The grass-roots movement called 'progressive Christianity'

© Revd Rex A E Hunt

September 2009.


The second of three presentations during the launch of the Lay Forum, a progressive lay movement within the Queensland Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia



THE GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT CALLED ‘PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIANITY’.

THE INAUGURAL ROD JENSEN MEMORIAL LECTURE


Seven years ago the American theological journal, The Christian Century, ran an editorial on ‘growing churches’.

It reported a German church consultant who, after collecting data from one thousand congregations in thirty-two countries, concluded that:

"all growing congregations have eight traits in common:  leaders who empower others to do ministry; ministry tasks distributed according to the gifts of members; a passionate spirituality marked by prayer and putting faith into practice; organizational structures that promote ministry; inspiring worship services; small groups in which the loving and healing power of fellowship is experienced; need-oriented evangelism that meets the needs of people the church is trying to reach; and loving relationships among the members of the church” (Quoted in Hoover 2004).


But as my reporter Roy Hoover, Professor of Biblical Literature pointed out, noticeably missing from the list

“is any mention of teaching and learning, any reference to biblical or theological literacy, or any reference of any kind to what people have come to know and understand about their faith.  Apparently churches today can flourish even though their members do not know or believe anything important enough to be perceived as a significant factor in their growth as organizations or in the lives of their members” (Hoover 2004:22-23).


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As I begin this presentation today, I wish to pay my respects to Rod Jensen.


Emeritus Professor Rod Jensen PhD, was a distinguished academic of the University of Queensland in the field of economics; an inspiring teacher and an academic of international stature.  He also served as Adjunct Professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Southern Cross University in Lismore, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Queensland University of Technology.  He retired from the university in 1996 as Professor of Economics and Dean of the Faculty of Commerce and Economics.

Rod Jensen was also instrumental in establishing and promoting the Australian and New Zealand section of the Regional Science Association, and served as President of the Regional Science Association International in 1990.


His academic research resulted in numerous books and journal publications and led the way to many new developments in his field.  His work in regional economic modelling is still regarded as state-of-the-art.


Rod Jensen was a member of the Uniting Church who lived out his faith through practical and loving care for others.  While regarded as a “meddlesome Christian” by some, challenging conservative attitudes and arguing for a church community that embraced diversity and intellectual debate, he was passionate about the role and place of the laity in the church.  His book Two small books on laypeople and the church is testimony to that.


The principle thrusts in the book are to suggest – even charge – that the church has

(i) failed to adapt to the culture of a post-modern world,

(ii) failed to genuinely ‘trust’ the laity with the results of contemporary biblical critical studies, and

(iii) failed to help the laity develop a robust ‘spirituality’.


In a lament under the heading ‘How many times’, Rod Jensen asks the question six times (here presented in edited form):

“How many times… have we sat around a table or in a group somewhere and discussed religion, the church, the people in the church…? …have we been disappointed that the church is seen as irrelevant by so many of our good friends…?  …have we wished that a friend or member of our family could have shared a really positive recent church experience, or felt relieved when they missed a really negative church experience…?” (Jensen 2008:18).


In the spirit of this lament it is both an honour and a privilege to present this Inaugural Rod Jensen Memorial Lecture at the birthing of the Lay Forum.


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I can add my own shorter version of Rod Jensen’s lament.  How many times have I heard, following one of my sermons, when I have introduced or included the results of critical biblical studies, someone has come up to me and said: ‘why weren’t we told?’  Likewise, when I have suggested the same process be adopted by trusted clergy colleagues, they have often been hesitant.  Both a charge of heresy and unemployment are still possibilities!  And after all, they have often added, if as preacher you take away the object of a parishioner's faith you need to replace it with something better.  If you deconstruct various beliefs (for example: virgin conception or virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, physical resurrection, a literal heaven and hell, a personal deity, etc.) you need to replace what you have deconstructed with a better construction.


