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State of the Union: Progressive Christianity

(This is abridged from a sermon I gave at the United Church of Simi Valley, CA, on 1/31.) I begin by saying that I’m hardly the only one qualified to give this address. Any of you in this congregation could do it, because you are living out progressive Christianity every day. You can at least give a short version of this State of the Union: progressive Christianity is alive and well at UCC Simi Valley!

I’m here to give a version of this State of the Union that gives at least a hint of how things are going with this movement globally. And I do it to offer you spiritual encouragement and enrichment. Because understanding our religious identity feeds our spirituality. Knowing who we are in the realm of faith and spirituality helps us to express our religious experiences. And being able to express our spirituality helps us to experience it in our hearts. Language follows experience, but it also induces and inspires experience as well. It’s a feedback loop that helps us keep the faith and feel the presence of God.

So let’s get started at the beginning: just what is progressive Christianity? More to the point, who are progressive Christians?

I’ve been pondering this question for about two decades now, and have been coming up with “tag lines” by way of answers. Here’s my list:

Progressive Christians keep the faith and drop the dogma.
For us, God is Love, not a Guy in the Sky.
Since God and Nature are one, science is a way to learn about God.
We do Christianity without pelvic issues.
Faith is about deeds, not creeds.
We take the Bible seriously because we don’t have to take it literally.
Spiritual questions are more important to us than religious answers.
The morality of what happens in the war-room and the board-room matters more to us than what happens in the bedroom.
Other religions can be as good for others as our religion is good for us.
Our church parking lot is for cars, not brains.
God is bigger than our ideas about God.
God evolves, and so does our religion.

If you have more “tag lines” to add to my list, please let me know! Like everything else in progressive Christianity, it’s a work in progress. But it boils down to this: God is love. Love’s power is attractive and persuasive, not dictatorial and judgmental. Jesus taught us how to practice divine compassion. We gather to support each other in following his example. This is the heart of progressive Christianity. The rest is commentary!

Here I offer an overview of history, to ground us in understanding the present situation of our branch of the faith. We might give it a birthdate: 1651. That is the year that Thomas Hobbes, the British political philosopher, publicly concluded that the books of Moses in the Bible could not have been written by Moses. Over the next century and a half, biblical scholars arrived at the same conclusion, and developed what’s called the Documentary Hypothesis. This theory posits that originally there were at least four versions of the first five books of the Old Testament. These versions were cobbled together into one narrative. One piece of evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis is the fact that there are two rather different creation stories in Genesis. They came from two of the at least four original versions of the Torah. The 19th century German biblical scholar, Julius Wellhausen, was a well-known proponent of this theory, and his work got wide circulation.

The Christian clergy who embraced Wellhausen’s work began to understand that the Bible should not be read as a book of definitive facts and eternally-valid moral prescriptions, but rather as a mythic and poetic record of humanity’s spiritual and social evolution. Pastors who embraced the emergence of science, and the emerging field of biblical textual criticism, preached that Christianity had to evolve and change in light of new knowledge. Many of these pastors also had a strong concern for social justice as a central concern for Christian faith. They preached in the churches of the mainstream, mainline Protestant establishment in Britain, Germany, America, and elsewhere.

But there were plenty of Christian leaders who reacted vigorously against the Documentary Hypothesis and all that it implied. Starting in 1910 in America, these defenders of biblical literalism and traditional beliefs started to codify their ideas into essays that became a book entitled “The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth”. It was produced right here in southern California. Those who supported the message of the book were called fundamentalists, and later evangelicals. The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, pitting supporters of the theory of evolution versus six-day creationists, was a rallying point for the fundamentalist movement. But it also placed fundamentalism in a cultural backwater. Fundamentalism went into a period of relative quiescence for decades, developing its own schools and institutions that avoided contact with the polluting influences of mainstream culture and thought. This network of churches and institutions was diffuse but intertwined. It had all the advantages and disadvantages of subculture: strong institutions with a constituency of people with a strong identity resulting from social isolation.

