This article was published in Progressive Voices – the March 2017 Newsletter of the Progressive Christian Network in the UK – by Andy Vivianwho has been both a Methodist and an Anglican. He attends the Forest of Dean Quaker meeting and the Gloucester PCN group. He has allowed me to include it on my blog. I have added my own formatting without changing any of the wording.
The concept of an all-powerful, heavenly Divine, who intervenes in our fate is no longer credible. The time-honoured Christian narrative of a God who sends his Son into the world to save it, is at best a poetic myth. When we attend a traditional Christian service, we often find ourselves privately disavowing the theology or endowing it with a purely symbolic meaning or, saddest of all, finding only a kind of solemn entertainment.
So, what have we got to look forward to?
In the course of the last seven years, PCN (Progressive Christian Network Britain) conference speakers have offered us a number of visions of the future for Progressive Christianity. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve divided them into four strands or paradigms, but the boundaries between them are diffuse so please don’t take the titles too seriously.
The first is often called Evolutionary Spirituality. If you’ve watched “Painting the Stars” by Living the Questions, you may recognise this paradigm. At a PCN conference in 2009, Bishop John Shelby Spong told us: “We are not fallen sinners, we are incomplete human beings… Our mission is not to convert people but to transform people; to be all that they can be, to love wastefully and to live fully.” He closed with these words: “You can be part of who God is and he becomes part of what you are. You come into Being.” In this paradigm humans have the potential to evolve to be fully in-tune with the One; our lives expressing the Unity which encompasses the universe. This is a narrative of spiritual and moral improvement.
A second paradigm for the future of progressive Christianity is exemplified by Emerging Church. Brian McLaren, a leader of this movement, subscribes to the twin pillars of progressive Christianity. He calls on churches to focus less on their creeds, and more on training and equipping members to live compassionate lives. Christians in Emerging Church seek a future for themselves and the world inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus. In this we see echoes of Marcus Borg.
McLaren envisages God as “the source of wisdom and love, which are the logic on which the universe operates.” I’m reminded of Tillich’s Ground of Being. McLaren is an evangelist. He seeks to persuade others to join what he calls the Great Spiritual Migration in order to live the way of Jesus. “We can be embodiments of Christ… a generation of saints working for the common good”. McLaren calls on churches to be the forum for this change and church leaders to show the way.
Like Evolutionary Spirituality, Emerging Church offers an improving narrative of human history.
The third paradigm is sometimes called Radical Theology. Peter Rollins is a prominent figure in this movement. There is no improving narrative here. Rollins embraces the notion that life is a mess, will always be a mess, and the mistake is to think that there is a fix. He challenges traditional ideas of a God-shaped hole at the heart of every human which can remedy the mess in our lives. Despite this seemingly nihilist bedrock, Rollins makes a case for living with compassion. It is in being generous that we discover, quite unexpectedly, a sense that “surely God is in this place”. God is that which shimmers through words like joy and love and justice.
Radical Theology does not value creeds since these are contingent on history. According to Rollins we should believe as little as possible and hold our remaining beliefs provisionally, with humility. He is anti-establishment when it comes to churches. He doesn’t want progressive Christians to set up a new church. Better to remain on the fringe of existing churches, a challenging presence like a spectre at the feast, laying bare its hubris and offering a new framework for church worship.
The final paradigm might be called Atheistic Christianity. At West Hill Church, Toronto, the minister, Gretta Vosper, has dropped the word God and describes herself an atheist. She believes our attachment to the word God has become a barrier to collaborating with those of no faith – the many people of goodwill who are dedicated to the common good but do so without a sense of following the will of a God. She speaks of living in right relationship with the world rather than following the teachings of Jesus. The congregation upholds values which would be supported by most Christians – compassion, forgiveness, sustainability, equality, honesty, peace. Members of the congregation use their prayer time not to appeal to an invisible God, but to share their woes and celebrations and to give and receive support from each other.
All four paradigms emphasise the role of religion in supporting humans to live generous and compassionate lives. All four place such a life above a particular set of religious beliefs about God.
Radical theology stands out as the most open approach. The other three, all have an element of egotism about having found the True path.
Evolutionary Spirituality is the paradigm most likely to appeal to the growing demographic who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.
Emerging Church offers a refuge for those who wish to remain within a Biblical “kingdom of God” paradigm. Both these paradigms, with their narrative of spiritual and moral improvement, run the risk of inheriting the “hubris gene”, by which I mean a predisposition to take upon themselves the duty of educating those less enlightened.
Christian Atheism offers hope to those who have no use for talk of God, but who still value being part of a spiritual congregation.
“Talk of God” is, for me, the key to our future. Should we continue to use words and texts that represent a religious outlook we no longer hold? For many of us, these are familiar phrases and we are reluctant to give them up. But do we really expect our children to exercise similar tolerance? Isn’t it sad that so very few people have successfully distilled a progressive understanding of Christianity into new poetry for prayers and hymns. This remains one of our biggest challenges.