Pluralism, Pragmatism, Progressivism: Reflecting on Ten Years of Theological Training

Pluralism, Pragmatism, Progressivism: Reflecting on Ten Years of Theological Training May 31, 2009

14 After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Mark 1:14-20

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:17 “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

Acts 2:1-17

This sermon is dedicated to those who plowed the path before me, among them William James and his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson; Walter Rauschenbusch and his grandson Richard Rorty; as well as Stanley Hauerwas, Wendell Berry, John Dominic Crossan, Sallie McFague, and Rita Nakashima Brock.  As the 12th-century philosopher Bernard of Chartres said, “we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”


I have titled this sermon “Pluralism, Pragmatism, Progressivism: Reflecting on Ten Years of Theological Training.”  (An alternative title I considered is, “I’m a glutton for punishment!”)  The occasion is that two weeks ago I graduated from the Diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction program at San Francisco Theological Seminary.  I have also completed the coursework for the second part of the dual-degree program in which I am enrolled: the Doctor of Ministry.  I am currently working on my dissertation, which I hope to complete within the next two years.

In the process of writing this sermon, I realized that my recent graduation marks the tenth year I have spent in formal theological education: four years as an undergraduate Religion and Philosophy double major, three years as a Masters of Divinity student, and three years to date as a low-residency student at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Looking backward on ten years in theological classrooms, three themes emerge that I would like to share with you this morning: pluralism, progressivism, and pragmatism. I hope these themes will provide some guidance about what it means to follow the way of Jesus as a Western Christian in the 21st century.


The first of the three themes is pluralism.  One of my favorite college professors, The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Rogers, once predicted that in the 21st century Christianity would be shaped most decisively by how it addressed two areas: sexuality and pluralism.  First, by sexuality, he did not just mean homosexuality.  Although he certainly knew that same-sex relationships would be an influential factor, he also meant, among other related issues, that as people increasingly delayed marriage and as humans increasingly live longer that the issues of sexuality and singleness as well as sexuality after divorce or after a partner dies – would become more and more frequent realities that Christians would be forced to address.  More importantly for this morning, by pluralism, he meant that Christians would increasingly have to face the existence of other religious traditions that are as healthy and venerable as Christianity itself.

As many of you know, I was raised as an active participant in a big-steeple Southern Baptist Church in South Carolina.  I had many non-Southern Baptist friends, but it would have been fine with me if all 6 billion people on Earth were Southern Baptists.  And, of course, some Southern Baptists are still hell-bent on trying to make that the case. As I grew older I began to meet more and more non-Southern Baptists, whom I respected – who were kind, well-adjusted, smart, funny, competent human beings.  Some of them were not even Christian (gasp!).  My Southern Baptist church was the center of my world, but I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the claim that the most important decision anyone can make is whether or not to accept Jesus as Lord with the undeniable existence of so many incredible people, who either didn’t understand Jesus the same way I did or didn’t particularly care about Jesus one way or the other.

Using terminology from the late philosopher Richard Rorty that I have today, but did not have then, I was experiencing a de-centering.  My Southern Baptist church was the center of my world, and my church taught me that Jesus – as understood by the Southern Baptist Convention – was the one, true, right center of life, the universe, and everything.  But as I grew older I increasingly met people whose world centered on the Methodist church or the Catholic church as well as others whose world didn’t center around any religion; instead, their lives centered on their business, teaching, art, family, hobby, or favorite sports team.  In the face of so different centers of belief, I was increasingly unable to maintain with integrity the position that my Southern Baptist faith was the one, true center.  I eventually came to see that my personal experience parallels the de-centerings experienced by Christians in the past.

One of the first major de-centerings for Christians was the publication of astronomer Nicolai Copernicus’ 1543 book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, which argued – based on observable, verifiable evidence – that we live in a heliocentric, not geocentric, universe.  In other words, the Earth was de-centered from the incorrect assumption that our planet is the center of the universe.  We know today that there are over 100 billion galaxies in the universe, and each of those 100 billion galaxies is comprised of billions of stars.  Earth is only a small planet, orbiting one medium-sized star toward the edge of one spiral galaxy that, again, is only one among over 100 billion other galaxies in the universe.

