Rev Dr Susan Jones
Some of you may have been asked—certainly we have been asked—what is Progressive? Sometimes that is asked in a suspicious way—Why might we call ourselves progressive, but not others? Or in a genuinely puzzled way as in, Aren’t we all Christians—why do you need a qualifier? Some might ask, Why progressive Christianity? Why not progressive spirituality? We made that decision—deciding to keep working on this creaky old boat called Christianity and see what renovations or revolutions were needed.
This is a time of change and renewal—many have heard me talk of the half-millennial upheaval through which the church goes about every 500 years, and we are in the middle of one of those right now, 500 years on from Martin Luther.
Let’s sweep then through history and see what’s been leading up to this point.
This diagram represents the mindset in the pre-modern era. A single dot with the caption “Because God put it there and that’s the way it has always been.” Simplistic but not inaccurate. God was the arbiter and one did not have the courage usually to dispute that fact. Or if you felt brave enough to dispute with God, disputing with the church of the time was another matter and could cost you your life.
Then thinking and reason took ascendency. It was declared that it was because we could think that we were. Out of that enlightenment period of the 18th century, we developed the modern project.
“Onward and upward with inevitable progress”—this worked tremendously well through centuries of development and change, until we worked out that the modern project might not be all it was cracked up to be and the upward and onward progress might be causing us more problems than we thought.
After a while we got so used to being people of the enlightenment it was like being a goldfish in a bowl—we swam about our world not realising it was water in which we were swimming. Likewise we swam around in enlightenment thinking having forgotten there was any other way to think. Consequently our view of religion was completely different from the premodern times but we didn’t always realise that.
Then as early as the 1940s the confusion and excitement and terror of postmodernism broke upon us. Onward and upwards progress has been interrupted and that nice, small, God-ordained dot is no more… “Some argue postmodernism is progressive because it frees us from all meta-narratives, maintains truth always has a context and challenges high culture.”
Some say that postmodernism is a progressive movement because it frees us from large overarching meta-narratives which decree how the world will be seen, that it establishes that truth is always out of a context and applies in a particular context, and that it challenges the high culture which had got into the habit of ruling the world. John Dominic Crossan reminds us that, “The past is recorded almost exclusively in the voices of elites and males, in the viewpoints of the wealthy and the powerful, in the visions of the literate and the educated.”
Some, of course, see postmodernism and progressive movements as suspicious and the beginning of a slippery slope away from the certainties of modernism and orthodoxy. If you see a blog heading ‘5 Signs your church might be heading toward progressive Christianity’, you can be sure that those five signs are not, for them, encouraging. From that critique we can also get a glimpse of what progressive means.
One sign which is claimed, is that the Bible is treated with a ‘lowered’ view. No longer regarded as the first and last word on everything, the Bible becomes one of many sources of wisdom. And such critics might be surprised to see the reaction to an ultimatum in this area: in response to the statement, “You have to take the Bible literally or not at all,” the preacher finds the congregation walking out the doors.
Feelings are emphasised over facts is the next claim, and when love is all there is, a popular song on the top of the charts for a long time, you can see what they mean. Certainly statements such as “I simply can’t believe…” or “I feel Jesus wouldn’t have …” are more frequently heard.
Doctrines formerly seen as essential are up for grabs. This cartoon depicts Borg’s arrival in heaven and God personally thanking him for admitting that he didn’t know. In this postmodern soup, historic terms are being redefined. Like this moment when one person asks the other “So what are you now? Believer? Agnostic? Atheist or what?” And the reply comes “Belief-fluid.”
The heart of the gospel moves from being sin and redemption focused to being social justice focused. We all think that our movement is the one which gets everything right.
So, progressive? Fred Plumer states that “the progressive movement is a spiritual journey into the Great Unknown”. He sees the word as keeping us from assuming that we have arrived—“the journey being more the point than the destination”.
We are not the first to call ourselves progressive. Back at the beginning of the 20th Century, progressives pushed among other things for women’s emancipation and Henry Emerson Fosdick described progressives then [who] “deliberately, sometimes desperately, worked to adapt Christian thought and to harmonize it with the intellectual culture of our time… adaption was the only way we could save our faith, and its achievement was a matter of life and death.“
This can lead to the Church of the Uncertain.
In our panic at seeing our aircraft plunging towards oblivion we can lighten the load by throwing our unwanted cargo, but woe betide us if we throw out the parachutes too! A little like the 16th century German proverb which warns us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need not to panic too much, otherwise the rich delicious kernel which is at the heart of the nut will be lost. In seeking our place in the sun, trying to be relevant and trendy, we can fall into that trap of losing parachute, baby and kernel.
St Andrew’s people have heard more than once these words from John Dominic Crossan: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” This is not a joke against literalist bible believing fundamentalists; it is a cautionary tale for progressives.
David Tacey sounds the same note. He mourns the loss of our ability to read metaphors as metaphors and not to conflate them into reality TV. He attributes much of the problems in our contemporary world to a loss of this ability and a subsequent loss of the ability to live with a rich inner symbolic life. He is severely critical of the progressive movement because of this loss he sees in the movement’s ability to think and feel deeply.
We cannot simply skip from premodern religion to a postmodern social activism without paying attention to the theological task—which I agree with Fosdick is essentially one of translation not disintegration. When we work on this route, we find that the change needed might not be so much in the world as in ourselves. Rather than cringing with embarrassment, I believe the world needs Christianity and its theology more than ever, but in its own words.
Catholic social activist Dorothy Day proudly announced, “If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” The spiritual is acknowledged by more than religious people as being one of the essential aspects of life and if we cower in a corner afraid to speak out about the benefits of spirituality and Christianity, we let our society down.
There is theological work to be done, however, to ensure that our progressive house is not built on sand. The ancient Christian tradition has just the story to remind us of that. Houses do not do well without foundations and neither do progressive movements.
At the last Common Ground conference in Napier, Robin Meyers talked of revolution. Well, let’s keep calm and start that revolution.
These postmodern times and the progressive movements springing up within them give us the opportunity we need—let’s make the most of it. In that revolution we need a theology which translates but does not disintegrate, moving us from one language to another more intelligible in our present era. Yet we also need that theology to take account of the rich symbolism that has been always there and needs to be retained while the dirty bathwater is disposed of.
And a renewed respect and focus on ecology will be one of the wonderful by-products of such a careful method—because this progressive theology keeps our feet on the ground, on this earth in this place and this time. Only with foundations of both revolution and theology will be we be able to work together towards a sustainable ecology or towards other much needed reforms in our world.
It was probably at flowers like these that Jesus was looking when he said, “Consider the lilies of the field.”
Common Ground Conference, St Andrew’s on The Terrace, September 2018