Progressive Churches to the Rescue!

In The Watchman’s Rattle, sociobiologist Rebecca Costa argues that civilizations collapse because they reach a cognitive threshold, a level of complexity that overwhelms the mental capacity of the population. A cognitive threshold occurs naturally in every society because our brains evolve slowly while societies can change rapidly. “Consequently, the difference between an advanced culture that survives and one that does not may simply boil down to whether a society develops new ways to triumph over a naturally reoccurring cognitive threshold.” i Harvard psychologist, Robert Kegan, made a similar observation 20 years ago in his classic text, In Over Our Heads, The Mental Demands of Modern Life. In that work, Kegan’s data indicate that less than 50% of the American population constructs a mental complexity adequate for our modern world; and 20% or less are ready for the complexities of postmodern society.ii

Costa argues that two indicators suggest a society is reaching a cognitive threshold. The first is gridlock. “Gridlock occurs when civilizations become unable to comprehend or resolve large, complex problems, despite acknowledging beforehand that these issues may lead to their demise.”iii Instead of solving our issues we kick them down the road to the next generation.

The second indicator is the “substitution of beliefs for knowledge and fact.” We thrive when knowledge and belief exist side by side and neither dominates our life. But knowledge and beliefs disconnect under complex situations:

Suddenly, water we once fetched directly from our well comes from a faucet, and we no longer can discern where it originates, how it was processed, distributed, priced or allocated. The same goes for our monetary system, laws, taxes, satellite television, and terrorism. Every aspect of life accelerates in complexity. Not only does the number of things we must comprehend grow, the intricacy of these things also exponentially increases. So, the amount of knowledge our brains must acquire to achieve real understanding quickly becomes overwhelming.iv

When we are overwhelmed by the complexity of information confronting us we quite naturally fall back upon assumptions, beliefs and unproven ideas about our existence. Costa argues that “once a society begins exhibiting the first two signs—gridlock and the substitution of beliefs for facts—the stage is set for collapse.”v That’s the bad news. The good news is that “the signs of a cognitive threshold begin appearing long before collapse, so there is ample time to act.”vi

The subtitle of Costa’s book, Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, indicates both its brilliance and it’s limitation. The limitation is that it focuses on cognition, and we know that thinking is only one kind of intelligence we bring to deciding and acting. Still, thought is an essential (and often leading) dimension in confronting complex change. And, as neuroscientists are discovering, our brain is evolving to engage this change. In addition to the left side of our brain which analyses, and the right side that synthesizes, “today we have evidence of a third, heretofore-unknown cognitive process called insight, a faculty uniquely designed for highly demanding, complex problems.”vii

While I appreciate Costa’s insights into insight, one wonders if she has taken a deep look into the spiritual traditions. For this is our territory. The spiritual traditions have long acknowledged and practiced emotional, body and spiritual intelligence. And we have much to contribute in these complex times.

The Unique Contribution of the Church

Many institutions have taken on needs that were traditionally provided by the church. Care for the poor, hungry and elderly have largely moved to government programs and national charities. Education is secularized and publicly funded. Community building has moved to the soccer field and Facebook. But two essential dimensions of social life remain predominantly the church’s domain.

The first domain is the great mythic stories that contextualize Western culture. Christianity “owns” the great stories of the West. Whether you were raised Christian or not, if you grew up in the West you were saturated with the values, ideals, ethics and priorities of Christianity. Christianity establishes the field of possible values, ideals, etc. that we select from to create our personal meaning-making stories. In that sense, we in the West all grew up as Christians.

A simple but powerful example of this framing: Christianity puts great emphasis on “naming.” It begins with Genesis, when Adam names the animals. Not surprisingly, folks in the West, focus on particulars. In contrast, the East is more focused on context. A Chinese proverb states: “the child sees the bird; name the bird and the child will never see it again.” When subjects in a test are asked to tell what they see in a photograph, Westerners predominantly describe individual aspects, Easterners describe the background context.

The great stories of forgiveness, caring, love, sacrifice, courage and faith that are the Christian heritage belong to the church. We, and only we, have the authority to interpret and enlarge them. Only we have the legitimacy to adapt, modify, translate and expand our foundational stories to create a space where individuals can increase the complexity of their minds, the compassion of their hearts and the “unknowing” of their spirits. Indeed, it is our responsibility to give this to the culture.