As if Copernicus’ discovery were not enough, a second major de-centering was the publication of English naturalist Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, which de-centered the human species.  Then, less than fifty years later, at the turn of the 20th century, Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud de-centered the conscious mind by demonstrating the influence of the unconscious.  This revelation was followed a few years later by German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which de-centered our understandings of time and space.

In less than 500 years the Scientific Revolution we have come a long way.  We rightly celebrate modern medicine, space travel, instantaneous global communication, and many other marvels; but there are disconcerting elements as well.  Before the Scientific Revolution, it was easier to understand Jesus as the center of history, Earth at the center of the universe, and our egos as the center of ourselves – as well as to maintain a much more stable conception of space and time.  At the beginning of the 21st century, we find ourselves knowing much less for certain than was previously reasonable to claim.

Some have responded by becoming religious fundamentalists: clinging fearfully to traditional notions that are no longer tenable in the face of scientific evidence.  There are also scientific fundamentalists, who insist that the scientific method is the only valid means of obtaining knowledge.  However, neither the existence of God, nor the reality of personal, subjective religious experience can fully be addressed by the scientific method alone.

To share with you some of where I am personally in regard to the reality of all these de-centerings, I am not a relativist: it would be senseless to argue that just any way of doing things is equal to every other way.  Some ways of being in the world obviously form people to be cruel and selfish – and should be avoided and discouraged.  Instead, I would describe myself as a pluralist.  Looking at the wide diversity in the world, it seems self-evident that there is not just one, singular way to end up with healthy, compassionate human beings.  Instead, there are clearly many different cultures and religions which produce kind, well-adjusted, smart, funny, competent humans.  Of course, fundamentalists would assert that all those kind, well-adjusted, smart, funny, competent human beings are going straight to hell unless they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  To address the traditional Christian concern about eternal salvation, I would invite you to consider progressivism, the second theme that emerged as I reflected on the occasion of my tenth year of theological education.


Historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg is one of the most articulate and popular expositors of what it means to be a progressive Christian. Progressive Christians interpret their faith through – not only inherited tradition and external authorities – but also personal experience.  In his 2003 book The Heart of Christianity, Borg contrasts what he calls the “Earlier Paradigm” of Christianity with the “Emerging Paradigm,” which is emerging precisely in response the de-centerings produced by the Scientific Revolution.  I encourage you to read Borg’s writing for yourself, but, in particular, I would like to highlight the way Borg contrasts a focus among some Christians on the next world – that is on “An afterlife and what to believe or do to be saved” – with the increasing focus of progressive Christians on this world – that is, “Transformation in this life through relationship with God.” I am not saying that heaven is unimportant; rather, for too long, too many Christians have been overly focused on the next world, resulting in a neglect – and often abuse – of this world.

Importantly, the idea that the Christian life should center on transformation in this life is not new.  Remember our Gospel Lesson this morning from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, which was the first of the canonical Gospels to be written.  Beginning with the fourteenth verse we read, “After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”  Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I was taught that the “good news” is that if you accept that Jesus died on the cross for your sins, then you will go to heaven.  The bad news, of course, was that anyone who did not accept this fact would go to hell.  But that logic does not correlate with this morning’s Gospel reading.  Listen again: “After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”  Jesus is not proclaiming the good news of his impending crucifixion so that his death may be an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Jesus did not come to die. Instead, Jesus is proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, which he would proceed to embody through his life in this world.

You, of course, do not have to agree with me, but, in my understanding, it was precisely the conflict between the kingdom of God and the Empire of Caesar that got Jesus killed. Jesus died because his allegiance was, first and foremost, to living out God’s way of love and mercy, justice and grace.  Jesus’ commitment to God’s way put him in conflict with the religious leaders of his day, whose commitment was first to maintaining their own power, privilege, and possessions in this world through the institution of the Temple and only second to the ways of God.  Jesus’ commitment to God’s way also put him in conflict with the political leaders of his day, whose commitment was first to maintaining their own power, privilege, and possessions in this world through taxation and legislation.

