© Rex A E Hunt
The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Canberra
18 June 2009
• A presentation to The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Canberra on the ‘eve’ of his retirement
TO BE OR NOT TO BE… AN ‘AGAINST THE STREAM’ THEOLOGY REPORT
“It is not the strongest of species which survive, nor the most intelligent,
but the ones most responsive to change” - Charles Darwin
I thank the Management Team of The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, Canberra, for inviting me to make a presentation to you all, before I retire and head off to the sun, sand and surf of the Central Coast of New South Wales!
I also wish to pay my respects to the Ngambri-Ngunnawal People and to those who have cared for this part of the land from time immemorial.
The title of this presentation is: ‘To be or not to be… An ‘against the stream’ theology report’. Thus I want to invite you, for the next 50 minutes or so, to reflect with me on the prospect of thinking theologically. Because theology is, and always has been
“essentially an activity of human imaginative construction… [and] theologians… are called to reimagine, reconceive, reconstruct the symbol ’God’ with metaphors drawn from the ways in which we now understand ourselves and our world” (Kaufman 2004: 126).
Thinking theologically in a systematic and intentional way, and usually ‘against the stream’ of traditional theological thinking, has been my passion for the past 44 years.
I am not sure if I have been able to always do it well, but the attempt has been there. Admittedly there have been times when I have copped my share of bollocking as my theological thinking has irritated the presumptions of the more traditional critics among us. But I have sought neither to compromise integrity or religion by keeping what we know and what we believe, separated.
So let me commence this presentation by unpacking some comments about this task called ‘thinking theologically’. Traditionally there are at least four ways of such thinking:
Using the suggestions offered by Michael Benedikt (Benedikt 2007), let me tease out some of their characteristics.
God created the natural universe ex nihilo from a position outside of space and time. God also created human beings, to whom he gave free will. Omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent, God demands devotion, dispenses justice, and inspires love.
God can be addressed personally, although he may or may not respond. Our piety and virtue may or may not move him. God's judgment in these matters as reflected in the actual course of events is infallibly wise. Yet we have reason to be optimistic: the created universe as a whole is moving toward a perfection under God's guidance.
God created the universe ex nihilo from a position outside of space and time.
God also created human beings, to whom he gave free will. In modern deism, God designed the evolutionary process in such a way that humans with free will would evolve.
The universe is rational and perfect in design. It is intrinsically good and beautiful, and subject to increasing human understanding and control. While God can be addressed personally, there is little expectation of response.
God's role was to design, not supervise. And if "he" does intercede now and again - a possibility deists consider highly unlikely - it is certainly not through miracles or direct communication with human beings. Humankind's best hope for salvation lies in practicing the virtues while pursuing spirited enquiry into God's Design.
Ever since the Beginning - if there was a Beginning - everything has been God, and God everything. God and Reality, or Being, are one and the same, or God and the totality of the universe are one and the same.
Something of God, if not God's totality, therefore indwells everywhere at all scales of the natural world as well as the human world, ‘supervening’ upon material reality the way minds supervene on brains, or underlying all appearances as a field, or process, which is intrinsically sacred and good.
This is a God with ‘whom’ one seeks harmony, a God that one studies or contemplates rather than worships or petitions.
Panentheism adds an element of deism to pantheism.
The universe, of which humankind is a part, is permeated by and embedded in God but does not constitute God. God is larger still. The universe is wholly in God, but God is not wholly in the universe." God is due ultimate respect as the Ground of Being (Tillich) or Eminent self-creation (Hartshorne). Immanent and transcendent, and fundamentally good, God's nature is reflected in every temporal world process, macro to micro - including cosmogony, biological evolution, and human history - as they tend toward greater unity and variety. This knowledge properly inspires awe, humility, piety, and virtue.
Benedikt then adds a fifth way of ‘thinking theologically’ – theopraxy. I will explore its characteristics a little later.
‘Against the stream’ is a phrase I have adopted from my theology mentor, Henry Nelson Wieman. So let’s now play with it as I introduce a couple of Australian (by adoption) pioneers of progressives thought, and some other ways of ‘thinking theologically’. It will all be in short, open-ended cameos rather than sealed conclusions.
1. ‘Against the stream’ pioneers
Charles Strong (1844-1942) came to Australia from Scotland. For some today, Strong is regarded as the first genuine theological progressive in Australia, with comparisons to John Shelby Spong (Gardner 2006).