That began to change in the 1970’s and 1980’s when evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity went to bed with the Republican Party. In 1983, fundamentalist Bob Jones University lost a court case in which the school was denied federal student aid because it banned interracial relationships or marriages. Fundamentalists were outraged that the government would intervene in what they considered to be a matter of freedom of religion. This outrage was wedded to that of Southern white racists defeated by the civil rights movement. This activated evangelicals and fundamentalists to participate in the political process. Now empowered by the ascendant conservative political movement, conservative Christianity began to have hope that it could conquer America. Abortion had never before been a real concern for evangelicals, but the Roe v. Wade decision led them to pay attention to it and make it part of their crusade for pelvic purity.

Until the early 1980’s, religious discourse in America had been almost entirely what is called the “civil religion” – a vaguely Judeo-Christian rhetoric that avoided any doctrinal details. But suddenly politicians were being subjected to doctrinal tests that they’d never faced before. Liberal-minded people were horrified that the barbarians were now at the gates. The public perception of Christianity was dominated by biblical literalism, religious exclusivism, contradiction to science, and opposition to abortion and homosexuality. Those who had more progressive Christian views were embarrassed to be publicly identified with the faith, for fear of being identified as fundamentalists. Many liberal politicians gave up using the rhetoric of the civil religion for fear of being painted the same way. In the age of astronauts, the good name of the Christian faith was hijacked by past-ronauts who longed for the good old days when everybody thought the world was flat and that fossils were just God’s clever way of artificially antiquing the earth so it would look older than it really was.

The megachurch phenomenon exploded in evangelical Christianity, just as many mainstream, mainline churches were imploding. It seemed like the more liberal end of the spectrum was wasting away with the unstoppable onslaught of growing, vigorous conservative churches.

Christians who weren’t fundamentalists languished, feeling misunderstood by the wider culture. And then along came John Shelby Spong. In 1991, he wrote a book called “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism”. He was an Episcopal bishop in the US who went on the airwaves and said it in no uncertain terms: Jesus did not physically rise from the dead. This gospel story is vitally important as a myth that expresses the transformational power of love. The miracle stories in the Bible are not to be taken literally or factually. Much of the inspiration for Spong’s message came from a book called “Honest to God”, written in 1963 by an Anglican bishop, John Robinson. Mincing no words, Spong took Robinson’s progressive theology and blasted it like a torpedo at the evangelical ship. Outraged conservatives blasted back, but all that did was to put progressive-minded Christians back on the map.

In the early 1990’s, Jim Adams retired as the rector of St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. He’d been preaching the message of Robinson and Spong for his entire career. As a retirement project, he wrote a “welcome statement” that encapsulated the message, and spread it to his friends and former parishioners. Here’s the current version of it:

By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who…

1. Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;
2. Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;
3. Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to:
Conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
Believers and agnostics,
Women and men,
Those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
Those of all classes and abilities;
4. Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;
5. Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;
6. Strive for peace and justice among all people;
7. Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth.
8. Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.

The enthusiastic response that his statement drew from Christians worldwide led Jim to establish The Center for Progressive Christianity, now known as ProgressiveChristianity.org. In 1999, I joined its board of directors. In 2000, my first book, Open Christianity, was published: it was an exposition of progressive Christian theology and practice. Other writers put out books that defined and described our movement.

ProgressiveChristianity.org began in the early days of the internet, and I often wonder if we could have been nearly as effective as we were without our website, which attracted a rapidly-growing audience. The organization had, and still has, a miniscule budget, yet somehow it has been able to have an impact far beyond the scale of its resources. Our current president, Fred Plumer, and his daughter, Deshna Ubeda, have greatly expanded the website’s resources. Hundreds of congregations became affiliates in the US. Branches of our movement opened in Britain, Canada, and Down Under.

