NEW LIFE: Rediscovering Faith. Stories from progressive Christians
Editors: John W H Smith and Rex A E Hunt
Publisher: Morning Star Publishing. RRP $32.95
By Rev Denis Oakley
Those who belong to the progressive Christian movement are keen to explain that the word “progressive” should not convey a sense of superiority about their religion. Rather, it is descriptive of the way that some choose to approach their understanding of the Christian faith. In a recently published book titled New Life the editors borrow a definition from the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity to explain.
“Progressive isn’t a place. It is a state of mind and the next step from wherever you find yourself entrenched. Whether in the church, in your workplace, or in your relationships, a progressive perspective is characterized by openness, passion, creativity and willingness to explore beyond wherever you are at the moment”.
Uniting Church clergy, John Smith and Rex Hunt who are both prominent in the Australian Progressive Christian movement invited 26 lay people to write their story about their journey of faith. Most contributors had an association with either the Anglican or Uniting Church in Australia. There was one Roman Catholic and one Baptist, both academics.
New Life is a book primarily for those who are interested in exploring their Christian faith. A book by lay people for lay people. It is designed for those who feel discomfort with the traditional, orthodox theology of the church and have difficulty with the creeds and the doctrines that no longer have relevance to many Christians in the 21st century.
The editors have wisely put the stories into four categories which makes it much more useful as a study book for small groups. Part 1: Progressive Christianity - An Evolutionary Approach, Part 2: Progressive Christianity – Searching for Self, Part 3: Progressive Christianity - Seeking Integrity and Part 4: Progressive Christianity – Embracing a Faith in Action.
The stories are generally well-written and don’t pull punches. There is a feeling as you read some of them that the writer is experiencing a sense of relief in getting something off their chest. There is a sense of excitement too coming through the stories as they tell us how they discovered the alternative to orthodoxy that makes the faith live for them. Maybe it has something to do with the opportunity they have, at last, to tell their story with others and for others.
Many had their first taste of progressive Christian thinking with the publication of Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God back in the 1960’s. While it provided a significant opener it was not until the arrival of John Selby Spong, Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan and others, along with Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar scholars that the Progressive movement in Australia and elsewhere began to really make progress. Many contributors cited Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity as critical to their new thinking, many felt that Borg was able to put into words what they were experiencing in their own hearts.
Contributors all had their own unique journeys that influenced their relationship with the church and the faith generally. Some continued to attend church, others left and some joined a small study group of like-minded people. Whatever, they all shared a general disquiet with orthodox theology which they saw as out dated and which so often led the church into conservative decisions on issues such as the ordination of women, same sex marriage and so on.
One contributor wrote, “I find that I have much more in common with enlightened practitioners of other faiths, or humanists of no faith than I do with noisy conservative Christians.” Another said, “For me Jesus was a person who understood people and taught the essence of being human.” Others felt that “God is too complex to be understood just by theologians”.
There is much to challenge in this small book and it will be embraced by those who have been dogged by their personal disquiet with the traditional and orthodox doctrines of the church.