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Do U-u Know The Way To Progressive Christianity, Part Two


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[please note: I am splitting a really long post here from the Debate board because a) it got tooooo long and B) it really wasn't intended to provoke debate anyway, just a discussion of progressive Christianitity]

 

[click here to read Part One]

 

And which of these, if any, do we imagine as being a preferable model for what a progressive Christianity? Should we even have a rough idea of what we think a progressive Christianity should look like? What can we learn from the experiences of the UUA, or even from working with the UUA?

 

This is a relevant concern for TCPC as it addresses the concerns of people such as Brian Wilson, whose article on what he terms the Gap people ("A God for the Gaps") included in the recent TCPC newsletter appears to cover much of the same ground. For example, Wilson writes that:

 

Gap people, benevolent towards the church, confirmed, but non-churchgoers. With young children and busy lives, they feel no pressing need of the church and it is hard to see what the church can offer them. They are genuinely puzzled about what to teach their children in this modern age about the Bible and Jesus, but are not attracted to Sunday School, which offers little beyond a fast track to fundamentalism.

 

But I would argue that though such indifference is in some ways a regrettable phenomenon, it is also an extremely healthy sign of a general rejection of the outdated modes of theology, thought and worship which too many of the churches continue to purvey. It is an essential precursor to renewal, though I suspect neither I, nor my children, will live to see it.

 

In our parish discussion, we shied away from any suggestion that the theology we offer is seriously flawed and that the fundamental "narrative" of the faith now lacks credibility for thinking people. But where thinking people are today, the generality will be the day after tomorrow - and sooner if the clergy fail to educate their people in the new insights born of modern science and biblical scholarship.

There are a host of issues here which could be addressed separately at length. For example, there is more to theology than the simplistic form that often gets parceled out as Christian beliefs, some which is modern, and some which is ancient but which has been de-emphasized for various reasons. As I am sure Wilson is aware, and as he seems to allude to here, if people are not made aware of the fact that the Biblical narratives are more than just a historical and political spin on a literalistic reading of scripture, then they will and do become incredulous toward such narratives. But the study of myth and religious narrative is much richer than that. I suspect that what Wilson refers to here as "narrative" means the exegesis put forward and defended by a particular group rather than the stories themselves, but I don't know that for certain. In any case, the stories are, in my humble opinion, intended for something far greater than a simple literal/historical interpretation, and in that sense, I think we might agree that making people more aware of this is essential to helping people move past the view of belief being reduced to questions like "Do you intellectually assent to the veracity of the literal and historical version of these events 2,000 years ago which are preserved through a limited series of redacted texts written decades after the events they describe?" That is not what the question "Do you believe in Jesus?" means to me.

Wilson continues:

 

Someone at our meeting asked a deceptively simple but critical question: what are the needs of the people whom the church would like to attract or win back? The moment such an uncomfortable question was asked, an understandable defensiveness crept in and we were regaled with lists of all the different things our church was doing, the different services, the groups and circles, the church schools, which in our parish are primary schools - so no one even mentioned teenagers. Yet it is among teenagers, I suspect, that the church loses its following for ever.

 

Of course the church needs to be seen to be with people where they are, not where they ought to be. But in the end, a plethora of small initiatives among the already committed resembles nothing so much as the activity of a headless chicken, which rushes in every direction but (alas!) has no idea where it is going. That I am sure is the weakness of the current churches. In seeking to be all things to all men, they are in danger of being nothing to anyone.

 

They must decide .....What is the core mission? What is the core narrative? Get that right and the rest will follow.

This sounds to me very much like what I have read and been told about the history and current story of the changes which lead to the formation of the UUA and its present condition. Again, this is not saying that the UUA is bad, got it wrong, needs fixed, or isn't a positive role model to follow. But whatever ones view of it, as well as of other liberal and progressive groups who have attempted or who are attempting to wrestle with these changes, it (and they) can help us see the outcome of various choices and efforts.

One problem is that Jesus got it wrong too! He thought that the Kingdom of God was at hand. It turned out that it wasn't (at least in the form that a first century Jew would have conceived it) and that has posed a problem to the Christian church ever after. Jesus never formed a church - he sent his disciples out to preach the good news. And then the good news did not happen; the Second Coming, the End of the Age, and the Last Judgement failed to materialise. As for the church, it was really only formed, or at least firmly crystallised, round an agreed faith, in the 4th century under Constantine, who probably cared less about what people believed than that they should all agree to believe the same thing.