As a trusted overseas colleague has said: such a response

“appears to be pastoral and compassionate.  It is what a good shepherd would do.  It is also… a dead end” (JShuck.Shuck&Jive blog 2009).


A dead end because:

(i) it aborts creativity and spiritual development.

• All people are capable of creative thought.  Without letting go there can be no creativity, no discovery, and

(ii)  it sets preachers up as the theological answer wo/man.

• This prevents the creativity of the community from emerging (JShuck.Shuck&Jive blog 2009).


However some colleagues, on taking the leap of courage and honesty in their preaching, have been surprised by the affirming and encouraging comments they too have received.


But… and there often is a ‘but’ in everything, there have also been times when I have copped a bollocking as my progressive theology has irritated the presumptions of my critics – lay and ordained.  Both in the car park after meetings or a service, and in church magazines following views expressed – the last effort running six months in the NSW Synod publication!


There is a strong traditional or orthodoxy stream in the Uniting Church that wants to elevate the place of belief and creeds and the Basis of Union, to forms of control, policing the ‘boundaries of faith’.  This has often made the church an unsafe place for open, biblical and theological scholarship, outside its preferred ‘square’.  While it should also be remembered that in each of the cases of threatened or actual heresy charges levelled at the likes of Charles Strong, Samuel Angus and Lloyd Geering, such attempts were always made by both lay and clergy!


That said, I reckon the urgent questions facing the church right now, hinted at by Rod Jenson’s argument in his Two small books…, and supported by the general stream of progressive theological and biblical thinking, seem to be:

(i) How long can we count on suspended disbelief to shore up our outworn religious myths? (Hedrick 2004)

(ii) What are the new religious myths we need to be shaping?


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The religion called Christianity has always been rather a casual affair in Australia.  “At best,” writes retired Anglican Bishop Bruce Wilson, “Australia was only ever superficially Christianized” (Wilson 1982:6).  Indeed, as another commentator, Muslim Irfan Yusuf has pointed out:

“Australia’s first few fleets consisted of a handful of English free settlers accompanying shiploads of convicts of various faiths - Jews, Catholics, Muslims and a smattering of perhaps reluctant followers of the Church of England” (Yusuf, The Australian 30/5/2007).


On the other hand, first chaplain to the colony, Revd Richard Johnson (1787-1800),

“complained about the small congregations that gathered for worship despite the official sanction which accompanied religious observance, finding the disinterest of free settlers and convicts alike toward prayer and worship dispiriting… The craving for alcohol, the desire for illicit sex and the accumulation of wealth summarised the aspirations of most” (Frame 2009:41).


In contrast to the European settlement of America, Australia was not in the main settled by religious refugees on a mission of hope, but according to ‘traditionalist historians’, a gaol for criminals and social outcasts – an ordeal of exile, with no thought to its economic development.


Muriel Porter, in a book on the Australian religious experience written prior to the 1991 World Council of Churches World Assembly in Canberra, says:

“...while institutional religion is not attractive to most Australians, and some find it alienating, they are not godless as so many church leaders have feared.  The religious dimension is important, and many Australians seek an active relationship with God, though not via the church” (Porter 1990: 84).


So what can we make of these opinions?


When the first national census was conducted in 1911, 96% of Australians identified themselves as Christian.  On the other hand figures from the 2006 census now show that 64% of the Australian population still identify themselves as Christian, 19% identify themselves as non-believers, and 5% identify themselves Other Faiths or Non-christian, with Buddhist being the largest number – 2.1%.


Which faith prevails?  In theory, none.  But as one journalist reported recently, in practice Australia is:

“a nation of ‘Christianised secularism’.  Our laws and customs are strongly influenced by Christian beliefs, with many public holidays adhering to the Christian calendar” (The Week, 10 July 2009).


Taking this local situation as the matrix for this presentation I now wish to invite you into the world of ‘thinking theologically’ by sharing with you some of my personal journey and those who have helped shaped both by beliefs and my faith.  They will be cameos only.