These statements are not to claim that the first-century Jewish Temple or Roman Empire were all bad.  Instead, it is to say there were ways in which the leaders of both of these systems put their own self interest before God’s way – which is why, in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus doesn’t just say “believe the good news.”  Rather, he says, “repent, and believe in the good news.” By repent, he means change your life.  In Borg’s words, he means, you need transformation in this world through a first-hand relationship with God.

Jesus’ passion for the kingdom of God is why, in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of Mark, we read about the event that precipitated Jesus’ death at the hands of the Roman authorities.  We find Jesus:

driv[ing] out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple and … overturn[ing] the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves [all while saying], “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah to emphasize that God has been clear for a long time that God wants “a house of prayer for all the nations,” not a corrupt religious institution that is complicit with or oblivious to the plight of the poor and marginalized.

Jesus learned his unrelenting passion for the God’s way from the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah who came before him and similarly chastised the religious and political leaders of their own day, who similarly placed their self interest ahead of God’s way.  Listen, for example, to fifth chapter of the book of Amos, where the prophet says on behalf of God:

21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

As Jesus would do 700 years later, Amos is saying that if God has to choose between worship and justice, then God chooses justice.  God does not want to make this choice, but God’s preference is clear.

Consider, further, the larger context of our own theme verse here at Northminster, Micah 6:8, which has been widely heralded as a summation of the mitzvot, the 613 commandments in the Torah that detailed how to lead a holy life in ancient Israel.  Starting two verses earlier in verse six, we read:

6 “With what shall I come before God, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will God be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah stresses that God does not want burnt offerings or child sacrifice – and God’s abhorrence of child sacrifice did not change with the sacrifice of the one proclaimed to be God’s own son. Instead, the Hebrew prophetic tradition, of which Jesus was a part, is clear that God wants, first and foremost, for us to treat one another with justice and compassion – and to know God first-hand for ourselves.

Following in Micah’s footsteps, Jesus offered his own summary of the Law and the Prophets as follows:

“Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Committing ourselves to what Jesus called the Greatest Commandments – loving God and neighbor – is at the center of what it means to be a progressive Christian – a center that is not de-centered by Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, or Einstein.


In response to the reality of pluralism and the existence of progressive Christianity, I am increasingly coming to believe that what we need is not more people who believe something about Jesus competing against people that believe other things about the Qur’an or the Buddha or Science.  Instead, we need more people acting like Jesus by embodying a passionate commitment to God’s way of love and mercy, justice and grace in this time and place.  Accordingly, my third and final theme of pragmatism centers on actual, historical examples of people and communities who have made God’s dreams a reality, if only locally, regionally, or provisionally.

As some have joked, Christianity is not about “20 impossible things to believe before breakfast.” Instead, Christianity is a set of practices that cultivate habits of loving God and neighbor.  These practices help form a community of faith called the church that is centered on God’s ways of love and mercy, justice and grace.

The traditional Christian way of loving God is contemplative prayer: setting aside time and space each day to spend in God’s loving presence.  Jesus often withdrew from the crowds to spend time alone with God.  The traditional Christian way of loving others are the works of mercy as named by Jesus in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.  The “Great Commandment” practices of loving God and neighbor are how Christians have sought to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.  Indeed, it is not until the eleventh chapter of the book of Acts – after Jesus’ Ascension – that the “disciples were first called ‘Christians.’”  Until then, the disciples of Jesus were simply called “followers of the Way” – that is, people who tried to practice ways of loving God and neighbor the same way that Jesus did.

One of the earliest examples is the church at Jerusalem, which is described at the end of the second chapter of the book of Acts.  In response to the example of Jesus’ life and their first-hand experience with God at Pentecost,

44 [they] were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.

