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Prayer and Progressive Christianity


Question and Answer


John from Adelaide, Australia writes:

I am puzzled about prayer in the context of Progressive Christianity which has replaced the interventionist God “up there” (or “out there”) with the God within. The typical conventional church service liturgy invariably includes an intercessions segment. What meaning does this segment have in the context of progressive thinking? Should it be abandoned?


Watch Joran’s video answer or read his answer below:

These are great questions, John, and I’ll do my best to answer them from my perspective.

I think the idea that the “interventionist God” has been replaced should be challenged a bit. I’m an integralist, so I believe that all these religions and faith traditions exist along a spectrum. We have the more traditional, conformist and tribal expressions on one end of the spectrum. We have the modern and post-modern expressions of faith in the middle. And we have the progressive, mystical and unitive expressions elsewhere along the spectrum. I believe that we transcend and include as we move through these stages, so I think that somewhere — as a foundation — within us, that interventionist God still lives.

I also think that one of the privileges and responsibilities of religion is to carry forward these hugely important stories that we’ve been given. And that interventionist God has historically been a central part of these stories.

I don’t think that all Progressive Christians would say that they’ve “replaced” the interventionist God with the “God within.” (Though they very well may have replaced the method of reading these stories about Him in a literal sense). I think that most of them are going to describe that God differently than their neighbor — whether they’re using different language when it comes to gender, or describing their personal encounter with God from their own perspective.

I think that somewhere within us (and amongst us), that doting (and wrathful), Creator/Father God exists. We may have relegated Him to the domain of our conscience or only call on him when we get cut off in traffic or when we experience pain and suffering, but we are sometimes just as quick to pick up those intercessionary prayers as those that inhabit other areas of the religious spectrum. So, I don’t think that we’ve abandoned that God entirely. I think that we’ve transcended (and included) that [idea of] God in what I hope to be healthy ways.

In response to the second part of your question (about the intercession segment of church service and the meaning this has in the context of progressive thinking), the meaning that those intercessionary prayers are going to have for you as an individual is going to be dependent on (and based on) your relationship with God.

I always go back to Martin Buber’s I and Thou (written in 1923). Buber argues that the “I” takes on a qualitatively different form when you are addressing, appealing to or communicating with Spirit (the ultimate Thou or Other). I believe that to be true. I believe that intercessionary prayers are just as important as prayers of praise, worship, affirmation, devotion and thanksgiving. I think that it’s important to have the entire toolbox at your disposal — not just the hammer or the screwdriver. I also believe that the relational dimension of God is something that you can’t put down, replace or outgrow.

You can focus on the God within or the “I am” through meditation or contemplative prayer. You can focus on the God that is found in “it” — in all things everywhere (nature, the Cosmos, life becoming aware of itself through its own unfolding). But we can’t neglect or lose focus on the God that is “we” — that relational experience (or encounter) with the Divine. For me, this is prayer, and I don’t think it should be abandoned. I think it’s woven into the fabric of the God experience in every moment of every day.

Do religious institutions need to change the way they approach [prayer (or the God experience)]? Sure. Absolutely. And hopefully those still inside the institutions can begin to make those small changes from within. Hopefully the rest of us get to see those changes and innovations made for the betterment of the community — and the future and scalability of that institution. But do we need to abandon [elements of our religion] that are long held because some of the community describes them in different language or experiences them in different ways? I don’t think so.

We need to hold onto them and turn them over in our hands until they are smooth like stones. Then we may have a deeper understanding of them and be able to integrate them in new and different ways.

~ Joran Slane Oppelt

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author

Joran Slane Oppelt is an international speaker, author, interfaith minister, life coach and award-winning singer/songwriter. He is the owner of the Metta Center of St. Petersburg and founder of the Integral Church. Joran is the author of SentencesThe Mountain and the Snow and co-author of Order of the Sacred Earth (with Matthew Fox) and Integral Church: A Handbook for New Spiritual Communities. Joran holds certificates in Religious Literacy (Harvard Online) and Sacred Storytelling (Multifaith Storytelling Institute). He serves as President of Interfaith Tampa Bay and Ambassador of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. He has spoken around the world about spirituality and the innovation of religion.

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