What can progressive Christianity tell us about modern religion, secularization and the future of spirituality?
A dissertation submitted to the University of Bristol in accordance with the requirements of the degree of Social Anthropology in the Faculty of Arts. Word Count: 14, 678
This report examines an American religious movement called progressive Christianity and what is can tell us about religion in the modern world. Based upon fieldwork and secondary research by the author the movement and its history is described and analysed in detail with the common strands drawn out. The movement has rejected much of orthodox Christian theology and places more emphasis on spirituality. They have created a religion that has jettisoned the idea of an afterlife and is therefore much more bound to this world with a focus on compassion and tolerance towards other people and on experiencing their re-envisioned ‘God’ here and now. There follows an examination of academic work on modern religious trends to discover if progressive Christianity confirms or contradicts these author’s theories. This includes the idea of a ‘progressive milieu’ that encompasses many different liberal religious and spiritual groups and various modifications to the theory of secularisation. It is concluded that, despite being a small-scale movement and having a precarious future, progressive Christianity represents many features of contemporary religion and suggests some possible future trends.
I declare that the work in this dissertation was carried out in accordance with the Regulations of the University of Bristol. The work is original except where indicated by special reference in the text and no part of the dissertation has been submitted for any other degree.
Any views expressed in the dissertation are those of the author and in no way represent those of the University of Bristol.
The dissertation has not been presented to any other University for examination either in the United Kingdom or overseas.
A year ago, while abroad, I met an American couple and during our conversation I mentioned that I was considering a research project on liberal Christianity in the US; I instantly got the rather dismissive reply – “There’s no such thing.” The people I have discussed my project with here in the UK have also only been aware of the conservative side of American Christianity. This is unsurprising given the links this ‘Religious Right’ have with the Republican Party and its various political figures including former- president George W. Bush (BBC, 2005) and the current Republican presidential candidates Rick Perry (BBC, 2011a) and Michelle Bachmann (Guardian, 2011). But, as I discovered, there is a whole other side to American Christianity that is trying to make its voice heard.
As I shall discuss, this conservative/liberal split began to emerge in the early twentieth century as Christianity struggled for meaning in the face of modernity and its technological, scientific and social upheavals. But whereas the conservatives tried to fight against this new phase in human history liberals were quietly reanalysing their faith and its history in an attempt to make it more coherent with contemporary knowledge and social norms. Progressive Christianity is a movement that has grown out of this liberal tradition and represents its most extreme interpretation. These progressives created a faith that, as I will show, places an emphasis on compassion, tolerance, theological doubt and personal spirituality. The movement no longer considers itself as holding absolute or exclusive truth emphasising spiritual exploration and embracing pluralism.
This report is split into two parts, the first introducing and analysing progressive Christianity as a movement and the second placing this movement within the context of wider changes in Western religion and society. Part one will start with a section detailing my methodology focusing on my fieldwork in America. I give details of the churches I visited including descriptions of their physical appearance and layout, the services I attended, other events and activities the churches put on and the demographics of their congregations. A brief history of liberal and progressive Christianity will follow exploring its roots in the Enlightenment and the early twentieth century. I will also talk about the growth of the progressive movement since 1994 and how it has used the internet as a basis for expansion and dissemination of information. Although the churches I visited had different ways of expressing their faith there were clear similarities from which I have drawn four main strands which underpin the movement and these are discussed in detail. The first of these is the desire for social justice and the many social outreach programs progressive churches are involved in. The second is the openness of membership which is granted to anybody whatever their race, gender, sexuality etc. The third concerns progressive theology which has jettisoned many tenets of orthodox Christianity even re-envisaging their ‘God’ and the concepts of heaven and hell. The last strand I identify is progressive spirituality which is seen to be an individual exploration of this universe and the mysterious unity underlying it using any methods that help no matter what religious tradition they may have come from.
The second part of the report attempts to put the movement within the context of modern religious and social trends by examining the works of various academics. The first I look at is Gordon Lynch and his exploration of what he calls the ‘progressive milieu’ of new religious and spiritual groups. He draws out similarities between these groups many of which are shared by progressive Christianity. He also discusses the imperatives behind the emergence of these groups and the theory of the demoralization of society. I also look at the much-debated theory of secularization and the modifications made to it by several social scientists. The first of these is Steve Bruce who suggests that religions are becoming secularized by the watering down of traditional doctrines. Bruce also suggests that religion is becoming more individualistic and I explore whether this applies to progressive Christianity and also problems of identity progressives have. David Martin does not see the apparent secularisation of society as a one way march towards atheism positing instead that current trends are just a continuance of past variations in piety. Lastly Robert Wuthnow highlights two types of spirituality, one of dwelling the other of seeking and suggests that religion is shifting from the first to the second. In the conclusion I will draw all of this together to explore what progressive Christianity represents as part of modern religion and what it suggests the future of religion might be.
Part 1 – An Introduction to Progressive Christianity
The main challenge this research project raised was the lack of a permanent physical community I could participate in. The wider progressive community is not numerous but is spread over large areas and many progressives will only attend their church once a week making sedentary fieldwork problematic since, other than Sundays and the odd mid-week event, there was no community present to study. There were also, due to personal circumstances, severe time constraints on the length of any fieldwork I conducted. Therefore, on the advice of my main contact in the movement, we decided that I should visit different churches each Sunday and attempt to interview various ministers involved in the movement during the week. By seeing a range of churches I hoped that in place of long-term fieldwork with one group the variety would highlight the underlying similarities across the progressive spectrum. The variety of answers, or lack thereof, to the same questions and the different emphasises each church and minister placed on the main issues within progressive Christianity would also be instructive.
I had five weeks in America which began in the Pacific Northwest, initially the Seattle area where I met my main contact within the movement. I spent my first Sunday at the University Congregational United Church of Christ (UCC) in Seattle itself. I then traveled down to Portland, Oregon, and spent the next Sunday at the First Congregational UCC. From there I visited the San Francisco bay area attending the First Congregational Church of Berkeley and Plymouth UCC, Oakland, on successive Sundays. My fieldwork ended in southern California where I attended Pilgrim UCC, Carlsbad, and, briefly, Irvine UCC on my final Sunday. During the days between Sundays I interviewed, in varying degrees of formality, several ministers, leaders of the movements and members of the congregations. Although it was only a short fieldwork period and not long enough to conduct an in-depth inquiry, the similarities and differences between those I met nonetheless allowed me to draw out some common strands across the movement. Added to the primary fieldwork the movement’s website www.tcpc.org (TCPC standing for The Center for Progressive Christianity) was a rich source of information along with its online forum and Facebook group. There is also an increasing collection of progressive books which attempt to bring progressive Christianity to a wider audience or inform those already attending progressive churches. So overall, given the limited scope and length of this project, I was able to gather enough information to make an attempt at analyzing a movement that is neither homogenous nor sharply defined (at least not in practice).
All the churches I attended were members of the United Church of Christ1 (UCC) which, according to the ministers I spoke to, is one of the most liberal denominations in the US. Denominational leadership within the UCC, in keeping with the congregational model, is loose and its individual congregations essentially run themselves through the ministers and lay committees, with the ministers seemingly having significant power to guide their churches in the direction they feel best. At most of the churches there were multiple ministers although one was usually considered the senior minister with the others sometimes having specific responsibilities (for example minister of calling and visitation or minister of art and communication). But the congregation did have a significant input and in a couple of churches I visited they were given the opportunity to lead parts of worship and, through the lay committees, always had the final say in any decisions made by the church.
1 The UCC was created in 1957 by a merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and Congregational Christian Churches.
All the churches were housed in purpose-made building and were clearly-identified as such although only a couple had the traditional bell tower (though one of the others did have a large cross which doubled as a mobile telephone mast). All had an initial reception area which lead into the main sanctuaries and which were used to greet new visitors and a socialising place for regulars. Some also served refreshments and had seating areas for those who arrived early. Most churches also had secondary sanctuaries silent prayer rooms and other rooms used for various activities and classes such as Sunday schools. The main sanctuaries of the churches I attended were relatively similar; they all had rows of pews facing a stage at the front upon which was usually an altar (although this was usually just a wooden table with simple coverings), a pulpit or lectern, a keyboard instrument of some sort (organ, piano or electronic keyboard) and possibly other instruments and choir stalls (the choirs varied in size from just two or three up to over twenty). The decor was mostly simple and modest but there was usually a large cross on the front wall and some had stained-glass windows. Only the First Congregational UCC, Portland, was significantly ornate, dating from the late 19th century and with carved dark wood fittings, a grand centerpiece organ and beautiful stained-glass windows. A couple of the other churches were relatively old but their main sanctuaries had a more modern, less ornate look.
