© Rex A E Hunt
The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Canberra, Australia
4 June 2006
A MORE ADVENTUROUS LIFE!
LAUNCH OF THE PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN NETWORK OF VICTORIA
Thank you for the invitation to be present with you all today, at this the launch of The Progressive Christian Network of Victoria. It is both an honour and a privilege to be here. May I offer my congratulations and very best wishes.
You are joining an important and growing grass roots movement. The movement of progressive religious thought both here in Australia and around the world. Voices in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA and Gt. Britain “are celebrating a lively, open-minded and open hearted” (Taussig 2006:2) approach to religion in general and Christianity in particular.
A grassroots movement, its practitioners are, to use the words of American New Testament scholar and researcher Hal Taussig:
“refreshingly confident about a new lease on Christian expression that is strikingly different than both the fundamentalism or the flailing denominations often featured in the... press” (Taussig 2006:2).
While Taussig suggests this new movement does not make up the majority of Christians, “some astonishingly new developments with promise for a very different future” are being explored and developed. A new kind of Christianity, across denominations and including Jack Spong’s ‘church alumni’, is being lived out. But... and this is an important ‘but’, much of this development is being done without any knowledge of or contact with, other similar groups or churches.
So let me stay for just a moment more with Hal Taussig’s research, which has just been published under the title: A new spiritual home. Progressive christianity at the grass roots. Taussig says the progressive movement is not the action of religious bureaucracies...
“(it comes) from an unorganised but broad-ranging kind of Christian response to felt needs for vital spirituality, intellectual integrity, new ways of expressing gender, an alternative to (the) Christian sense of superiority, and a desire to act more justly in relationship to the marginalized (and the environment)” (Taussig 2006:2-3).
And two books from the many published, which have almost become a manifesto for progressive christianity, are Marcus Borg’s The heart of christianity and Jack Spong’s Why christianity must change or die. Both emphasise intellectual and religious/spiritual integrity. So it is both an exciting and challenging time. At least it has been for me over the past 40 years or so.
One of the earliest theologians to excite my senses beyond the curriculum of the Theological College, was a professor from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago - Henry Nelson Wieman. In a second book, published in 1927/28 - which I might add is just a little before my time! - Wieman says:
“With respect to religion there are three classes of people: the religious
rationalizers, the irreligious rationalizers and the religiously inquisitive. The first class may think about religion from the outside to defend it; the second class may think about it from the outside to destroy it. But only the third class thinks about it from the inside with a view to discovering precisely what may be the good of it. It alone honestly inquires into its validity, its conditions and consequences...”
Seeking to explain his comments a bit more, Wieman goes on the describe, in general terms, each class or group. The first group, the religious rationalizers, are generally very devout and earnest people. They acquired their religion in childhood or youth, or in some profound experience later in life, and it is a very precious thing. But it is complete and finished. They have nothing more to learn about it. They have only to enjoy it and use it.
All their religious discussions are not forms of inquiry but devises for stimulating further experiences. They want the experience and yearn for more and more of it and are eager to transmit it deeply and widely to others as self authenticating truths requiring uncritical assent. The ultimate worth and significance of their religion is never a matter of inquiry. Anything that has the hint of intellectual investigation about it and which is then applied to their religion, they bitterly resent.
The second group, the irreligious rationalizers, also refuse to enter into any form of inquiry. Some of them studied it, in Sunday or boarding school, but it was presented in such a way they became sick and tired of it. For them it is a frightful bore, a foolish superstition, an evil influence.
They have no understanding of it. They have made up their minds they want nothing to do with it. They are unable to ‘listen’ and resent ‘being forced’ to give the matter any further consideration whatsoever.
On the other hand, the third group, the religiously inquisitive, are intellectually alive. They do not think merely in order to defend. They think in order to understand. Wieman says: “Religion may be no less precious to them than to the first group, but for them the most precious things are subjects for investigation”
And again - and please excuse the non inclusive language:
“... the first class, the devout and unthinking, have been the happiest, strongest and most effective of religious folk... For as soon as a man begins to think about anything, it begins to change for him. It takes on diverse shapes and hues. It swims about like a fish in the sea. Only if he refuses to think about his religion... can it remain unchanged like sardines in a can.