We see similar examples from the 4th century with the desert Mothers and Fathers and the early monastic communities; in the Middle Ages with Waldensians, the Beguines, and the Franciscans; and today with the New Monastic Communities like the Simple Way in Philadelphia, Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco,  Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina, and The Open Door in Atlanta – as well as the L’Arche Communities founded by Jean Vanier, the Catholic Worker Houses founded by Dorothy Day, and the Christian Peacemaker Teams from the Mennonite Tradition. Each of these communities, both historical and contemporary, demonstrate that kingdom of God is not just a dream; it is a practical, pragmatic way of transforming your life in this world through relationship with God and neighbor.

The hope demonstrated by Jesus, and these individuals and groups – who incarnated the way of Jesus in their own time and place – is that we do not have to respond to de-centerings with nihilism, apathy, or despair.  Instead, our invitation every moment of every day is, again and again, to reaffirm our person and communal commitment to God’s way of love and justice, mercy and grace as revealed in the life of Jesus.  What, then, is your answer at this moment – in this life – to Jesus’ call to “follow me”?



As we prepare to leave this place, I would like to share with you a benediction that has been traditionally called the “Franciscan Blessing” – from the order founded by St. Francis of Assisi.  Listen, in particular, for a word or phrase that may stands out to you or deeply resonate with you:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships, that you may live deep within your heart.  May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.  May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.  May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, that you may do what others claim cannot be done.

I invite you to listen to these words a second time.  And, later today, I invite you to ponder the word or phrase that stood out to you.  Be open to how God may be calling you.

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships, that you may live deep within your heart.  May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.  May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.  May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, that you may do what others claim cannot be done.

For Further Reading

(The descriptions of the books below are excerpted from published reviews)

On “Pluralism”

Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (2002).

His alternative title clarifies the content of the book: “Christianity and Other Religions: Problems and Promise.”  A related book of note is his latest book, which will be released at the end of July 2009: Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian.

On “Progressivism”

Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (2004).

Christianity appears to be at a crossroads, and religious historian Borg draws a distinction between what he calls an emerging paradigm and an earlier paradigm. The distinction is important because Christianity, he says, still makes sense and is the most viable religious option for millions. He contends the earlier paradigm, based upon a punitive God and believing in Christianity now for the sake of salvation later, simply doesn’t work for many people. It also doesn’t take into account the sacramental nature of religious belief; that is, religion as a vessel wherein the sacred comes to the faithful. Borg’s emerging paradigm is based upon the belief that one must be transformed in one’s own lifetime, that salvation means one is healed and made whole with God. He feels the new paradigm allows more people to be and become Christians. In his compelling proposal Borg consistently aligns the emerging paradigm with God, Jesus, the Bible, tradition, and religious practice, which constitute the heart of Christianity.

Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming (2008).

Sallie McFague has brought the fruit of decades of thinking about God and the world, about individual and community, about humanity and nature, about reality and metaphor, about the sacramental and the prophetic, to bear on the critical issue of climate change. She calls Christians to new feeling, new acting, and new thinking. A New Climate for Theology not only traces the distorted notion of unlimited desire that fuels our market system; it also paints an alternative idea of what being human means and what a just and sustainable economy might mean. Convincing, specific, and wise, McFague argues for an alternative economic order and for our relational identity as part of an unfolding universe that expresses divine love and human freedom. It is a view that can inspire real change, an altered lifestyle, and a form of Christian discipleship and desire appropriate to who we really are.

Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (1999).
Wink reclaims the divine realm as central to human existence by offering new ways of understanding our world in theological terms. He reformulates ancient concepts, such as God and the devil, heaven and hell, angels and demons, principalities and powers, in light of our modern experience. He helps us see heaven and hell, sin and salvation, and the powers that shape our lives as tangible parts of our day-to-day experience, rather than as mysterious phantoms. Based on his reading of the Bible and analysis of the world around him, Wink creates a whole new language for talking about and to God. Equipped with this fresh world view, we can embark on a new relationship with God and our world into the next millennium.

On “Science and Religion”

Christianity and Science: Toward a Theology of Nature by John F. Haught (2007).

Religion and Science do not have to conflict.  Haught should how they can fruitfully supplement one another and be mutually-informative.

On “Loving God”

Daniel Wolpert, Creating a Life With God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices (2003).