The congregation size varied from around 50 to about 150 (the service in Irvine had only 20 or so attendees but it was not their main service of the day) and none of the churches could be described as full; one even struggled to fill half its seats. The congregations were overwhelmingly elderly and white with only a couple of churches having significant minorities of children and young adults. Although I did not conduct anything approaching a scientifically rigorous survey, from my conversations with members of the congregations and minister, it appeared that the congregations were, in general, well educated and relatively affluent. This was in keeping with surveys (e.g. Pew, 2008) which suggest that those attending Mainline churches generally have more education and higher incomes than Evangelical congregations and marginally above the national average.
Since progressive Christianity has rejected many traditional Christian doctrines (see below) much of the spoken liturgy has been dispensed with so the services are predominately based around hymns, other songs and instrumentals with the sermon also taking up a fair proportion of the time. Most of the churches had a form of the Lord’s Prayer although some had adapted it in some way and, in keeping with the UCC generally, the churches recited covenants in place of creeds (for a discussion as to why see Geering, 2011). Only one church said confession but all had participatory intercessions where members were encouraged to share their ‘joy and concerns’. The Peace was enthusiastically embraced by all churches with one waiting for people to greet every other member of the congregation before continuing. New members are normally formally welcomed into each church usually after attending an induction course and several were welcomed in the services I attended including a lesbian couple who had just adopted a son together. The sermon was a key part of the service lasting and was usually given by the senior minister although at one church the senior minister was away so they had testimonies from member of the congregation. These were about moments in their life where they felt they had experienced the Holy Spirit; one was a woman who had beaten cancer; another was a woman had fought for gay rights after finding out her daughter was gay; the last was a transgender woman who had been condemned by a fundamentalist church but found acceptance at her current church and was now planning to go into ministry. All churches had some kind of adult education course that discussed progressive theology and biblical scholarship usually the UCC’s Living the Question or some other publication or media (one church used a television documentary series on the early Christian church). One church was also running the OWL (Our Whole Lives) course produced by the UCC and Unitarian Universalist Association which taught about sexuality and how people of faith should approach the issue. Each church ran various midweek events including support groups, prayer groups, Bible study, meditation sessions, and art exhibitions. There were also many different outreach projects at each church although the issues addressed varied from LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) advocacy and AIDS awareness to local environmental projects to international development with each program having designated members assigned to it. The one thing that all churches had in common was an incredible community spirit; although I only spent a Sunday at each I felt incredibly welcome at all of them and informality of the services showed just how close the congregation was.
The history of progressive Christianity
There is within American Christianity, as within American politics, a deep, though not clear-cut, divide between liberals and conservatives (Fowler et al, 2004). Conservatives tend to be members of Evangelical denominations such the Southern Baptist Conference and the liberals of Mainline denominations such as the United Church of Christ (UCC). This divide, better described as a spectrum with very contrasting extremes, originated around the beginning of the 20th century although it was culmination of tensions built up by the Enlightenment over the previous few centuries (Noll, 1992). Although there were many factors involved in this separation two events that occurred in the 19th century are representative of the problems religion faced with the coming of modernity. The first was the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man which threw into doubt the Biblical account of creation if taken literally, although it took some time these implications to become clear. The other, more devastating, event was the publication of essays exploring higher criticism of the Bible (Armstrong, 2009). These called into question the entire authority of the Bible and, to some, suggested that it was just another book to be deconstructed and analysed dispassionately. Since the very beginnings of modern science new discoveries had been seen as revealing more of God’s glory and splendour and by the 19th century the idea of God himself had become a scientific theory with academics such as Decartes using the new faith in rationality to ‘prove’ the existence of ‘Him’. As Karen Armstrong notes in her book The Case for God this went against the traditional concept of God and the apophatic method of using contradictions and paradoxes to make oneself aware of just how little we really understood about God; he was not a being whose existence could be proved or falsified, in fact, he could not even be said to exist in any meaningful way, he was beyond ‘being’. But the rapid advancement of science and the rational mindset this created among Enlightenment society lead to God being theorised and humanized. But a God that was made by science could be destroyed by science which began to happen with the discoveries of evolution, geological timescales, the immensity of the universe, the awareness of other, very different, cultures as well as biblical scholarship and archaeology. Suddenly the need for this rationalized God started to vanish. Christianity, in its modern form, was on the defensive with seemingly only two choices; deny modernity and use the Bible as the font of all knowledge or to accept modernity and try to reinterpret the Bible in light of current knowledge. The first choice obviously led to the rise of fundamentalism fed by the fear of annihilation by the new world; the second choice led to the new liberal Christianity which started to question traditional doctrine and Biblical exegesis.
Christianity and its liberal side in particular was further shaken by the events of the first half of the 20th century. Two world wars, deliberate mass extermination, the collapse of financial systems and the rise of ideologies such as fascism and communism left many wondering in the 1950’s and 60’s where this supposedly loving God had gone. In desperation people in the west started turning to ‘New Age’ religions or forsook religion altogether; Christianity in general, and its liberal form in particular, has been declining here ever since. The question now was would Christianity gradually fade out or yet again try to reinvent itself?
Progressive Christianity started in 1994 with founding of The Center for Progressive Christianity2 (TCPC) by an Episcopalian minister called Jim Adams who at that time was based in Washington DC. According to TCPC’s website he wanted to create a resource for those for whom organised religion has become “ineffectual, irrelevant or repressive” (TCPC – About Us, n.d.).
2 The Center of Progressive Christianity has recently changed its name to ProgressiveChristianity.org to reflect and promote the fact that the website is its hub. However for clarity and brevity I will use the acronym TCPC in this report. The website itself still uses the acronym.
The Mainline churches3 had been (and still are) losing members at a significant rate (Noll, 1992; Pew, 2008) over recent decades and Rev. Adams felt churches could reverse this trend by becoming “bolder about professing their progressive tenets” (ibid). He came up with the Eight Points defining what he thought progressive Christianity should represent (the most recent version of the Eight Points can be found in Appendix 1 and will be referred to throughout this essay). In 1996 TCPC launched its website as a central meeting place for those of similar mind. The organization started producing a quarterly newsletter, now a monthly e-newsletter, and over the years has added an online forum, book reviews and many articles written by various individuals involved in the progressive movement. The website also lists (for a small fee) affiliate churches who affirm the Eight Points allowing individuals to find their nearest progressive church. Their crowning achievement to date is a children’s curriculum (see Shockley, 2011) which, instead of introducing children to Christianity and the Bible, focuses predominately on behaviour and how to show the progressive ideals of compassion and tolerance to others; moral values come before religious knowledge allowing children to explore this second side of Christianity when they grow up and are able to form their own opinion about it. TCPC has also spawned sister organisations in various, mostly Anglophone, countries promoting progressive Christianity among st their respective populations. Far from hiding from or even discrediting secular academia, the TCPC leadership promotes engagement with it to discover “what the newest science, biblical, sociological and historical scholarship has to say about the Christian religion and ways to integrate that information into one’s faith and to create healthy, dynamic Christian communities”. And it seems to be working:
3 Mainline (as opposed to Evangelical/Fundamental) denominations include, but not limited to, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Lutherans (except the Missouri Synod) and the United Church of Christ (UCC).
In the last two and a half years the number “unique visitors” on the website has grown from under 5,000 visitors a month to well over 60,000. The mailing list has more than doubled to over 6,000 and the email activity has grown eight-fold. Today, there are 17 different denominations, as well as independent and ecumenical groups, that are represented by the TCPC affiliates. The growth and enthusiasm, as well as the demands, are reflected in these numbers. (ibid)
Progressive Christianity within Mainline denominations
Progressive Christianity, however, has not arisen from a vacuum; it is an extension of liberal Christianity albeit an extreme case. As such there are churches who call themselves ‘liberal’ but not ‘progressive’, since they do not agree with some of the more progressive theology, and others which switch between the two. This is a symptom of the organisational structure of a lot of American churches which are usually run primarily on a congregational level and only secondarily on a denominational level and so are subject to the whims of the congregational leadership and the presiding minister. So churches have come in and out of affiliation and have changed their self- appellation on their websites and other published material to reflect the move each time. There is also an issue at the other end of the spectrum with some churches and ministers feeling they have moved beyond progressive Christianity and either gone it alone or used other labels such as ‘evolutionary Christianity’. This rejection of the progressive label is a cause of annoyance to the leadership of the movement as it makes it harder to grow and reach more people and congregations. It is actually a symptom of a larger issue surrounding the degree to which a church, its ministers and congregation are progressive and the conflicts that arise as one or other of these stakeholders try to transition towards or away from being progressive. I will return to this issue later when I discuss progressive theology and identity.