The second thing churches have is license to transform peoples’ souls. As institutions, we are invited to help individuals change and develop in fundamental ways. This is no longer the exclusive domain of churches, in part because churches have failed to provide the kind of spiritual transformation folks are asking for. But we still have cultural authority to influence individual perspectives on life, meaning, relationships and more. Not only that, we have a profound advantage over imported faiths, New Age amalgams, and various self-help groups. Christianity has a tradition that must be dealt with. Since Christianity offers the contextualizing themes for our personal meaning-making, it is also deeply imbedded in our psyches. Both the blessings and the curses of Christianity are an essential part of who we are as Westerners. If you seek personal development outside the tradition you can easily loose access to both sides of the faith and they will remain shadow. Furthermore, in church there is a demand to engage parts of the tradition you would rather forget. When an individual steps outside the tradition, those demands disappear.

Finally, we have a rare commodity in a fast paced, materialist world: time. Churches don’t produce anything. While we all have to deal with finances, we don’t have a corporate board looking over our shoulder at quarterly returns on investment. We have God’s time, if you will. We offer one of the rare refuges where individuals can take the time to evolve, if they want.

Post-Progressive Integration

Progressive churches can play an essential role within this larger framework, one that is unique to their orientation toward faith.

We’ve all heard of the Culture Wars. In the faith context, the Culture Wars pit

  • traditionalists against those godless secular humanists;
  • secular humanists revile traditionalists as stupid and pity the hopelessly naïve progressive Christians;
  • progressives portray traditionalists as male chauvinist pigs and humanists as corporate lackeys; and
  • fundamentalists are sure that everyone else is possessed by the devil and destined for hell.

Of course, all of these perspectives are partly true and partly false. The problem is each believes it has all the truth.

We cannot resolve the Culture Wars by equally “honoring the viewpoint” of each group because all these perspectives are not equally valid. Saying they were equal would be like saying that the spiritual orientation of the Ku Klux Klan is equivalent to that of the Mother Teresa.

If we regard the different faith perspectives according to their ability to hold ambiguity and welcome the stranger, then we quickly notice an evolving array of perspectives.

Fundamentalist Christianity abides no ambiguity outside (their interpretation of) the literal meaning of scripture. You are either in or out (friend of foe) depending upon your willingness to ascribe to a set of affirmations.

Traditionalists expand beyond literalists by actively interpreting and exploring the meaning of scripture and welcoming those who indicate a desire to belong. The traditionalist orientation gladly welcomes those willing to conform to a set of defined social roles and abide by the rules. As such, traditionalism expands beyond the tightly closed box of literalism. Traditionalism can accommodate a surprisingly wide breadth, but it has its limits. When secular humanism denies the need for, or existence of, God traditionalists cry foul.

Secular humanism brings an expansive scientific reason that moves beyond even the most generous interpretation of scripture. It also brings a worldcentric morality that exceeds the ethnocentrism typical of traditional faiths.

Progressive, postmodern faith then moves beyond the illusion of objectivity typical of the scientific, secular humanist perspective to account for culture. As such, it reawakens and includes the relational dynamic of our world and opens to greater ambiguity and uncertainty.

Each of these faith perspectives expands beyond the previous perspective and hopefully includes the best of those previous perspectives. That’s the ideal. In reality, each faith perspective tends to see its own orientation as the truth, to the exclusion to all other truths. Still the progressive, postmodern orientation includes enough of the previous perspectives to reach a profound level of complexity–mentally, emotionally and spiritually. What often holds us back from the next evolutionary step is our relativism, or stated differently, our commitment to radical inclusivity.

In know that I am treading on sacred ground here. I am actually a big fan of radical inclusivity, but it, as all things, brings a curse with its blessings. The blessing, of course, is that our commitment to inclusivity encourages us to see the divinity and the humanity in everyone we encounter. The curse is that we don’t set boundaries. It is very difficult for us to acknowledge that some views are just more complex, compassionate and useful than other views. We easily confuse the beliefs people hold with who they are. (This is an easy mistake to make, since we all create our sense of self through the stories we tell ourselves.) In our desire not to exclude we include ideas and beliefs that just don’t work. We end up being nice to people we don’t actually like or want anything to do with. Our integrity is compromised by a flawed and deeply relativistic commitment to inclusivity.

So, if you’re not totally pissed off at me by now, there is some good news in this. As progressive postmodern inclusivists we are perfectly poised for the next step of cognitive, emotional and spiritual complexity required by our world. This next step integrates the previous steps in our evolution into a coherent whole—a whole that acknowledges both the strengths and weakness of the previous steps. It

  • acknowledges the roots of our tradition in magical stories;
  • it recognizes the personal empowerment of a literalist view;
  • it sees the huge social benefits of the rules and roles inherent in the traditionalist view;
  • it celebrates the great insights of science from the modern secular humanist view;
  • and delights in the inclusivity of postmodern progressivism.