Ordained into the broad Church of Scotland in 1868, his success as a “pastor, preacher, liberal theological teacher and social reformer” (Brighton Cemetorians) led to his appointment as minister of Scots Church, Melbourne in 1875. For the next eight years Strong was never far away from controversy and is acknowledged as one of the most controversial clergymen in the history of the Victorian Presbyterian Church.
Strong described his theology as “broad or liberal” (Badger 1971: 51) which, he said, was “absolutely necessary to a minister of the gospel in order to the development of a healthy Christian life” (Badger 1971:51). Such a theology had several characteristics:
(i) it was fluid;
(ii) thinks of God as an indwelling, energising Spirit;
(iii) God was manifested in Humanity – Humanity was God’s ‘Son’;
(iv) love and justice were always working together;
(v) it allied itself with science, and
(vi) it is based on human experience rather than an infallible book (Badger 1971:285).
Unable to resolve differences with the Presbyterian Church, with the threat of a charge of heresy for “promulgating and publishing heretical and unsound doctrine” (McEachran) sponsored by a group of evangelicals, hanging over his head, Strong resigned. In 1885 he assisted in founding the Australian Church – a free, non-sectarian, undogmatically-based religious fellowship “largely composed of religious liberals and ex-members and adherents of Scots Church” (Brighton Cemetorians).
The underlying idea of the Australian Church was that it should
“attempt to provide a favourable climate and a home for those who were convinced of the significance and importance of religion, but who were unable to accept the traditional formulae of the churches and a theology derived from the past” (Badger 1971:106).
While it appears to have been the hope of some of the original founders of the Australian Church that it might become a truly national church, attempts at founding branches in Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane were not successful.
The most celebrated Australian “arch-heretic of Australian Presbyterianism” (Geard 1991) was Irish born, Samuel Angus (1881-1943). After studies at both Princeton and Hartford theological seminaries, Angus was appointed Professor of New Testament within the Faculty of Theology at Sydney’s St Andrew’s College in 1914, at age 32.
A ‘classics’ scholar, Angus soon found his academic staff at St Andrew’s, “conservative” (ADB). Following the ‘higher criticism’ of the European liberal thinker Harnack, he “contrasted ‘the religion of Jesus’ with ‘the religion about Jesus’” (ADB), believed the original message and figure of the historical Jesus could be discerned through a critical study of the New Testament, and questioned the historicity of the virgin birth, the physical resurrection and ascension, and the theory of the atonement, forming The Heretics Club in 1916.
About Angus’ ‘divine immanence’ theology – an expression also used to describe Charles Strong’s theology - Winifred Ward writes:
“To his students he repeatedly stressed his belief that ‘it matters little what we believe about Christ but it matters supremely for ourselves and for the world how much of Christ is lived in us, or to what extent we are Christ- like’” (Ward 1996:8).
With his orthodoxy increasingly questioned by the then Sydney Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church, fundamentalists attempted to lay a charge of heresy against him in 1933. Angus was never officially charged, but the ‘whiff of heresy’ and his non-trial lasted for nearly 10 years until his death.
2. ‘Against the stream’ biblical studies
The year 1985 was, I reckon, a good year for ‘against the stream’ contemporary biblical studies. For it was in that year American New Testament scholar Robert Funk called together a group of 30 Christian biblical scholars and invited them to begin a new journey of discovery - a ‘new quest’ for the historical Jesus.
This intellectual journey was to start with a ‘sayings’ data base to see if they could discover a Jesus ‘voice print’ amid the recorded subject matter of his speeches and mode of public discourse. Funk was convinced it was in the parables, the aphorisms and the dialogues of Jesus that one could catch sight of bits and pieces of the Jesus vision of that something Jesus called God’s kingdom or realm or empire.
From these fragments of insight, he said,
“we can begin to piece together some sense of the whole. Together those fragments provide us with glimpses of the historical figure... indeed, a glimpse of a glimpse” (Funk 2002:9).
The task was to be time consuming. Christian conviction had overwhelmed Jesus. He had been made to confess what Christians had come to believe. But Jesus was not the first Christian even when he is made to talk like one.
Remembering the ‘red letter’ bibles of past generations, the Jesus Seminar set up a process whereby scholars would examine the texts and vote on whether it was, in their opinion, an authentic saying or not.
After much discussion and refinement a system of voting using four colours to grade the sayings was used:
Red = Jesus undoubtedly said something like this;
Pink = Jesus probably said this or something like it;
Grey = Jesus didn’t say it but it contains some similar ideas;
Black = Jesus did not say it. It belongs to a later/different tradition.