Progressive Christianity as a movement is limited to Mainline churches and, despite its origins in an Episcopal church, has been most enthusiastically taken up by UCC churches. Indeed the leadership of the denomination promote many of the same values and ideas as progressive Christianity although they do not use the word progressive. Mainline churches in general are geographically concentrated around the east and west coasts of the USA and this is where the progressive movement is most in evidence; there are few progressives in the south which is dominated by the Evangelical churches4. Political views of progressives tend to be liberal (pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-social security and anti-war/gun) which naturally lead them towards the Democrats over the Republicans whom they see as beholden to the ‘Religious Right’, their antithesis in the Christian faith.
4 There is however a similar movement within Evangelical churches called the ‘Emerging Church’ (Bielo, 2009) which is more inclusive than more orthodox Evangelical churches although their theology remains fairly conservative. There has been communication between the two groups at events such as Big Tent Christianity (Astle, 2011).
Although there were many similarities between the churches I visited, all had different emphases and different opinions on which parts of progressive Christianity were most important; this applied to the ministers too. From my time in the field I identified four main strands to progressive Christianity each of which are more important to some progressives than others. These strands are an emphasis on social activism and outreach; being ‘Open and Affirming’ (also referred to as ‘Extravagant Welcome’); progressive theology and biblical scholarship; and an emphasis on spirituality in order to experience ‘God’ in the here and now by meditation, prayer, various art forms and other methods. These are, of course, not isolated aspects, but reinforce and inform each other.
The four strands of progressive Christianity
1 – Social justice
The progressive movement continues trends initiated by liberation theology (Muskus, 2002) which placed a lot of emphasis on social justice for those ignored, forgotten or oppressed by society and attempted to empower such groups especially the poor and women. Progressive Christianity continues such advocacy and support (Searaven, 2011a, also see Points 4, 6, 7 and 8 in Appendix 1) and also now include the poor in developing countries and particularly the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual community usually known by the acronym LGBT (Burklo, 2011; Plumer, 2011a). All the churches I visited, and ministers I spoke to, confirmed the importance of such work which they saw as one of, if not the, key message brought by Jesus. If parts of progressive theology are controversial there is no such dispute about the importance of helping others especially those who cannot help themselves. Every church I attended had several community outreach or social activist ministries ranging from the local to the national to the international and from environmental to political to social issues. Although all the ministers placed social justice as a high priority for progressive Christians there was a varying degree to which the ministers themselves got involved; some, given their ecclesiastical training, saw the churches spiritual life and theological education as their priority and left the running of the various social ministries to members of the congregation. Other ministers without denying the importance of the spiritual and theological saw themselves, as the head of the church, as the best person to lead social activism.
One minister in particular that I spoke to was incredibly involved in campaigning on both local and national issues and had received a relatively high amount of press coverage. At the various rallies he attended he purposely ensured, by what he wore, that nobody would fail to notice he was a minister. He believed Christians should demonstrate moral leadership amongst the community and show people that the church cares about the issues that matter most to them; to do so was to follow the model created by the life of Jesus. He was also open about the desire to attract new people to the church by such publicity and to challenge the modern view that Christianity is irrelevant and has nothing to offer people anymore. Such was his belief that church leaders should get involved in social issues that he was also in the process of designing a course in public advocacy for trainee ministers. One of reasons he felt it was so important to have such a visible Christian activism was to reverse the general liberal and secular association of Christianity with the so-called ‘Religious Right’ which generally represents the more Evangelical and Fundamentalist denominations. Christians from such denominations are renowned, among the political left, for their homophobia, anti-abortion views and opposition to federal social welfare. This minister felt it important to show people that not all Christians were of that ilk and start to reverse some of the damage he felt the Religious Right had done to both Christianity and society in general. He also had no qualms about working with other denominations on issues where they agreed, for instance with Catholics on immigration. Such collaboration was controversial with some members of his congregation particularly with Catholics who rile some LGBT members because of their views on homosexuality.
I mentioned briefly that this minister admitted that, although not the primary motivation of social activism, a useful side effect was that it sometimes increased the church’s membership. Flipping this around he also suggested that one of the reasons Mainline denominations were shrinking was because they had disengaged from society and taken a back seat on political and social issues. At the churches he had been minister he found that social activism and outreach empowered the congregation bringing them closer together and created a visible Christian witness which enticed and encouraged others into the church. Given the high average age of progressive Christians, he felt that this type of witness was important for attracting more young people into the church and so he was particularly active on youth issues again trying to show them that Christianity may not be what they imagine it to be; he mentioned that quite a few people had come up to him and said how surprised they were to see a minister advocating for them. Most progressives are uneasy about forceful proselytising which they associate with the Religious Right but such activism allows for what I would call ‘soft evangelism’ by showing people what the church has to offer but allowing them to make the first move.
Most ministers, though, believed the primary aim of the church was to meet people’s spiritual needs but that does not mean that social justice is not important. Indeed many insisted that religion should not just be about what one does on Sundays, it should permeate one’s whole life. As such giving one’s time or money to good causes is integral to living as a Christian and it should not be ignored. And the best way to organize such activities is through an established institution like the church which houses a community of like-minded people.
2 – ‘Open and Affirming’
Related to the emphasis on social justice is the progressive insistence on being ‘Open and Affirming’5, also referred to as an ‘Extravagant Welcome’. This simply means that they accept anybody as a member of the church whatever their race, gender, sexuality etc (see Point 3 in Appendix 1). This is normally used in reference to the LGBT community who have long been excluded by Christianity but, as the example below will show, the invitation does go beyond this group.
5 The phrase ‘Open and Affirming’ actually arose from the UCC but all progressive churches would be expected to have the same universal acceptance of new members however they might phrase it.
Although this is seen as a very important aspect of progressive Christianity, many of the ministers I spoke to told of the initial difficulties of convincing a congregation to accept this openness of membership. The majority of members were usually happy for the church to be Open and Affirming, but there was always, apparently, a small minority who were extremely unhappy about it and also a larger group of less confrontational members who weren’t really all that sure. The main sticking point, as with many churches across the world, was the acceptance of LGBT people into the church. The ministers involved did their best to reduce opposition to the change through biblical and theological education and sermons which tried to convince people that universal love and acceptance was the real message of the Bible. In all cases the change was eventually made but not without the loss of some members although this was usually accompanied by the arrival of new members, often from the LGBT community. Some ministers also said that those that left were generally the more vociferous and “bigoted” members who didn’t really fit in anyway and held back the whole church so that once they left the congregation actually got closer and felt reinvigorated by the change.
The ‘Extravagant Welcome’ extends beyond the LGBT community and one of the churches I attended had one particular person ask to be a member who caused a huge controversy both among the congregation and beyond. A convicted sex offender arrived at the church one day and asked the senior minister if he could join the church. Many members of the congregation especially those with young children, whilst not wanting renounce their Christian values, felt distinctly uneasy about such a person attending their church. The controversy grew beyond the church and was even covered by the national media (e.g. New York Times, 2007). After much debate the church decided to allow him to become a member with certain conditions (such as being escorted whilst on church grounds). Some members did leave but the minister was proud that the church had stuck to its principle of being truly accepting.
So, although this is a key strand to progressive Christianity, it is not without its difficulties and controversies. But from what I learned from my time in these churches, it is these challenges that really invigorate those truly committed to being progressive Christians. Being Open and Affirming is easy when the people attending are people who you get on with and whose lifestyles you have no problem with; they are no test of your faith. It is only when somebody like a convicted sex offender, somebody who is reviled by society, arrives do they get the opportunity to really show what it means to be a progressive Christian. The people I spoke to kept coming back to the acts of Jesus and the stories of his interactions with the Samaritan woman (John 4, 1-42), tax collector (Matthew 9, 9-13) and those with disfiguring diseases (Luke 16, 19-31); Jesus was not afraid to embrace those rejected by society so neither must they.
