Progressive Religion

Although it has no doctrinal creed as a condition of membership, the Progressive Christian Alliance (whose Facebook page I’ve recently begun to help curate) does have this statement of faith:

We believe in God,
whose love is the source of all life
and the desire of our lives
whose love was given a human face in Jesus of Nazareth
whose love was crucified by the evil that waits to enslave us all
and whose love, defeating even death,
is our glorious promise of freedom.
Therefore, though we are sometimes fearful and full of doubt,
we trust in that love: and in the name of Jesus Christ,
we commit ourselves, in the service of others,
to seek justice and to live in peace, to care for the earth
and to share the commonwealth of God’s goodness,
to live in the freedom of forgiveness
and in the power of the Spirit of love,
and in the company of all the faithful
past, present, and yet to come,
so to be the Church, for the glory of God. Amen.

For some readers, it says too much; for others, too little. Feel free to discuss it!

Of related interest, Val Webb shared her chapter from the book An Informed Faith on her blog. She suggests that these are emerging as defining features of progressive Christianity:

1. An insistence on personal intellectual integrity, paying attention to one’s reason and experience in conversation with traditional teachings and contemporary scholarship

2. A resistance to claims that Christianity is the only or best religion and a desire for interfaith dialogue as an avenue to peace and global understanding

3. Public advocacy for the full participation of woman and of gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender people

4. A strong commitment to social justice and ecology

5. A desire for creative worship and spiritual vitality.

She also quotes Lloyd Geering as writing the following (in the book Why Weren’t We Told?) about the relationship between progressive Christianity and the Bible:

Progressives have no wish to replace the traditional though now outmoded orthodoxy with a new creed or statement of faith. They find no set of “right beliefs” that all Christians should be expected to embrace, especially since there has never been a time when all Christians shared the same beliefs, though from time to time church authorities did try to enforce creedal unanimity … For just as the Bible is a collection of books and does not speak with one voice, so those who draw inspiration from this rich cultural source, not only select from it what they find speaking to them most urgently, but freely relate it to the knowledge and experience they are continually gathering in this fast-changing world.

See too a recent post suggesting that, just as biological evolution involves change but not strictly speaking progress, we should perhaps say the same about religion. We talk about “progressive” Christianity – but is there progress in religion? In connection with that question, it is worth bringing up the fact that religious mystics, philosophers, and other thinkers have often intuited things that could not be shown to be correct scientifically until much later – such as that the visible world in its multiplicity is the result of a combination of simpler and less diverse particles (atoms), which are themselves all expressions of an underlying energy, or that the universe is vast with a vast number of worlds. And don’t forget the 13th century bishop’s vision of a multiverse. Key ethical insights like the Golden Rule may not be unique to any one religion, but they do tend to have come from religious/spiritual voices. And so, if one should avoid the assumption that religious evolution and biological evolution result in progress by definition, perhaps we should leave room for the possibility that “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” does indeed lead to something that can be called “progress”?

Whatever your thoughts on that, my own understanding is that “progressive religion” is a label indicating that one’s approach embraces the need for change, rather than resisting it or pretending that it does not occur. I’ve never understood “progressive” as a label to imply a claim that one is making more or better progress compared to conservatives. Indeed, as the preceding comment hopefully indicates, the claim of conservatives to be preserving a religious heritage unchanged from the past is a sham – in order to resist change in some areas, other changes always occur. Even if the change is only to emphasize what was once simply assumed, the impact of that change will be significant. Progressives should be committed to a more critical and reflective approach to the two poles of preservation and adaptation.

So, those are some thoughts from myself and others about progressive religion. Please share yours in the comments section below!

 

  • Dwain

    The only problem I have with your “defining features” is that Jesus Himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life, NO ONE COMES TO HE FATHER EXCEPT BY ME!”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      The only problems I have with your objection are these: (1) It ignores the results of historical-critical study of the Bible, and inserts “Jesus Himself said” where the appropriate phrase is “the author of the Fourth Gospel depicts Jesus as saying”; (2) It also ignores the context within the Gospel of John – the one who speaks thus is said from the outset to be the embodiment of the light that gives light to every human being coming into the world.

  • Herro

    >Although it has no doctrinal creed as a condition of membership…

    This seems wrong to me in light of this:

    >Congregational membership in the Progressive Christian Alliance shall consist of congregations who have expressed agreement with our Core Principles…

    >Clergy affiliation with the Progressive Christian Alliance shall consist of ministers who have expressed agreement with our Core Principles…

    And in the “Core principles” you have doctrinal statements like:

    >Faith is not about concrete answers, religious absolutes, creeds, or dogma.

