Christian

“We acknowledge that a transformative path of inclusion and integrity involves living responsible and compassionate lives in community with others.”
(The Canberra Affirmation)

Progressive writers talk of compassion and personal transformation rather than obedience and servitude.

Final Comments

Whether one sees Progressive Christianity as regaining its mystical roots or simply shedding unpalatable doctrine depends on your point of view. Its social aims are laudable: equitable social justice; care for the disadvantaged and marginalised; human-based morality; concerned about concentration of wealth and power; and responsible environmental management. These are similar to those of secular humanism. I could imagine a progressive Christian and a secular humanist serving equally well on a hospital ethics committee or an environmental panel.
However, and this is a big however, progressive Christians have effectively denuded Christianity much of its theology and doctrine, and potentially its claim to authority. They may have jettison Christianity’s unique raison d’être, their justification for existence. God is now a pervasive goodness; Jesus becomes a first century Galilean sage rejected in his own time; and the sacred texts are ancient sources to access this goodness. The Bible no longer holds a unique position of authority with the other literary and artistic sources providing genuine spiritual alternatives.

Is there a future for Progressive Christianity?  The future looks limited for Progressive Christianity in secular Australia as its target market shrinks. Traditional churches continue to dominate the religious airwaves with their loud, rearguard attacks on our secular society and its lack of morals, without God’s moral compass.
Unfortunately, the saner and more reasoned voices of progressive Christians will go largely unnoticed.

And that is a real pity for all of us!

Alex McCullie © 2009

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