Progressive Christians 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.
Recently, an active layperson in a progressive congregation admitted, “We know more about what we don’t believe than what we do. I’m committed to being a progressive Christian but I wish we’d do more theological reflection. I want to have a better idea of progressive beliefs so I can share about my church more effectively.” This concern was echoed by a progressive pastor who confessed, “Maybe I need to read more to prepare for my sermons. I tend to focus on making sense of the news of the day and reacting to conservative politicians and religious groups rather than giving the congregation a broad perspective on progressivism. I don’t really give a lot of theological guidance.”
Progressive Christianity’s Eight Points attempt to provide a framework for progressive theological reflection. In the next several weeks, I will elaborate on each of the Eight Points in a way that may be helpful to pastors and congregants. I will be viewing them from the lens of process theology, which I believe is the best theological perspective for progressive Christian reflection.
The first point falls into what traditionally has been described as Christology, the study of the person and work of Jesus Christ and his influence on our lives. While Point One doesn’t mention the word “Christ,” the unique relationship of Jesus and God and the role of Jesus as a revealer of Divine Wisdom is assumed. We follow the path and teachings of Jesus because in some way he presents to us a life-changing vision of God. Our openness to other faiths does not require us to relinquish the uniqueness of Jesus as a divine messenger to humankind. Interfaith dialogue is more creative when we speak from our affirmations about Jesus, God, and human life, and enable others to share their faith in the same spirit. In pluralistic world, religions are truly different – they are not pathways to the same point, but different visions of reality that lead to different practices. Still, we grow in insight as a result of sharing our theological affirmations and spiritual practices and learning from the world views and practices of others.
An early Christian spiritual leader, Iraneaus, proclaimed that the “glory of God is a fully alive human being.” From this perspective, Jesus is the fully alive one. The light of God focused on Jesus in a special way, giving him a unique message, spectacular healing energy, unhindered hospitality, and prophetic action. We follow Jesus’ Way not only because of his teachings but because of the power, wisdom, and healing he channeled.
God’s presence in the world is not homogenous. God is not a neutral or impersonal force. Accordingly, God can choose certain persons and moments to be representative of God’s vision to humankind. This is a matter of call and response, which enhances rather than destroys human freedom. In the arc Jewish history, God moved within Mary and Joseph, calling them to a new vision of themselves and their place in God’s vision for humankind. As scripture notes, they were free to say “no.” But, in saying “yes,” they opened up a new trajectory of divine revelation leading to the birth and ultimately the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
The same process of call and response applied to Jesus’ journey as God’s beloved one. The journey of Hebrew history aimed at a Messiah like Jesus, but was not exhausted or rendered irrelevant by the incarnation of God’s Shalom in the healer from Nazareth. God’s incarnation in Christ was a pinnacle of this historical movement. The intimate God became flesh – God’s message was revealed in human acts and words – and dwelled among us through a divine call to a youthful Galilean who responded with openness and passion. Jesus was not a puppet nor an extraterrestrial but a lively human being, who played games as a child with his cousin John, fell in love with local girls, went to work in his father’s business, and then responded to the deeper call of God in his life. As both the canonical and non-canonical gospels suggest, Jesus may have been a special child, subject to unusual divine influences and nurtured by parents who brought out his unique gifts. Still, Jesus’ embodiment and unity of spirit with God is naturalistic, that is, God moved through flesh and blood, emotion, mind, and spirit, inspiring Jesus through the normal processes of causality.
Jesus was spiritually aligned with God’s vision, and through his free response and constant willingness to grow in wisdom and stature created both a model and a field of force that shapes our spiritual lives today. We follow Jesus’ way because it opens us to God’s way and enables us to live more fully. Jesus’ alignment with God helps us experience beauty, holiness, wonder, and healing in everyday as well as critical moments of life.
Jesus opens us to radical prophetic hospitality and life-changing healing. He awakens us to the divine in the ordinary and the divine in ourselves. We don’t need a supernatural savior but a God-filled companion, whose life and death and new life shows us the Way and gives us the inspiration and energy to live courageously, lovingly, and gracefully in all the seasons of life.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.