Almost any time I do a speaking engagement or workshop these days I am asked the same question: “So where is the spirituality in progressive Christianity?”This may suggest that spirituality has become a more important subject recently but this is not necessarily true. For well over a decade, books on spirituality have been one of the best selling categories in book sales, selling literally millions of copies on everything from Native American to New Age spirituality. It does appear that people are more comfortable today, talking about something they think of as spirituality. According to the polls more and more people report that they are not “religious” but they consider themselves “spiritual.” I would suggest this indicates that there is a growing hunger for spiritual expressions that local churches are not satisfying.
This phenomenon has not escaped the progressive Christians.In his latest book, A New Spiritual Home, Hal Taussig writes about both this interest and its manifestations. He reports that there is a new spiritual vitality showing up in many of the thriving progressive churches in our country.
“No longer satisfied with clear thinking and good ethics, a new generation of [liberal] Christian communities has developed an emotionally textured, deeply participatory, expressively creative, and globally eclectic spiritual pattern.” (pg 20)
One of the challenges of trying to answer the question, “Where is the spirituality in progressive Christianity?” is trying to define the word spirituality. When I told a colleague that I was writing an article on spirituality, he laughed and said; “One person’s spirituality is another person’s garbage.” More than once I have found this to be true.
My wife and I recently accepted an invitation to join a small neighborhood group for conversation. We were there because we had been told expressly that the goal of the organizers was to form a small group of people who would like to meet regularly and work on their spiritual life. A few in the group attended a church on a regular basis. It was very compatible group and it became obvious rather quickly that we shared many goals, perspectives and ideals in common. But at one point I asked each person to explain what they meant by the word spirituality. When we were finished going around the room we realized that we all had very different responses. We decided we would continue to work on different spiritual practices and come back and visit the word again in the future.
I would posit that a defining characteristic of spirituality is the experience of some strong connection – a connection to something greater than oneself (beyond ego) and connection to others. I would refer to this as a “cosmic connection.” Such an experience might include an emotional component of religious awe and reverence and a shift in consciousness or transformation. Spiritual practices are designed to help foster these experiences. Ultimately, our spirituality becomes the lens through which we view our reality.
Today we can find a growing variety of spiritual practices in progressive congregations throughout the country. They range from meditation and silence to the beating of drums; from contemporary soft rock to Taize’ chants; or from reciting creeds (as metaphor of course) to reading poetry that may have been written by someone in the congregation. I would argue that if any congregation does not have a regular vital spiritual pattern in their worship service today, the chances of that congregation thriving are severely limited.
However, progressive Christians have a very different starting point than most orthodox, conservative, or fundamentalist Christians. By “progressive Christian” here, I mean theological, Christological, and socially progressive. These progressives start with the assumption that every person is a precious creation and is a child of God, regardless of their color, sexual orientation, religious convictions, and yes even their political party of choice. Most progressives would reject the Augustinian concept of “Original Sin.”
Aside from all of the psychological damage that has done over the centuries because of this interpretation of the Pauline text, the whole idea continues to be terribly divisive. It means that some are in and some are out. Some are saved and some are not. It is another form of ancient tribal divisiveness that still haunts most religious expressions in the world.
I side with Bishop Irenaeus on this point. He argued in the second century that while humans had not been created perfect in the image of God, humans had been made perfectible with the potential to grow into the image of God. According to Irenaeus, sin was a product of learning and growth and part of God’s process. The important point in all of this is to be able to believe that we are worthy of love just the way we are so that we are then capable of loving others, just the way they are.
We can start with the ancient words that Jesus apparently thought were important or certainly his followers thought were important. “Love God with all of your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.” I note that the second part of this “commandment,” has no meaning without one’s capacity to love oneself. It is a real challenge for most people, however, to move this teaching from ideal to practice; from our head to our heart; from separation to connectedness…especially if our “neighbor” is not the same as us.
But the path that Jesus gave each of us in order to experience this sacred connectedness, Oneness, or Sacred Unity (as Neil-Douglas Klotz translates God in his book-The Hidden Gospel) is in learning to care for the “neighbor;” is learning what it means to take in the stranger; it is willing to love even our enemy. It means to reach out and serve, to have the same kind of compassion for another that a mother has for the child in her womb and to be willing to stand in solidarity with the less fortunate.
Whether it was healing, feeding, holding, resisting, forgiving, trusting, it seems clear that we were instructed to “go and do likewise.” Go! Do! These are two of the most common instructions placed in the mouth of Jesus that we find in our text. For too long however, we have treated Jesus’ teachings as something that we ought to do if we were going to be a good Christian. And if we do not do them, or we do not do them long enough or well enough, we feel guilty.
But what if we viewed these teachings not as “oughts” but opportunities to experience the Realm of God? What if we think of Jesus’ teachings as a response to our question; “How do I find and experience the Realm of God, Jesus?” Do you want to want to experience the Kingdom of God? Then love your neighbor with compassion. Do you want to experience the Realm of God? Then forgive the unforgivable. You want to feel connected to the Sacred Unity? Then do not judge another. We are searching for an experience of that “radical egalitarianism” that John Dominic Crossan writes about so eloquently. What if we actually developed the “eyes to see and the ears to hear” every living being as a precious child of God, just the way they are?
What a very different kind of Christianity we would experience. What a very different life we would lead. What a very different kind of world we would live in.
You cannot love and serve with a compassionate heart without eventually seeing those whom you are serving as your brother, your sister, your mother, your father, or eventually as yourself, even when it is “the least of these” who you serve. But if we do our serving because we feel that it something we are supposed to do “because the Bible says we should” or “because that is what Jesus did according to scripture,” or because it is our “duty,” we only separate ourselves more from the others. On the other hand, if we see our compassionate service as an opportunity to experience the “Realm of God” or “Sacred Unity” then our compassionate actions or practices become golden opportunities.
Felix Adler the Jewish philosopher once wrote: “The unique personality which is the real life in me, I can not gain unless I search for the real life, the spiritual quality, in others. I am myself spiritually dead unless I reach out to the fine quality dormant in others. For it is only with the god enthroned in the innermost shrine of the other, that the god hidden in me, will consent to appear.”
I am convinced that every spiritual journey must include a time for silence and reflection whether one is a progressive Christian or not. We need to create the time, the space and the practices to help us remove the ego chatter from our heads; to reflect upon what we have learned; and to open ourselves to that healing/guiding Spirit we call God. And it is helpful to be part of a community that supports us and celebrates with us. But it is by nurturing our deep compassion for others without conditions or restraints that ultimately leads to a progressive Christian spirituality. It is not an easy path and it requires commitment, practice and patience. But it can be a wonderful journey indeed.
Matthew Fox, A New Reformation Inner Traditions, 2006
James Herrick, The Making of the New Spiritualtiy-Inter Varsity Press, 2003
Paul Alan Laughlin, Getting Oriented, Polebridge Press, 2005
Hal Taussig, A New Spiritual Home, Polebridge Press, 2006