    ..and this:

    >Religious absolutes of dogma, legalism, and strict doctrine become stumbling blocks and “litmus tests” for who is “in” and who is “out” of the circle of God’s grace. These false tests that Jesus never required get in the way of truly following Jesus and his teachings.

    If you disagree with that “dogma” you can’t join them, according to their bylaws.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Ah, the old “your lack of dogmatism is itself dogmatism” line.

      If you are not progressive, then you can’t join an organization of progressives. Does that seem odd or inappropriate? Obviously progressive churches can have dogmatic members – mine does. But if a church adheres to a conservative approach to dogmatism, wouldn’t it be false advertising for it to claim to be progressive?

      • Herro

        I’m not saying that it’s “odd or inappropriate”.

        Just that they do indeed, contrary to what you said, seem to have a “doctrinal creed as a condition of membership”.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I don’t think most people would consider “lack of dogmatism” to constitute a “doctrinal creed.”

          • AdamK

            The same people would who would consider a stance of tolerance to be intolerant toward the intolerant. It’s a pointless semantic game.

          • beau_quilter

            Oh I think the people who consider “lack of dogmatism” a “doctrinal creed” are the same people who say that atheism is a religion.

          • Herro

            But this isn’t mere “lack of dogmatism”. Lack of dogmatism is not the same as **requiring** members not to have certain theological positions.

            They also extend this to condemning the view that the Christian god would judge people based on a “litmus test”.

            Maybe you would consider it a “doctrinal creed” if it started with the words: “We condemn the heresy of…”

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              Where does it require people not to hold certain theological positions?

              • Herro

                Here:

                >Religious absolutes of dogma, legalism, and strict doctrine become stumbling blocks and “litmus tests” for who is “in” and who is “out” of the circle of God’s grace. These false tests that Jesus never required get in the way of truly following Jesus and his teachings.

                If I were to say that you have to adhere to the “strict doctrine” of justification by faith alone or else end up in Hell (“out of the circle of God’s grace”), then that woudl be a “false test” according to this “core principle”.

                Or one could just say that they condemn the view that their god would put people “out of the circle of God’s grace” based on adherence to “strict doctrine”.

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  I see what you did there. Do you? You claimed that this statement prevents people from holding to the doctrines of their choice, but what you offered was an example of someone trying to impose their doctrinal views on others. A person in a progressive church can hold a range of views, but the church as a whole, to be a member of this Progressive Christian Alliance, cannot insist that those who are part of their congregation must toe a particular party line.

                  • Herro

                    >…but what you offered was an example of someone trying to impose their doctrinal views on others.

                    How was my example “trying to impose their doctrinal views on others”?

                    By saying that the Christian god sends peopel to hell if they don’t believe in X, I’m not “imposing a view on others”.

                    And if I believe that, I apparently can’t join the PCA.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Perhaps we should start at the beginning. What do you mean by “join the PCA”?

                      You said “If I were to say that you have to adhere”…

                    • Herro

                      >Perhaps we should start at the beginning. What do you mean by “join the PCA”?

                      After having glanced at their laws I think that either a congregation joins the PCA or a member of the clergy tries to affiliate with them.

                      >You said “If I were to say that you have to adhere”…

                      I said: “you have to adhere to the “strict doctrine” of justification by faith alone or else end up in Hell”.

                      I.e. the view that unless you adhere to the “strict doctrine” of justification by faith alone you’ll end up in hell.

                      I removed the offending words!

              • Herro

                Oh…and the other quote of course:

                >Faith is not about concrete answers, religious absolutes, creeds, or dogma.

                Here it requires people not to believe that faith is about dogma, this would presumably exclude most Catholics for example.

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  It would exclude anyone who rejects the historic meaning of faith and prefers to narrow it to only one out of its range of contemporary meanings, perhaps. But again, it is restricting the limiting of others by congregations, not the views that people may hold as individuals. But you’re persistent, I’ll give you that!

                  • Herro

                    >It would exclude anyone who rejects the historic meaning of faith and prefers to narrow it to only one out of its range of contemporary meanings, perhaps.