Daniel introduces you to twelve prayer practices that invite you to solitude and silence, to use your mind and imagination, to use your body and your creativity, and to connect with nature and community.  You’ll meet “traveling companions” from history like Ignatius and Julian of Norwich – individuals and groups who illuminate these prayers.  You’ll discover how classical approaches to God can deepen your prayer life today.  An appendix offers step-by-step instructions for praying the Jesus Prayer and the prayer of Examen, for walking the labyrinth, from praying with your body, and more – whether individually or in a group.

On “Pragmatism”

Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (2009).

In this panoramic view of two millennia of Christian history, Butler Bass (Christianity for the Rest of Us) attempts to give contemporary progressive (the author prefers the term “generative”) Christians a sense of their family history, refracted through little known as well as famous men and women whose work within and outside the institutional church fueled sometimes “alternative” practices as they tried to follow Jesus the Prophet. “Without a sense of history, progressive Christianity remains unmoored,” argues Butler Bass, a former columnist for the New York Times syndicate. Organized chronologically, each section of the book includes a chapter on religious observance and one on social justice, illuminating the author’s conviction that authentic Christianity can be discovered in the practice of loving God and neighbor. Laced with stories from the author’s own life and with contemporary examples of “generative Christianity,” Butler Bass’s version of Christian history includes familiar figures like the fourth-century church father Gregory of Nyssa and lesser-known individuals like the 19th century American abolitionist Maria Stewart.

Bass’s primary goal in this book is to restore what she calls “Great Command Christianity,” a reference to the tale of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ subsequent admonition to “go and do likewise.” Bass explores the myriad ways in which that teaching has been interpreted and embodied. The result is sometimes subversive and often joyful: In Bass’s telling, Jesus is a “religious revolutionary” who led a People’s Crusade of “humility, hospitality, and love.” Readers seeking a scholarly approach may want to look elsewhere; the writing here is deeply personal and airily structured. What emerges is a persuasive argument that the real traditions of the church are “faith, hope, and love entwined.”

Geez Magazine (

Because it’s time we untangle the narrative of faith from the fundamentalists, pious self-helpers and religio-profiteers. And let’s do it with holy mischief rather than ideological firepower.  We’ll explore the point at which word, action and image intersect, and then ignite. So let’s blaspheme the gods of super-powerdom, instigate spiritual action campaigns and revamp that old Picture Bible. We’ve set up camp in the outback of the spiritual commons. A bustling spot for the over-churched, out-churched, un-churched and maybe even the un-churchable. A location just beyond boring bitterness. A place for wannabe contemplatives, front-line world-changers and restless cranks. A place where the moon shines quiet, instinct runs mythic and belief rides a bike (or at least sits on the couch entertaining the possibility).

L’Arche (

A sign of hope to the wider world of the essential values of the heart, L’Arche communities, family-like homes where people with and without disabilities share their lives together, give witness to the reality that persons with disabilities possess inherent qualities of welcome, wonderment, spirituality, and friendship.  Perhaps an extraordinary notion in our fast-paced and consumer-driven society, L’Arche believes that these qualities, expressed through vulnerability and simplicity, actually make those with a disability our real teachers about what is most important in life: to love and to be loved.  From the first community begun in France in 1964, many communities have developed in various cultural and religious traditions around the world.)

New Monasticism (

Throughout the history of the church, monastic movements have arisen during times of rapid social change. When the minority movement that Jesus started was flooded by converts after Constantine, desert mothers and fathers went into their cells to discern a new way of life. When Europe collapsed into the Dark Ages, Benedictines carved out spaces for community and new life. When the advent of a cash economy revolutionized European culture, St. Francis started an order of beggars to proclaim the divine economy. Over the past 2000 years, monasticism has helped the church remember who we are.  Ours is a time of rapid social change. We are post-modern, post-Cold War, post-9/11, even post-Christian. All signs point to change, and we know things aren’t what they used to be. But we hardly know who we are. Amidst wars and rumors of war, our global identity crisis threatens to consume us. But we have hope. The Holy Spirit is stirring in the places overlooked by Empire to raise up a new monastic movement.