In southern California, John Cobb, the process theologian now retired from Claremont School of Theology, and George Regas, now retired as rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, organized what is now known as Progressive Christians Uniting about 20 years ago, with a focus on regional campaigns for LGBT inclusion, criminal justice reform, action against climate change, and other issues. I now serve on its board of directors and produce resources for its webpages. PCU is now bursting out as a national-level organization under our impressive new, young executive director, Dr. Timothy Murphy. PCU’s focus continues to be both theological and activist, grounding our constituent churches with resources for reflection and empowering them to take action for public policy change. In addition to PCU, many other regional groups formed to support and encourage progressive Christians: the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology, the Plymouth Center in Minneapolis, and Faith and Reason in Houston, to name a few.

My focus was on the San Francisco Bay Area, where I spoke at many churches and talked with many pastors to get them engaged in our network. Some churches and pastors balked when I told them how important it was to be explicit about their progressive identity in their signage and publicity. Churches have a tough time seeing themselves from the outside. One UCC church in particular sticks in my memory. I think I spoke there about five times to persuade them to join the network and go public as a progressive church. But they just didn’t like that “progressive” word – they weren’t used to it – it made their version of Christianity a “marked” one, and that made them uncomfortable. They’d say “Of course we agree with everything your group is about. That’s obvious to anybody who belongs to this church! It goes without saying!” But in fact it does not go without saying for those outside the church who might want to come in if they knew what was really going on inside. Most people in America, Christians and non-Christians alike, think that Christianity is about homophobia and six-day creationism. The only way they are going to know that you are different is if you tell them, overtly and succinctly, that you are really quite different. Finally, that church came around and went public, and it turned out to be painless. It turned out to benefit the church, attracting people to it.

This kind of conversation went on in churches around the country. More and more of them claimed the identity, put it on the signs in front of their churches, put it in their publicity. Finally, the press started to notice. The wider culture began to make reference to a category of Christians called progressive.

A turning point in our movement happened at the election in November 2004. An important base of George Bush’s support had been evangelicals, so the media was aflutter with punditry about conservative Christians. Jim Wallis, a politically liberal evangelical, was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR around the time of the election. She introduced him as a “progressive Christian”. A lot of us were grossed out that Terry Gross would give him that appellation, given that his theology was so old-school. It wasn’t until a few years ago that he finally, grudgingly, endorsed same-sex marriage, for example. But at the same time, that was the moment when we knew that our terminology had come into its own. People were starting to talk about us, by name. And in the world of media and culture, this was a huge boost. More and more churches and even seminaries and denominations took on this identity, making it more identifiable. Patheos.com, an interfaith website, set up a Progressive Christian portal.

By that time, also, our movement had evolved. We started out with an oppositional orientation. We positioned ourselves as an alternative to evangelicalism. We blew holes in the hull of fundamentalism. But a negative identity only goes so far. It was time to create a positive identity, and to develop a culture of faith of our own. Hymn writers in New Zealand came up with beautiful new tunes with wonderful lyrics that reflected progressive theology. Progressive Christian authors began to focus more on spirituality and contemplative practices: my own writing reflects this trend. Many of our progressive churches, by clearly claiming this identity, began to flourish, attracting new members who brought wonderful gifts to their congregations. I was the pastor of College Heights Church, UCC, in San Mateo when we got a new member, Polly Moore. She was a mathematician who retired early from a bio-tech firm and was ready for a new career. She went to seminary and then volunteered to run the Liturgy Project for ProgressiveChristianity.org. She’s assembled a trove of worship materials and hymns for use by progressive churches around the world, which you can see at the website.