3 – Progressive theology
I mentioned above that ministers used education classes to ease the transition of becoming Open and Affirming and it is by using such classes that they also disseminated and debated progressive theology. However, unlike more Fundamentalist churches, the aim of such classes is not to get everybody believing the same rigid dogma but to get members thinking for themselves and challenging orthodox6 theology, Christology and biblical scholarship (see Points 5 and 8 in Appendix 1).The fundamental principal of progressive theology and all intellectual activities is doubt (Newton & Williams, 2011) and not blind belief nor implicit acceptance of church doctrine.
6 I am aware that the terms ‘orthodox’ and ‘traditional’ suggest that non-progressive Christians share a single theology and doctrine which is clearly untrue. What I am alluding to with these terms, however, is the generally accepted foundations of most denominations including the divinity of Jesus Christ, the existence of God as the Father and creator, the salvation of humans through God’s grace and the death of Jesus on the cross, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the existence of heaven (and possibly hell) as a place where those saved will go upon their bodily death.
This questioning for the most radical progressives has resulted in a complete re-orientation of the traditional Christian discourse (Hall, 2011). The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the Son of God for the salvation of mankind would be a key doctrine to the vast majority of Christians. Yet progressive Christianity seeks to rid itself of any kind of soteriology and the related concepts of the Original Sin, guilt, judgement and inherent worthlessness of humans. They see these ideas as extremely negative, destructive and oppressive in the sense that they lead people to needlessly despise themselves sometimes leading to self-flagellation; one leader even felt that the promotion of such an ideology was the worst injustice committed by Christianity. Not content with the rejection of Christian soteriology, progressive leaders also seek to jettison traditional Christian eschatology; progressive leaders reject the view of heaven and hell as existing separately from and beyond this life. If they believe in such concepts it is in a very abstract way, more as states of mind which can be achieved in this life by anybody (see Sanguin, 2011; Plumer, 2011b; Lawton, 2011) so that ‘heaven’ can be found in this world by a variety of methods (see the section below on progressive spirituality).
Progressive theology goes even further in its rejection of orthodox Christian doctrine to the redefinition of both God and Jesus. In the same way that they cease to view heaven and hell as existing outside the universe, many progressives reject any theistic model of God preferring to see him as part of the universe thereby allowing us to touch the divine in this life. God is no longer the big man in the sky who controls the world, makes demands of us and can be petitioned. Prayer is now seen more as a therapeutic activity, a way finding the inner strength to solve our problems for ourselves. That God is the universe or the universe is part of God means that each of us is also in some small way sacred or even divine; we are all sons (or daughters) of God, which reinforces the emphasis on the inherent worth of human beings. The actual word ‘God’ has become an issue for progressives because of its theistic connotations and so there is no agreed label for this new concept which may reflect a wider confusion over what ‘God’ actually is to post-theistic Christians. This was shown in several of the churches by the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer which normally read “Our Father” but were replaced by one of the following:
“…” *a space was left for individuals to fill in the blank as they saw fit+
“Our Father, Our Mother”
“Divine Spirit” *the entire Lord’s Prayer was paraphrased by this church+
Although this may appear to be theological confusion what these differing labels point to is the freedom given to progressive Christians to form their own idea of what ‘God’ is to them and therefore the impossibility of finding a label that fits everybody’s perspective (hence the second replacement on the list above is probably the only way of pleasing everybody).
This view of God and the rejection of Christian soteriology and eschatology make it impossible for progressives to hold on to Jesus as the Son of God; he is, instead, seen as being fully human and only a son of God in the same way as we all are. This reversal of the outcome of the Arian controversy does not mean Jesus becomes a peripheral figure but he is transformed from a saviour to the ultimate human exemplar. Progressive Christians therefore use his life and teachings as a foundation upon which to base their lives and a way to experience ‘heaven’ on earth (see Point 1 in Appendix 1). However their idea of Jesus conflicts with the one built up by the New Testament, at least taken at face value. Consequently, progressive theology is complimented by progressive biblical scholarship which seeks to extract the true life and teachings of Jesus from the Bible (Plumer, 2011c) which was written by imperfect and ideological humans. The biblical scholarship considered most important by progressives is published by the Jesus Seminar which is a group of academics who examine the both canonical and non-canonical Gospels and other texts to find what they consider the authentic sayings and actions of Jesus. They consider most of the soteriology and eschatology present in the Gospels as being superimposed upon the story of Jesus’ life by later Christians especially St. Paul (Funk et al, 1993). The Jesus Seminar try to read the sources in context stripping away the original authors biases and removing later interpretations and additions. There is some criticism of the Jesus Seminar’s work suggesting that they only consider evidence for their own a priori theological positions (Pearson, 1995). But whether the theology or the biblical scholarship came first, is beyond the scope of this report; it is sufficient to note here that progressive Christians are attempting to redefine Christianity and are using what they consider academically rigorous and valid biblical scholarship (e.g. Borg, 1994; Crossan, 1994; Spong 1992) to back this up.
The main problem with examining progressive theology is that there is a huge range in the degrees to which members of progressive churches accept it. What I have described above is the most progressive interpretation of Christian orthodoxy and is generally the theology being pushed by the key protagonists of the movement. That is not to say that they are the only ones that hold such beliefs; with the help of the education classes the majority of the people I spoke to did seem to be heading towards or already at the same point as their leaders. Neither am I suggesting that they are unaware of the fact that certain members of their congregations hold contrary views; there is still reluctance by some members, and even by some ministers who were not at the forefront of the movement, to accept this new theology. The ministers of churches on the fringes of progressive Christianity usually accept progressive theology but are reluctant to force it upon their congregations lest it caused ruptures and conflict. They see their pastoral responsibilities as more important than getting people to reject their long-held beliefs concerning the nature of their religion. They thought they could do more if they didn’t rock the boat and instead introduced progressive ideas gradually. Other ministers took quite the opposite stance believing that congregations should be challenged and that it was somewhat hypocritical to believe one thing and preach another. These minsters were generally the ones more involved in the movement and so had a deeper understanding of the background of progressive scholarship and were more certain of its truth. These ministers generally pushed progressive theology onto their congregations believing its acceptance was the key to getting closer to ‘God’ and leading a fulfilling life. All of them used education classes and sermons to inform their congregants of the scholarship and rationale behind the rethinking of orthodox doctrine. All these ministers reported an enthusiastic reception by most of the congregation suggesting it was nowhere near as controversial as becoming ‘Open and Affirming’. In fact most reported that it actually empowered people and reinvigorated the church as a whole, believing this was due to getting people involved in their own religion, asking them what they thought and having them discuss various issues rather than standing in the pulpit every Sunday telling them what it is they should be believing. It may also have been the case, as a couple of the ministers I spoke to suggested, that the congregation is often more progressive than the minister thinks so that while he is still preaching about salvation they have already dropped it from their theology. Ministers, it was also alleged, tend to preach to those most vocal in the congregation and if those voices condemn certain aspects of progressive theology then the minister may well be reluctant to push it on the congregation as a whole.
Indeed, even in the churches where the minister had introduced progressive theology, there were some distinctly conservative members. Perhaps paradoxically some of the most conservative were LGBT members; this was usually due to them being brought up in Evangelical or Fundamentalist churches but then had been either pushed out or had left due to the homophobic views of such institutions. So they attended progressive churches almost as a necessity but still retained their conservative, literalist theology leading to the strange situation in which, whereas the rest of the congregation accepted them unconditionally and viewed them as a valuable human being, they saw themselves as inherently living in sin and requiring God’s grace to save them from eternal punishment. Between the two extremes is a spectrum of members who accept a varying amount of progressive theology but are not quite ready to let go completely of the traditional Christianity they were brought up with. In many denominations this range of belief and lack of full acceptance of what its leaders believe would be a huge issue but with progressive Christianity’s rejection of rigid doctrine there is little problem with it. However, most leaders of the movement did admit to a desire to get everybody to a point where, through their own personal explorations, they had realised the failures of orthodox Christianity and had fully accepted progressive theology.