Christian Peacemaker Teams (

CPT arose from a call in 1984 for Christians to devote the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war. Enlisting the whole church in an organized, nonviolent alternative to war, today CPT places violence-reduction teams in crisis situations and militarized areas around the world at the invitation of local peace and human rights workers. CPT embraces the vision of unarmed intervention waged by committed peacemakers ready to risk injury and death in bold attempts to transform lethal conflict through the nonviolent power of God’s truth and love.  Initiated by Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers with broad ecumenical participation, CPT’s ministry of Biblically-based and spiritually-centered peacemaking emphasizes creative public witness, nonviolent direct action and protection of human rights.

On “Atonement”

Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (2008).

When Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker began traveling the Mediterranean world in search of art depicting the dead, crucified Jesus, they discovered something that traditional histories of Christianity and Christian art had underplayed or sought to explain away: it took Jesus Christ a thousand years to die.  During their first millennium, Christians filled their sanctuaries with images of Christ as a living presence in a vibrant world. He appears as a shepherd, a teacher, a healer, an enthroned god; he is an infant, a youth, and a bearded elder. But he is never dead. When he appears with the cross, he stands in front of it, serene, resurrected. The world around him is ablaze with beauty. These are images of paradise—paradise in this world, permeated and blessed by the presence of God. But once Jesus perished, dying was virtually all he seemed able to do. Saving Paradise offers a fascinating new lens on the history of Christianity, from its first centuries to the present day, and asks how its early vision of beauty evolved into one of torture. In tracing the changes in society and theology that marked the medieval emergence of images of Christ crucified, Saving Paradise exposes the imperial strategies embedded in theologies of redemptive violence and sheds new light on Christianity’s turn to holy war. It reveals how the New World, established through Christian conquest and colonization, is haunted by the loss of a spiritual understanding of paradise here and now. Brock and Parker reconstruct the idea that salvation is paradise in this world and in this life, and they offer a bold new theology for saving paradise. They ground justice and peace for humanity in love for the earth and open a new future for Christianity through a theology of redemptive beauty.

Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us by Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock; 288 pages (Beacon Press 2002).

“We were convinced Christianity could not promise healing for victims of intimate violence as long as its central image was a divine parent who required the death of his child,” writes Brock. The two authors take turns communicating their views, sharing deep and painful traumas (such as Parker’s childhood sexual abuse, estranged marriage and abortion) as they weigh the concept of “redemptive suffering.” Too many Christian women, they argue, have remained in abusive situations because they have been taught that their suffering is necessary for spiritual growth. The authors are serious theologians, confidently challenging such explicators of the faith as Anselm and Abelard, Wesley and Whitehead.

On “The Historical Jesus”

God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now by John Dominic Crossan (2008).

In this fine study of civilization, culture and transformation, Father Crossan asks important questions: have those who resort to violence as a means of change succeeded in their quest for empire? Or has nonviolence been more effective in bringing about lasting change? Crossan, professor emeritus at De Paul University and author of several well-received works including The Historical Jesus, believes that the solution is not in violent intervention but in the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. But how, and when, will this Kingdom come? In comparing the missions of Jesus and John the Baptist, Crossan states his idea clearly: “Jesus differed precisely from John in emphasizing not the future-presence but the already-presence of God’s Kingdom as the Great Divine Cleanup of the world.” In other words, Christ saw the Kingdom as a present and active reality. Crossan uses the teachings of Jesus to promote his thesis, and then turns to an unlikely ally—the Apostle Paul—by suggesting that Paul’s emphasis on equality and freedom helped carry forward Jesus’ program of nonviolent change. Crossan’s latest work presents a complex subject in a clear and powerful way, and it merits a wide readership.

Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus by John S. Kloppenborg

An introduction to the study of Q, the collection of Jesus’ sayings long hypothesized as the source for the canonical gospels of Matthew and Luke.

“Bonus Points”: Reading the Old School Sources

William James, William James: Writings 1902-1910: The Varieties of Religious Experience / Pragmatism / A Pluralistic Universe / The Meaning of Truth / Some Problems of Philosophy / Essays.