Commenting on this process, one of the scholars said:
“the vote... does not mean they are the actual words of Jesus, but that they preserve the gist of Jesus’ message in a way that makes those sayings recognizable as deriving from him and not from the early church or the Evangelists” (McGaughy 2002:125).
Not the actual words of Jesus, but the preserved “gist of Jesus’ message”. That’s important to hear, because it was an oral culture that shaped the sayings and stories, not a silent print culture. When sayings or stories were written down it was not necessarily done for silent reading or mass production, but in the context of oral performance and aural hearing. So what survived was what
“resonated with the people… because they expressed collective indignation and restored people’s dignity” (Horsley 2008: 192).
As one might expect, the Seminar’s work caused alarm among theological colleges training folk for ministry and, to be expected, among more conservative scholars. Among those to attack the Seminar most vigorously is Catholic theologian, Luke Timothy Johnson, especially in his 1996 book The real Jesus.
But as an Associate colleague said, the Seminar’s work on the ‘historical Jesus’ has been very important because:
(i) it publicly tells a family secret, in a loud voice, in order to encourage open dialog about the scriptures, and
(ii) it models a collegial rather than an hierarchical way of operating (Schweitzer-Mordecai 2007:66).
And, because neither are the accepted processes of the existing church system,
its actions are a threat (Schweitzer-Mordecai 2007:70) as can be seen and experienced in nearly every theological college today.
Since those early days in 1985 the Westar Institute has spawned several other ‘seminars’ – the Christian Origins Seminar, the Paul Seminar, the Acts Seminar, and the Literacy and Liturgy Seminar. As with the Jesus Seminar, the first task is to establish a data base of the place, names, geographic indicators, and how the sayings and stories recorded are products of those places or contexts, and not what they are not.
During some of this work the famous Red/Pink/Grey/Black voting of the earlier Jesus Seminar are given these meanings:
Black = Not true
Grey = Probably not true
Pink = Probably true
Red = True.
3. ‘Against the stream’ G-o-d/G-o-o-d talk
Earlier I introduced Michael Benedikt’s four ways of thinking theologically. I also said he had a fifth which he calls ‘theopraxy’. Its characteristics are:
Created by the universe, and through us, God is neither omnipresent, nor omniscient, nor omnipotent. Nor, strictly speaking, is God omni-benevolence in the abstract: God is benevolence being realised in deeds.
God can be enacted into existence anywhere and at any time through acts of care, love, intelligence, and courage among others. Since God is the good being enacted by human beings, God depends upon humanity. In this sense, God is the creation rather than the creator of good. But humanity in turn depends upon God for its moral evolution. God is the creator of the moral universe and always becoming.
Listen to some extracts from his various reflections, which seem to sum up his theological position:
“Whether or not God exists is entirely up to us.
For God comes into being by what we do
and do not do…
“God is an event, an activity,
like a flame,
like the sparkle of glass,
like the glint off water…
like love blossoming,
like a laugh that does not ridicule,
like a whisper that is not malicious,
like an outstretched hand that helps,
like the paper hitting the porch,
like a hummingbird at the feeder,
like a newly opened window.
Like justice being done with mercy.
Where does your lap go when you stand up?
Where does your fist go when you open your hand?
The same place God goes when you diminish life…
“God is the good we do
in everything we do.
God's very existence
is up to us (Benedikt 2007).
Later in his book God is the good we do, Benedikt says, through the theology of theopraxy:
“…one re-adopts a religion knowing of its power to civilize and ethicize and bring about the God it idealizes as already there… Goodness is the judge of religion, not religion the judge of goodness… The truth is: God need not be mentioned or even thought of in order to do good… When you freely do good, you are bringing God into being regardless of what you think you are doing or what you say your are doing…” (Benedikt 2007: 262, 264).
4. ‘Against the stream’ religion/religious
Those of us who attended Richard Holloway’s presentation here last month will remember he introduced his ‘four-notches’ commentary on religion: (i) strong religion, (ii) weak religion, (iii) after-religion, and (iv) anti-religion. Briefly put:
• strong religion claims to be in possession of a clear and perfect ‘signal’ from the divine, locks one into a mindset of a previous era;
• weak religion modifies the traditional image of God, tries to inculcate theological modesty. There is mystery and little certainty;
• after-religion, often represented by the ‘church alumni’, and
• anti- or absence of religion which is uninterested in the possibility of the Other which might make life bearable.
I won’t expand on any of these. If you wish to follow up his thoughts, read his new book Between the monster and the saint. Reflections on the human condition.
But the issue of ‘religion/religious’ does interest me. Loyal Rue, professor of philosophy and religion at Luther College, Iowa, in his book Religion is not about God, contends that religion, very basically, is not about God but about us.
