Perplexed–Discussion Between Fred Plumer and TCPC Reader Rev. R

Dear Fred,

I’ve served as a minister for various mainline, conservative and liberal protestant churches over the years, and for the past ten years I’ve been a university campus minister and community educator. Frankly, I’m perplexed by “The Progressive Christianity” movement. Having spent the past 40 years studying the “the three modern quests for the historical Jesus” and the long history of the Christological debates concerning what it can possibly mean to affirm “Jesus is the Christ,” I’ve slowly come to the unsettling conclusion that the various popular and scholarly invocation of “Jesus” constitute a gigantic Rorschach test, an almost inscrutable cipher, a paradoxical cultural icon and social iconoclast, a mythic projection of personal temperament and collective zeitgeist. Nearly every biblical text can be and has been critically contested in one way or another. We live “after the absolute” in a historically conscious world of “ambiguity and plurality.” More often than not we see what we want to see. What other lesson can we draw from such scholarly books “Jesus through the Centuries” and “American Jesus?”

I must have 50 books in my library that present as many divergent interpretations of “the real Jesus” and “the true heart of Christianity.” It’s an endlessly moving target with no consistent and definable boundaries. Change one assumption and the whole picture shifts.  Different interpretative assumptions reflect different worldview visions, values and commitments. Some of these “schools of interpretation” include so-called biblical theism, neo-platonic theism, scholastic theism, reformed theology, Anabaptist theology, perennial philosophy, process pan-en-theism, humanistic, existential naturalistic and non-realist theology, feminist theology, post-modern narrative theology, weak theology, hermeneutical theology, Ken Wilber’s integral spirituality, etc.

Having studied and taught intellectual and cultural history, I find that various contradictory and complementary forms of “Christianity” have emerged in every historical period and cultural sensibility, including Gothic, Renaissance, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Transcendental, Pragmatic, Existential, Marxist, and Cultural-Linguistic approaches. It begins to look like an ironic combination of “contradictory obscurantism” and a paradoxical “coincidence of opposites.” When a religion (or family of religions) like “Christianity” can mean anything people by some kind of collective consensus want it to mean can it still mean anything at all? That’s my dilemma with the current state of the theological discourse in this global age where all lines are both diverging and converging.

Many of the liberal progressive folks I know in the secular public university and my “latte sipping” community have long ago opted out of the “Christian cultural-linguistic game” altogether and have become either Epicurean Gourmands,  Secular Humanists, Process New Thought, Global Mystics, Unitarian Universalists, or else they define themselves as Unaffiliated Life-Long Learners and Spiritual Seekers who have turned from organized religion to an integral “cultural creative” lifestyle that synthesizes an interest in spirituality, philosophy, literature, history, arts, science, psychology, sociology, economics, politics, cosmology and ecology.

Critics might ask why one would choose to be a “Progressive Christian” when the whole thing looks like a cultural construction and psychological Rorschach test by people who need to legitimize their philosophical ideology and social values through obscure theological weasel words, “the personality of Jesus” and a liberally hip Gnostic Christ? Do Progressive Christians really believe that secular and “spiritual but not religious” social liberals are going to be drawn back to “Christianity” by holding radically immanent theological assumptions and progressive social views that secular folks already hold, but without any need or desire to identify these assumptions and values as distinctly or uniquely “Christian?” If so, I can only say “Really?” It is hard not to be an ironist these days, or else to opt for some dialectical tension between global mysticism, narrative symbolism and existential humanism.

I just finished re-reading Hal Taussig’s “A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots” side by side with reading John Buehren’s and Forrest Church’s “A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism.” They have many similarities though different historical roots. Taussig suggests that the defining characteristics of PC are spiritual vitality, intellectual integrity, transgressing gender boundaries, vitality without superiority and justice and ecology. UUs identify their characteristics as including “the sacred” as creative source/cosmic abyss, human flourishing, critical thinking, respect for nature, celebration of the arts and social justice.