There is also a huge importance placed on the role of myth by progressive Christians. This is not myth in the way the word is used in modern society, as a traditional but essentially untrue story, but in the way Joseph Campbell defines it:
These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don’t know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out for yourself. (Campbell, 1991)
Progressives believe that myth can point the way to a deeper truth, highlight life’s paradoxes and absurdities, and help make sense of the most important source of wisdom available to them, the Bible. Karen Armstrong (who is an honorary adviser to TCPC), in her popular book The Case for God (2009), notes that even from the early stages of Christianity the Bible was recognized as flawed in the literal sense mentioning one particular exegete, Origen (185-254 AD):
Indeed, Origen argued, the glaring anomalies and inconsistencies in scripture forced us to look beyond the literal sense. God had planted these “stumbling blocks and interruptions of the historical sense” to make us look deeper. These “impossibilities and incongruities … present a barrier to the reader and lead him to refuse to proceed along the pathway of the ordinary meaning.” (p.95)
These problems with the literal sense by no means reduce the value of the Bible, in fact by making Christians look deeper a more general and richer truth can be found. Progressive Christians hold much of the Old Testament and even important parts of the New Testament, such as the stories of the birth, death and resurrection (Searaven, 2011b) of Jesus, as myth. This does not reduce the importance or relevance of these stories, for instance Jesus’ resurrection is not seen as a historic fact but a metaphor for what can be achieved by Christians in this life; in the words of Fred Plumer (president of TCPC), “it is about dying to ourselves, (egocentric, self-centered, frightened selves) so that we might experience new birth, new life with a radical new way of seeing reality.” (Plumer, 2011d) So the myths contained in the Bible help progressives to understand the universe and the myriad problems life creates for those who experience it. Myths represent the struggle of previous generations with these problems and the ways they found to cope with them. If the Bible is taken literally, these deeper truths will be lost in a sea of strange and irrelevant stories of a people who lived in a very different world, several thousand years in the past.
4 – Progressive spirituality
To compliment the new theology progressives have developed new ways of experiencing their re-envisioned ‘God’ as well as borrowing methods from others (see Point 2 in Appendix 1). The general principal underpinning all of progressive spirituality is that this ‘God’ or divine spirit is not something separate from the universe but is on the contrary very much synonymous with it and integral to it. Spirituality then becomes about feeling the interconnectedness between all things, realising that everything shares a common source. It is also a journey into the unknown since we can never truly grasp the meaning or essence of this great mystery that is creation (Bennison, 2011). As mentioned above, this divine spirit is not a being that can be petitioned in prayer or even worshipped in the normal sense of the word. Worship to progressives is more a celebration of the universe and the oneness of all things; it is not about bowing down to an omnipotent being but about revelling in the majesty of life. Prayer is used by progressives as a way to work through issues in their lives, as a way to find inner courage or some other desired virtue and as a way of exploring existence through language. Realizing the limitations of language progressives use methods that go beyond words. The first of these is the arts especially music; since liturgy has been minimized in progressive services they tend to utilize music a lot more, usually still in the form of hymns but also including instrumentals, solo performances, popular contemporary music, chants and performances by young people sometimes involving dance. Some progressives also found poetry and visual art spiritually invigorating and one church even had a minister of art and communication and an art gallery on their premises. Many of the churches also created meditation groups sometimes borrowing from Buddhist and Hindu techniques. Buddhism, with its concept of Nirvana and emphasis on universal compassion, is an inspiration to progressives and indeed there is a great similarity between the Buddhist presentation of Buddha and the progressive view of Jesus; both taught unconditional compassion, provided a model for how to live one’s life and provided methods to experience the divine spirit in this life (if you accept the progressive non-eschatological interpretation of Jesus’ teachings). Social justice and compassionate works were also seen as ways of touching the divine and more generally living a compassionate life was seen as a good way to prepare oneself for experiencing oneness or unity with the universe (see Points 1 and 2 in Appendix 1).
One particularly extreme example of progressive spirituality is the so-called integral theory. The theory aims to “provide a conveyor belt for the evolution of consciousness from infancy to divinity, that is, from cradle to Christ-consciousness” (Thresher, 2009, p. xvi). The Christian element has been all but expunged within the Integral Church with only the main Sunday service retaining recognisable Christian elements in order to provide a familiar ‘base-camp’ from which to leave and explore one’s spirituality using whatever methods work for the individual. These methods are generally left completely up to the congregation and include various practices from other religions, especially again Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as various musical and rhythmic activities. One of the Integral Church’s proponents, Tom Thresher, in his book, goes as far as saying: “I do not worship Jesus nor to I seek to follow Jesus. I am only interested in what Jesus became and in becoming that” (ibid, p. xx). He also describes this type of spirituality as evolutionary Christianity instead of progressive Christianity, with the implicit suggestion that the former is more radical and moves beyond the latter. For those espousing evolutionary Christianity, progressive Christianity does not go far enough and is equated by many people with its emphasis on social justice and acceptance of the LGBT community and so a new label was thought to be needed to bring the emphasis back towards spirituality.
The reason progressive Christians have little issue with borrowing techniques from other religions is their belief that all religions are a search for the same divine experience just with different cultural masks (see Point 2 in Appendix 1). This universalism doesn’t necessarily mean that all forms of religion are seen as equally valid and any religion seen to share aspects of the hierarchical, dogmatic, exclusive, institutional Christianity the progressives have tried to escape is regarded as less useful than those that share the progressive values of tolerance, compassion, doubt and individual spirituality. Progressive Christianity can be seen as part of the ‘progressive milieu’ as noted by Gordon Lynch in his book The New Spirituality (2007). Lynch identifies a loose association across religions of progressives who hold similar values and share a common ideology which transcends their superficial differences. Therefore progressive Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Pagans agree that spirituality has to be individual and focused on the divinity or sacredness of this world, not looking beyond to some vague, unknown afterlife. These progressives share a belief in the worthiness of the self as essentially a manifestation of the divine but also reject any rigid or definitive construction of the divine preferring to revel in the mystery and ineffability of this divine spirit. This similarity was celebrated by progressive Christianity with ‘Pluralism Sunday’ when churches were encouraged to embrace this ecumenism which many did by inviting leaders from various other religions to preach or included non-Christian music and performances in their services; one church even celebrated Beltane, a feast day for the Celtic sun god, Bel (PluralismSunday.org, n.d.).
Part 2 – Progressive Christianity in Context
Modernity has raised many issues and challenges for institutional religion which have been faced in different ways. The challenges come from many aspects of modernity but include increasing pluralism making it harder for any one religion to claim absolute authority and truth; less respect for tradition with previous ways of living seen as outdated; increased mobility meaning people find it harder or less desirable to be tied to any institution; scientific and technological advances which seem to render religious scripture irrelevant or just plain wrong; a increased emphasis, created by modern science, on rationality making it harder for people to embrace the spiritual; functional differentiation across society pushing religion into its own separate realm where it once had control over all social institutions including politics, economics and family life; the increased importance of the individual over the community making the conformity and discipline of traditional religion unattractive; consumerism across people’s lives leading to the growth of a spiritual marketplace which reduces the importance and appeal of institutional religion. (Swatos and Olson, 2000)
These many challenges have caused different reactions across modern societies which have led to the large variety of religions and spiritualities that now characterize modern faith. The most written-about reaction is to dispense with religion completely leading to the belief that society is irreversibly secularising, a theory that is still hotly debated. Another reaction is the turn to spiritual innovations which would include the recent rise in various pagan religions and other holistic, esoteric spiritualities. But institutional religion has not disappeared completely and these institutions have reacted in one of two main ways. One way is to deny modernity, retain the authority over truth that religion has had in the past, decrying modern society as being wrong. This is the path taken by the most Fundamental and Evangelical denominations in America and elsewhere; for them modernity is the Godless enemy that must be fought. The other way for institutional religion to react is to embrace modernity and all it has to say about the world and life. Progressive Christianity would be an extreme example of this type of reaction since they have completely reinterpreted their religion to fit with modern discoveries and social trends. The picture is not as clear cut as this analysis would suggest and there is certainly a spectrum of reactions between these two extremes.
Progressive Christianity as part of the progressive milieu
Progressive Christians are not the only ones who have been rethinking their approach to their religion in recent times. As mentioned previously they have links to progressive Jewish and Muslim groups through various campaigns and ecumenical events. But this shift in religious thought goes beyond the traditional institutional religions and encompasses many of the pagan or ‘New Age’ religions and other general spiritualities that have arisen within the past couple of decades. Gordon Lynch (2007) calls this general movement the ‘progressive milieu’ as these different groups share many characteristics and views but lack formal links between and sometimes even within themselves. So the movement is trans-religious but it is not a mass movement and there are varying degrees of commitment to it within the various progressive groups and each group approaches what Lynch calls ‘progressive spirituality’ in their own way. That said he warns against seeing the movement as a collection of vague, incoherent, half-hearted spiritualities; there are definite points of agreement and a general ethos which can be said to guide the vast majority of adherents. This is not a dogmatic movement so there will always be wide variations but their similarities are more important to participants than their differences which largely result from the differing traditions out of which the movements have grown.
