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Progressive Christianity – What is it?

I attend St. David’s United Church in Woodstock, Ontario. Our minister was away on July 6th and I was asked to take the service. I jokingly said “I should preach on Progressive Christianity”, and she said “Go for it!”.

Our congregation has a diverse mixture of theological conservatives at one of the spectrum and a few “progressives” in a study group at the other end, and the rest of the congregation in the middle. I think we are a typical United Church congregation in that regard. We are trying to build an attitude that celebrates and honours the diversity in the congregation.

Most of them had never heard of Progressive Christianity, so I was a bit nervous how it would go over. But in the end I think I got it right and the service went very well. Progressive Christianity is such a big subject that there is no way in less than 20 minutes that I could begin to cover it all. I also wanted the message to tie in to concepts they were already familiar with, and I wanted to make it somewhat inspirational as well as explanatory. So I narrowed my explanation of Progressive Christianity down to just 3 points.

Also I made a personal decision NOT to make any specific God references in the prayers or hymns just to see if anyone would notice. It was interesting that nobody did notice, and several told me that the service was spiritually uplifting.

I don’t think the sermon said anything too radical (other than opening with some words by George Carlin), and you will notice near the end I tried to indicate that Progressive Christianity had pretty well the same values as “regular” Christianity. I tempered my words somewhat so as not to shock too much, and to fit in with where people were coming from. I was pleased to at least raise consciousness a bit and tried to emphasize that the kind of diversity we had in our congregation was healthy and should be celebrated.

This sermon is not the definitive description of Progressive Christianity because I only looked at 3 aspects of it. And I am sure some would say I went too far and others would say I didn’t go far enough. However I think it was just exactly right for my congregation.

Progressive Christianity – What is It?
Sermon by Doug Richards – July 6, 2008

The controversial comedian George Carlin died last week. One of the things he is best known for is his parody of religion: It goes like this:

“Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man — living in the sky — who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time!

But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, [but] somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. ”

This is of course is a caricature of the kind of religion you see promoted by the television evangelists. But unfortunately it is an image of Christianity that rings true for many unchurched people. It seems that whenever religion hits the news, it is either for a sex scandal or a story of abuse, or for some wild pronouncement by the religious right made by a radical fundamentalist preacher like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.

It is this bad press and this mockery of Christianity that has turned so many people away. The movement called “Progressive Christianity” began in the United States in 1994 as a liberal reaction against this perception of Christianity, and in response to the enormous power of the conservative “religious right” which was so dominant in American political life. The Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity was founded in 2004, and I have been a member since its beginning.

I know that some people react negatively to the word “progressive” because they think that to call ourselves “progressive” implies that everybody else is not progressive. That is not intended of course, but we are stuck with the label now until a better one comes along. So for that I apologize.

Progressive Christianity is a very broad movement covering a range of ideas and perspectives, but for purposes of this sermon I will look at just three of their most important principles:

1. We strive for Open Mindedness and Intellectual Honesty

2. We affirm that Values and Behaviour are more important than Beliefs or Doctrines

3. We seek to build Community based on Love and Acceptance

So let’s look at the first principle: Open Mindedness and Intellectual Honesty

At the entrance to the library of the Virginia Theological Seminary there is a plaque that reads “Seek the Truth, Come Whence it May, Cost What it Will”.

And one of the 8 foundational points of The Center for Progressive Christianity is [and I quote]: “We are Christians who find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty – more value in questioning than in absolutes. “ [end quote]

We should never be afraid to question any aspect of the faith, and any church doctrine or dogma, nor fear any answer. Nothing is off limits. Don’t be afraid to challenge any facet of church liturgy, or any of the things the church does, especially if has no meaning for you. Do not be afraid to use the tools of biblical and historical scholarship when looking at God, the Bible, Jesus and what has shaped Christianity today.

History has taught us well that no single person, no single Christian denomination, and no single religious tradition has an absolute monopoly on “the truth”. We must each walk our own path and seek our own truth with as much integrity was we can muster.

