SERMON 1. PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIANITY
INTRODUCTION. A leap of faith to a new spiritual home.
Some of my happiest memories as a young man came from spending time with my church youth group. Every so often we would take off in our cars to a little town in Zululand called Eshowe. In Eshowe there was a park with a lake, and a little island joined to the shore by a small bridge. The ritual was always the same. Most of the girls would cross the bridge and sit on the island. The boys would eye the gap between the island and the shore to decide whether of not they could jump across it! Does that sound typical? The ones who had done it before and who were full of confidence would go first, take the run and make a mighty leap, to land with a flourish on the island. The first time I did it I landed with one foot on the island and one in the water. Not sure that this would have impressed the observers I tried again, this time sailing right across. One poor fellow missed the takeoff and simply ran into the water, getting halfway across before he sank to his waist. There were a few fellows who did not try at all. Perhaps they were not ‘tryhards’ like the rest of us! Our motivation was great to make the leap of faith because of course, the girls were watching!
Progressive Christianity is for me somewhat like taking that leap of faith to what writer Hal Taussig calls “A new spiritual home” For some of us, at least, it feels like that. It involves jumping a credibility gap that has opened up for the Christian Church; a credibility gap that goes back a long way. It’s there in the Bible readings: the difference between the behaviour of the Israelites in the Promised Land and the behaviour that was required of them according to the teaching of God and the ways in which they had been nurtured and led. It’s also there in the teachings of Jesus. Why is it that he had to keep talking to the leaders about their inappropriate use of status, their inappropriate claiming of privilege? Why, in a society where hospitality was of uppermost importance, did he have to address his followers about opening their hearts and lives and homes when they celebrated, not just to their families and their friends but to the many poor and underprivileged people who live around them?
Jesus was constantly trying to close the credibility gap between what was stated as belief and what was seen in action. Now twenty-first century Christians have a big job to do in that regard, especially where we have accommodated ourselves to the gods of materialism that are everywhere around us and connected ourselves to systems of privilege and class in society. It’s a credibility gap that exposes itself in hypocrisy, especially to those genuine seekers after new spiritual experience who sometimes look to the church for hope and for guidance. The credibility gap opens us up to the attacks of the atheists like Richard Dawkins. As Val Webb writes in a recent article in the latest Insights magazine, many Progressive Christians today agree with so much of what these atheists are saying, especially when they criticize our image of a God who changes the laws of the universe to aid some and not others; a God with a credibility gap as far as many thinking people are concerned. We are also open to criticism as we continue to propound beliefs that no longer fit at all with scientific knowledge. This is a credibility gap about what is believable.
This debate goes back a long way. Some of you will remember Bishop John Robinson in the 1960s, one of the early proponents of what we now call Progressive Christianity. His famous book was Honest to God, followed by one with a lovely title: “But That I Cannot Believe”! Robinson addresses a credibility gap between dogma and our reason and human experience which is seen to contribute to the decline of mainline churches, when we have not ask the question “Why are they leaving us in droves?” or “Why are the generations that followed ours not picking up the way that we have led?
And so I believe that for all of these reasons and because these gaps have opened up, something is needed that speaks in a new way to society; speaks authentically; speaks honestly, even if it means that we speak our doubts rather than thump the table with certainties that are not believable.
And so what we called Progressive Christianity is not actually anything new. It is rather a gathering of different strands of belief and understanding of the Christian way. There is little that you have not heard from here for the last seven years or so, but what is happening now is that some people are saying in effect “We have something positive to offer and we want to put it together in a systematic way and offer it as a new spiritual home for those who have struggled with the old one; who have not been able to take the leap over the credibility gap”.
It’s also a positive statement about what’s already happening in the Christian Church in many places. For example, in Hal Taussig’s book “A New Spiritual Home,” he describes some of about one thousand churches in the USA who take on the characteristics of Progressive Christianity. This is a new movement of the Holy Spirit that is good and it is strong and it is worth proclaiming. So today I am going to very briefly mention five main characteristics of Progressive Christianity and then over the following five weeks I will deal with each in detail.