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During the past 50 years or so scientists have been clarifying

“the sprawling interdisciplinary narrative of evolution that brought the universe from its ultimate origin in the big bang to its present state of astonishing diversity and organization” (Rue 2006: 22).


In that story they tell us that the universe is between 12 and 20 billion years old.  Life on Earth originated four billion years ago.  Homo habilis (our ancestors) began using tools 2.5 million years ago.  Symbolic language emerged between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago.  Classical religions emerge around 3,000 years ago.  Phonetic alphabet 2,800 years ago.  Moveable type, 750 years ago.  Telegraph communication, 165 years ago.  Television, 86 years ago.  I emerged 65 years ago.  The computer, transistor, global satellite, integrated circuit chips and fibre optics, the internet and Facebook, all since I was born.


More than one-half of all major developments in communication technology, for instance, have occurred during the last 100 years or so (Fore 1990:35).  Using some of the skills of progressive, critical biblical thinking, Roy Hoover (Hoover 2004:3) compares the cosmology of the biblical view of the world with this modern/post modern view or history.  He offers eights propositions – I’ll share four only:


1B. The origin of the universe

God created the heavens and earth and all of the forms of life in them in six days by commanding them into being (Genesis 1).

1M. The origin of the universe

The universe came into being fifteen billion years ago, or so, following a ‘big bang’.  Life on earth in its many forms has evolved and developed across hundred of millions of years.


2B. Human origins

God created human beings in his image, made them male and female, commanded them to propagate and fill the earth, and delegated to them authority over and responsibility for the care of the plants and animals God had created (Genesis 1:26-31; 2:15).

2M. Human origins

Human beings emerged comparatively late in the history of the earth from earlier forms of life and continue to be sustained by the whole ecosystem of the planet.


3B. God

God is the world’s lord and king; he rules over it from his throne high in the heavens.

3M. God

God is the symbolic term we use to refer to the ultimate reality and mystery with which we have to do.  Theology is and always has been the constructive work of human beings and is useful only insofar as it succeeds in depicting the way things really are and in pointing out how we may live humanely amid the realities of the world.


4B. Jesus

God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, to preach the gospel and to die on the cross to save us from our sins. God raised Jesus from the dead and will likewise raise all who believe in him.  This incarnation of the eternal son of God marks the beginning of the consummation of all things, which is even now playing out under God’s providential direction.

4M. Jesus

Jesus of Nazareth was the pioneer and exemplar of a new form of ancient Israel’s faith that emphasized its universal rather than its ethnic meaning.  The message Jesus preached was about “the Kingdom of God,” a vision of life ruled by the union of power and goodness.  The political and religious establishments of that time regarded the threat to their legitimacy posed by this vision sufficient reason to execute him.


Those who continue to help shape my own theological thinking include: Henry Nelson Wieman, Karl Peters, and Gordon Kaufman – especially in the areas of science, God, Jesus, language, and as an outcome, liturgy, for the 21st century.  Karl Peters is quiet open about his purpose and theological shaping:

“I have been developing a way of understanding the presence of God in my life that is compatible with the ideas of modern science… based on the Darwinian idea of random variation and natural selection… suggesting that God is a process with two aspects: the emergence of new possibilities in nature, human history, and personal living… [and] the selection of some of these possibilities to continue” (Peters 2002:vii-viii).


Conceiving of G-o-d, spelt with a capital ‘G’ and functioning as a proper name… conceiving of God as a personal being or Creator has for many today become virtually unintelligible.  Another who has sought to push such theological boundaries is now retired Harvard theologian, Gordon Kaufman.  Kaufman, a Mennonite and constructive theologian, is one of the few theologians who is addressing the problem of language about God.  He names clearly the problem with traditional religious language and offers an alternative non-anthropocentric/anthropomorphic language that embraces both our scientific knowledge and the reality beyond the symbols of biblical faith.  He carefully develops a world-picture that interrelates the biological and sociocultural evolution of both our world and of humankind.