And fortunately, the church will no longer put you to death when you question religious dogma, beliefs, rituals, creeds written 16 centuries ago, the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, or whether the Bible is the inerrant word of God. At least we won’t put you to death at St. David’s, although we may exile you to a study group!

People who call themselves “Progressives” are just ordinary people like you and I, but whose nature it is to doubt and to question, and are driven to search for answers that are meaningful to them. I have been part of this congregation for about thirty five years, and I never stop asking questions. I can’t stop – I would probably die if I stopped! After all my car license reads “I WONDER”! But one of the joys of belonging to the United Church and to St. David’s in particular is this environment where it is OK to express doubts and ask the very deepest questions of faith without being ridiculed or condemned for it.

I am not the only one at St. David’s who has doubts and questions. These questions are not asked lightly, and although they may seem provocative, they are not intentionally so. They arise out of deep spiritual longing and a search for personal truth and integrity. And they are often asked with fear and trembling, because the answers frequently lead us into scary places.

We sometimes puzzle about God. Surely we don’t really believe in the caricature of God that George Carlin gave us. Do we believe in a God who is portrayed as judgmental, punishing and even vengeful; who demands our worship and adulation, and even human sacrifice (as we heard in the Abraham story last Sunday)? Do we believe in a supernatural being who helps nations win wars, affects the weather, or helps sports teams win their games?

Most progressives would reject the image of God as a supernatural being who periodically intervenes in history. But many progressives would acknowledge a spiritual mystery which they may or may not call God. The words “sacred”, “holy” and “divine” are very often a part of the vocabulary of progressives. If they have any reluctance to speak openly and clearly about the divine, it is because of a recognition that any image or description of God is largely human made, and cannot begin to capture the mystery that lies at the depth of our existence.

What about “original sin” and a God that would send Jesus as a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of fallen humanity? Was the sole purpose of Jesus life to die to for our sins, or was it simply a regrettable consequence of what he was doing, but not his preordained purpose?

What about the Bible? It is the foundational document for Christianity, but is it “the absolute word of God for all time”? Or was it written from a limited world view, by fallible but devout people as they travel their turbulent road to faith? The Bible has remained unchanged for more than 15 centuries. It can speak beautifully to the heart of the human condition, and present us with the highest standards of human morality, but in other places it is pure garbage. Might there also be more modern inspirational writings which also speak to the deepest spiritual and moral needs of humanity? Like the statement of values that I read this morning?

I could reflect on many other ideas and questions of Progressive Christianity, but strangely enough, despite this rigorous doubting and questioning, it turns out that for most progressives it doesn’t matter about the differences in theology and the ideological conflict with conservative Christianity. This brings me to the second of my three points:

Progressives affirm that Values and Behaviour are more important than Beliefs or Doctrines

Over the past 2000 years the Church has erected elaborate structures of doctrine and dogma, creeds and rituals. It has set up complex hierarchical systems, with ostentatious vestments and costumes for its priesthood. There have been literally thousands of books written in theological language totally incomprehensible to the average church goer. Many churches still excommunicate people for the smallest deviation from the party line, and in the past they have even executed people for suggesting that the earth might not be the centre of the universe!

So what beliefs and doctrines are essential to the faith? There is really only one. As Paul said in the Romans passage we read today, the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.

So despite their penchant for questioning and probing deeply for answers, most progressives would admit that complex doctrinal statements and creeds and “beliefs” are far less important than our behaviour, and how we practice love and compassion in the world. If there is one absolute defining mark of Christianity, it is not about how well we “believe” but rather about how well we love.

Let us continue to work together in faith and in love, and allow our witness to be based on what we do, and how we act, rather than on what we say, or what we profess. Let us stop focusing on doctrine and belief, as some kind of end in itself, and turn our attention to acting out love and compassion in the world. It is simple and straightforward: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick and dying.

