Prologue to Progressive Christian Trust Manifesto
Copyright © 2012 by Howard Pepper
It’s been about 2 ½ centuries since Christian thinkers began re-examining traditions which stood largely unexamined and unchanged for over a millennium. Much that is helpful has been uncovered and taught. Changing times and deepening knowledge have pulled along these new understandings, but only slowly. They continue to do so. However, the need to speed up the updating of Christianity is increasingly pressing. Much appears to be at stake.
Now, if rapidly revising it remains unfeasible, we must at least gradually and consciously, purposefully revise it. Such a process may appear a challenge to “revealed” truth to some. It need not be taken that way. It can also be conceived as the ongoing and inevitable process of uncovering truth and expressing it in today’s vernacular. An honest search for truth is never to be feared. Even the strongest of traditionalists like to affirm the quote from the Gospel of John of Jesus saying, “…The truth shall make you free.”
We must be open-eyed. The revision of understandings and expressions of Christian faith is demanding: intellectual and emotional investment accompanied by courage, serious self-reflection and sometimes risk-taking. But it carries high potential rewards. Those who we will inevitably engage are not only ourselves and those who perceive and believe like us, but friends, family and colleagues who remain comfortable in, if not adamant about more traditional forms of Christian faith.
The following points of a “Progressive Christian Trust Manifesto” growing out of Christian culture, stories and thought forms, should be seen as merely a starting point for focused conversations. These will be, to the best of our ability, respectful dialog and mutual exploration. The points in the Manifesto are not meant as a fixed “statement of faith” or set of dogmas.
Progressive Christian Trust Manifesto
Copyright © 2012 by Howard Pepper
1. We embrace the urgent task of clarifying what it means to follow a “spiritual path” or a “faith” that is Christian in some manner. With this, we know we must increase dialog and exploration between two often-warring camps divided as “conservative” and “liberal.”
Following a spiritual path is not easy! We believe Christian people and the institutions influencing them and which they influence have the responsibility to be seriously self-reflective about the nature and content of their faith. This implies the likelihood of consciously revising certain traditions and views, even sometimes those considered core, as difficult as this may be.
We observe that the “Christian Faith” has encountered a period of significant revision among a good portion of its followers, particularly in the last 150 years or so. This has seemed liberating to many, yet frightening or even diabolical to many others. (And to still others, just confusing.) The resulting tendency of Christians to divide themselves into two often opposing camps is a serious problem that continues today. We believe this issue needs to be addressed at a deeper level than it typically is. There are understandable developments of thought and patterns of social organization that can be unwound and revised productively.
This Invitation is one step in that direction. It is meant primarily to help progressively-oriented people gain needed clarity on what their faith is in and what that means. We also hope that more traditional Christians, by reading it thoughtfully, may better understand a progressive perspective and worldview as well as some of the theological differences involved. Perhaps this will help diminish the “two camps” problem which feeds into “culture wars.” We intend this invitation to foster harmony and cooperation.
Calling this a Trust Manifesto rather than a Statement of “Christian Faith,” akin to a creed or set of firm beliefs, is intentional. It seeks to highlight an underlying focus on our posture and attitude toward God and the world—one of rest and trust—rather than a focus on specific religious beliefs. We intend it to point out that a growth process of trust-building can be largely separate from a deepening involvement with religious beliefs and rituals. It involves being faithful to a broadly-agreed-upon set of values and standards among people and cultures. In the usual “Christian Faith” conception, faith is often taken as belief in various doctrines stated and re-stated by church authorities, or in systems of interpreting the Bible.
These doctrines and systems we believe can be helpful to a point, but tend to inhibit personal spiritual growth and distract from foundational matters, given they are so central for many, perhaps most Christians. They can be and often are a source of anxiety and illusion. We believe these emotions and perceptions need not exist in a set of principles and practices we can call “Christian Faith,” although doubt and a sense of mystery are natural.
2. We recognize the updating of religion as a challenging but inevitable process that should be actively engaged. We believe this is sorely needed, among other things, to widen the basis for common ground and common mission among Christians and with other religions.
There is no question that all religions get updated and gradually modified. But an emphasis on dogma and details of abstract theology tends to pose those as the necessarily unchanging parts rather than the universal or near-universal principles of Christian (or any) religion (such as priority on love of neighbor, search for truth, etc.). Believers in authoritative dogma often want no change in their understanding of the original stories, theology, and behavioral guidelines of “the faith,” whether these were specific to times, cultures and localities or not.
This is particularly the case with stories (or “eyewitness accounts”) about Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity. Worthy of note in this context is that much of the theology created during and only gradually after the original composition of Scripture is highly abstract. It is often derived theology, not directly biblical theology, though we see abstraction particularly in Paul’s and John’s theology.
Although it is largely derived and speculative, there is a tendency to take as “Gospel truth” even such mysterious and complex aspects of traditional Christianity. However, the price of this is avoidance or distorted understanding of the many “orthodoxy” vs. “heresy” fights of the first four centuries, particularly. What is striking is that these have never ended! Our challenge to ourselves and all Christians is to face and learn from the real history (the best it can be dug out and related) of early Christianity—pursuit of the truth wherever it may lead. We need to follow that doggedly yet today…. It was one of the core principles of earliest Christianity, though imperfectly implemented.