“But the man who thinks about his religion will not find it always the same. Like fish in the stream it not only changes but it may come and go... It is plain that he must live a much more adventurous life of the spirit than do the devoutly unthinking” (Wieman 1927:37-38).
While I do not wish to paint a hard-and-fast rule here, I do feel The Progressive Christian Network of Victoria, along with The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, fit more comfortably into the third group or class than either the first or second group. So again, welcome to the ‘more adventurous life’!
As Richard (Carter) said during his introduction, I am here representing The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Canberra - a safe place for pushing theological boundaries. So it might be helpful to share some of the story of CPRT's journey over the past four years. And then, where I think we could all go from here.
The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought grew out of a theological discussion group at the Uniting Church of St James, in Canberra, where I am the Minister in placement. It was quite intentionally established as a parallel group to the congregation, with its own Aim and Objectives and independent Management Team. While St James was its midwife, CPRT is not part of the St James congregation.
Its Aim is to be a forum that explores progressive religion and spirituality in a way that provides a safe place for those who have found organised religion irrelevant, unresponsive, repressive or damaging.
And we try to be that as we:
• Build a network of support for those who seek to discover and live by a progressive faith, sharing ideas and pursuing questions and answers.
• Create an open and welcoming community which respects the faith position of all participants, and encourages authentic interfaith engagement.
• Promote progressive religious thought as an agent of change and renewal in faith communities and society.
• Link with other groups and Centres of progressive religious thought.
You will note we do not have the word ‘Christian’ in our title. We certainly attempt to own our Christian heritage, as many of our members are involved in various Christian denominations. And my personal journey continually takes me along the tracks being mapped out and explored by the Westar Institute - famous (or infamous) for its ‘Jesus Seminar’ as well as the many other seminars, including the Leaders Seminar (now called Literacy & Liturgy Seminar) of which I am a member. But CPRT also wanted to be a safe place for progressive Jews, Baha’is, Unitarians and Quakers, along with Muslims and Buddhists as they claim their heritage, and explore it, and others. And especially a safe place for those who have often been hurt by the institutional church and do not wish to claim either the title ‘Christian’ or ‘church member’ - such as many from within the church alumni. But who, just the same, are seeking a real place of community.
For two years, beginning in July 2002, CPRT Canberra pushed theological boundaries within the national capital. Even bringing the likes of Bishop Jack Spong, Prof. Lloyd Geering, Dr Carol Christ, David Boulton, the Celtic/Iona spirituality group Caim, Michael Morwood, and just one week ago, Dr Val Webb, to Canberra. But as folk in other places heard of us, and visited us, and asked lots of questions of us, something started to happen. A flame was ignited!
In October 2004, as part of a three-state speaking engagement, CPRT Sydney was launched by New Zealand religious radical, Lloyd Geering. And in August 2005, I had the privilege of launching CPRT Brisbane, just three months after another group was launched - The Progressive Spirituality Network. In-between both those dates I came to Melbourne and met with some of you who are here today, to talk about a progressive religious movement in this city.
Way beyond our wildest dreams, CPRT was beginning to have the potential to become a national grassroots movement of Chapters and Affiliates! And as a result of encouragement given me to take Study Leave in the USA, Canada and Gt. Britain in 2005, we now have established relationships with individuals and groups around the world, all professing a progressive religious orientation.
In recent days CPRT Canberra has established a Women’s Spirituality Forum. Just last month we received a small cash grant from the ACT Government to help get it up and going.
So we and you are not alone! But how now to work together?
Well, initial steps already taken by some of the existing ‘progressive’ groups will, I reckon, have to be revisited and perhaps a whole new national ball-game organised. That’s the first thing I want to say.
Second, following the launch of both groups (CPRT and PSN) in Brisbane, they decided to co-sponsor a major regional activity this past Easter. And some preliminary thinking looks like happening soon which may see both groups becoming blended, as personnel change or move, and interests combine, without loosing either momentum or purpose.