1. Progressive Christianity is a movement for spiritual renewal. It’s not the first and it won’t be the last, but it is that. It is a movement that recognises that people are seeking a genuine spiritual experience; that most people in the modern generation are no longer happy with churches that are set up like lecture halls, where what is addressed only is the mind- where we think about our faith. People are yearning for experience, for engagement, for participation. And so we, (and I say ‘we’ because I identify myself fully with this movement), seek wherever we can and within the constraints that allow us to make worship more participatory; to be more expressive and where possible to be infused with the arts- music, drama, poetry and symbolism. Progressive Christianity is willing where appropriate to go beyond the Christian tradition to draw on helpful symbols. Meditation, which has not necessarily been a part of traditional Christianity as some of us, is encouraged as part of prayer in worship and elsewhere. This is a movement for spiritual renewal that seeks to engage our whole beings , and not just our minds, as our traditional ways so often did.
2. Progressive Christianity welcomes and encourages intellectual integrity. For example, it challenges and welcomes alternatives to the language we so often use about God that is not meaningful for many people. We can call God ‘Father’ but be conscious that God is not a male, but that this is just one way to understand how God reaches out to us. When we are really game we occasionally call God ‘Mother’ too! God is not a mother but sometimes it helps us in our humanness to understand the nurture of God by using that metaphor. But there are many other ways of speaking about God that do not limit God to the ‘old man in the sky’, but look at the breadth of the mystery of creation and all that God is beyond what we can ever describe. Progressive thought promotes an approach to scripture that uses the scholarship that teaches us about how the scriptures came about, challenges some of the Fundamentalist claims about God. For example Val Webb questions whether we can go on accepting the image of a tribal God who annihilates neighbouring clans in order to annex land for the chosen ones. Such a God, she observes, would inevitably face an international war crimes tribunal today. Contemporary ethics would have no time for a God who fails to condemn the so-called righteous Lot who offers his virgin daughters for gang rape in order to protect his male houseguests. We want to challenge some of those ideas and say that simply because they are written in the Bible does not mean necessarily that this is what our God is like. We want to open our minds to new possibilities. We want to have intellectual integrity in the way we think about science, not discarding science because it does not accord with a metaphorical Biblical creation in six literal days some mere thousand years of years ago.
3. Progressive Christianity rejects gender stereotypes, acknowledging that the scriptures were written in the midst of a patriarchal society, and some of that influence is still felt today. We want to assert and live out a radical equality of men and women, recognizing people not on account of their gender but on account of their gifts. We assert the importance of welcoming everyone regardless of sexual orientation, especially recognizing the hurt and rejection felt by gay, Lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender people, including at the hands of the church. There are wrongs here that need to be put right. We share our common humanity and we must welcome everyone equally.
4. Progressive Christianity values vitality without asserting superiority. Christians need to stop saying that our way is the only way to God and wholeness. It is our way; it is a wonderful way; it is a way that leads us to God, but we want to stop putting down other religions, stop saying that there is no good in them, stop saying that we alone hold the keys to the gates of heaven. There is so much that we can do together if we value one another’s wisdom and contribution to the wellbeing of humanity.
5. Progressive Christianity promotes justice and ecology, recognising that at the heart of the life and teaching of Jesus is the way of justice and compassion. If we go back and read the Gospels again we will see how radically true it that is that justice and compassion go hand in hand. Whatever our dogmas may be, if we don’t stand for justice there is a huge credibility gap between us and Jesus. Particularly in our day and age, the centrality of the issue of ecology must be engaged with; the importance of recognising the God of the environment and how critical it is that we have a holistic theology that takes very seriously what is happening in the world around us.
There are some big challenges there. Some people are going to look at some of those and say “That leap is far too big for me to make and I don’t want to go there”. Others will say “I’ve been on that island for a long time. I do not have to jump anywhere. This is all in accord with what I believe.” Others of us may need to make some progress if we want to get to closer the Progressive way. I believe that making this leap to a new spiritual home matters very much indeed. As one from this movement has said “We know that the way we behave towards each other is the fullest expression of what we believe”.
We must close the credibility gap. We must do away with the hypocrisy. We do, I believe, have to acknowledge that what we believe has sometimes caused or perpetuated the credibility gap and at worst, has brought pain and suffering to people, especially those on the margins of society. It seems to me that it is time to leave some of the dogma behind, to make a new start, to take a leap of faith to a new spiritual home.