Fred, I’m more perplexed than ever. I found Taussig’s book frustrating because he seems oblivious to the fact that he has no stable or coherent god-view/worldview. His own preference seems to be to think of “God” as impersonal spirit or energy, and of Jesus’ message that “we are all divine.” I’m familiar with this worldview shift from theism to pantheism, but Taussig doesn’t seem to be philosophical aware of what he is doing. Why not a shift from theism to panentheism (all in god) or to polytheism (many spirits) or even to emergent naturalism (Brian Swimme: the universe story)? Taussig is offering an alternative to supernatural evangelicalism on the one hand and rationalistic liberalism on the other, but what he offers strikes me as incoherent and contradictory. I guess that’s my problem with Progressive Christianity, so called. How many struts need to be pulled out before the entire edifice of Christianity simply collapses, becomes “Christian” in name only? Can a word mean whatever I want it to mean? What Progressive Christians call “Christianity” ” I call either Hindu Pantheism or Religious Humanism with a thin veneer of Christian “language” draped over it. I’m OK with Hindu Pantheism and Religious Humanism, and even “Christian Atheism” if each “comes clean” and says what it means, but I perceive a measure of obfuscation in the language of “Progressive Christianity.”

It does seem to me that eventually “Progressive Christianity” must grapple head-on with the worldview question. If we have learned anything from history it is that the “essential” nature and meaning of Christianity undergoes a series of radical symbolic and conceptual shifts with profound psychological and social consequences when the previously assumed ancient metaphysical and epistemological worldviews of biblical (Jewish) theism and classical (Greek) theism are both abandoned by theologically perplexed individuals (and eventually by the general culture) as untenable and incoherent, and are progressively replaced by other worldviews such as Platonic Realism, Transcendental Idealism, Process Pan-en-theism, Rational Deism, Aesthetic Romanticism and Scientific Naturalism. The worldview question is the deepest crisis of Christianity and the most difficult to honestly address because it fundamentally questions the nature and veracity of our symbols and concepts of God. It also poses difficult questions about the relationship between Christian revelation, Intra-Christian and Inter-faith dialogue, numinous and mystical experience, philosophical traditions, historical criticism, linguistic analysis, literary metaphors, artistic sensibilities, scientific paradigms, psychological temperaments and social agendas. Today we are aware as never before that all these human and cultural dynamics are “in play” when we talk about “God” and in particular “the Christian Classic” – whether “socially imagined” as conservative or liberal, libertarian or communitarian in praxis.

One more inquiry: Do we think our way into a new way of living, or do we live our way into a new way of thinking? Is it the unexamined life that is not worth living, or is it the unlived life that is not worth examining? I think these kinds of questions are relevant to our assumed (and probably unconscious theological method), whether theory or praxis leads us to our conclusions.

Thanks for your consideration,

Rev. R.

 

Dear Reverend R,

First, I want to thank you for your excellent, thoughtful and well written letter. I apologize for some of the editorial cuts we had to make for purposes of this publication. I also recognize that I cannot do justice to your questions in this forum but hope that this exchange will stimulate response from you and from others.

You are raising many of the very questions and issues that we, as an organization, have been attempting to address for nearly 15 years. And frankly you raise some of the important concerns that the church leadership, theologians and more recently a lot of people who call themselves progressive Christians have been ignoring for at least a few decades. Regarding your confusion about the term progressive Christianity the matter has been complicated, in the last fifteen years, in part because the term “progressive Christianity” has evolved into at least two different meanings that often confuse those who are seeking a clearer understanding of a new way to approach their Christian tradition. 

Some believe that “progressive Christianity” is first and foremost about social justice. Those who adhere to this perspective have little concern for theological issues and may even hold very Orthodox positions in their personal understandings of theology and Christology. They can even be what I call progressive fundamentalist. These folks believe that they are called as Christians to seek social justice wherever injustice is found. They usually cite scriptural mandates as justification for these positions.  The good news is that these perspectives have brought a large group together that include leaders like Peter Laarman, a former liberal Presbyterian minister and community organizer, and Jim Wallace from Sojourners.  I assure you, both of these well educated and dedicated men hold very different perspectives on theology and Christology, yet both are comfortable calling themselves “progressive Christians,” while they work for common social causes under a large umbrella.