 

But at least turning the signs of the coming Kingdom into a reality has given the churches a sense of purpose down the ages, and to some degree that will remain a task for the foreseeable future: helping the blind to see, the lame to walk, seeking liberty for the captives etc. etc. But here too there is a problem. That battle is won. Christian values have, broadly, triumphed and civilised societies in the Christianised West at least all seek (however inadequately) to care for the weak, the oppressed and the underprivileged. With the disgraceful exception of its attitude to women, Christianity can claim credit for that, whatever its other failings. There always will be residual tasks in this area: to fill the gaps in the welfare state and to keep the state and society up to the mark. But, like Britain, the Christian churches have "lost an empire and not yet found a role."

The second part of the mission (relationship with God) might be expressed in the words of the disciples: "Lord, teach us to pray." Here Jesus came up with a pretty good answer and example. Retreat to silence and inwardness; seek purity of heart (they are the ones that shall see God); obey the two great commandments; the Lord's prayer - a model of simplicity and lack of verbosity; and follow as best you can the model of life set out in his teaching and example. I don't think he ever suggested that "blessed are the churchgoers," though I concede that he was probably a regular at synagogue.

 

But two millennia of theology and church obscurantism have made such relative simplicity of life and worship almost impossible. Modern civilisation has, in addition, so complicated the situation that Jesus' model is probably only possible in a monastery.

And there are those who, in attempting to separate out the historical Jesus from the mythic Jesus that came after (and "mythic" here is not used in the derogatory sense of falsehood or fairy tale), might question the various interpretations of what Jesus meant by the coming of the Reign of God. One view, as Wilson notes, is that God would make Israel the premier kingdom and that every other nation would honor it. This of course was reinterpreted later as an event farther into the distant future. Another view is that God is always present if we are able to perceive this truth with our heart, which then is supposed to give rise to faith, hope, and charity. I am not a Biblical scholar, but this would seem to be the kind of discussion of scripture and rediscovery of/reawakening to the depth of scripture to which Wilson appears to have alluded. Indeed, there are many such ideas within the history of Christianity waiting to be re-emphasized. This is also true of Wilson's reference to the method Jesus gave for prayer, which as many are aware has been resurgent in the Centering Prayer movement (which in fact does not at all require that one be cloistered in a monastery).

But let's at least get rid of the theological clutter, the mumbo jumbo, the pre-Darwinian ideas. Let's really re-design (not just re-brand) the product - the theology, the narrative, and the language of worship (though this is at best a peripheral issue) - and perhaps the customers will return to the stores.

This is the area where I suspect I am going to be most in disagreement with the article. There seem to be plenty of ancient and modern theological resources which are not tied to a strictly literalist view of scripture in which the requirement is intellectual assent to a series of historical propositions. In fact, this is a growing area of popular non-fiction, with books by Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, and many others examining the historical roots of contemporary orthodoxy. (I also think that Eberle has an interesting volume, Dangerous Words, which gets at such issues.) That is, there is a belief that the limited view of the Christian tradition we are often given in church services is somehow most or all of what exists in the tradition (or at least adequately sums it up). But this narrow view can be very misleading. For example, there are the interfaith books written by practicing Christians who see no serious conflict between their beliefs and cherishing other faith traditions. There is more to the conversation than just the false dichotomy of "traditionalism" (=outdated rubbish) and "modernism" (=new and reliable).

 

To my way of thinking, what makes a religious tradition effective isn't whether you can use a sacred text as a scientific reference or whether a cultural attitude from a previous age referred to in the liturgy is currently unpopular. Such erroneous views can and should be corrected and the appropriate ceremony or prayer amended. A living religious tradition is a record of the attempts of our predecessors to struggle with who we as humans are and the meaning of our lives. They record the failures and miscues as well as the triumphs and insights. Sifting through it may at times be tedious but to simply dismiss it wholesale seems more than a little rash. People have attempted to re-design and re-brand in the past (various schisms, the reformation, the formation of groups such as the LDS), but the important question has already been posed: What is the core mission? What is the core narrative? For those who believe that the core narrative of the Gospels is LOVE (i.e. agape/caritas), and the core mission is to accept and share that LOVE, I agree that the rest does follow. Whether the individual is/was Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, or Unitarian-Universalist, those who got/get that basic premise, who really got/get it, show it. Is it reflected in their celebration of the liturgy, both in the ceremonial form and in the more important arena of the ordinary lived as sacred.