So what are the similarities between those thought to fall within this progressive milieu? The first major point of general agreement is in the rejection of the traditional idea of God as a transcendent authoritative father figure far removed from this plain of existence. Although they may express it differently members of the progressive milieu tend to think of ‘God’ as a divine ineffable and immanent spirit that is either identical to the universe or present within it. This makes nature at least sacred if not fully divine and leads to the idea of the unity of universe; we are all part of creation, all inextricably linked to the world and each other. It is no surprise, given these beliefs, that the vast majority of progressive groups emphasis environmental responsibility and campaign vociferously on green issues. Another effect of these beliefs is a spirituality that is focused on the self as a source of knowledge about the divine and a path to the experience of the unity of all things. Therefore meditation and the use of various performance arts (music, dancing and poetry) are seen as useful methods towards this process of personal exploration. Underlying this process of discovery, however, is the remembrance that the divine is shrouded by mystery and that, although we may for a moment touch something deeper than ourselves, we can never truly grasp the enormity of existence. This is both a call to a continuing search for ever deeper truth and a warning against imagining that we are somehow ‘God’ ourselves; we are part of the divine but the divine is much larger than any one of us. It is this sentiment which becomes the keystone of the progressive milieu’s morality. Since the self is seen as being sacred or divine any doctrines concerning the inherent worthlessness of humanity are jettisoned although, given we are each an insignificant part of the greater whole, we have to move beyond egotism and show love and compassion towards all creation especially our fellow human beings.
Imperatives behind the progressive movement
Lynch give four main imperatives that, he believes, lie behind the development of progressive spirituality. The first is that it is an attempt “to find new ways of religious thinking and new resources for spiritual growth and well-being that truly connect with people’s beliefs, values and experience in modern, liberal societies” (Lynch, 2007, p. 23). Institutional religion is seen variously as authoritarian, exclusivist, patriarchal and generally irrelevant, harking back to times of clerical domination and doctrinal rigidity. However secular society offers little in the way of an alternative with its arid, commercialized materialism so the quest for progressive spirituality is to find a middle ground. The second imperative for a new spirituality is the empowerment of women (I would also add the LGBT community) who have generally been seen as a lower class by the three Abrahamic religions. These religions are seen as inherently patriarchal (and homophobic) and so fail to meet the spiritual needs of women and others. This has led to an increase in the popularity of pagan religions focused on goddesses or emphasizing a maternal force in nature. The third imperative concerns the disjoint between contemporary scientific knowledge and the view of the world presented by the Bible, Torah or Quran. Progressive groups aim not only to create a faith that is consistent with modern science but actually uses its discoveries as an inspiration, a way to admire the universe more deeply. The fourth imperative is related to the third and concerns the ecological catastrophe many see as impending; what is required is a spirituality that embraces nature and emphasises our dependence on it and not one that sees humanity as being above nature. All these imperatives lead to the beliefs, described above, which underpin the progressive milieu.
Progressive Christianity clearly shares much with the progressive milieu and the imperatives driving it are also in evidence. Progressive Christians are constantly searching for new ways of experiencing ‘God’ borrowing from other religions or the arts. Progressive Christianity also addresses the spiritual needs of woman and the LGBT community by removing the idea of God as the Father and being ‘Open and Affirming’ not just with congregational membership but also with membership of the clergy. Progressive Christians as mentioned above also embrace modern science seeing it as part of the exploration into the divine universe. Lastly, they share the desire to reduce humanity’s impact on the natural environment. Where progressive Christianity differs slightly from the rest of the progressive milieu is in their continued use of formal institutions but this is discussed in more detail below.
Lynch also discusses the perceived demoralization of modern society whilst admitting the belief that people are becoming less civilised is hard to prove. He suggests that the theory usually results from a (possibly mistaken) view of the past as some golden age of civility or from a (possibly mistaken) view of the present as an age of iniquity. Evidence given in favor of this demoralization includes various rises in reported violent crime, suicide amongst young people, births outside marriage, rates of divorce and inequality. Whatever the truth of the matter there is a general perception among both academics and the public that things are not as they should be; there is a lot of talk by politicians in Britain about “broken society” especially after the recent riots in London and other cities (BBC, 2011b). The political right in America also bemoan the lack of morals in contemporary society (Fox, 2004, 2010 and 2011) although those on the left tend to be more circumspect (Huffington Post, 2011).
Many reasons are given for this apparent decline in moral values and Lynch lists four of the most popular among academics. The first is the liberal, expressive revolution of the 1960’s which resulted in the middle classes imposing their new social policies, created out of guilt for their relative wealth, onto the lower classes. But these policies, although proposed with the best of intentions, were harmful to the working class as they were based upon the values of tolerance and equality and ignored self-discipline and responsibility. Tolerance of other ways of living reduced moral force and certain actions, previously frown upon, became accepted as just idiosyncrasies of the individual. Equality, similarly, gives the belief to the working classes that they were naturally entitled to same level of wealth as their peers in the middle classes and so they refuse to do the hard work needed to move themselves up the social ladder and when wealth fails to come to them naturally they often turn to criminality instead. The second reason given for demoralization is the secularisation of society, a theory obviously popular with institutional religion. In this view churches and their congregations provided a moral upbringing that has not been replaced with the decline of attendance. The third reason blames capitalism and its attendant consumerism which turn people into materialists who lose the ability see the value of abstract morals. The last reason given is the over-reliance on rationality as a basis for life; but rationality cannot deal sufficiently with the things in life that are not rational, in particular emotions and relationships so those who rely too much on reason become unable to relate properly to others which inevitably results in disregarding or not being aware of others emotions.
Several progressive Christians that I talked to echoed the worry that society was becoming demoralised and several of ministers saw reversing this trend as one of the most important challenges for churches. One minister in particular bemoaned this lack of moral teaching in contemporary secular society which has lost, with the decrease in church attendance, the only source of this sort of guidance outside the family which itself is less stable than it was in the past. TCPC’s children’s curriculum is focused mostly on teaching young people how to be a better person and how to live in harmony with others. Being told how to live one’s life, however, is often given as one of the reasons why people dislike church as they do not like to be told they are living immorally or that living morally requires personal sacrifice. It may also seem to run counter to progressive Christianity’s liberal and tolerant ethos. But the reason why progressives see moral guidance as so important harks back to the first explanation given above for the demoralization of society. Since the 1960’s it has become clear to some people that liberalism and tolerance have their limits in that if everybody was left to do as they wish and their actions tolerated as an expression of their individual and cultural identity the world would descend into anarchy. The golden rule of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ demands that you temper your actions and desires in view of how they affect those around you and this is still the foundation of progressive Christian morality. What is the use of being free if that freedom makes life unliveable? Therefore, many progressive leaders believe, we need to find a way of instilling this morality within the next generation and the only institution seemingly willing to do so is the church. It can provide the required teaching and support as well as a community of good-natured people all of which helps socialize children hopefully making them better citizens in the future. The hurdle that needs clearing is convincing people that this is not a form of brainwashing, negating the individual; it is instead a lesson on how to live in a community and make life better for those around you and, in turn, for yourself.
The theory of secularization
The theory of secularization in the West has been around for several decades now but has repeatedly been called into question by various writers (e.g. Martin, 2005; Stark, 2000; Flanagan and Jupp, 1996). As noted by Swatos and Christiano (Swatos and Christiano, 2000), the term was originally coined, in a social science context, by Weber and was originally used to highlight the separation of church and state within European societies. It has since been defined very differently by various sociologists to the extent where it has become almost meaningless. Edward Bailey attempts to simplify this vagueness by stating that “its meaning keeps changing yet remains consistent. It always means, simply, the opposite of religious – whatever that means” (1998 cited in Swatos and Christiano, 2000, p. 5). Swatos and Christiano also note that the theory of secularization relies on historical evidence since it is a comparison between what people are thought to believe now and what they are thought to have believed in the past. The pair go on to question some of this evidence that suggests that people in the past were so devoutly religious and that people in the present are not. So the situation is not as simple as many assume; the Western world, and the USA in particular, are not about to become religion-free any time soon.
