Does Christianity need a New Reformation? A great many Protestant groups, including Progressive Christians, are likely to respond with a loud YES. However, every group is likely to point to different aspects needing reform, turning seeming agreement into cacophony. In fact, the clash of voices of reform has characterized the Protestant movement from the beginning, making it a terrible model for present day reform efforts. Furthermore, Protestant churches became successful as they depended on political leaders to back their reforms with military and police force, as the Catholic Church had done since Emperor Constantine. Alliance with the state should definitely be avoided in modern reform efforts.
There are two models for spiritual renewal that have gained support. The first is what Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren called the “emerging church.” The Jesus Seminar provided leading figures in launching this movement, especially Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, and Bishop John Shelby Spong. After retiring as bishop, Spong published his views on a New Reformation as Why Christianity Must Change or Die in 1999. In March 2001, the Jesus Seminar held a symposium which Karen Armstrong said was based on “an agenda for a radical reformation of Christianity.” This approach to renewal has taken on traditional doctrines of Christianity to overcome their rejection of science and biblical criticism. The emerging church, which has been centered in the dying mainstream Protestant churches, has attacked fundamentalism in its citadel, which is an emphasis on faith based on beliefs.
The second model sprang from Martin Luther King’s philosophy founded on an interpretation of the Kingdom of God, which had been relatively unnoticed during the heyday of civil disobedience to achieve gains in civil rights. Adopting a term used by Josiah Royce, King referred to building the Beloved Community in which the justice and love of Jesus is applied to the realities of the current world. Race, class, and war were main themes in King’s ministry, but his ideal of Beloved Community has been expanded to include environmental concerns, an emphasis on equality for all gender identities, Native Americans, and immigrants, and the preservation of democracy. This model focuses on modifying behaviors more than attacking doctrines and beliefs. The updated Kingdom of God includes everyone, extending love and justice to all, emphasizing the sacredness of all life and planet Earth itself, and defending democracy—no matter what you believe about the divinity of Jesus or the existence of God.
These two models point to completely different strategies for renewing and updating Christianity. The New Reformation approach is more confrontational. In her book The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong attributed the rise of fundamentalism in three Abrahamic religions to their response to what they saw as aggression and coercion in modernity and its reliance on science. Fundamentalists have responded with increasingly irrational appeals to blind faith, even to the extent of endorsing murderous jihad terrorism and a blank check to Donald Trump that excuses blatantly unchristian statements and behaviors.
The more promising approach, in my view, is the spreading emphasis on Beloved Community that unites civil rights leaders, Unitarian Universalists, evangelical churches and charities influenced by President Jimmy Carter and Bishop Michael Currie, and numerous international movements, one of which is the Charter for Compassion initiated by Karen Armstrong and endorsed by the pope and the Dalai Lama.
The real strength of King’s updating of the Kingdom of God is that it is founded on spiritual insights that predate the Reformation and even Christianity. In her presentation at the Jesus Seminar in 2001, Karen Armstrong pointed to the seven-hundred-year period Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age in Eurasia. A series of spiritual and religious movements began that could be called a spiritual awakening—a movement from earlier mythologies to making ethics and justice foremost as higher conceptions of spiritual realities were advocated. The influence of early leaders led to Greek philosophy, prophetic Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, and even Confucianism. Each was unique, yet they shared an emphasis on behavior and compassion as expressed in a version of the Golden Rule. Armstrong argued that the Reformation and Enlightenment emphasized the rational side of religion to the extent beliefs and doctrines prevailed over behavior and compassion as the key indicators of spirituality. With funding from the TED prize she won in 2008, Armstrong launched the Charter for Compassion as an international effort to reawaken ancient spiritual understanding to bring about change in all the world’s religions.
The Axial Age theory sees Christianity and Islam as outgrowths of prophetic and Second Temple Judaism. Appeal to the Beloved Community has the same effect as the Charter for Compassion, for it updates and extends Jesus’s teaching of the Kingdom of God to all forms of spirituality. Like the message of Jesus, the Beloved Community does not rely on states, temples, doctrines, or hierarchies—it is an achievable yet ever elusive ideal that calls us hopefully onward.
Finally, reform efforts based on principles of the Reformation and Enlightenment have fallen prey to the divisive political language that emerged from the French Revolution. We seem determined to reduce spiritual as well as political movements to either liberal or conservative, moderate or radical, left or right. This is divisive language based on support or opposition to revolutionary change.
Pursuing the Beloved Community is an effort at renewal and restoration of values and insights that were part of a broad spiritual awakening across Eurasia. Overemphasis on the rationality of a scientific, technological, industrial-capitalist age has thrown humanity and our planet into crisis. We don’t need a revolution or a reformation. We need to reawaken insights and values that have been trampled, update them, and balance them with our rationality.
The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity, the Charter for Compassion, the Seven Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the King Philosophy are major contributors toward a spiritual movement based on the Beloved Community. As Progressive Christians, let us focus our efforts on supporting renewal rather than trying to invalidate old doctrines and beliefs.
Edward G. Simmons is a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who teaches history at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is a Bible scholar, Unitarian Christian, and veteran Sunday School teacher in Presbyterian Churches. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible and two chapters in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Christian Evangelicals on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald J. Sider. His latest book is Values, Truth, and Spiritual Danger: Progressive Christianity in the Age of Trump. Dr. Simmons is an energetic speaker for education, religious, and civic groups of all ages. He may be contacted at the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God. New York: Ballentine, 2000.
——. “Suggestions for a Second Axial Age.” In The Once and Future Faith, 19–32. Santa Rosa, California: Polebridge, 2001. Quotation on page 19.
——. The Great Transformation: The Beginnings of Our Religious Traditions. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Spong, John Shelby. Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.
——. “A Christianity for Tomorrow.” In The Once and Future Faith, 165–80. Santa Rosa, California: Polebridge, 2001