This morning we are focusing on Progressive Christianity. There is so much that I could say about Christianity and Progressive Christianity, but I want to limit it to a few points, just to spark some thoughts for you, and throughout the year we will come back and explore some of these ideas in more depth.
Briefly this morning I want to explore a progressive Christian notion of God, the Bible, and the after life. Is that enough to bite off in 15 minutes? In the next 15 minutes you will have an authoritative answer about God, the Bible and the after life! Yeah, right!
Who is God in Progressive Theology?
A teacher is in a room with a group of kindergarten students, and she asks them to do a drawing. As she walks around, looking over the shoulders of the children, she comes to one child and asks, “What are you drawing?”
The child answers, “I’m drawing God.”
The teacher responds, “We don’t really know what God looks like, do we?”
The child says, “We will in a minute.”
It is a simple story, but very profound when you stop and think about it. There are as many names for God as there are tongues to speak them. There are as many faces for God as there are eyes to behold them. There are as many paths to God as there are feet to walk them. There are as many portraits for God as there are crayons to draw them.
Who is God? You tell me. You manifest God. You are God’s body in the world. You are God’s way of living life. You are God’s way of having a relationship. You are God’s way of being a parent or a child or a grandparent. You are God’s way of going to work in the morning. You are God’s way of skiing down a slope, or throwing a football. You are God’s way of manifesting life in abundance.
I often speak about God within, between and beyond. I want to re-visit that idea for a few moments. Within you, resides the Inexpressible that is beyond words, concept, and thought. An exquisite bliss resides within you. Within you is the Inexpressible, Indescribable, Ineffable peace that passes all understanding.
Most of us only have glimpses of this peace, but at moments of meaning or clarity or self growth or compassion, or a sense of higher purpose, you realize God within.
You are God’s body. God between. There is a church in Grand Haven with a sign that reads “You are God’s answer to someone’s prayer.” Isn’t that nice? You are God’s answer to someone’s prayer. God between. Self-responsibility. Interrelatedness. Compassion. Service. You are God’s answers to someone else’s prayer.
God Beyond. The world is God’s body. The evolving, changing, abundant world is God’s body. The patterns of nature, the evolution of science and spirit, height and depth, manifest God’s body, the earth.
You fill in the rest. That’s as much as I will say. Your abundant life is the answer.
What is the Role of the Bible in Progressive Theology
In the progressive movement the shift in understanding the Bible is away from seeing the Bible as “divine revelation” and towards seeing the Bible as “divine realization.”
Paul Tillich is one of the great fathers of progressive theology. He coined the phrase “The Ground of Being” to describe God. Tillich spoke about the courage to be, human existence as a manifestation of God.
There is a wonderful story about the Bible and Paul Tillich. Tillich was teaching a class and had a belligerent student who believed that Tillich didn’t have a high enough view of the Bible as being the word of God.
In each class he would raise his hand and ask all sorts of belligerent questions. He was never happy with the answers because Tillich would always give some abstract, subtle explanation of the Bible as the word of God.
One day it became too much for the student. He grabbed his Bible, rolled it up in his hand, ran down to the front of the room and began waving it in Tillich’s face, saying, “Tell us once and for all! Is this the word of God or not?”
Tillich very calmly answered, “The Bible is the word of God if instead of gripping it, you let it grip you.”
The Bible is the word of God if you let it grip you. If you allow it to be a tool in which you realize the Inexpressible.
Once you have liberated the Bible from needing to offer absolute divine authority for all time, which is such a trap, such a dead end of literalism, the Bible suddenly opens up as a wonderful tool and resource for human living. It becomes a life-affirming document. It enables you to live more deeply, to love more fully, to feel more compassion, to consider more perspectives.
Take Genesis as an example. If you think Genesis tells the story of how the world began, you will end up with all sorts of scientific, historical and literary problems. That will be it’s own dead end.
If however you see Genesis as being a story about all sorts of beginnings, even the genesis of your life, then it opens up and says profound things about your life and about our world.
Once Genesis has been placed in the life-affirming context, the whole Bible opens up. The whole Bible becomes full of wisdom and resource and depth.
Heaven in Progressive Theology
The notion of Heaven has a long and interesting history. It is helpful to understand the progress, or the evolution of the notion of Heaven. Maybe even beginning with the Genesis story and the Garden of Eden. Maybe the garden is the origin of the notion of Heaven. The garden is not a place that you escape to. It is not a place of eternal reward. It is the place where you nurture seeds and growth.
The Garden is the place of potential. It is the place of being and becoming. It’s not an escape; it’s the place where your spirit is nurtured.
In Hebrew culture, some of the Rabbis believed in a very specific and literal notion of the heavens, a pre-scientific notion. They believed there were literally seven heavens. The first shielded the light at night, the second housed the snow and the rain, the third housed righteous souls, the fourth housed the angels, and so on. According to some traditions, at the giving of the law to Moses, the heavens were opened and the Israelites were able to gaze at the majesty of the seven heavens.
Many Hebrew mystics interpreted the seven heavens far more internally and symbolically, than literally. This pre-empted what science eventually showed to be true. There are no literal seven heavens. There are only depths of interiority.
Jewish mystics interpreted heaven as depth of interiority, a process of going deeper within to greater self knowledge and clarity. The symbolic heavens are realizations of the Inexpressible.
Science has affirmed what the mystics always knew to be true. The heavens were never literal places. They were always profound insights within.
Just in the course of the last year I have had the wonderful privilege of being present with several people, either just before they died or in the last days and weeks before they died.
My experience with each of those people is that they attained heaven before they died. I think of Gary Beyer, Abe Cashmier, Karen Wollfis and Bob Scheifele, and others as well, people who had realized the indescribable peace of being one with their situation.
You know what I am talking about. You know what it is to get to that point and have a glimpse of the oneness of life. All things united. These people saw that before they died. They had been to Heaven already. Heaven is a beautiful poetic way to describe the reality that we all have glimpses into. The mystics described it as the skies opening. I want to describe it to you as shadows moving within. As those shadows shift and move like clouds within you, a light emerges that gives you an insight, a peek, a glance at divinity.
Sacred wonder and mystery. An indescribable, inexpressible light.
The wonderful thing about progressive theology is that you don’t need to escape this world. You don’t need to be told what to think by a priest or by divine text. All you need to do is realize that everything you need, you already have. You are complete and whole as you are.
Mardi Gras is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate diversity and to celebrate the abundance of life and nature. In a progressive community like this you are encouraged to have your own experiences, develop your own spirituality, craft your own portrait of God, name God as it makes sense to you, and walk the path that is authentic for you. No one else can tell you. You find it yourself and you have everything you need to do that.
The reading from Acts, (Acts 17, Paul addressing the Areopagus) this morning described a picture of multi-cultural diversity. People came form all sorts of places, each bringing their own image of God, their own philosophy, rituals, and names for God. In the midst of that, Paul uttered profound words; maybe his greatest gift to progressive theology. These are the words I want to leave with you this morning. God is not far from each one of you, maybe even nearer to you than you are to yourselves. God is captured by poets of all ages and cultures as the source in which you live and move and have your being.
Namaste. The abundance of life in me bows to the abundance of life in you.
The abundance in you, in which you live and move, and have your being.
Ian is pastor of C3- Christ Community Church and a member of the TCPC Executive Council.