In the last several years, our movement has grown by another means: convergence. The wider culture has made a huge shift toward acceptance of gay and lesbian people, accelerating tremendously just in a few years. With that shift has come a growing disgust among young people with evangelical institutions. Conservative pelvic issues are driving them out of evangelical churches in droves. In America, among US-born young people, evangelical Christianity is in rapid decline. Most of the growth in mega-churches comes from depopulating micro-churches – not from conversion. In fact, as I see every day at the University of Southern California, efforts by evangelicals to evangelize are increasingly counterproductive. There is a growing population of recovering evangelicals who still love Jesus but are burned out on the backward-looking theology and social conservatism of their heritage. A network of what is called “emergent” or “convergent” churches is beginning to converge with our progressive Christian movement. A lot of folks involved in this network show up at the Wild Goose Festival in N. Carolina every summer; it is modeled on the Greenbelt festival in Britain. A number of conferences have been held that have brought together progressives with exiled evangelicals to share strategies and resources. I predict that this trend will continue, and it will significantly swell the scale of our movement. “Emergent” Christians seem to get more progressive with time.

Three years ago, I hosted Rob Bell for a talk at USC. He was a famous mega-church pastor who woke up one day and realized that nobody is going to hell. For this apostasy, he was derided by the evangelical establishment. He left his church in Michigan and moved here to southern California. “Love Wins”, his book about his revelation, got him onto the cover of Time Magazine in 2011. At USC, he mesmerized about 400 recovering evangelicals with his message of Christian inclusion. As he and I walked to dinner afterward, I told him I wanted to introduce him to the world of progressive Christians. “Yeah, I’ve heard about them, but gosh, they’re so quiet, you hardly hear about them,” he said. He is a perfect exemplar of the emerging progressive Christian: he doesn’t quite know that he is one, but he’s catching on! There is a culture gap: he has left the theology behind, but he still talks and acts like an evangelical preacher. This cultural convergence is going to take some time. But I predict that people like Rob Bell are going to bring earnest enthusiasm, vibrant spirituality, and mastery of media to the progressive Christian movement.

Around the world, across America, you will find truly impressive progressive Christian congregations. I went to Grand Rapids, Michigan last May to preach at Fountain Street Church for Pluralism Sunday. It’s a grand old sandstone edifice downtown. It’s always been progressive: it has an old stained glass window depicting Charles Darwin, after all! But now it’s a remarkable community, big and growing, that makes room for Christians and non-Christians alike. It has a major focus on the arts, contemplative spirituality, and progressive public engagement. Another church a lot like it is Plymouth Congregational in Minneapolis, a big, vibrant downtown church with a powerful progressive influence on the city and the whole state.

Go to St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco and you’ll be blown away by a lively progressive community of artists and musicians and activists who worship in an eastern-style sanctuary with a mural of dancing haloed saints above the communion table. Among them are Martin Luther King, John Coltrane, and Dorothy Day, all depicted in an ancient style of church art. The congregation dances around the table before the eucharist.

Go to All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, one of the flagship progressive churches of America – a big and lively congregation with a social witness that extends far beyond its neighborhood. Go to Countryside UCC Church in Omaha, a thriving congregation famous for its jazz worship: it’s about to move into a new facility that it will share with a Muslim group and a Jewish synagogue.

Go to the church where I’m a member – Mt Hollywood Congregational UCC in the Los Feliz neighborhood of LA. I love my church! It’s full of musicians, artists, actors, writers – and fun. It’s a small church with a relatively large population of children. It’s multiracial, multicultural, and has diversity of sexual orientation. There are power-packed little progressive churches like it all over the country. Churches that have no pretense about becoming or acting like mega-churches. Churches that believe that small is beautiful. Churches that let their neighbors know who they are, and who they aren’t, so that people who want to join them can find them.

This is a taste of the State of the Union for progressive Christianity. And where better to taste it than here, at UCC Simi Valley, a thriving example of what this movement is all about! I hope that by being aware of your place in the larger picture, you’ll do more to claim your space here in Simi Valley, and make your church visible and welcoming to the growing number of people who want to practice your kind of faith!
 
JIM BURKLO
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California
 

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