The Eight Points By Which Progressive Christianity Has Been Defined

INTRODUCTION

I am happy and privileged to have been invited by Gordon to respond here to the Eight Points. I want to say thank you, Gordon, for continually taking risks for the sake of the kingdom! I also want to welcome Jim [Adams] to Ireland, and hope it will be the beginning of much fruitful bridge-building.

My aim in working out this response has been to contribute to a dialogue on meaning, intention and purpose. TCPC is impressive, to me, in the dream to which it is working, and in the creativity which is evident in its processes. I intend to offer some critical reflections which I see as starting points for ongoing conversation.

My response is, of necessity, from the perspective of my discipline, that is, Practical Theology, and from the perspective of the faith, values and beliefs which guide my life. These latter find their starting point, first through historical accident, and later from (not uncritical) conviction, within the Roman Catholic tradition.

The task of Practical Theology can be presented as that of continually seeking mediatory paths, by means of mutual critical dialogue, not only between the contexts, texts and praxis of the Christian faith, but also between such polarities as life and structure, charism and institution, text and interpretation, faith and certainty, between the substantive and the functional in matters of religion, between belief and practice…

Reflection on our experience makes us aware that we live, always, within the tension between these and many more seeming opposites. Here lies the source of our psychic and spiritual energy. Psychologists tell us that without a certain amount of stress our lives would grind down under the weight of their own inertia. On a lighter note I am reminded of a pot-shot card in circulation some years ago, which under a clever line drawing of a rather hassled individual, carried the caption: please don’t try to relax me, my tensions are holding me together!

How we handle our ‘in-between’ condition, it seems to me, is crucial not only to our own well-being, but also to the dispositions we take up towards the other, towards the institutions through which our life is ordered, towards cultural and religious inheritances (our own and others), and towards the natural environment within which we are sustained. If we accept the provisional nature of our worldview at any point in time, we will be well placed to recognise without trauma, but rather in a spirit of adventure that, as Irish missiologist Dr Thomas Grenham puts it ‘the message of what Christians call gospel is universal’.

The fundamental temptation, however it is construed socially or religiously, must surely be to follow our deep-seated desire to escape from the uncertainties of our human condition, our predicament, into the security of absolute definition. Our own stories easily become normative for us, and our church then becomes the kingdom. The antidote, I believe, is a continual commitment to review the sources, processes and validity for now of our interpretations.

I welcome the inspiration behind the Eight Points. To mine the wisdom of the Christian tradition as we try to reach beyond dogmatism and division, beyond prejudice and power-play, beyond war and destruction, is a project dear to my heart. The ‘toxic combination of religion and violence’ (Robert Schreiter) is too much with us. It will only be neutralised through dialogue.

The mission of dialogue emerged strongly within the Roman Catholic tradition at its best after Vatican II. It continues to inspire our missionary societies as they review their praxis. I refer you, for example, to the website of the Columban Misisionary Society, www.columban.org.au. We are struggling in Ireland to revision ourselves and our mission in dialogical terms, within a cultural and religious pluralism which is still taking us by surprise. Our difficulty is bound up with our history, but that is a topic for another day.

Commitment to dialogue is what will take us through the doctrinal matrix to which our various traditions have given rise. I believe this is an essential route to the stated goals of TCPC. If, in any way, the points look like they are attempting to draw us back to some ‘least common denominator’ then I believe they will do less than justice to the Christian message.

SOME DIALOGUES ARISING FROM THE EIGHT POINTS: OUTLINES

Proclaiming Jesus Christ as our gate to the realm of God.

The image of the gate resonates to our human need for defined spaces, but as a spatial metaphor it also admits of ‘insider/outsider’ thinking. I would suggest that we must always recognised that the central mystery will never be completely captured in one image, any more than it can be represented in a creed, code or cult.

The intention of revisiting the idea of Jesus as saviour, as well as theologies of atonement, etc. which owe much to the feudal context of Anselm is to be welcomed. I would, however, question the possibility of ‘deleting the need for traditional saviour language’. Can we not address the need, rather, and address how that need is consciously/unconsciously influencing our interpretative processes.


Recognising the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the gateway to God’s realm.

The recognition that the claim to ‘special access’ has lead to strange and unacceptable consequences is crucial in our day. The model of Jesus’ own ‘openness and pluralism’ critiques the tendency to make this claim.

