Are We Progressing?

About ten years ago, I attended a two day conference that garnered a lot of anticipation and excitement about the topics, which were: a new way of communicating our religious beliefs and the discussion of postmodern theology. Near the end of the conference, I was ready for it to be over. It had been a good conference. The keynote speakers were well respected and leaders in their fields.

It had been my understanding that the postmodern theology perspective would allow the different Christian factions to find more in common with each other and better ways to communicate. I thought I understood what the presenters meant by the term postmodern, but I had difficulty trying to discern how this new approach would make it easier to overcome major theological and Christological barriers.

Just as I thought that we were about to close the event, an elderly gentleman (elderly means someone at least ten years older than me at any given time) stood up in the back of the room and asked if he might make a statement. Although I did not know who this man was, the fact that no one groaned was an indication that he was known and respected by most of the people in the room.

He started his comments by saying that he wanted to thank everyone for the event and the hard work that went into its planning. He went on to say that the conference helped him understand a little better what is meant by postmodern theology. Then he said with a strong voice:

“The fact is that you postmodern folks seem to be avoiding the real issues. Was Jesus God or wasn’t he? Was he killed in some cosmic, sacrificial act by God to redeem the souls of believing sinners or did he die as a result of his controversial teachings and his unwillingness to bend his knee to Caesar? Was Jesus about abundant life or life in the hereafter? These are the questions that have been left unresolved for over 1600 years. It seems to me that until we can talk about those issues openly, we are not post anything.”

Then he sat down. As I remember it, there was little response from the speakers and the conference ended shortly after that. Afterwards, a large group of us ended up in the lounge after the last session and even though we had listened to two days of lectures, we all seemed to focus on this man’s two minute comment. Everyone at the table seemed to agree that he was right. How can you be post if we have not openly addressed a battle that has been going on since Constantine pushed the bishops into the Cathedral in Nicene and told them they better not come out until they agreed on the “right beliefs?”

I speak in churches across the country on a pretty regular basis. Before I travel, I normally ask to see a few copies of a church’s newsletters and some of the church bulletins. I am usually more interested in the classes, workshops and announcements that these churches are providing than I am in the order of worship (although these can also be very revealing.) If the information that I have been able to glean by this moderate research is any indication, with some incredible exceptions, most of our mainline churches are not publically post much of anything at this stage.

Most of the monthly Christian publications seem to be avoiding these issues as well. Someone recently called my attention to a liberal Christian publication that has been around since the 1800s. She thought I might be interested because there had been a change in management and the monthly publication had “really been updated,” according to her. I read through a couple of issues, and yes, the print, the layout, and the supportive website were vastly improved, but content had not changed much since I started reading the publication in the late 1970s. I was reminded of the time someone told me that they went to a church that was totally cool and that the pastor was “really a cool liberal guy,” because the pastor wore Hawaiian shirts and no socks. He was referring to the Southern Baptist minister, Rick Warren. I wonder, sometimes, if we progressives are making any progress.

For far too long, we have made the Christian experience a head trip and have somehow forgotten the heart along the way. We have confused our intellect with our beingness. We have assumed that we were correct and others were ignorant. After all we are the elite Christians, with the best educated clergy — so sophisticated that we use words like hermeneutic and exegesis. We are so learned that we debate whether Jesus was apocalyptic or eschatological. We are so knowledgeable that we can debate the scholarly reasons for changing the red letters in the Bible.

In the meantime, one of the fastest growing segments in our society is made up of people who call themselves spiritual and not religious and no longer attend church, or report that they are dissatisfied with the church. According to one of the latest surveys, this group now represents roughly 20% of adults in this country and is growing.

I want to be clear. I do not necessarily expect progressive churches to provide classes that continue to deconstruct the Jesus story. Frankly that is being done every day by scholars and seminarians alike. The Jesus Seminar has done an extraordinary job of that for over two decades, freeing all of us to move in new directions. That work continues in literally dozens of websites and hundreds of scholarly books. Over the years, I have become less interested in who or what Jesus was or even if he was, and much more interested in the content of his teachings and purpose in his path. If the email I receive is any indication, I am not alone.

But it seems that until we deal with these issues directly and forthrightly in our churches, our Christian publications, and our conversations, we will still seem to be promoting the tribal warfare of my God against your God that has chased so many people away from religion and churches for the last six decades. Can we not let Jesus be an extraordinary man who had a powerful, real experience of the Holy, of God, of Sacred Unity that transformed his life, his perspective, his vision of reality and as a result began to teach a way for others to have that same experience? So what if it sounds a little Gnostic or a little Arian? We now know that the vast majority of first century Christians would have fallen into those camps by a definition the church later deemed heretical.

The reality is that Christianity started as a spiritual path and has always had a rich contemplative tradition that is largely ignored or misunderstood today. I suppose that it should not be surprising that it is being rediscovered by many people who are hungry for such a path. There is a growing interest in people who want to “have the eyes to see and the ears to hear” to experience their reality in a new and different way. Maybe it is time for more churches to find ways to reclaim, to repair and/or build a transformative, spiritual path that provides an opportunity to experience the Ultimate Reality, the Sacred Unity, God, the Holy, Allah, or…

If Christianity, as we understand it, has any future, we will have to create ways to reunite religion and spirituality again. The good news is that there are plenty of models and resources to help us do that. The only limitations are our imaginations and our will.

 

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