In the preface to his most recent book, Jesus and creativity, he writes (and it is a long quote so I ask you to listen carefully):

In the Fourth Gospel we read: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16).  This much-loved sentence sums up beautifully a central theme of traditional Christian faith.  But for many thoughtful Christians today, sentences like this - very common in Christian speech and writing - scarcely make sense.  Though they may be lovely poetry, whether they tell us anything about the real world with which we must come to terms every day may seem dubious.  The metaphors get so thick and heavy in this sentence that it is hard to know just what they convey.  Consider some of the problems:  What does it mean to say God ‘loves’ the world?  We know something about human love, and we cherish that; but what can it mean to say that the creator of this vast complex universe, fourteen billion years old, loves it?  Can we really apply the world ‘love’ to such a mysterious, unknowable reality as the creator of the universe?  And what can it mean to say that this creator has a ‘Son’?  We know what it means for humans to have children and to love their children - but how can we meaningfully apply such creaturely words as ‘love’ and ‘son’ to the origin of all that is?  Doesn't this kind of language suggest that God is basically like some unimaginably huge and powerful human being?  Does that make sense?” (Kaufman 2006:ix-x).


No, Gordon Kaufman, it doesn't make sense.  But as I and others have asked at one time or another: surely there is something more!  There is, and Kaufman continues:

“Instead of continuing to imagine God as The Creator, a kind of person- like reality who has brought everything into being, I have for some years been developing and elaborating a conception of God as simply the creativity that has brought forth the world and all its contents, from the Big Bang all the way down to the present.  Imagining God as creativity enables Christian thinkers to be much more attuned to what the modern sciences have been teaching us about our lives and the world in which we live.  It makes it possible to bridge the divide often felt between religious faith and our scientific knowledge” (Kaufman 2006:xi).


Likewise, at its deepest level, human life also confronts us as mystery, to which our limitations of understanding and knowledge call attention.  From the magnificence of a glorious sunset over a beach, the ‘spirituality of Uluru, and

“the profound enigma of the origin of our universe in an almost unimaginable ‘Big Bang’ then the later emergence of life amongst the ashes of that mighty explosion, and still later the appearance of our own human reality with its remarkable consciousness and thought, purposive action and creativity: the world into which we have been born – and we ourselves – are profound mysteries, evoking spontaneous awe” (Kaufman 2004b:1).


We do not have settled answers to questions about the meaning of life:

• about what we humans really are,

• about the ultimate reality with which we humans have to do,

• about which of the problems of life are the most important,

• about how we should live out our lives (Kaufman 2004b).

“We seek to orient and order ourselves… in terms of what we think of as knowledge of the environing world within which we live, and of our place within that world.  But the wider and deeper context of our lives is inscrutable mystery – indeed many mysteries” (Kaufman 2004b:1-2) and a bundle of stories “mostly unfinished.  We are and we will for the most part remain a lot of loose ends” (Cupitt 1991:153).


As we seek to live in the 21st century rather than the so-called 1st century, a theology for these days may very well begin with God, not as a personal Creator, a human writ large, but Creativity itself – as suggested by Kaufman.  Likewise as a progressive colleague asks:

“if Creativity is God, how would we conceive of Jesus?  How would we conceive of prayer?  How would we conceive of eternal life?  How would we understand suffering and evil?  How would we read texts that speak of God in personal terms?  Most importantly, how might our lives become more joyful, compassionate, and hopeful?” (JShuck. Shuck & Jive blog 2008).


For some within the church today such questions and continued explorations will create a sense of loss – even threat.  But I contend that, from a progressive perspective, such a required journey is one I can trust.  Because

“[l]oss becomes gain, transience becomes eternal life” (Cupitt 1991:154).


