ONE MAN’S ASSESSMENT OF PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIANITY
Rev Dr John Bodycomb
I use the term ‘progressive christianity’ because it is known – but with reservations, as I shall explain. My preference would be ‘evolving christianity’; however, I find no groundswell of opinion to support my discomfiture, and will conform to common usage.
For me there are two problems with the term.One is that it can be taken as implying a certain conceit, that those not identifying with this movement are static or regressive! My other difficulty with ‘progressive christianity’ as currently used is that it could be taken to imply a very new and different phenomenon such as we have not seen. Hal Taussig sees a danger in possible arrogance!
In fact, scepticism, dissent, risk and experiment in articulating the faith are not new. Progressive Christianity cannot be said to have originated with Jack Spong, Marcus Borg, Dom Crossan and others of their generation. On the contrary, many of the criticisms and submissions coming from that quarter long pre-date them – much as they have opened up and popularised the issues.
As a young ‘convert’ in the early 50s, I devoured everything I could find from Harry Emerson Fosdick, major player in the American ‘Fundamentalist-Modernist’ controversy of the 20s and 30s. I found that Fosdick had said, “The one utter heresy in Christianity is thus to believe that we have reached finality and can settle down with a completed system.” (Adventurous Religion and Other Essays, p.5)
In theological school (1952-1956) I was introduced to the German Rudolf Bultmann’s use of ‘mythology’ with reference to scripture. He had written, “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.” (New Testament and Mythology & Other Basic Writings, p.4)
Having once been friends, Bultmann and the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth held irreconcilable positions, just as progressive Christians and guardians of orthodoxy seem to be juxtaposed today. But we are not talking of a brand-new phenomenon – even for me. My sermons from the 1950s regularly address the issues in focus today.
However, there is now a much larger clearly observable ‘movement’, for it is as such that progressive Christianity is best understood. I have likened it to a flood moving slowly but relentlessly over the cultural landscape. It is pluriform and cannot be stereotyped, although its critics are apt to do so. The salient features of today’s movement, as I like to explain it, are these:
- There is no question ‘off limits’
- There can be no literature, institution or professional caste above criticism
- There is no formulation of the faith that can be considered definitive
What, then, are major areas where no questions are off limits, no authorities are absolute and no ‘orthodoxy’ can be invoked to end the conversation?
- First has to do with what we mean by ‘G-O-D’ – especially in the light of modern cosmology
- Second relates to who Jesus may have thought he was, in contrast with what scripture and church have said
- Third is to take seriously the existence of other faiths and how these may figure in the divine chemistry.
Characteristic of progressive Christianity as we have observed it in Australia is the ‘re-definition’ of roles – the ordained and the laity. Much of the dynamic for establishing groups and initiating programs has come not from clergy but from laity, in some cases despite the former and even in defiance! Adult work in the 50s and 60s by Christian educators initiated a process that may help explain today’s more questioning, literate, motivated and articulate adults.
Progressive Christianity has helped to give churches all over Western society a critical mass of lay men and women applying themselves to reinvention of their faith and regeneration of the organised religions with which they are connected. A general impression is that they are making more headway with the first of these objectives. Institutions are notoriously resistant to change.
The movement has also provided a market for, and motivation to, a broad mix of scholar-contributors, but relatively few from theological schools, which generally do not promote thinking ‘outside the square’. However, there is a rich lode of fine material including some generated in Australia. Published local authors include Val Webb, John Smith, Rex Hunt, Greg Jenks, Glennis Johnston, Michael Morwood, Lorraine Parkinson and John Bodycomb.
The effects on clergy have been varied, in part because of strongly represented personality types who are not readily open to change. Clergy who have embraced the big themes as treated by progressive Christianity have at times found themselves running the gauntlet of parish criticism and/or denominational standard-setters who prefer them to be successful but not trouble-makers! As a general rule, the clergy who identify strongly with progressive Christianity are rather thin on the ground. One can still find a steady supply of mindless, meandering, vacuous, pietistic nonsense that suggests ignorance of 20th century biblical scholarship – not to mention 21st century scholarship.
An irony that should be acknowledged here, although it is not the first concern of these reflections, is that the greatest contributor to clergy malaise is difficulty with the structures of belief. Hence my seminars for lay and clergy in Australia and New Zealand with the title “Why RELPROS (i.e., religious professionals) unravel.” Yet, despite this widespread discomfiture, clergy generally do not appear to be in the vanguard of movements like progressive Christianity.
Excepting those who have the stimulus of a post-graduate degree awaiting them, many clergy are notoriously slack readers, and are not always acquainted with literature in which their people have been immersed. Neither, for that fact, have a large proportion of laity. It is this which brings us to the first of four aspects of progressive Christianity that cannot be ignored.