The Next Step

If the progressive church is poised for the next step, what is it? If we are to avoid social collapse and move past the cognitive threshold described by Rebecca Costa and learn to see through insight, intuition and inspiration, how do we get there? My wise yoga friend, Salvatore, proposes what he calls Zambito’s Law: that “today’s practice is tomorrow’s consciousness.” According to this law, Jesus was hugely successful. The simplest practices he taught essentially conform to the 10 commandments: don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t have sex with your neighbor’s spouse, etc. And the vast majority of us live by these practices; the exceptions keep news programs afloat. We don’t have to think about these practices, they have become part of our consciousness. The more demanding practices, at the leading edge of consciousness at Jesus’ time, forgiveness, compassion, respect, humility, love, may not be fully realized but have grown through the ages.

What is the next practice that will carry us into the consciousness required for our future? What is the next level of mental, emotional and spiritual complexity required by evolution? I believe the next level looks more like insight, inspiration or intuition than it looks like linear thought. It emerges out of not knowing. In Jesus’ words, the next required way of knowing emerges from “the peace that surpasses all understanding.”

“But we have a path into that peace that surpasses understanding,” you say “we have prayer; we have contemplation.” But these are not well developed in the progressive church. Prayer continues to be petitionary; contemplative practices are hit and miss. When prayer or contemplation opens a window into the Divine it must still be interpreted through a particular worldview and psyche. We still require emotional and mental capacities appropriate to the needs of the world to make divine inspiration useful to the world.

We in the progressive churches, in particular, can help people develop the capacities to carry insight, intuition and inspiration into the world more effectively. In the words of Ken Wilber, churches must become “conveyor belts” (an intentionally clunky term) for the evolution of consciousness. With our authority to expand the stories and enter intimately into people’s lives we can create settings where consciousness can evolve, that is, become more complex.

The next step of consciousness moves beyond reason, without rejecting it. Modern scientific reason is rational, literally. It divides, it ratios, reality into smaller and smaller pieces for analysis. Postmodern reason reintroduces the collective and a systems perspective, and is still reason. The next stage, inspiration, intuition, insight, relies on a different kind of knowing. Understanding comes in clumps, for lack of a better term. Wilber calls it vision-logic to suggest that it is just seen, all at once. Reason then has to translate vision into language that is comprehensible to others.

Progressive churches are poised to lead into the next level of mental and emotional complexity because we have differentiated from the previous stories (or most of them) and are situated to integrate them into a greater whole. Our challenge is to find the truth of each perspective in the evolution of our tradition, bring it forward and incorporate it into a more expansive faith.


Our world is poised for fundamental change. We don’t know the exact nature of that change, but it seems to require fundamentally new ways of seeing and knowing, a new kind of mental, emotional and spiritual intelligence. Progressive churches have a vital role to play in the transition into a new and unknown world. We have done a great deal of the preparatory work, we own the great meaning-making stories, we have society’s permission to lead people within, and we have the time to help serve individuals in deep and meaningful ways. The question is, will we step into this opportunity or will we try to recapture past glory? Jesus gave us a model. Are we willing to follow?

In a future article I will suggest important tools to aid this work.

i. Costa, Rebecca D. The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction. (Philadelphia, PA: Vanguard Press). P 9

ii. Kegan, Robert. In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1994) pgs 185-197

iii. Costa, p. 9

iv. Ibid, p 12

v. Ibid, p 13

vi. Ibid, p 13

vii. Ibid, p 30


Review & Commentary

  • Yes, what a wonderful and inspiring article. I’m awaiting your next one in which, “… I will suggest important tools to aid this work.” I would love to know how I can incorporate those tools into my website and chaplaincy. Thank you so much.


    • Tom Thresher

      Hi Sue,

      Thank you for your response. I’m always glad to hear from partners on this journey.

      Blessings… tom

  • Lowell Streiker

    In Jesus’ words, the next required way of knowing emerges from “the peace that surpasses all understanding.”[Actually Paul in Philippians 4:7]

    I enjoyed you essay very much. It has given me much to consider.


  • Tom Thresher

    Hi Lowell,

    Yes, the “peace that surpasses all understanding” is a wonderful way to articulate what is required next. Sadly, it carries so much baggage it is often difficult for us to penetrate what it really means. In some ways my article is an effort to use contemporary language to spell it out (or at least one dimension of it).

    Thanks for your support and interest.

    Blessings… tom