And third, as a further expression of confidence in a co-operative future, a group of representatives from groups in Victoria, ACT, NSW, Queensland, plus one or two folk from New Zealand, has started to plan an InterNational Gathering of Progressives in Sydney on 16 -19 August 2007. Major presenters at that Gathering have already been secured: the articulate and prolific writer Bishop Jack Spong, exciting progressive theologian Dr Joe Bessler-Northcutt, and New Testament scholar Prof. B Brandon Scott, a founding member of the Westar Institute ‘Jesus Seminar’ and world authority on parables. Other invitees, including persons of other faiths and gender, are yet to respond or be invited.
Title for the Gathering is: ‘Common Dreams: Progressive Religion as a Transforming Agent’. Already two sub-themes have been set: Thursday - an Interfaith Seminar, “Reclaiming the public ground for tolerance and respect: Progressive perspectives on multi faith issues in a time of fundamentalist resurgence”, and Friday - a Faith Leaders Seminar, “Exploring ways to build and sustain faith communities that are intentionally progressive”. As we are looking for 1,000 people at least to attend, we hope many of you will be among that number.
Now in case all this sounds very rosy and comfortable, let me say CPRT has also had its ‘reality’ moments. Not everyone is happy we exist. Certainly not many ministers are content, or interested, that we exist. Or that we claim the title ‘progressive’. We are still by and large a grassroots ‘lay’ movement. And of course many of the conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists not only question our authenticity, but accuse us of being ‘arrogant’ and refuse to let their congregations know of our events. (Some of us have the feeling we are ‘heretics-in-waiting’!)
And a few major presenters, when working in parts of Queensland, Victoria, and NSW, have had church authorities deny them access to their buildings, and sponsoring groups have had to move an event to a more neutral building, often at the last moment. It still amazes me that the name ‘Spong’ in some so-called church quarters, can produce such levels of irrational acid! Or Borg’s ‘God’ described as ‘curious’!
Hal Taussig’s research in the USA has flagged some interesting observations. These are yet to be tested in Australia, but as I feel the pulse of those around me I will not be surprised at similar comments, if and when such research happens here.
His observations centre on:
(i) the growth of progressive christianity has come from the non-churched or those alienated from the church;
(ii) progressive christianity will continue to be a small minority;
(iii) mainline Protestant denominations will almost certainly continue to decline... Indeed another is bold to say “they are largely too anxious about their falling numbers and dwindling cultural influence to risk additional losses at the hands of theological reform” (Bessler-Northcutt 2004:63);
(iv) Roman Catholicism “will continue to hollow itself” (Taussig 2006:124), and
(v) evangelicalism will continue to appeal, but “its inability to relate to the life- giving character of women’s rights and scientific discovery in any way but oppositional, will continue to limit (its) scope” (Taussig 2006:124).
Progressive religious thought in general, and progressive christianity in particular, is not intimidated by the fact there are more numerous other kinds of christianity around. Or that fictional writers and film directors write and produce such features as The daVinci Code and the resulting industry it has produced! Nor do we feel the need to enforce the truth claims of the past, often based on victories of politics and power rather than a search for truth, or to dismiss the claims of other religions simply as mistakes made by “anonymous christians”(Karl Rahner, quoted in Taussig 2996:171).
However, the future of progressive religion/christianity in Australia (and New Zealand), five, ten years from now will, I reckon, depend on a few things happening:
(i) an intentional biblical literacy program which discerns and advocates the distinctive voice of the ‘historical Jesus’ as a corrective or counter voice to the competitive/debilitating spirit of our times;
(ii) the urgent development and publication of more progressive educational material suitable for children;
(iii) the sharing of progressive and creative liturgical efforts as the ‘Sunday morning experience’ is reshaped;
(iv) a growing, powerful ‘progressive’ grassroots movement, begun over the past five plus years, and continuing today, here in this place, and
(v) the development of a clear and sustained national progressive voice and profile.
The ‘progressive’ movement has begun. Locally and nationally. May the whole batch now be leavened!
Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004. “Learning to see God. Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in R. W. Hoover (ed) The historical Jesus goes to church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Taussig, H. 2006. A new spiritual home. Progressive christianity at the grass roots. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Wieman, H. N. 1927/28. The wrestle of religion with truth. New York. The Macmillan Co.