First is a certain exclusiveness. Despite claims to be inclusive by those identifying with the movement (based largely on their embrace of GLBTI people), progressive Christianity has its major impact on middle-aged to elderly ‘WASPs’, often with some higher education. Far less often does it appear to touch the mass of 18-30-year-olds who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Neither is it in evidence among the people and congregations that my own denomination calls ‘CALD’ (i.e., culturally and linguistically different). Indeed, one must ask what material in progressive Christianity has been made available in languages other than English.
Although the popular writers (e.g., Spong, Borg, Crossan et al) have striven to assure maximum comprehension, their works do set out to present the new Christian option as intellectually respectable, and this has earned the comment from Gary Bouma, eminent social scientist and ardently progressive, that it may be too ‘cerebral’ for some. To be frank, I have found some works to be exercises in self-display, quite challenging to my own ageing cerebrum! I suggest this is a comment on progressive Christianity that deserves assessment.
Third, and growing out of the foregoing, is a brace of deficiencies – not intended I am sure, but reflecting the movement’s dominant mind-set. My fear is that progressive Christianity, like its reactionary and doomed sibling ‘orthodoxy’, is prone to overlook the most fundamental question of all; namely, “Whence cometh this phenomenon we call ‘religion’ in the first place?”
A social scientist sees the basis of all organised religion, of quasi religion and of functional alternatives to religion in the existential question confronting homo sapiens since the dawn of consciousness:
How do I find what I need to meet life with equanimity?
Religions, indeed all meaning systems, endure only so long as they deliver on this question or are thought to be delivering. To the question of why the old religions are dying, the answer should be obvious, of course. Seminars on worship I have offered in Australia and New Zealand, entitled “The Refreshing Wayside Stop” begin:
“Here is a question for you. Had I dropped into your service of worship last Sunday, looking for something (I know not what) because I’d been told by my employer that I was redundant, because my kid had been found with drugs in his car, because my doctor had just confirmed inoperable cancer, or because my wife had died during the preceding week, would I have found any of the following: empathy, support, comfort, hope, energy, courage, even a sense of some sacred reality to depend on? . . .”
A comment on progressive Christianity one is apt to hear is this: that its emphases on plausible re-statement of fundamentals and on the ‘exteriorities’ of equity, justice, peace &c are laudable – but not so with the ‘interiorities’; that is, those personal ups and downs challenging to faith that daily confront human beings.
Not unrelated, but a distinct matter in its own right, can be put thus: “How does progressive Christianity facilitate one’s hope/wish to touch Transcendence?” Most religions assume some sacred reality with which/whom converse takes place via spiritual practices, both in collective rituals but often complemented in private. For Christians these are variously called quiet time, meditation, centering prayer, contemplation etc. (For Jews, tefillah and for Muslims salat)
Enter Jesus! I see ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ as he is called in the Letter to the Hebrews (12:2) as a 1st century Jewish mystic and change agent engaged in tikkun olam, or repair of the world. I see the faith person of the future, as shaped by progressive Christianity, as one who embraces these twin axioms of Jesus’ spirituality and his social vision. But I see relatively little emphasis at this stage in progressive Christianity on the journey inward – the first of my two ‘Jesus Axioms’.
I invite fellow pilgrims who identify in some degree with this so-called ‘progressive christianity’ to reflect on the pros and cons I have sketched here, and to respond freely. My intent is not to make some final pronouncement, but to open a conversation.
Rev Dr John Bodycomb is a Melbourne-based minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. He retired in 1996 after forty years as parish minister, Christian educator, University Ecumenical Chaplain and former head of the Uniting Church’s Theological Hall in Melbourne. John was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his promotion of religious freedom and to fostering ecumenism. “Excited to Speak, Exciting to Hear” on the art of preaching, is one of a number of books written by John Bodycomb. This Kenyan Prayer which can be found near the front of the book, has much wisdom within it: ‘From the cowardice that dare not face new truths, From the laziness that is contented with half-truth, From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, Good Lord, deliver me.’
You can find links ro more of John’s writing on the website of Warragul Uniting Church, Victoria, Australia at http://www.warragul.unitingchurch.org/food_for_thought.ht
In a review of No Fixed Address, Rex A E Hunt writes,
“John Bodycomb is a true non-conformist. Ordained in the Congregational Church 54 years ago, No Fixed Address is the story of one adventurous life lived in ministry within two ‘old’ or ‘mainstream’ churches. And how these ‘great edifices’ have ‘collapsed’, with a suggestion of two that all may not be lost.
The book, which was launched at the Common Dreams2 Conference for Religious Progressives in Melbourne in April this year, is divided into five sections, each with several chapters, a conclusion, and some questions for further thought and discussion.”
Videos of John’s presentations on YouTube include “Why We Need Churches, Temples, Mosques and Synagogues” and “Why We Need a Godtalk Informed by Cosmology”: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=john+bodycomb