On the other hand, The Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC), since its inception in 1994, has assumed that the massive exodus from our churches across the country has been the result of the theological and Christological constructs that are still being used in our churches that no longer meet a large group of educated people’s view of the world or of science. As a result, the church is no longer relevant to their lives or their understanding of reality for that matter. It was, and is, our position that unless these issues are discussed openly and unless we can learn to articulate a Christology and theology that is both compelling and consistent with our understanding of the universe, the Christian church, as we know it, will not survive.

Another factor that has contributed to some of the confusion that you address is that TCPC did not start off with a systematic theology or clear set of beliefs about the historical Jesus. We do have a set of what I would refer to as eight characteristics of our understanding of progressive Christianity. However, when it came to theology or Christology we intentionally left, and continue to leave, those topics open to discussion and the opportunity for new understanding.  For us, the word progressive is based on an understanding that as we receive new information from scholars from all fields, scientist, and spiritual practitioners, the understanding of our faith can change or “progress” as well. We did not, nor do we intend to have a progressive Christian creed, dogma, or catechism. We believe it is this openness that allows us to be truly progressive.

I do not think that this necessarily leads to nothing more than Rorschach test, as you refer to it, although your comments remind me of the comments Schweitzer’s made after his search for the historical Jesus. “The quest was like looking into a well and seeing your own reflection at the bottom.” Certainly we must accept our natural bias as being part of human nature.  I find it humorous how conservative and orthodox Christians, who believe in the literal “written word,” can see such different types of Jesus but seldom discuss these differences. 

It is too bad that there are not more books written about progressive Christianity but that is changing. I am sorry that Del Brown’s book, What Does a Progressive Christian Believe has become the definitive gauge for progressive Christianity with so many people.  Brown is a good scholar and there is much in his book that is worthy of our attention. However, I have significant differences with several of his conclusions especially his rather traditional ideas of God that he labels progressive and his ideas describing the purpose of the church.  James Adams, the founder of TCPC has addressed these issues in an excellent review of the book that is posted on the TCPC site. (http://www.tcpc.org/review/review.cfm?review_id=157)

I agree that Hal Taussig’s book, “A New Spiritual Home” does not address some of the issues that you raise.It might be helpful to know that this was not Taussig’s goal for his book.  He was much more concerned about reporting how the progressive movement was working in churches across the country. You may note that in this book he challenged TCPC to do more with spirituality and theology in one of his chapters.  What he wanted people to know however was that in spite of the dreary statistics in our main line churches, many churches are growing and attracting new people by declaring themselves as progressive and by offering vital and spiritual worship experiences. He also suggested that part of the attraction was a theology with intellectual integrity.

You may not agree that intellectual integrity is enough but I would suggest that a vast majority of people who are looking for a spiritual experience are not so concerned if the theology is biblical theism, neo-platonic theism, scholastic theism, reformed theology, Anabaptist theology, perennial philosophy, process pan-en-theism, humanistic, existential naturalistic and non-realist theology, feminist theology, post-modern narrative theology, weak theology, hermeneutical theology, or Ken Wilber’s integral spirituality.  What they want to find is something compelling that relates to their lives and offers the possibility of some kind of transformative, spiritual experience.  What they are looking for is community and meaning for their lives. I personally believe that the Jesus story can do that but admit that it is not the only story.

Let’s face it. No theological construct will lead to an intellectual understanding of God (whatever we mean by that word,) no matter how brilliantly it is presented or how tightly it is constructed.  Anything we choose to call God can only be experienced and our experiences will be different. A lot of strange religious ideas have come out of someone’s attempt to explain another person’s experience of the Unexplainable, or the Indescribable.  As Maslow once pointed out, it is usually the left brain people who has observed another person who has gone through a transformative peek experience and then as a third party, will write about that very thing that they may never have experienced.  According to Maslow this process is the source of scripture.   

