Progressive writers point out quite rightly that when we try to introduce people to faith, the starting point has to be where people are and not where we would like them to be. All too often the message given by preachers has been: “Just get to where I am, by believing what I tell you to believe, and you’ll be all right.” Convinced that they have found the only safe route to salvation, they want people to walk in their footprints. If we reject this approach and want to empower people to follow their own spiritual journeys from where they are, how do we give them a sense of direction or support them in this?
A high proportion of people in Europe today and increasingly in the USA cannot accept that a God of love would require a blood sacrifice or horrific execution (even of himself (?)) to satisfy his sense of justice before he could forgive people or that everything that happens is subject to the all-powerful God who generated the universe and every living creature in one short creative act. So they find themselves outside traditional Christianity. But where exactly are they spiritually? What is their starting point? They are all different, of course; but where are the bulk of them?
I suspect that most of those currently embracing the progressive Christian paradigm are people who have been brought up within conventional Christianity but have outgrown the images of God from their childhood. They are reasonably well acquainted with the bible and with stories of Jesus and with at least basic theological concepts. Many may still attend a church within one of the traditional Christian denominations, though not without holding reservations about much of what is taught there. The new paradigm is a good way forward for people with this background, and they are the kind of people who will search out progressive Christian websites or read books on progressive theology. They are looking to move their existing faith forward.
The vast majority of those today rejecting traditional Christianity, or simply ignoring it as irrelevant to their lives, don’t have this background, however; they are part of the great mass of the “unchurched”. They may know the Christmas story from having taken part in a nativity play but they may well have only a very sketchy knowledge of what Easter is all about. They don’t know what a spiritual journey is; though many do have a deep spiritual hunger. Is progressive Christianity just for those with a Christian background or is it also for these people? Do we have to wait until they have tried and moved beyond traditional Christianity or do we approach them directly now? If so, how do we connect with these people? What’s the first step for them to take and how do we encourage them and empower them to take it?
I am not sure how successful we will be if we talk to them about concepts of God, unless, of course, they bring up that word. The term “God”, which we may use as shorthand for the highest things we experience, carries all kinds of connotations for many people of an all-powerful being enthroned above the sky in a kind of cosmic control room, who intervenes rather arbitrarily in human affairs. On the other hand, people do understand love, hope, joy, peace and creativity, particularly where they see them being practised. They can appreciate what liberates them from a pre-occupation with their personal affairs, from a pursuit of pleasure and from the cancer of consumerism, and raises them to a level where they gain self-fulfilment from contributing to the well-being of others. These surely are the foundations which we have to strengthen and on which we have to build.
Some 25 years ago the then Bishop of London was threatening to split the Anglican Church if women vicars were ever appointed – which he declared to be against biblical teaching. While the berobed bishops were debating this theological issue at great length and generating a lot of heat over it, a scruffy, foul-mouthed pop star, Bob Geldof, got very passionate about the suffering caused by the Ethiopian famine. “If you care, why are you waiting while children die? Give us your mucky money now.” (Except he didn’t say “mucky”). The tremendous response this received showed that underneath the prevailing self-centredness that was infecting the society of the day (including the church with its emphasis on personal salvation) there was a largely untapped spirituality that was ready to respond to the right stimulus. How do we today get through to those disaffected with, or disregarding of, religion, capture their attention and motivate them? Surely, not by discussing theology.
To use a military analogy, the danger is that we will waste much of our time, energy and resources trying to breach the Maginot Line1 of traditional church teaching. Theological battles will not get us very far because those whose power and influence come from traditional teaching will defend it vigorously and they are entrenched behind bastions built up over centuries. Their ranks include those who are passionately convinced that certain doctrines are the key to salvation and that to give ground is to betray all that is holy. If we are to make an impact on the general public, we have to find a route round the controversies and get directly to the people who need a new vision of what life is about. How we do that seems to me to be a prime challenge for progressive Christianity.
Rather than becoming embroiled in disputes over doctrines, we need to change the agenda. Faith has to be seen as being more about disturbing this world than explaining God’s plans for a new earth; more about bringing heaven down to earth than trying to obtain a ticket into heaven; more about how we treat one another than relationships within the Trinity; more about values than doctrines; more about promoting justice here on earth than fear of God’s judgement; more about acts of love than condemning sin; more about service than worship; more about healing and wholeness than substitutionary blood sacrifices; more about allowing ourselves to be spent for others than getting ourselves saved; and more about what you are as a person than what you believe.
One way forward might be to encourage people to become involved with something like the Charter for Compassion that goes beyond the specifics on any one religion. That would enable us to develop a shared purpose and a shared language within which we could answer questions that arose about spiritual matters. If we can people motivate people to make a contribution to transforming our world, we are more likely to be able to interest them in being transformed themselves. On a practical local level this may mean encouraging them to participate in community ventures and charities.
Of course, with few of us in a position to command the media attention of a Geldof, changing the spiritual agenda and motivating disinterested people might seem a daunting task. But you don’t have to heave at a huge rock to start a landslide. If you generate movement in a few small stones, which then take other stones with them, you can create the same effect. Faith is often shared best on a one to one basis. Opportunities for that come, when we have earned the right to share our faith. (Actions and attitudes are worth a hundred sermons.) Of course, if we don’t deal in certainties, the question arises of what we are to share. One answer, perhaps a simplistic one, is that we share ourselves, complete with all our questions and doubts, our hopes and dreams.
© Philip Sudworth 2010
1 The Maginot Line was a heavily fortified defensive line of concrete bunkers and gun emplacements which France constructed along its borders with Germany and Italy in the run-up to World War 2.