                    Wait a minute. I think you are turning the tables. I don’t see the PCA rejecting the view that faith is **only** about dogma and so on. And I didn’t say that one would be excluded if one were to say that faith is **only** about dogma. They seem to reject the view that faith is about dogma whether it be about that alone or also something more.

                    But that’s beside the point. If we assume that someone says that faith is only about dogma, then he would presumably not be welcome in the PCA because he couldn’t agree with their creed.

                    >But again, it is restricting the limiting of others by congregations, not the views that people may hold as individuals.

                    Since the membership is apparently only on a congregational basis and not on an individual basis, I fail to see the importance of this. And besides, it does say that clergy that wants to be affiliated with it have to agree with the “core principles”, so that’s limiting those individuals’ view.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      You fail to see the difference between an inclusive organization being an alliance of conclusive organizations, and requiring that individuals within those organizations toe party lines of any sort in a non-inclusive manner?

                    • Herro

                      No, there’s of course a difference in requiring that the congregations and the clergy be “orthodox” and demanding that the congregations demand that individuals withind those congregations be “orthodox”.

                      But from what I gather “congrecations” and clergy become members in this alliance, and not individual within those congregations, so they have a “creed as a condition of membership”.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Is your point that the alliance “dogmatically” imposes on congregations that they not impose creeds dogmatically on congregations? Given that this is a network of congregations with precisely that view, which no congregation is obligated to join, I can’t see what your point is, if not the obvious and trite one I started with.

                    • Herro

                      >Is your point that the alliance “dogmatically” imposes on congregations that they not impose creeds dogmatically on congregations?

                      No. My point was merely that they **do** have a “doctrinal creed as a condition of membership”.

                      If a congregation or a member of clergy wants to join the PCA they must not, as an example, believe that faith is about dogma or that salvation is a matter of “strict doctrines”.

  • contantlysearching

    I prefer the 8 points on progressivechristianity.org

    By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who…

    1. Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;

    2. Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;

    3. Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to:

    Conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,

    Believers and agnostics,

    Women and men,

    Those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,

    Those of all classes and abilities;

    4. Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;

    5. Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;

    6. Strive for peace and justice among all people;

    7. Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth;

    8. Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.

  • Pseudonym

    Nobody has ever adequately explained to me what the point of a “statement of faith” is.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Usually, it is to exclude people as heretics (or, put more positively, articulate a shared identity – which just happens to exclude others).

      When progressives draw one up, it is usually a response to conservative statements of faith, an attempt to draw the circle wider and include more people in its embrace.

  • Andrew Dowling

    One thing I find lacking in most formal progressive strains of Christianity, and I’m not sure how to really address it, is the lack of any apocalyptic urgency. And when I say that, I mean that a belief that in the midst of struggle against forces that will likely prevail or at the least score major victories, one have faith that they (let’s just call them, using Justin Martyr’s language, “the wicked”) will ultimately get some sort of divine comeuppance. This belief has supported the struggles of leaders from Paul to the Civil Rights movement, as well as the martyrs who died in those causes.

    The alternative actually doesn’t necessitate believing in eternal punishment for evil-doers, but I worry that in response to the fire and brimstone conceptions of hell as a fear mechanism/eternal torture for non-believers and the over judgmentalism embraced by conservative Christianity, too much liberal/progressive Christianity develops a “judge not” stance to the point of being prophetically worthless beyond its critiques of conservative religion (and if the conservative church ends up seriously declining, that pinata can’t just be hit over and over again after the candy has spilled out). But as stated, I’m not sure exactly how to work that out.

    • Charis Varnadore

      1) Living in the PRESENT MOMENT is in itself apocalyptic.
      2) “Judge Not” is a primary teaching of Jesus.
      3) Prophesy, biblically, is concerned with the here and now – feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless – perhaps in our two-SUV garages. These historical issues in existence long before the idea of liberal/conservative were imagined.
      And, anytime I see the word “LEADER” used in a Christian context, I wonder if I am reading the same gospel.

  • Nick Gotts

    “In connection with that question, it is worth bringing up the fact that religious mystics,
    philosophers, and other thinkers have often intuited things that could
    not be shown to be correct scientifically until much later – such as
    that the visible world in its multiplicity is the result of a
    combination of simpler and less diverse particles (atoms), which are
    themselves all expressions of an underlying energy, or that the universe
    is vast with a vast number of worlds.”

