Progressive Christianity intentionally seeks to evolve and adapt with the times so that the faith can continue to be sensible, relevant, and meaningful in the lives of people. As part of this, we tend to believe that Christianity isn’t the “best,” “only,” “right,” and/or “true,” religion or way that God is at work in the world. We honor that the Divine is fully at work in all of the major world religions – and beyond.
Perhaps a bit like John Wesley before us, a hallmark of progressive Christianity is a liberated freedom to rummage through the theological, ecclesiastical, and liturgical trunks in Grandma’s attic to explore, try out, and weave in the many gems we come across from all across Christian history – including gems that we might find within the very diverse: Roman Catholic trunk, Eastern Orthodox trunk, Coptic trunk, Gnostic trunk, mainline Protestant trunk, Anabaptist trunk, Evangelical trunk, Mysticism trunk, and more.
Moreover, knowing that Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on spirituality, we are increasingly open to exploring the trunks in the attics in the houses of other world religions and spiritual traditions. I’ve been known to weave in Buddhist parables in sermons that I preach – right along with ones attributed to Jesus. And I sure love the “upaya” concept that speaks of the “many ways and skillful means” that enlightening insight can be shared with people – which I translate to the many ways that God touches us and evokes salvific (healing & wholeness fostering) transformation in our lives.
And yet, I wonder if it might be possible to go “too” far in our explorations, integrations, and appropriations. Let’s wonder together.
Let’s consider the Ship of Theseus – an ancient Greek paradox (koan?). Theseus buys a ship and assembles a crew and heads off across the seas for a long voyage. Along the way, the ship runs into storms and wear and tear, and repairs are made with new materials. In various ports, new sails are hoisted, new planks, new decks, new hull, new rudder, new bow, new stern, new crew members, etc… and, by the time it reaches its destination, every part of that ship has been replaced with new materials. The only thing that remains the same is Theseus– the owner of the ship. Question: Did he arrive to his destination on the same ship on which he began his voyage? Think about it.
Still more. As Thomas Hobbes went on to inquire centuries later, what would happen if the original boards and planks were gathered up after they were replaced, mended, and used to build a different ship. Which ship would be the actual Ship of Theseus? Mind blown.
Okay, let’s apply this to current progressive Christianity. Not a few progressive Christians also practice yoga, vipassana meditation, chant at kirtans, and/or attend rituals on the various solstices. I do several of those things and, along with more conventionally Christian offerings, offer free Yoga taught by a non-Christian, Meditation taught a mindfulness instructor who isn’t Christian, and we hold a gathering for students who identify as spiritual but not religious. Are we still a Christian church/campus ministry? While most of the readers of this newsletter would likely say yes, it is the case that the vast majority of evangelical and more conservative Christians may well disagree.
But what of the person who participates in a progressive Christian congregation on Christmas and Easter, but who mostly reads about non-dualism (based on the Hindu concept of advaita – the idea that all of the universe is one essential reality, and that all facets and aspects of the universe is ultimately an expression or appearance of that one reality, so there really is no good or bad or right or wrong..), participates in yoga, meditation, kirtans, dharma talks, and/or auspicious astrological rites and rituals? Still a Christian? I suppose one might say that, like art, it’s in the eye of the beholder (or self-identifier). Now, what of those who contend that all progressive Christian pastors would do well to tell their parishioners that they should take part in ayahuasca (a Peruvian mind-altering drug consumed in tea) journeys? What of those who contend that there is no God or that we should embrace seeing ourselves as “post-theist” or “post-Christian?”
I own several bikes. One is my “Franken-bike.” It’s a sort of bike that is weird assemblage of parts from various bikes. It started out as a mountain bike, but is now part cruiser and part commuter as well. In fact, only the frame and seat stem are original. While fun to ride, it doesn’t ride as well for commuting as a commuter bike, it doesn’t cruise very well as a cruiser, and I certainly wouldn’t take it off road. Come to think of it, I haven’t ridden it much. Frankly, I’m not even sure why I still have it other than for the curiosity/freak factor. One way I do my part to help “keep Boulder weird” I suppose.
Now, for the rubber to hit the road. The U.S. is facing a time of civil unrest. Statues of Confederate generals are being toppled. The KKK and Nazis are holding rallies promoting white supremacy. Much pushing, shoving, and punching has ensued. A car was driven into a crowd of counter-protestors – injuring many and killing one. This is a matter of life and death.
As a mystic, I’m at a point in life where I don’t have to be a Christian. My connection to the Divine is primary and I do more and more solo connecting. However, I chose to maintain my affiliation with and involvement in Christianity for very specific reasons. Among them, I value its heritage of prophetic speaking truth to power. We have a sense of right and wrong. Good and bad. Holy and Evil. Certain other religions traditions teach that there is no good or bad, or right or wrong, resulting in certain consequences – namely a tendency to moral quietude. An oppressive and unjust caste system comes to mind – where generations of people in certain families are doomed to lives of poverty and squalor.
Let me attempt a logical flow and syllogism. Progressive Christianity is a form of Christianity. Christianity is a religion (not just “a relationship” as the evangelicals wish to say). Christianity is an Abrahamic religion. The Abrahamic religions are covenantal and involve a sense of right relationship to the Divine, to ourselves, and to others. Progressive Christianity involves concepts of right and wrong, just and unjust. There are progressive Christian understandings of sin and evil.