He argues that successful religions are narrative or myth traditions that influence human nature so that we might think, feel, and act in ways that are good for us, both individually and collectively. Through the use of images, symbols, and rituals, religion promotes reproductive fitness and survival through the facilitation of harmonious social relations.
So Rue sets about to show how each of the major religions - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism - in their own way, have guided human behavior to advance the twin goals of personal fulfillment and social coherence. Indeed, before and after him, theologians have said similar things: Lloyd Geering in Christianity without God, and Gretta Vosper in With or without God, to mention only two in the last six or seven years or so.
So what is ‘against the stream’ religion if it is not about God? Dictionary definitions are not always helpful as they are often too narrow. Most claim religion is primarily about the human recognition of a superhuman controlling power entitled to obedience, reverence and worship. It is only much later in their list do they talk about religion as ultimate commitment or a concern for what really matters. Lloyd Geering writes:
“Derived as it is from the Latin religio, religion did not originally refer to any particular set of beliefs at all, but to the degree of commitment or devotion which people displayed towards their most important interests” (Geering 1998:6).
No reference to specific beliefs or practices. No concepts of the divine or of the supernatural. No dogmas, doctrines or rituals. These are all quite modern. At the suggestion of another: we should stop talking about ‘religion’ and ‘religions’, and instead fasten our attention on the capacity of people to be religious.
“Humans show themselves to be religious whenever and wherever they take the questions of human existence seriously, and then create a common response to whatever they find to be of ultimate value to them” (Geering 2007:10).
So… to be religious in the 21st century is to be devoted to maximising the future for all living creatures whose destiny is increasingly in our hands…
To be religious in the 21st century is to value, more than ever, the importance of the human relationships which bind us together into social groups…
To be religious in the 21st century is to place the needs of the coming global society before those of our own immediate family, tribe or nation (Geering 1998:46).
As all faiths are increasingly faced with a crisis of intellectual plausibility and moral relevance, perhaps it is time – if it not be too late already – to revisit both the centrality and meaning of religion, with fresh old eyes.
5. ‘Against the stream’ liturgical studies
Shaping a distinctive Australian theology is a recurring problem for us in Australia generally, and for those of us who have the communication task of shaping the ‘Sunday morning’ worship experience, specifically.
Especially when we (in main/old-stream denominations) are invited, if not expected, to follow a Lectionary and liturgical year shaped in the main by natural European/northern hemisphere seasons, as well as it "reflecting an ancient cosmology that is no longer credible" (Shuck 2005). And especially when the Spring festival of new life called Easter 'down under', comes in Autumn, the season of little deaths when leaves turn gold, fall, and the grass has turned from green to brown. Or when the warmth of Christmas is not from some domestic fire in an iron grate, but from the sun high overhead - 38 degrees celsius and rising.
By limiting ourselves to a cultural liturgical colonialism with mainly European origins, we can become stunted, as well as risk missing what actually 'is'.
To the first white settlers the New South Wales landscape seemed barren, uninhabited and desolate, because it lacked the plants and animals of Europe. But for today's dwellers in Australia's outback as well as for the growing numbers who journey into it each year, the desert has a compelling fascination as a place vibrant with life.
If we only see the outback as a place of harsh, relentlessness... where early explorers faced despair, and animals die of thirst, the desert (in particular, or the landscape in general) will always be alien for our ‘Sunday morning’ experience.
For as Denis Edwards said on a (TV) Compass program some years back:
"When the landscape is recognised as symbolic mediation of the healing and liberating of the Spirit then it becomes a place for encounter. Without recognition there is no human encounter and the landscape remains alien" (Quoted in Ranson 1992).
The founder of the Westar Institute (better know through the Jesus Seminar), the late Robert Funk, in his editorial in the January/February 2005 issue of The Fourth R, issued this radical call to a group of scholars and associate church leaders:
"throw the old forms out and start over (again)... design a new Sunday Morning Experience from the ground up... new music, new liturgy, new scriptures, new ceremonies, new rites of passage" (Funk 2005:2).
The meaning I give to Funk’s call, is that the liturgical reformation needed must go beyond the “intellectual two-step” called “latitudinarianism” (Davidson Loehr) - preserving one’s intellectual integrity by proclaiming belief beyond literalism, but continuing to use the anthropomorphic language/images of the traditional hymns, liturgy and creeds “in order to remain within the tradition” (Loehr 2000:8).