    And others intuited things that turned out to be wrong. Are you suggesting that those who guessed right had some magical means of doing so, rather than just being lucky in their guesses? Andor the helpfulness of later interpreters, who read back into their guesses things they never intended, in the same way as interpreters of Nostradamus and Malachi do.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I’m merely responding to the notion that the dividing line between being right vs. being wrong, or embracing new information about the world vs. resisting it, follows the line that divides the religious from the non-religious. My view is that anything ancient people guessed about the world needs to be tested against the data we have and our better means of gathering and examining that data – a view that many religious people hold, although by no means all do, obviously.

      • Nick Gotts

        I don’t understand what you are getting at. Where, in the OP, is the notion you now say you were responding to? Why is it of any significance that mystics and philosophers sometimes made lucky guesses? Especially as there were already people in the ancient world who weren’t content simply to guess, but subjected their ideas to logical analysis and empirical evidence.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I’m not sure that the intuition of those who sense something profound but contrary to our sensory impressions about the world is best described as merely “guessing.” And surely the fact that they lacked the means to test some of their intuitions ought not to be held against them, nor should the fact that they did not know things that no one in their time knew.

          Which ancient people are you thinking of when you describe that proto-scientific approach?

          • Nick Gotts

            What evidence do you have that they “sensed something profound”? How? What sense did they use? That’s what I mean by asking whether you think they had some magical means of guessing right; apparently you do. I’m not holding anything against them, but I don’t think they get credit for lucky guesses, nor that it’s of any great interest that they made them. It is of interest that they were willing to guess at all, showing a realisation that there were indeed questions to be asked, but in the absence of any attempt to test their guesses, “Everything’s made of four elements which each try to return to their natural place” is as good a guess as primitive atomism (and in fact, Democritus posited an infinite number of different types of atom). Maybe the notion of “four elements” was a profound intuition of the four fundamental forces of modern physics?

            With regard to a proto-scientific approach I was thinking particularly of Archimedes, Eratosthenes and, in a different sphere of activity, Thucydides.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              I don’t accept magic, and I don’t accept religious or other claims that make much of some superficial similarity – such as “look, we said four things are fundamental, it doesn’t matter if the four things in question are not what we said they were.”

              The ability to sense that the boundary between self and everything else is not absolute appears to be rooted in brains and ultimately in genes – see Dean Hamer’s work on this topic. Those who have had such experiences of oneness with the rest of the cosmos have often been dismissed by those who simply have a different genetic heritage which does not facilitate their experience of such things. But scientific investigation of the cosmos itself and of the roots of such experiences are the only way that such disputes should be settled. But experiencing the world to be a certain way and then investigating the evidence is different than merely coming up with something arbitrary and then shielding that proposal from analysis in relation to evidence.

  • Peter Hardy

    To discuss the statement of faith, here is a similar creed I wrote a few years ago which I don’t think adds or takes away anything from the PCA one. I’d like to know what you think, but perhaps you prefer their one because it is shorter:

    We honour one Father, the creative basis of reality,
    The Son whose wisdom enriches all creation,
    And the Spirit that unites and guides us to the truth.

    This Trinity, the ultimate truth of love,
    Made the visible and invisible for us to share,
    So that in virtuous simplicity,
    We may come to share in its bliss.

    We follow Jesus Christ, the revealed Son and Wisdom,
    Who confronted the powers of this world,
    And was put to death for his virtue,
    But who was vindicated by the Spirit of God,
    By witness to his Apostles.

    We affirm one communion of such followers,
    Open to all people,
    Without fear of who we are,
    All judgement being reserved to God.

    Through this Church we celebrate the gifts of life,
    And the ultimate truth of forgiveness revealed by Christ in his
    sacrifice.
    So to do we forgive the wrongs of those who harm us,
    Filling ourselves with the universal love which is life eternal,
    Both today and with hope for the future.

    God can be seen in our world,
    In those in anguish, like that of Christ on the cross,
    From whom food is withheld,
    And dignity, autonomy and justice are denied,
    To whom chance has been cruel.

    So too do we see God act,
    In those who work to right such wrongs,
    And to correct all abuses of the Earth and its creatures.
    We thereby devote our hopes and service to building
    The new rule of peace.

    Purified into the new community,
    We become new as part of Christ’s eternal life,
    Dying to sin on His cross and rising with Him to new spiritual life,
    Without fear of death or the evils of this world.

    P.S. I am the founder of these Facebook groups: http://www.facebook.com/groups/progressivecatholics
    http://www.facebook.com/groups/ISPRH


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