A case could be made that progressivechristianity.org’s “8 Points of progressive Christianity” are a bit covenantal. One needn’t subscribe to supernatural theism to be covenantal. Many progressive Christians embrace panentheism, and many are mystics, and as such we tend to sense a both/and concerning Divinity – immanently within, and transcendently beyond, us. An “I-thou” still meaningfully applies.
As I’ve contended on other forums
progressive Christianity is the post-modern influenced evolution of historic mainline liberal Christianity – and it is an heir of the Social Gospel movement.
To the extent that my assertion is correct, we’d do well to re-familiarize ourselves with the Social Gospel’s aims to help bring about a world that is more just, with less war, and more health and wholeness for as many people as possible. We pursue those things because they are right and their opposites are wrong. If we find ourselves reading more authors lauding non-dualism, and less of the Bible or Martin Luther King, Jr., we should be concerned (possibly – see p.s.).
Now before anyone accuses me of being a closet conservative or fundamentalist, as a practicing yogi, I’m fully aware that authentic yoga (not the exercise class type) involves the teaching of the yamas and the niyamas – the “dos and the don’ts.” I’m also aware that there is a recent rise in “engaged Buddhism.” I’m glad to see that. However, I’d suggest that this is largely in response to the East’s exposure to the West – e.g., Thomas Merton’s relationship with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, etc., as well as a felt need of Westerners (including many Jews) who take to Buddhism bringing along a yearning to have it motivate and stimulate work toward justice and needed social change.
I recently participated in a 5 day meditation retreat that was based on non-dualism. Over 70 of us sat for 2 hours three times a day. I was very much blessed by the experience and felt much shift taking place within me. Yet, I felt a gnawing critique about the logical implications of some of what I was hearing. It seemed that the gist was that “there isn’t any good or bad, there’s only physical feelings that we feel and sense in our bodies and we can breathe into them and find that we’re okay, we don’t need to do anything to improve anything, and all is well just as it is.”
This is helpful in certain ways – as it can lead to increased healing, self-compassion and self-love. Where it can fall apart is if I’m sitting on a plane at the gate across the aisle from a dark skinned Muslim man who is making the xenophobic person next to him uncomfortable and then I see the uncomfortable passenger seek to have that Muslim fellow kicked of the plane. And I witness it escalate. If I know how the whole thing started and I just “breathe into my physical sensations knowing that all is well and perfect as it is” and quietly allow that man to be ejected from the plane, I am complicit in that injustice. And it’s not just my familiarity with, and appreciation of, the secular U.S. Constitution and the American legal and political system that convict me.
I believe Jesus and his early followers – and many more recent followers and kindred spirits – call us to not meekly pass by when we see someone beaten up on the side of the road; and to not timidly remain silent in the face of injustice; and to not carry on with life as usual when the powers that be conspire to increase global warming.
Let me say it clearly. White supremacy is sin. Racism is evil. Murder is wrong. And we are called to confront, challenge, and reduce each of them.
In Christ, XX Roger
Rev. Roger Wolsey is a United Methodist pastor and author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity
Roger’s other blogs on Patheos
p.s. As a good progressive Christian, I can’t settle for simplistic truth claims or discussions – the expected 900 word blogs don’t allow for much nuance. It is the case that if one really goes deep with the teachings of non-dualism, one can discern compatibility with Christian panentheism and mysticism. In both cases, ones ethics aren’t really driven by a legalistic sense of dos and don’ts, but more from a shared place/knowing/experience of compassion and love.
Jesus is presented as having taught and modeled an ethic of love not of law (“embrace the Shema, love your neighbor as yourself, and do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”). Sure, there were a few times where he radicalized certain laws – but in doing so, he got to the spiritual heart of things. Examples, (paraphrased) “You have heard it said it is wrong to commit adultery, but I tell you that if you even look at someone with lust in your heart you have committed adultery against them…You have heard “an eye for an eye” – but I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, boldly and defiantly turn to them the other cheek toward them. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, shame them and hand over your underthings as well. If a Roman soldier forces you to go one mile, shame them by going with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; and, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Matthew 5:27-43)
Similarly, in non-dualism, one sees that when people intentionally harm others they do so from a place of ignorance for if they really knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t do that. And, if one is truly engaging in non-dualist meditation, one will come to a place of deep compassion for self and others and hence naturally seek to make choices and act according to what is most loving and compassionate in any moment and that may well mean acting toward what is right and just. And, adding in the Hindu concept of karma, there is no “getting away” with wrong-doing and evil as it will result in people not attaining enlightenment, not being liberated from the cycle of samsara, and being reincarnated into a state that is less that desirable (yet, see again the earlier mention of the unjust caste system – which I contend is rationalization for an unjust systemic oppression). Granted, not all non-dualists are Hindus or believe in karma. The point is, without any sort of overt teaching that there is a right and wrong – and encouragement to do the right and avoid the wrong, it is my opinion and experience that many fellow humans may opt out of getting involved when they see wrong happening. I don’t subscribe to reincarnation. While I may not have a conventional view of the Christian notion of resurrection, that is my paradigm, with a focus on the present. This life is what we have, and we need to do good and act boldly for justice here and now.
Rev. Roger Wolsey is a United Methodist pastor and author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity
(Originally featured as an essay on the John Shelby Spong newsletter)