 

While I do concur that the image of religion has taken abuse, there is more to an effective and worthwhile religion than getting "customers" to "buy" what one is "selling". It is the witness of the effectiveness of a tradition, denomination, or congregation to help transform people that is the best advertising. (Again, I refer to the aforementioned complaint over a religious ad campaign above as an example fo where emphasizing marketing over substance can be problematic).

 

In summary, I think many of Wilson's suggestions are, in fact, good ones, but that also they may overlook (or for the sake of brevity simply omit) much of what is in the Christian tradition but which has de-emphasized. I also think many people have been working on other of his suggestions, but that this is often ignored or overlooked by many mainstream denominations. Hence, people continue to be largely unaware of or unable to access anything which might satisfy that spiritual yearning. By examining the history of and current status of other progressive religious movements with goals similar to those of the TCPC as a whole and those expressed by individuals such as Mr. Wilson, perhaps such frustration and antipathy on the part of the "Gap people" and others can be remedied.

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"While I do concur that the image of religion has taken abuse, there is more to an effective and worthwhile religion than getting "customers" to "buy" what one is "selling". It is the witness of the effectiveness of a tradition, denomination, or congregation to help transform people that is the best advertising. (Again, I refer to the aforementioned complaint over a religious ad campaign above as an example fo where emphasizing marketing over substance can be problematic)."

 

 

This is SO helpful! I have been working on an "Evangelism" task force (I hate the name) at my church. It is not so much that our church is on a recruitment drive, but that there is a group of us who would like to be able the show the "Gap" people (I like this better than "unchurched") how their lives can be transformed, how they can have abundant life. Someone at the meeting said the modern day equivalent of evangelism is marketing, but I was uncomfortable with that. If people are aware that there is a form of Christianity in our world that is progressive and it is helping people to live life abundantly through radical love instead of motivating them through the fear of hell, they might join us! I would not try to convert someone who has found another truth, but it seems that there are so many people that are simply too tired and busy to even consider what really matters in life.

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"While I do concur that the image of religion has taken abuse, there is more to an effective and worthwhile religion than getting "customers" to "buy" what one is "selling". It is the witness of the effectiveness of a tradition, denomination, or congregation to help transform people that is the best advertising. (Again, I refer to the aforementioned complaint over a religious ad campaign above as an example fo where emphasizing marketing over substance can be problematic)."

This is SO helpful! I have been working on an "Evangelism" task force (I hate the name) at my church. It is not so much that our church is on a recruitment drive, but that there is a group of us who would like to be able the show the "Gap" people (I like this better than "unchurched") how their lives can be transformed, how they can have abundant life. Someone at the meeting said the modern day equivalent of evangelism is marketing, but I was uncomfortable with that. If people are aware that there is a form of Christianity in our world that is progressive and it is helping people to live life abundantly through radical love instead of motivating them through the fear of hell, they might join us! I would not try to convert someone who has found another truth, but it seems that there are so many people that are simply too tired and busy to even consider what really matters in life.

 

Yikes! That would make me uncomfortable too. I don't think religion should become just another consumer product to be marketed! :o

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Tinythinker, I don't have the past newsletter including Brian Wilson's article. Do you know what Brian Wilson's background is? (Is he the Beach Boys singer?) :-) He brings up some of the real issues our Methodist church is struggling with. We would like to know how to reach the "Gap People." I agree that it is through LOVE, acting as a practical resource, and through practical, demonstratable transformation of current members.

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The progressive church just needs to let people know they exist. For the years I didn't go to church it was because I didn't know a church existed that I could walk into where I didn't have to shut my brain off! All I needed was to know there was such a place. Church was an important part of my life growing up but by the time I was 16 I had begun to grow frustrated with it. I was almost 36 before I found such a place. Granted, at 16 I wouldn't have been comfortable where I am now but I certainly would have been by the time I finished Seminary at 25!

 

It isn't the "unchurched" who need a place it is often those of who have left church or only experience with Christianity is exposure to the Religious Right. Don't try to sell "it will make your life better." That is a bunch of crap. What happens when it doesn't?

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Would it be appropriate for those who attend to tell how it has made our lives better? From reading what I've said you can probably tell there's a large part of me that wants spirituality to have a practical use for people in this world. Otherwise, why bother, when we're all so busy, anyway?

 

I agree that much of the issue is that people have been exposed to only one type of Christianity and don't know that progressives exist. At the meeting last night, this is what we focused on - the need to explain how Christianity is approached at our progressive-like (unaffiliated so far) church.

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