Last month I wrote at some length about a series of gatherings my husband and I are hosting called Progressive Christianity Forums. We launched the first one on February 18, and our second session was last night, March 18. So far, we are extremely pleased with this experiment.
One reason is the group itself. We have twelve members: six from our home parish, four from my former parish where I served as rector, and two from a third nearby parish – all friends and trusted progressives. We are half women, half men, age range 50’s-80. All seem intrigued and pleased to be part of the group – curious about one another and very willing to be candid even in the first session. Not all being from the same church is a huge plus!
During the first session we talked about how we understand God. It was clear early on that people were much more interested in experiencing God than trying to define or describe what it is they believe in as God. No one claimed to be a theist. All but one talked of very personal experiences of God’s presence, some seemingly ordinary, others very much beyond daily occurrences. There was much discussion of ways of being open to such experiences even as we acknowledge that they happen without our conjuring. Despite our non-theism, most of us pray and find it important to do so, although prayers from the heart expressing our deepest concerns mean far more to us that set formulations.
At the second gathering, we focused on Jesus. We first asked “For those of us inclined to follow Jesus, why?” For many it is because Jesus represents a compelling presence, an actual person who lived in history (even though we acknowledge we know almost nothing extra-biblical). One said Jesus represents a person who lived in the world in ways that made it better, and she wanted to do that too. Several spoke of the importance of the cross and Jesus’ very real suffering as helping them to believe that God is really with us, sharing our humanity, that Jesus is a symbol of that. They felt this helped them with the problem of evil – to imagine God being with us in the face of it, as in the story of the cross. One guy coined the term “Emanuellian” for his belief in Jesus as God with us. We talked a lot about how much we are or are not like Jesus, or even how much Jesus is like us – or not. Some of this was framed in terms of whether we are qualitatively or quantitatively unlike Jesus, i.e. whether his humanity was just like ours, with flaws, uncertainties and possibility for change or whether his “divinity” made him ontologically different, qualitatively removed from us. This would let us off the hook in terms of trying to incarnate God’s presence in the world – we could leave that to Jesus and just take baby steps. I’m for the quantitative difference and the rigor of seeing ourselves and all of creation as incarnating God’s presence. For me, Jesus is the symbol and reminder of this. We only touched on the Resurrection, although there was some agreement that you don’t have to believe in this as an historical event to recognize it as a story about God’s power t bring new life out of situations of death. We talked about the slogan “Jesus saves” and what that could actually mean – perhaps, following Marcus Borg, that Jesus is one who “heals the wounds of existence”, much as a salve (same root as save) heals a physical wound. The hour and a half seemed inadequate to cover all that came up, but it definitely stirred up our thinking and revealed a lot of common concerns, stumbling blocks and affirmations in our approach to Jesus.
We gather for our discussion in a circle in our living room with a candle lit on a table in the center. We share refreshments and casual conversations briefly at the beginning and end of these sessions. People are getting to know each other and finding all sorts of connections beyond our theology. Next month we will focus on spirit. We hope, in our last two sessions after that, to explore ways of worship that feel authentic to our group. We hope to actually worship together and discover new forms, or maybe our work will give new life to some old ones. This is an exciting process, at present open-ended after this initial five month trial. I will report back after our next gathering.