Steve Bruce (1996) examines the situation in the US and speculates as to why, on the surface at least, institutional religion seems to have maintained such a hold over the general population in contrast to the situation in Europe. He suggests one important factor was the separation of church and state. He echoes Alexis de Tocqueville’s (2000) proposition that the authority of Europe’s monarchs was supposedly God-given and so a revolt against those in power was also a revolt against the state religion so when the monarchs fell or were rendered impotent the power of religion was also broken. However, in the USA, Americans were able to express social dissent without questioning the authority of institutional religion. Bruce also suggests that the ethnic mix in the USA, caused by waves of immigration (often because of religious persecution at home), led to stronger identification with ethnic churches which held the community together in the new and foreign land. This identification became stronger with the racial divide that arose due to slavery as black churches and denominations multiplied after abolition. But Bruce also argues that the USA is becoming more secular, pointing to a large range of evidence including a decrease in the frequency with which people attend church, a decrease in the number of religious books published and theology degrees taken and a decrease in religious knowledge among church-goers. He also notes that the better educated elite which tend to run such social institutions as government departments and administration, education facilities, the media and big business are becoming more secular personally which affects their professional decisions.
Bruce goes further, arguing that religion itself is losing its religious content7; God is no longer an external omnipotent force but instead “some sort of vague power or our own conscience” (1996, p 144); the Bible is no longer the word of God but a guide for how to life one’s life; miracles are stripped of their supernatural power and explained away either as natural phenomena or as imaginations of ignorant peasants; Jesus has ceased to be seen as the Son of God and is now seen more as a moral teacher; heaven and hell are no longer considered as real places existing outside this reality. The result, Bruce says, is a Christianity that is easier to defend against modern scientific knowledge and which reduces the conflicts with other religions.
7 This trend is primarily reflected within Mainline denominations and not the more fundamentalist Evangelical ones although movements such as the Emergent church do reflect some of these changes. Bruce does discuss the secularisation of conservative Protestantism but this is outside the scope of this report.
This list of changes in religious doctrine is amply demonstrated within progressive Christianity but it is unclear whether this process will ultimately result in complete secularization as Bruce seems to imply. On the one hand there was plenty of evidence from my fieldwork to suggest it might; I met several people who described themselves as atheists and attended church irregularly and there was, generally, a distinct watering down and rejection of traditional Christian theology and doctrine. However, the people who have fully embraced the progressive movement and the attached theology and spirituality as well as those who still hold more traditional Christian beliefs show little sign of giving up on religion completely. The truly progressive Christians have created a faith that is consistent with modern scientific knowledge and secular values. This reason alone, however, would do little to keep them in the faith, it simply allows them to make sense of the modern world in a way that most fundamentalist interpretations do not. But progressive Christians also believe that they offer citizens of the modern world a life better and more wholesome than that offered by secular society. The dangers progressives believe are inherent in secular society include the rampant narcissistic commercialism and consumerism created by capitalism, the demoralization of society caused by the break down in family life and local communities and the cold hard rationalism which devalues emotion and diminishes the relevance of spirituality. Progressives believe that religion presents an alternative lifestyle which is richer, deeper and more in harmony with the universe and oneself. Some of leaders claim that Christian tradition holds timeless myths that can help people make sense of their lives and their place within it which they could never get from television. Church also provides a strong community giving people support in the hard times and the moralization of the next generation, teaching them how to live alongside others. Lastly progressive Christianity can also provide for people’s spiritual needs leading to better emotional control, reduced stress and even self-actualization and inner peace.
Bruce also suggests that Christianity, like so much else in modern society, has become more individualistic, as he puts it “religion as a relationship to the supernatural was replaced by religion as personal therapy” (1996, p. 144). Salvation is now sought in this life by the power of positive thinking and much of religion now is about personal, inner improvement and living a joyful life. This was a trend that was also predicted by Durkheim:
Originally, society is everything, the individual nothing … man is considered only an instrument in its hands … But gradually things change. As societies … increase in complexity, work is divided, individual differences multiply, and the moment approaches when the only remaining bond among the members of a single human group will be that they are all men. Under such conditions the body of collective sentiments inevitably attaches itself with all its strength to its single remaining object … Since human personality is the only thing that appeals unanimously to all hearts, since its enhancement is the only aim that can be collectively pursued, it inevitably acquires exceptional value in the eyes of all. It thus rises far above all human aims, assuming a religious nature. (1952 cited in Lynch 2007, p. 102-103)
Although this observation may apply to some Mainline churches the idea of a narcissistic, vague, almost vacuous Christianity seems at odds with what I experienced among progressive Christians. If anything community was the most important part of the church experience both within and beyond the congregation. This was made clear by the way churches welcomed new members and visitors, supported each other through life’s hardships and used their time to help the wider community. But as mentioned there is a individual aspect to progressive Christianity when it comes to theology and spirituality as they are free to choose the way they view God, Jesus and the attending doctrines and how they go about experiencing this ‘God’. Here, I believe, is a very important aspect of progressive Christianity which is not seen in many other institutional religions or more general spiritualities; institutional religion focuses on the community at the expense of the individual and the modern pagan religions and other general spiritualities focus on the individual often at the expense of a coherent stable community. Progressive Christianity has managed to separate the communal and individual aspects of religion allowing both to function alongside each other. At its base is an incredibly strong communal spirit of love and support which is manifested externally in social outreach and activism and in the practice of not withholding membership from anybody. On top of these foundations is the more individual theologies and spiritualities which are still explored as a community but upon which a consensus is not required. These individual aspects often reinforce the communal ones especially the progressive view of Jesus as a human exemplar of compassion and tolerance.
This structure of progressive Christianity affects the way its members negotiate their identities which seems to be an issue within the movement. Whereas most Christians would simply describe themselves as ‘Christian’, most of the progressives I talked to said that they had difficulty articulating their identity with most taking at least one sentence to describe their beliefs rather than just one word (see also TCPC article by Hambydammit, 2011). This, I believe, comes not from an uncertainty in what they believe or even a crisis in self-identity since most people I talked to did not appear to have problems constructing or communicating their worldview. Instead it seems to come from a lack of a suitable label for what they are partaking in. Although ‘progressive Christian’ may seem an obvious label to use it is not a well-known term outside the movement and so outsiders focus on the second word which is problematic because it lumps them in with the more numerous and more publicised Evangelicals and Fundamentalists; if they do use the word ‘Christian’ they usually feel the need to clarify their beliefs for fear somebody should mistake them as being from such denominations. Since progressives are free to construct their own theology, albeit with some prompting from their leaders, there cannot be one single label that fits all, but a lack of a unifying label does not necessarily mean a lack of a unifying identity. The unifying identity for progressives seems to rest not on what they believe but on the values upon which they base their lives. These values can be reduced to two from which all the rest flow; compassion and tolerance. These two values underpin the importance of community, the support this provides, the acceptance of anybody who wants to join and the importance of social outreach. But they also permeate the more individual aspects as tolerance demands respect for other’s beliefs which in turn gives progressives the licence to question traditional Christian doctrine and it is no coincidence that these are the values most attributed to Jesus by progressives. They also believe these values should permeate every aspect of their lives and see this as the best way of touching the divine within their lives. Compassion and tolerance, therefore, transcend any traditional barriers and have become more important to progressives than any other factors. This was demonstrated by the church that accepted a convicted sex offender into their church; by the minister who, after gently mocking him for his pronouncements, stated that she would not hesitate to invite Harold Camping (an Evangelical Christian who predicted the world would end on May 21st 2011) in for a coffee; by the minister who campaigned with Catholics over immigration policies despite their stance on homosexuality; by the church who invited infamous atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to a discussion; by the Pluralism Sunday events; by one church’s promotion of peace and reconciliation with Iran; by one minister’s desire to create a cafe for young people to use without any attempt to proselytise to them; and by the progressive Christians who set up a website (MicahsCall.org) in part aimed at creating a constructive dialogue with the Christian Right about issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
Another modification of the secularization theory comes from David Martin (2005). Instead of a linear transformation from the religious to the secular he sees history, or more specifically Christian history, as a series of cycles. Martin believes that the traditional idea of an unstoppable unilateral process of secularization relies on a history created by secularists, both within the social sciences and outside, which sees humans as gradually emerging from ignorance and superstition through the Enlightenment to a fully rational apogee which requires no religion or gods of any sort. Instead he posits that Christianity has gone through periodic changes or ‘Christianizations’ and that contemporary Christianity is currently experiencing the aftermath of one such a periodic change. These Christianizations are periods of increased fervour and Martin picks out four main ones:
I identify, first, a Catholic Christianization in two versions: the conversion of the monarchs (and so of peoples), and the conversion of the urban masses by the friars. I then identify a Protestant Christianization in two versions: one seeking to extent monasticism to all Christian people but effectively corralling then in the nation, and the other realized in the creation of evangelical and Pietist subcultures. (ibid, p. 3-4)
He believes that we are currently in the wake of the last of these Christianizations and, as with previous cycles, this entails a return to nature, this time reinforced by the Romantic Movement. This return to nature is mixed with the “individual heartwork and inward feeling” (ibid, p. 5) of the evangelical movement to create the current trends away from institutional religion towards more personal spiritualities and away from a transcendent God towards a more immanent one. The second of these trends is clear in progressive Christianity and the first is also present although not so obviously; it is manifest in the personal freedom surrounding progressive theology and spirituality. Although progressives are still usually part of a religious institution this institution no longer tells them what to think or do, it purely provides a supportive community of like-minded people. Martin’s theory of religious cycles seems to fit progressive Christianity better than the unilateral secularization theory since, although there are likely to be many Christians who believe progressives are no longer Christian, progressive Christians still treasure much of what the religion has to offer; if they did not they would simply drop it altogether and become secular humanists. Instead they are going to great lengths to create a coherent theology and biblical exegesis that fits with the way they see the modern world.