Gretta Vosper, the founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity has just released a book which several of us have already read. The subtitle of her book is “Why the way we live is more important than what we believe”. That sums it up beautifully. Love and compassion and the pursuit of justice in the world is more important than beliefs and doctrines. There is really nothing more to say. And since I preached a whole sermon on it last year, I won’t say anything more.

So let’s go on to the third characteristic of Progressive Christianity – Community.

Progressives seek to build Community based on Love and Acceptance

I have said that progressives value open mindedness and intellectual honesty, but that they also are more interested in love and compassion and justice than in doctrine and beliefs. So how can we put these two things together?

Just because we reject archaic and destructive images of God, that does not mean we reject the concept of God. In fact in much progressive literature there is a recognition of the mystery at the depths of human existence. Most traditional Christians accept the idea of the Holy Spirit, or the indwelling Christ, and many Progressive Christians also embrace the concept of the divine, although they may call it by another name.

If you believe that the divine spark dwells within everyone, and that our abiding ethic is love, then our Christian faith demands community. It must be lived in community. It is community which gives us strength and support. It is community which gives us love. Within these boundaries we can be ourselves, we know we are accepted, we know we are allowed to fail, so we are not afraid to try.

One of the things that we have found out in our study groups is that a community based on love and acceptance can give us the freedom to be ourselves without having to hide behind a mask of deception. We can express any wild idea without being laughed at. We can express an unpopular view without being told that we are wrong. We can share our hurts as well as our joys.

Every soul we meet in life presents to us the gifts of their humanity and of their spirit, which enrich our lives and shape the person we become. We are not just isolated individuals living life alone in the world. We are rooted in community, and whether we call ourselves conservatives, liberals or progressives, we encounter each other at the deepest level within community.

The defining mark of the progressive community is its intentional centering on the values of love and compassion and inclusive acceptance of all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.

As we explore what it means to be human and strip away the layers of protective behaviours and defensive mechanisms that enable us to survive in a hostile world, we find, at the very deepest core of our being, that we are rooted and grounded in love. Without love we are diminished to emptiness. This is our essence as human beings – we are the bearers of love to each other. And in that sense we are also the bearers of the Divine to each other. If we are the God-bearers to others, then it must also be that through others we experience the Divine. The God-experience for us must therefore be a community experience, not a solitary pilgrimage.

So I hope today I have helped you to understand a little more about this approach to Christianity which goes by the name “Progressive.” We hold a variety of different viewpoints at St. David’s and this is just one of them. St. David’s is a community based on love and compassion and justice and it is important that we recognize and honour the beliefs of everyone here, regardless of where in the theological spectrum they are. The nuances of our doctrinal beliefs really make very little difference. Our true calling as a community of Christians is to work together to live the Christian message of love and compassion through our actions rather than just our words.

The hardest part of being conservative, liberal or progressive, is to keep reminding ourselves that none of us have all the answers. As progressives it is too easy to fall into the trap of creating human made doctrine which can be just as rigid as what we are trying to escape from. As we look at God in a new way, or see the Bible with new eyes, or learn more about the historical Jesus, or early church history, this may add more depth to our faith journey. But if it just leads us to a new form of idolatry and traps us inside a new prison of rigid dogma, then we once again become just another “noisy gong or clanging cymbal”.

So I close with the entire quotation from Corinthians 1: 13: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” So whether I speak as a conservative, liberal or progressive Christian, if I do not have Love then I am surely missing something.

So finally, you must be tired of me using the word progressive to describe characteristics and values that are probably shared by most of us. Don’t we all want to be open minded and intellectually honest? Don’t we all want to put love, compassion and justice ahead of rigid doctrine? And don’t we all value the nurturing, compassionate accepting community?

So we who label ourselves as progressive are not much different from regular United Church folk. (Except perhaps you think we are a bit over the top on that questioning bit!) We are one in the spirit, and we can celebrate our unity with joy!

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