The dilemma for Christians has always been: can we believe that the Christian revelation is definitive, and yet recognise that it is the same God whom the peoples of the world have sought and worshipped from time immemorial. There is a strong temptation to become exclusive because we value our own tradition.

While believing that we as Christians do not need to search further for a ground of faith, we do stand to be greatly enriched and have our horizons broadened through dialogue.

Moreover, dialogues of mutual respect are, in my view, the only justifiable approach to evangelisation.

Understanding our sharing of bread and wine in Jesus’ name as a representation of God’s feast for all peoples

Open tables represent open hearts – the biblical imagery is strong here. The pain of division is felt most acutely when full communion is not possible.

In my view, Christians coming together across denominations do well to simply share the love feast, commit to working together in mission and not impose one another’s understandings of their respective rituals.

Inviting all sorts and conditions of people to join in our worship and in our common life as full partners

On a first reading, who can say no?

Examined more critically, however, I suggest questions arise. What is ‘common life?’ what is a ‘community at worship’? ( I am reminded here of Rahner’s idea of ‘anonymous Christians’ – intended by him as the highest compliment, but sometimes interpreted beyond the Christian community as invasive and imperialist.)

Theologically speaking, sharing the worship implies sharing the faith. This, I would hold, is not an arbitrary requirement which can be removed.

Perhaps what this 4th point carries is the conviction that progressive churches will not presume to judge the fitness of any to participate in Christian worship. Neither should they try to impose belief.

A community at worship should of course reflect in its styles and its music the cultures and orientations present in the community – as a liturgist friend of mine is fond of saying about people who take public ministries in the liturgical gathering: ‘they should look like all of us’.

The vision of all-inclusive community is certainly a biblical one – the parousia. Meanwhile we live between times – when the church is called to be ‘midwife of the kingdom’. By ‘church’ here I mean the community of those who follow Jesus. What do we think church is which makes membership so important, coveted, crucial?

I am not sure that it is necessary or even helpful to blur the boundary between belief and non-belief. The ministry of reconciliation is not served by reducing cultural and religious diversity to common ground. Rather, I hold that we will move closer together and progress our Christian mission through deep recognition of the other.

By contrast:

We can demonise the other as someone to be feared and eliminated
We can romanticise the other, treating the other as superior to ourselves
We can colonise the other, treating the other as inferior to ourselves
We can generalise the other, treating them as non-individuals and denying them personal identity
We can trivialise the other, treating the other as different from ourselves but only in unimportant matters
We can homogenise the other claiming that there really is no difference
We can vaporise the other, refusing to acknowledge the presence of the other at all

(Robert Schreiter)

Thinking that the way we treat one another and other people is more imporant than the way we express our beliefs

Actions speak louder than words, it is true. But do we not need to continually mediate, within ourselves, between what we do and why we do it? Surely what we seek is integration of belief and practice. Dialogues between Christians on how they progress towards this ideal can be very helpful.

Finding more grace in the search for meaning than in absolute certainty, in the questions than in the answers

No doubt! The tension between faith and certainty will always be with us. In dialogue we can continue to critique the sources, processes and validity of our interpretation of Christian faith and mission.

Seeing ourselves as a spiritual community in which we discover the resources required for our work in the world.

On our own we are limited and even subject to delusion. In the Christian community, we may believe, are all the gifts the Spirit gives for the mission of God here and now – the mission of justice, healing, wholeness, hope. Don Neumann, catholic liturgist, says ‘it is not so much that the church has a mission, but that the mission of God has a Church’.

‘Progressive Christians are willing to engage the tensions of these ideals because we admit to the limitations of our perspectives and have faith in the mysteries of God’s creation. We dare to engage the ambiguities with compassion because we suspect that God’s truth is somewhere in the midst of them.’ (Study Guide, p. 16)

For me, this is the most significant paragraph in the whole document. Constructive dialogues will bring to realisation just how powerfully the spirit moves within true community which finds unity through compassion.

Recognising that our faith entails costly discipleship, renunciation of privilege, and conscientious resistance to evil – as has always been the tradition of the church.

The question of internal consistency arises: what faith? Who, really, do we say Jesus is? What do we profess, and how does it show? We witness to what we truly believe.

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