Spiritualities of dwelling and seeking
The shift of modern religion from institution to individual is also highlighted by Robert Wuthnow (1998); he suggests that since the 1950s religion has been gradually transforming from a ‘spirituality of dwelling’ to a ‘spirituality of seeking’:
A spirituality of dwelling emphasizes habitation: God occupies a definite place in the universe and creates a sacred space in which humans too can dwell; to inhabit sacred space is to know its territory and to feel secure. A spirituality of seeking emphasizes negotiation: individuals search for sacred moments that reinforce their conviction that the divine exists, but these moments are fleeting; rather than knowing the territory, people explore new spiritual vistas, and they may have to negotiate among complex and confusing meanings of spirituality.” (ibid, p. 4-5)
Progressive Christianity is certainly more a spirituality of seeking as the traditional idea of God as an omnipotent being separate from the universe and the view of the church as a sacred place where one can encounter this God are discarded. As already discusses ‘God’ to progressives is much more immanent in the universe and spirituality is more of a journey, or negotiation to use Wuthnow’s word, that can be undertaken by anybody, anywhere, either in a large group or on their own. I suggested above that progressive Christianity combines characteristics of both institutional religion and the more individual spiritualities of modernity and indeed it does. However the institutional side, the church building, congregation, communal social outreach is not essential to progressives. There are, according to one of the movement’s leaders, plenty of home groups and families practicing progressive Christianity without these aspects being present, at least physically (websites and online forums or message boards can provide some form of extended community). So progressive spirituality is one of seeking but this seeking can be done within a formal institution of several hundred people right down to a much smaller community of just a few individuals. Spiritual exploration could even be done by lone individuals but community and all the support that comes with it seemed to be one of the most important aspects of the religion to the people I spoke to; for some it was almost the only thing that kept them coming to church as they had become essentially atheist. So progressive Christianity consists of various aspects, some communal, some individual and these aspects have different weightings with each individual; some go for the community and not the theology, some hold on to the traditional Christian theology but enjoy the progressive’s tolerance, others still have embraced progressive theology and spirituality but are happy to explore this in a small group and there is a wide spectrum of people in between. It should not be taken from this that progressive Christianity is some sort of vague collection of people who are unsure about what they believe. As I mentioned above there is a solid core of life values, predominately compassion and tolerance but also of action and exploration; definitive truth is not on offer, but instead there is a continuous intellectual, physical and spiritual journey into life that requires one’s full participation and this is easier to achieve with the support of at least a few other progressive Christians.
There seems little doubt that progressive Christianity is part of the progressive milieu described by Lynch but it does nonetheless retain significant vestiges of the institutional religion out of which it has grown. The movement continues to use clearly identified church buildings with traditional layouts and, despite the lack of liturgy, relatively traditional services. Since the familiar is often comforting to people maybe these aspects allow people to keep some grounding in a religion which in other aspects, for instance theology and spirituality, has departed far from the orthodox. Their services do, however, contain hints of unorthodoxy particularly in the sermons which usually promoted progressive thought and each church had various idiosyncrasies that betrayed the congregation’s liberal leaning be it an adjusted Lord’s Prayer or the induction of a newly arrived gay couple.
I have tried to show through this report that progressive Christianity is no longer areligion based upon doctrine or belief; it relies instead upon values and faith. Should somebody decide to become a member of a progressive church they would not be required to conform theologically but they would be expected to uphold the same values, primarily compassion and tolerance, as every other member. This moral grounding is the essence of progressive Christianity and from this core flow all the other aspects of the movement; the social outreach and activism, the openness of membership, the tolerance of unorthodox theology and the individual explorations of the spiritual. These values unpin the ability to live in a community and so it is little surprise that progressives have created incredibly strong and supportive communities. I am aware that by emphasizing their community spirit I am inadvertently implying that this is unusual among Christians which is clearly untrue. I am sure there are plenty of strong communities of Evangelical Christians but the difference, I believe, is that community to progressives does not stop at the church door; it transcends their particular religious community to include the all people, everywhere. This is not to say that they would agree with all people but with those that do not agree with their worldview they would attempt to initiate a dialogue instead of trying to attack them. This is made possible by their renunciation of absolute and universal truth; their path to the divine spirit is no longer considered the only path, so long as others hold to their values of compassion and tolerance, theology and their spiritual methods really do not matter. This is an important shift since religion is usually thought to provide its adherents with meaning through a transcendent truth. Progressive Christianity, perhaps paradoxically, finds cerebral meaning in doubt and spiritual meaning in exploration. Theology is no longer about exploring concepts such as God, Christ and the Holy Spirit; instead it has become almost a science used to explore the life and works of Jesus, the human being. Spirituality is now used to explore God although this ‘God’ is very different from the one worshiped by other Christians and is shrouded in mystery. Progressive Christianity stills offers people a way of moving beyond everyday life but can only offer possible spiritual paths with little concept of the destination.
It is, however, difficult to say what the progressive movement implies for the future of religion. Both progressive Christianity and other groups within the progressive milieu are currently small scale and their insistence on individuals finding their own way suggest an inability to upscale in the way Evangelicals have done with their ‘mega-churches’. If anything progressive Christians are heading the other way, creating resources for home groups and individual families. But then maybe religion is destined to be pushed into the private life of it participants and performed purely on a small-scale without the need for dedicated buildings or clergy. Perhaps this will be the end result of the ever-increasing pluralism that has marked the modern world.
Secularization as long been derided as a theory but there is no doubt that progressive Christianity is less religious than its predecessors. At least it is if the word ‘religious’ is taken to mean a commitment to a traditional doctrine and an exclusive, transcendent truth and frequent attendance at a designated place of worship. However, if it is taken to mean a desire to move beyond the everyday world in an attempt to experience something deeper and a commitment to show particular moral values in every aspect of one’s life then it could be argued that progressive Christianity is more religious and definitely not a watering down. Bruce’s argument that religion was becoming less religious no doubt applies to the progressives who have moved more towards atheism. It could also be argued that progressive theology is a watering-down of Christian doctrine by normalizing it to fit with modern science. But for those at the forefront of the movement the decreasing importance of theology has been replaced by large increase in the importance of spirituality and the way life is lived. As Armstrong shows in her book, before the Enlightenment, religion was all about action and mysticism not dogma and absolute truth so it seems as if maybe progressive Christians have returned to a type of Christianity that has previously existed. This apparent cycle is reminiscent of Martin’s Christianizations so maybe progressive Christianity is simply the newest phase in the religion’s long history. Unfortunately, despite the commitment of its current members, the movement’s failure so far to attract the next generation looks likely to lead to its demise within the next few decades unless they can find a way of convincing young people that they have something to offer them. I have no doubt other groups in the progressive milieu will endure at least for the foreseeable future but they may continue their journey without any progressive Christianity; and, personally, I think that would be a great shame.
Appendix 1 – The 8 Points
By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who…
Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life
By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who…
Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey
By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who…
Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to:
. Conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
. Believers and agnostics,
. Women and men,
. Those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
. Those of all classes and abilities
By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who…
Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe
By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who…
Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes
By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who…
Strive for peace and justice among all people
By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who…
Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth
By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who…
Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.
Source – TCPC website (date unknown) About Us: The 8 Points
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