I would posit that all major religions of the world started with an individual having a life transforming spiritual experience. It seems clear to me that most of those experiences had a least one thing in common, a profound experience of the Oneness or Connectedness with all that is.  I believe we all have these types of experiences even when we don’t realize it. However, for some people who are truly open to it, through reasons that have never been clear, these experiences change their perspective of not only of themselves but of all reality. These things happen often enough that there are mythologies created around them. Some of these people go off into the sunset, while others hang around and teach what they have learned. What is amazing to me is how much of “what they have learned,” or experienced, is similar regardless of their culture or time in history.

 What are they teaching? They are not teaching a theological construct but a path so that others can have the same experience-it is usually described as a connectedness or Oneness of all Creation. Does sound too new age for you or too far out? These experiences have been recorded throughout history as long as human beings have been keeping records through written word or oral traditions. Some called it Nirvana, others Enlightenment, and Jesus called it the Realm or Kingdom of God. 

Clearly Jesus was one of these people and the one that I personally relate to the most.  It seems clear to me that we have allowed the church to interpret Jesus’ teachings as commandments and dictates, rather than responses to the question: “And how do I experience the Kingdom or Realm of God that you experienced, Rabbi?”  His teachings were not about avoiding suffering in some place after we die, but rather how do we experience life in union with God or how do we experience Sacred Unity or heaven on earth…now. When we begin to see the words of Jesus as a teacher of a way of living, relating and being, a lot of things that never made sense before begin to make sense.  Jesus did not have a systematic theology, and he would have been embarrassed, if not insulted, by the Christology that came out of the Forth Century church.  But I believe he would have been perfectly comfortable being known as an honored teacher of a way of seeing, hearing and being that could bring about a deep experience of the Holy.  I believe part of the revelation that often comes from such an experience is the discovery that we are all in God and that God is in us. 

The Christian contemplatives have known about this for centuries.  St. John of The Cross (1542-91) once wrote: “The soul that is united and transformed in God, breathes God in God with the same divine breathing with which God, while in her, breathes her in himself.” Do I have to create or adhere to some theological construct to have this experience? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe we risk the chance of limiting these kinds of experiences when try and put them in a theological box or wrap them in concrete, descriptive language.

As for the need of a new world view, I believe that this is one place that most progressive Christians have something in common.  If we start with an understanding that this world, this universe is one interconnected, interdependent whole, then it becomes clear that anything we do in our thoughts and actions to recognize and function that way…is a step closer to that “God” or Sacred Unity that most people yearn to experience. Jesus understood this existentially and intellectually as well as spiritually.

I do think our scientists today are providing a profound “world view” for those on a spiritual quest. (Can we still call it a world view or is “universe view” more accurate today?)  As we learn more from quantum physics and Hubble for example, and more about the uncountable solar systems, black holes, multiple dimensions, the human creation of time that is apparently happening all in one moment, as we ponder “dark matter,” and the incredible balance that holds this vast universe or multiple universes together, it seems to me that we have a wonderful new world view.

Life on this planet is providing numerous examples of the reality of an interconnectedness that we could never have imagined nearly a century ago when my father was born. Today we have the internet, a world economy, an absolutely intra-connected failing ecological system, AIDS, Avian flu and resistant-tuberculosis and other possible debilitating international diseases that all demonstrate that the inhabitants on this earth are in fact interconnected and interdependent. When they suffer, ultimately we suffer. Every action has a reaction. This is no longer just a philosophical or religious viewpoint. This is an observable reality. And yet in most ways, our world, in part because of our religious traditions, continues to function with a tribal mentality that is killing our beautiful planet and her inhabitants.  If we need a name for this, I am comfortable with Pan-en-theism. I believe Marcus Borg, one of our honored advisors, has done an excellent job in making a case for Panentheism as a theological foundation for progressive Christianity.

I believe the Jesus story, when read through educated, modern eyes, provides a path to experience this connectedness at a very deep, spiritual and even life changing level. I believe that path is first and foremost about “doing” which can lead to a new way of “being” with “eyes to see and ears to hear” reality in a very different way.

Of course I know this would not pass the Athanasius litmus test for being a Christian. But I would like to think that we have made some “progress” since 325.

Thank you for writing I hope this will begin a long and productive exchange.

Warmly, Fred

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