While reflection and revision is difficult, especially for some, in the process is the encouragement that the more important truths often lie barely visible beneath the “truths” we have long held or newly discovered (individually), with their feeling of liberation. By this dynamic, we often have more in common than we realize with those we may be prone to view as blinded, immature or wrong-headed. Here we refer to Christians of all types, including “progressives” or “liberals.”
3. We determine to pay attention to the multi-cultural and social- interest aspects of the foundations of Christian faith, screaming at us from “between the lines” of the New Testament. We pledge to apply insights from there to the current state of Christianity for the purpose of peace-making and effective humanitarian actions.
We recognize the importance of Christian faith having been built upon Jewish beliefs and traditions, along with Greek and other elements. The national and international political implications of this complicate further an already complex picture of specifically Christian beliefs and a “Christian worldview.” Religion and culture often get hopelessly mixed, and in today’s world the stakes around the tensions often raised are extremely high. These primarily social and sometimes otherwise politically charged issues, such as the concept of the USA as a “Christian nation,” seriously need attention. We cannot merely deal with the more metaphysical and theological elements we often focus on.
We recognize that, as progressive Christians, the confusion over the last couple centuries about how to view Jesus and the teachings attributed to him has caused many of us to drift and lack energetic drive in pursuing our spiritual growth and mission in the world. We believe the current especially active period of clarifying views of Jesus, the Bible and Christian faith is now leading to a sharper focus on how a variety of understandings of Jesus can each contribute positively and work cooperatively. They help create a broad and powerful movement of compassion, spiritual growth and elevation of humanity. We actively support efforts to this end, whether they are more humanistic and “secular” or more attached to religious institutions and movements.
4. We affirm that Jesus can and should remain the central figure of Christian faith (though not the founder of its predominant current form, in our view). At the same time, we admit our views of him reflect at least as much about us as about him and probably more. As Christianity began, so it continues.
Further as to Jesus, we believe it is crucial to recognize that the varying conceptions of Jesus and his teachings are such partly because Christianity began with a variety of perspectives on Jesus. Differences on this point between current-day traditionalists and progressives are mainly over the degree, manner and timing of these variations, not whether they are present as early as the New Testament (NT) itself, and reflected in it. Varying conceptions also exist because the Gospels eventually canonized in the NT were constructed and collected, probably unintentionally, so as to leave later readers the privilege of selectively creating their own preferred images of Jesus. The Gospel accounts have become like a set of Rorschach ink blots onto which we each project our idealized Jesus.
This idealizing of Jesus applies to virtually everyone, regardless of theological orientation, until one has re-examined Jesus carefully and looked seriously at Jesus scholarship. And then it still applies, though with more awareness of the limitations and pitfalls. If one is not personally motivated to read or pursue scholarship, we encourage requesting and participating in classes or discussion groups of this nature in local congregations or other forms of community.
As a part of such study, we seek to clarify for ourselves and share with others how matters of history and theology have been seriously muddled in the founding stories of Christian religion and ever since. In part, this is a mere extension of the ancient Jewish (and most cultures’) manner of updating founding and captivating stories to fit contemporary times, especially when those times were trying and unsettling. Suffice it to say, for here, that important psychological, spiritual and cultural truths do carry through, regardless of how a person relates “story” (or “narrative theology”) to “history.” Many of these truths can be broadly agreed upon and need to become a point of greater focus.
However, the accessibility and usefulness of these truths for current-day social cohesion is severely limited when the stories are not “rewritten,” social ethics updated, etc. We suffer as a result, particularly our culture’s youth… and in vital psychological and practical ways. Though progressives may be more open and sometimes active in this process, we also have a long way to go in this work—or this play! And we can learn things from the traditionalists’ manner of preserving certain beloved forms and rituals, with the deep meaning they contain.
We also believe that Paul’s mission and theology are important contributions and an integral part of Christian faith (with him being closer to a “founder” of a new religion than was Jesus). It is important, in studying this, to separate his “genuine” letters from those most likely only attributed to him. We seek to learn from both the shared mission and goals of Paul and the Jerusalem Jesus-followers and from their points of difference and conflict.
5. We believe the sometimes-confusing fictional/historical mix of the Bible, and particularly the Gospels and Acts, is critical to grasp and wrestle with and we have largely avoided it. If some of us are persuaded of Jesus’ miracles or bodily resurrection, it decidedly does not lead automatically or necessarily to the idea of apostolic authority or a “deposit of faith” which dispensed timeless and clear dogma—a serious diversion from the teachings of Jesus.
Returning to where history and myth have intermingled, to many, the key case of muddling of “categories” would be the resurrection of Jesus. Understandings of it are indeed at or near the core from which much of Christian theology springs. We do not believe it is possible for historical inquiry to ever confirm or deny whether Jesus experienced a bodily resurrection and was seen and touched in bodily form prior to a miraculous ascension. Yet the death and resurrection concept is a powerful one which has been embraced by many cultures in many times and settings and must not be entirely avoided or ridiculed. It is so deeply engrained in Western consciousness, via connection with stories of Jesus, that to do so creates unhelpful reactions and may derail dialog and exploration.