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher trained as a medical doctor. He wrote influential books on the young science of psychology, educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and the philosophy of pragmatism. He was the brother of novelist Henry James and of diarist Alice James. William James was born in New York City, the son of Henry James Sr., an independently wealthy and notoriously eccentric Swedenborgian theologian well acquainted with the literary and intellectual elites of his day. James interacted with a wide array of writers and scholars throughout his life, including his godfather Ralph Waldo Emerson.

William James’s Gifford Lectures of 1901–1902 have been heralded by some as the greatest lectures ever to be presented in the series and perhaps the most seminal of his works (alongside The Principles of Psychology). Published initially in 1902, The Varieties of Religions Experience: A Study in Human Nature has stood the test of time and been republished thirty-six times, while the board of the Modern Library declared it to be the second best nonfiction book of the twentieth century. The lectures address religious experience not at the corporate level, but focus on personal religious experience. It has been suggested that one cannot read the lectures without being struck by the resonance of James’s own individual struggles with severe depression. The published version of the lecture series continues to be regarded as a fundamental text in the study of religious experience.

Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was the leading proponent of the Social Gospel Movement whose mission was to reform society to meet the social needs of the poor through the ministrations of the institutional church. And, in the wake of the success of Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics, comes an anniversary edition of Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, a book which outsold every other religious volume for three years and which has become a classic and mainstay for any Christian seriously interested in social justice. PBS has named Rauschenbusch one of the most influential American religious leaders in the last 100 years, and Christianity Today named this book one of the top books of the century that have shaped contemporary religious thought. So it seems fitting on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Christianity and the Social Crisis that Rauschenbush’s great-grandson should bring this classic back into print, adding a response to each chapter by a well-known contemporary author such as Jim Wallis, Tony Camplo, Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Stanley Hauerwas, and others. Between 1886 and 1897, he was pastor of the Second German Baptist Church in the “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York City, an area of extreme poverty. As he witnessed massive economic insecurity, he began to believe that Christianity must address the physical as well as the spiritual needs of humankind. Rauschenbusch saw it as his duty as a minister and student of Christ to act with love by trying to improve social conditions.


1 For a classic discussion of the intersection between pluralism, progressivism, and pragmatism, see William James, William James: Writings 1902-1910: The Varieties of Religious Experience / Pragmatism / A Pluralistic Universe / The Meaning of Truth / Some Problems of Philosophy / Essays.

2 For more on models for understanding the relationship between Christianity and other religions see the work of Paul Knitter, including his soon-to-be-published book Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian.

3 For a similar, but more extensive, historical account of how we arrived at our current situation as well as “where we should go from here,” see Phyllis Tickle, Great Emergence, The: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.

4 On the possibilities for healthy, mutually-informative interactions between science and religion as well as each discipline’s strengths and weaknesses, see John Haught, Christianity and Science: Toward a Theology of Nature.  For the most perceptive articulation I know of to date on the fruit of such dialogue, see Philip Clayton, Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action.

5 For the larger historical context of progressive Christianity’s development, see Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity: 1950-2005.

6 Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, 15.

7 For how to prevent further abuse of this world, see Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming.

8 See Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire.

9 For more detail on how the kingdom movement of Jesus became about the “next world,” see John S. Kloppenborg, Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus.

10 See John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now.

11 For more on how the kingdom movement of Jesus relates to “systems and structures,” not only to individuals, see Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. For an even more recent account, see Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope.

12 Specifically, Jesus is quoting Isaiah 56:7.

13 For an introductory indictment against the idea that God required, encouraged, or allowed the death of God’s son – an interpretation, which has been termed “divine child abuse” – see Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. For a more advanced exploration, see Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity.

14 For an accessible, practical guide to cultivating first-hand experiences with God, see Daniel Wolpert, Creating a Life With God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices.

15 See, for example, Acts 9:2, “[and [they] asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”

16 For a “thick description” of Great Commandment Christianity in the 21st century, see Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.

17 For more information on these and other related groups see the appendix of this sermon as well as Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story.

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