Theology is and always has been an activity of human imaginative construction. (Kaufman 2004:126).  Therefore both laity and clergy (including those teaching in our theological colleges if they are to maintain their intellectual integrity) are called to seek, to re-imagine, to re-conceive and to reconstruct, rather than just restate.


Likewise, it is our responsibility to teach our children and grandchildren such an alternative vision – both through informal conversation and example, as well as overt teaching, naming for them the character of good human relationality.  So, I would want to suggest that conversation and teaching could be shaped along the lines of answering the question: What does it mean to be progressively religious in the 21st century…  Some responses could include:

• To be progressively religious in the 21st century is to see ourselves “as webs of cosmos, life, and culture, so that we and the rest of our planet can continue and flourish” (Peters 2002:136)

• To be progressively religious in the 21st century is to be devoted to maximising the future of the earth and all living creatures whose destiny is increasingly in our hands…

• To be progressively religious in the 21st century is to value the importance of the human relationships which bind us together into social groups…

• To be progressively religious in the 21st century is to place the needs of the global society before those of our own immediate family, tribe or nation (Geering 1998:46)

• To be progressively religious in the 21st century is to celebrate life.


While to be progressively Christian in the 21st century is to also

“honour the one called Jesus, a first century Galilean Jewish sage, nurtured by his religious tradition.  A visionary and wisdom teacher, he invited others through distinctive oral sayings and parables about integrity, justice, and inclusiveness, and an open table fellowship, to adopt and trust a re-imagined vision of the ‘sacred’, of one’s neighbour, of life…” (The Canberra Affirmation 2008).


Such responses would also, I reckon, not only open the way for better science-and-religion dialogue, but also address what is a primary concern of religious communities: ’salvation’.  Not in the terms of the actions of an anthropological sky god-supernatural being that listens, walks, speaks, loves or gets angry, but “that which leads to human wholeness in community” (Peters 2007:49).


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Earlier this month Bishop Jack Spong received a question from a woman about remaining in the church “if you no longer believe the things the church regards as its core beliefs” (Hutton/Spong 3/9/2009).  He responded through his weekly eMail column, which some of you may also receive.  “Before answering that question,” he said,

“we need to identify what it is you are calling ‘core beliefs’ or the ‘basic aspects of Christianity."  I believe that what most people call orthodoxy in religious beliefs is little more than the imposed authority of some part of the Christian faith.  The claim to be orthodox in one's belief is not to acknowledge a point of view that is true, but only the point of view that has prevailed.  My studies lead me to believe that there never was a single consistent set of Christian beliefs.  There were many Christianities from the dawn of Christianity itself.  Various groups have tried to define true Christianity, but when they do they almost always define their own institutional, authoritarian system” (JSpong 3/9/2009).


While he said much more he concluded on this note:

“My point is that Christianity has always been a movement and that most churches have simply frozen Christianity at fairly primitive levels.  It is not to oppose basic Christianity that is the agenda of Christian scholars; it is to seek truth through the Christian story or through the Christian lens.  That is what keeps me active in church life.  Christianity is not static or doctrinal.  It is a pathway we walk into the mystery of God.  I grant that it is easier to walk the Christ path in some churches than in others, but true Christianity is always evolving into what it can be; its purpose is not to protect what it has been.  So I would suggest that for you to see your role in your church to be that of a change agent, you are in fact being a true worshiper of Christ…  I think institutional Christianity needs people like you and me in it” (JSpong 3/9/2009).


I agree.  And I am bold enough to suggest so too did Rod Jensen.


Biblical scholar Hal Taussig who has researched the progressive movement in the USA is quite open: it does not make up the majority of Christians, however “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.  However, much of this development is being done without any knowledge of or contact with, other similar groups or churches.  So the official birth of the Lay Forum, under whatever name your finally choose, is to be celebrated and supported.


Let me stay for just a moment more with Hal Taussig’s research, which was published about three years ago 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).