The nature of the NT literature promoting the idea of a bodily resurrection, a virgin birth and other key concepts, when read without assumptions and pre-conceptions of faith and tradition seems to us clearly fictional in large part — a unique genre. Such a reading is extremely tough to do for almost all Westerners. It is important that these stories are set in the context of certain actual events, on-the-ground conditions and a small handful of real-life characters significantly recast. Understandably, this has long been misleading, partly because the genre has no close parallel in modern literature or theological writing.
This confusing mix can be seen both by surface reading and through deep scholarly investigation. (We affirm the great contribution of historical-critical approaches to study of the Bible and of comparative religion and the disciplines that inform both, and encourage their continued use along with “devotional” and other uses of the Bible. We also acknowledge the importance and contribution of grammatical and contextual forms of exegesis more the forte’ of conservative scholarship.)
Even when the Resurrection is taken by some as a demonstrably historical event, it does not lead a believer clearly and directly, by any means, to any specific theology. That is, there is no direct path from resurrection-belief to what has been historically taken by most believers as an original “deposit of faith” thought to have been endowed clearly to the Apostles in a “once for all” manner. Perhaps most importantly, that includes the belief that Jesus was uniquely divine as the second person of the Trinity, equally human and divine in nature, although at least hints of that, if not the clear concepts, do appear in a few parts of the NT and later became orthodox doctrine.
6. We recognize the importance and pursue understanding of various phenomena not religiously tied and often labeled “spiritual” or “paranormal,” particularly near-death-experiences and their kin. God only knows why churches have so long avoided this, though we do have some ideas. We eagerly support ongoing research into and education about reincarnation and related issues, as they are an integral part of what religion deals with.
We seek to re-engage in understanding and experiencing much about human spiritual nature and ways of accessing knowledge and guidance that got pushed aside via the rationalistic trends of the Enlightenment and since. We seek a dynamic balance between the extremes of strict rationalism and unthinking pursuit of experiences or altered states (even if “mild” rather than frenzied or obvious). We affirm that certain states and experiences can have real value but believe they are not properly sought as ends in themselves or supposed requirements for higher spirituality.
In this vein, we affirm and encourage Christians and Christian institutions to engage with the studies of such things as meditation techniques, mind-body and various non-local effects, “Near Death Experiences” (NDE’s) and their kin.
These kinds of phenomena have typically been incorporated as aspects of religions or myth-ritual systems and are abundant in the Bible. Yet we tend to relegate them to “back then” or to more “primitive” societies or subsets of our society. One unfortunate effect of the Enlightenment has been to sideline these issues and processes, even to the extent of making most people afraid to discuss their own experiences or their real beliefs about these phenomena.
The area of NDE studies is especially important as Christianity, with most religions, emphasizes life-after-death, eternal destiny, the existence of spiritual realms to which we may go, etc. This field may not settle humanly unknowable (or non-provable) aspects of such things, but it seems at least able to bolster a reasonable faith in continuation of consciousness, and that apart from specifically biblical statements. It may increasingly confirm the idea of consequences of present-life actions beyond the grave, and other processes, without necessarily affirming either pantheistic “karma” or monotheistic “divine judgment.”
Presently, both progressive and traditional forms of Christian faith tend to ignore data such as NDE research and empirically-based research on reincarnation and important soul/spirit dynamics such research is increasingly pointing to. So does most (and the controlling force) of science, as institutionally structured. We recognize the historical reasons for it, but actively seek to break down the “separate realms” concept of religion and science illustrated in these areas and others, particularly those dealing with evolution as an explanatory theory. We believe the progress of both science and spiritual understanding shows there is no ultimate conflict between the two. Nor are there always distinct lines separating their two bodies of knowledge or two methods of discovery.
We also enthusiastically support the use of music and the expressive and visual arts to increasingly engage and release our spirits and bodies in celebrations (and/or “worship”). Continued development and experimentation here is important. We want to be heart-driven as well as head-driven. Thus, we seek good balance, engaging and developing our whole beings.
7. We determine to apply the many socially-driven aspects of Christianity to local, nation-wide and even global social organization, legislation and such, knowing that how Christians think and act as citizens affects governance. We believe neither progressive nor conservative Christians are willing to divorce their understanding of the “kingdom” or “commonwealth” of God from issues of earthly life, either personal or communal. Only careful thought and extensive discussion, which we pledge ourselves to, will lead to a deeper understanding which is particularly critical right now.
We support the active exploration of Christianity, along with other religions, in terms of how it has been and continues as a development of social interests, how these lead to social formations and the creation of relevant myth and ritual systems, and how these become various forms of a “Christian mentality” and “Christian worldview.” We feel strongly that all Christians must then reflect on how this chain of development subsequently feeds into aims for governance and our political actions at various levels of our society; for the kinds of legislation and protection of human rights, social justice and such we pursue. Currently there are precious few venues for civil and deeper-level discussion of such issues and we believe that Christian communities can and should provide one safe and inviting place to have them.