“But playing this game [still] compromises our integrity and our religion... [because] it is another example of keeping what we know and what we believe separated” (Loehr 2000:9).
And such a ‘separation’ doesn’t seem to fit the intellectual integrity and honesty which Funk’s passion and insight gave to both the Westar Institute and it’s several seminars since.
Such a liturgical reformation journey as suggested by Funk, has not always been easy. There is much ‘Sunday morning’ baggage that must be got rid of. And many critics and hurdles along the way, not to mention the prospect of unemployment, as one undertakes such a journey.
And I suspect the agenda items that will shape such a journey will include:
(i) a spiritual vitality earthed in the Australian here and now,
(ii) non-anthropomorphic prayer, hymns, and God-talk,
(iii) an insistence on church with intellectual/biblical integrity which dances with all the arts,
(iv) a broadening of the religious/biblical tradition to include extra-canonical and progressive contemporary reflections/readings,
(v) community with/for the ‘exiled’ or ‘church alumni’,
(vi) peace, justice and ecological commitments,
(vii) meditation and use of centering silence,
(viii) a rediscovery of lament.
In other words: to celebrate life!
The task for now it seems to me, is to begin (where it needs to) or continue (where it is already in progress) to “reimagine, reconceive (and) reconstruct…” (Kaufman 2004:126) our Australian liturgical/’Sunday morning’ worship expressions. And needed are metaphors and images and language drawn from the ways we understand ourselves and experience our particular ‘southern hemisphere’ part of the world, “pervaded as it is by glorious creativity” (Kaufman 2004:127).
6. ‘Against the stream’ CPRT
Finally, let me as Director, offer a brief comment or two about CPRT itself.
When we commenced CPRT Canberra on 11 July 2002 we did so with the purpose of offering a place where it would be safe for all those who wished, to be nurtured in a more authentic and progressive theology, and in a safe environment with caring companions with whom to share this more adventurous ‘against the stream’ life!
The then words of philosopher Richard Grigg’s was not new to any of us:
“faithfulness to a tradition is not achieved... by continually reproducing the same formulations over and over again without change... Rather, a tradition’s adherents must constantly reinterpret the tradition’s teachings so that what they meant in the past can still be heard and understood in a new setting” (Grigg 1995:28).
Since 2002 CPRT has grown in both members and influence. And its reason for existence has not been diminished. We have had as our guests such people as Jack Spong, Val Webb, Greg Jenks, Noel Preston, Elaine Wainwright, Richard Holloway, Don Cupitt and Hugh Mackay – to mention just a few. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that CPRT membership is primarily a lay movement or network of people, with only a very small handful of clergy being either prepared, or game enough, to join its ranks or share in the responsibility of its local leadership.)
And we have assisted in the establishment of sister chapters in Sydney and Brisbane, as well as empowering folk in Melbourne to establish the Progressive Christian Network of Victoria. Perhaps our most adventurous activity was to be one of several sponsors of the first international gathering of religious progressives in Australia, in Sydney in 2007, called the Common Dreams Conference – a task we have taken on again next year when Common Dreams2 will be held in Melbourne.
Yet over the past couple of years some questions have been asked about our structure and our independence from the Uniting Church, especially on matters of financial support for large costing events. The Management Team has attempted to address these concerns.
In the last few months positive steps have been taken to ensure our independence from any church denomination or faith stream is made more open and transparent. We are not responsible to, or accountable to, any church or denominational doctrinal stance or structural agenda. On the other hand, we acknowledge with genuine heartfelt thanks, the courage, the support, and founding initiative towards the establishment of the Centre, of The Church of St James, wherein whose premises we meet this night. It is also the earnest wish of the Management Team of CPRT that this close and mutually benefiting relationship continue on into the foreseeable future, and into the next ministry placement at St James.
Back in July 2002 we had not idea how this emerging venture would work itself out. But our name was both intentional and perhaps a clue. There is no set or one way of being religious and no set or one language for expressing it – with or without the symbolic word
Back then I ended my Foundation speech with some words, now seven years later, perhaps could to be repeated tonight, but with the addition of two more words:
“On the second last page of his book Why christianity must change or die, Jack Spong wrote: ‘I write to call those who are in exile from the ancient understandings of faith into some new possibilities’ (Spong 1998: 227).
“If The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought [Canberra] can also assist in that ‘call’ by becoming a place which both encourages progressive religious thinking, and how to do that theological thinking, in contrast to a tendency which often requires a theology to be built on what should be believed, then I feel it will have been fertile soil in the re-birthing of a new awareness of [humanness and] divinity.”
So may it continue to be!
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