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;
Pluralism is a reality and it always has been. Diversity is built into the nature of life, whether in flora, fauna, or religious experience. Today, the diversity of religious and cultural experience shapes virtually everything we do. Every congregation and Christian lives with diversity: some deny, some evade, some attack, and others embrace the unavoidable and often blessed diversity of life.
Many people of faith believe that diversity is a fall from grace. They assert that we are intended the confess the same doctrines and follow similar practices. They proclaim that fundamental differences in religious practice, experience, or doctrine mean that somebody must be wrong, and typically the judgment is that “we are right!”
I recall a student asserting, during a retreat for university students, the following: “My parents are good people and I love them. But, they don’t believe in Jesus. If they don’t find the truth, they’ll end up in hell with a lot of other good people – Gandhi, Buddha, and Mohammed.” If you don’t affirm particular statements of faith or have an obvious born-again experience, then your very soul is in jeopardy!
On the other hand, some people believe all faith traditions are paths up the same mountain. Beneath the exterior dogmas and rituals, they really are saying the same thing about human nature and potential. While this approach is hospitable and charitable to otherness, this charity is bought at the price of denying pluralism and uniqueness. It doesn’t do justice to the real philosophical and practical differences among the religious movements of our time. Openness to the “holy other” calls upon us to accept and affirm difference, and explore the uniqueness of our own and other religious pathways.
Progressive Christians need to articulate a fluid, yet insightful, theology of world religions and revelation. Once again, I draw on the resources of a practical, accessible, and insightful vision of process theology. Put briefly, religious diversity is the gift of a generous and non-competitive God. Progressive Christianity proclaims that God’s witness is everywhere. Inspiration is global and not just local. Truth is universal not just parochial. Inspiration, revelation, and truth are, moreover, contextual and time and culture bound. God inspires all of us, each moment of the day – and people from every culture throughout the ages – but this inspiration emerges historically and contextually. Images of human possibility, ultimate reality, and human destiny may profoundly differ as a result of the dynamic interplay of divine call and human response. Revelation is global but we have the freedom shape revelation – as we do past experiences – in light of our own time, place, and spiritual emphases.
The one light shines through a moving prism, reflecting its wonder and beauty in myriad ways. Changing as the prism moves, and arising in a moving world. The one light is manifold in spectrum: it reveals itself differently in different contexts. The One whose wisdom brings forth the color purple brings forth the many hues of religious experience, all of which are finite, unfinished, and imperfect as well as inspirational and transformational.
As Christians, we proclaim the unique and life-transforming message of the Hebraic prophets, the healer and teacher Jesus, and Jesus’ ongoing and life-giving impact on the world, most especially within the many streams of Christianity. In our quest to dialog and grow in relationship to religious and cultural diversity, we need, first of all, to remember that Christianity itself is diverse. A diversity of gospels was accepted by the early church along with the contrasting faith orientations of Paul and James, and the synoptic (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and John’s gospel. Over centuries many types of Christianity have emerged and still are emerging. At first, many streams were neglected, marginalized, and even declared heretical. Some of the paths not taken such as those of Pelagius and certain of the Gnostic gospels, are being rediscovered and are enriching our experience as Christians. We are learning from the many, sometimes previously-warring, paths of our own faith tradition – Calvinist understandings of the sovereignty of God and its vision of the world as a theatre of God’s glory is now growing in communication with the Wesleyan emphasis on human responsiveness to God’s call. Celtic spirituality and the wisdom of Pelagius are awakening us to the beauty of the earth, the inherent goodness of humankind, and our ability to respond freely and positively to God’s grace.
World Christianity and the growth of indigenous churches invite us to see our own faith as evolving. We can learn from evangelicals and Pentecostals as well as liberalism, liberation theology, and the social gospel.
Our proclamation of Jesus as Christ calls us to experience God’s revelation in every pathway that brings truth, healing, and growth to humankind. God moves diversely and personally. God’s vision embraces many pathways. God’s inspiration is many-faceted. One of my teachers, Bernard Loomer spoke of stature as an important spiritual virtue. Stature or size involves our ability to embrace as much reality as possible without losing our own personal center. Today, in that spirit, we seek a centered and fluid pluralism. Our own growing and fluid faith grows as we encounter other faiths. Process is the nature of reality, and process embraces diversity in the evolutionary journey of humankind and planet Earth.
Practically speaking, we progressives need to do our theological and spiritual homework. Pluralism calls us to be more, rather than less, theologically grounded. We need to claim our own truths and history as a prerequisite for interreligious dialogue. Generic Christianity or unfocussed progressivism, more certain about what it doesn’t believe than its own affirmations, makes a poor dialogue partner and does a disservice to our own faith as well as the faiths of others.
Encountering other religions creatively requires us to take our own tradition’s beliefs and practices seriously. We need to articulate progressive theologies that describe God in ways that affirm:
We also need to develop progressive spiritual practices that embody our vision and enable us to be more open to God’s movements in our lives and the world. Our spiritual practice has often lagged behind our prophetic social involvement. Both action and contemplation are necessary for a growing, world-healing faith.
Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and so can we! Jesus’ own journey embraced otherness, and so can ours. We can grow as progressive Christians in sincere and deep conversations with practitioners of other faith traditions. Embracing their wisdom, we will discover new ways of imagining the world and practices that can shape our own spiritual journeys. Divine revelation calls us to such spiritual stature and to a humble affirmation that the God dynamically present in Jesus is generously moving our lives and in the lives of people from other faiths.
(For more on progressive Christian practices, see Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Age, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality in a Postmodern Age, and God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; Marjorie Suchocki, Living in the Presence; Jay McDaniel , Living from the Center; Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us; Dorothy Bass, editor, Practicing our Faith.)
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.