The early 20th century American spokesperson for liberal or progressive Christianity, Harry Emerson Fosdick, was a positive influence in my life, rather than that other American preacher, Billy Graham.  Fosdick tells the story of meeting a young man during one of his walks in Central Park, New York.

‘I'm jealous of your faith,” said the young man.  ‘I'm afraid to ask questions, because I was raised in a faith that provided all the answers and to ask questions is to show unfaithfulness.”

Coming upon a reflecting pool, Fosdick mused,

‘Son, your faith is like this pool: calm, bordered, shallow - you always know what it's going to look like and what the boundaries are.  But it's not a ‘living’ faith.  It's not going anywhere.

‘Vital faith is like a stream bubbling up from a well deep within the earth.  As it makes its way, it twists and turns, sometimes changes course, is shallow and slow in some places and fast and turbulent in others, responding to the geographical reality.  It's joined by the waters of other streams and together they make their way back to their source” (LtQ 2005: 12/5).


Stagnation, not change, is religion’s enemy.  All of the data from a variety of sources suggests if our churches do not change, they will die.  And if meaningful change is going to occur, we must address the intellectual, emotional, and cultural issues all at the same time.  


Even the rant of the acid pen of religion critic, Sam Harris (Harris 2005) says as much!  What Harris fears, and rightly,

“is religion without thought, believed without evidence, lived without question.  This is what makes religion into the weapon it has been and still can be.  What [Harris] wants, and is right to want, is a critical [robust] spirituality, one that is willing to change for the better in the light of new knowledge” (WFWooden. Fountain St. Church,Grand Rapids web site)


Vital faith has always been dynamic, flowing, human, and moving.  Rod Jensen was on such a journey, and encouraging of others to do the same.  And because of his legacy we have been both inspired and blessed.



Notes:

Fore, W. F. 1990.  Mythmakers. Gospel, culture and the media. NY: New York. Friendship Press.

Frame, T. 2009.  Losing my religion. Unbelief in Australia. NSW: Sydney. University of NSW Press.

Geering, L. 1998.  Does society need religion? NZ: Wellington. St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society.

Harris, S. 2005.  The end of faith. Religion, terror and the future of reason. NY: New York. W. W. Norton.

Hedrick, C. W. 2004.  “The ‘good news’ about the historical Jesus” in A. Dewey. (ed) The historical Jesus goes to church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Hoover, R. W. 2004.  “The art of gaining and losing everything” in R. W. Hoover/Jesus Seminar (ed).  The historical Jesus goes to church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Kaufman, G. D. 2006.  Jesus and creativity. MN: Minneapolis. Augsburg Fortress.

Kaufman, G. D. 2004.  In the beginning… creativity. MN: Minneapolis. Augsburg Fortress.

Kaufman, G. D. 2004b.  “Mystery, God, and constructivism”. In private circulation from the author.

Kaufman, G. 1996.  God, mystery,diversity. Christian theology in a pluralistic world. MN: Minneapolis. Fortress Press.

Living the Questions. 2005.  AZ: Phoenix. A progressive DVD study resource.

Peters, K. E. 2007.  “Toward an evolutionary Christian theology” in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 42, 1, 49-63.

Peters, K. E. 2002.  Dancing with the sacred. Evolution, ecology, and God.  PN: Harrisburg. Trinity Press International.

Porter, M. 1990.  Land of the spirit? The Australian religious experience. Switzerland: Geneva. WCC Publications/Joint Board of Christian Education.

Rue, L. 2006.  Religion is not about god. How spiritual traditions nurture our biological nature and what to expect when they fail. NJ: New Brunswick. Rutgers University Press.

Taussig, H. 2006. A new spiritual home. Progressive christianity at the grass roots. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Wilson, B. 1982. “The church in a secular society” in (ed) D. Harris, D Hynd, D Millikan, The shape of belief. Christianity in Australia today. NSW: Homebush. Lancer Books.

Yusuf, I. 2007.  “Our great Judeo-Christian tradition” in  On-Line Opinion, The Australian,30 May.

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