Making Room at Christ’s Table: The Gift of Progressive Christianity

Making Room at Christ’s Table: The Gift of Progressive Christianity January 21, 2015
Flickr Creative Commons Copyright by timlewisnm
Flickr Creative Commons Copyright by timlewisnm

You might underestimate how large the Christian umbrella is.

This simple sentence appeared in red ink in the margins of a reflection essay I had written for an interreligious dialogue course in graduate school.

It changed my life.

The professor, a kindly and soft-spoken Jesuit, had written it as the gentlest of rebukes to my conclusion in that paper that my growing heterodox beliefs and increasing doubts might mean I no longer fit underneath the sacred canopy of Christianity. 

At the time, I had dropped the divinity portion of my degree, was pursuing a purely academic track in graduate school, and was blogging anonymously at my first (now closed) site, Unorthodoxology. At the time, I had lost my faith in the most foundational and traditional doctrines of the church.

At the time, I was ready to move on from Christianity all together.

But that one sentence, innocuous as it might seem, completely reframed my faith and my future.

Without that sentence, I likely would have wandered off into the world of the Nones or the Spiritual but Not Religious.

Without that sentence, I likely never would have become a priest at all.

Now, to be clear, there is nothing wrong with the Spiritual but Not Religious or the Nones. I have deep sympathies with folks who no longer feel comfortable sitting in churches or no longer feel like they fit under the umbrella of Christianity.

But, just as I did in the throes of agnosticism and unbelief, I think there is a tendency because of our obsession with belief as intellectual assent to underestimate just how wide that umbrella of Christianity really is.

Now, that sentence didn’t erase my doubts. It didn’t magically impart orthodox belief. It didn’t solve my wrestling with spiritual darkness and with a tendency toward agnosticism and unbelief. It didn’t immediately make the Nicene Creed something I could say without dozens of mental hoops and rationalizations.

But it did make room for me. It made room for me in Christ’s church and at Christ’s table. And that grace-filled welcome made all the difference.

It reminded me of what I knew intellectually was true spiritually as well — that agnosticism, doubt, and demythologization is an important and integral part of faith development.

It reminded me that no one gets to pick a singular moment of doubt or outright unbelief to declare a person outside the bounds of the Christian journey, because God is in the midst of doubt and unbelief just as surely as God is in the midst of certainty and confident belief.

It reminded me that sometimes doubt and unbelief are exactly what’s needed to open a person up to compassion, empathy, and love of neighbor. 

Looking back, I see now how many Christians at the time made room for my doubts and for me at Christ’s table. Like my parish priest who knew my doubts and struggles but encouraged my writing, who opened up places for me to speak during services, who asked if I would serve on Vestry, and, eventually, who walked with me through the ordination process.

In short, in the absence of perfect belief, she invited me to the practice of being Christian.

This, to me, is the gift of Progressive Christianity. 

It made room for me at Christ’s table when I thought there was none.

It offered grace to me when I had none for myself.

It didn’t say I had to believe certain things to be welcomed, but trusted that in welcoming me, I would, at some point, experience God again, and experience God in a completely transfigured way.

It suggested to me not to be so arrogant as to think that my doubts and disbelief were so unique and profound that I was completely alone in them. It gave me companions and guides along the Way. 

It invited me to live as a Christian even if I didn’t quite believe as one traditionally would.

This is the gift not just of Progressive Christianity, but also of liturgical Christianity, which suggests that the law of prayer is the law of belief. That maxim — lex orandi, lex credendi — is if nothing else a call to understand belief as something we embody and enact not something we intellectually comprehend and assent to.

Now, there have always been strains of Christianity concerned with right belief, with orthodoxy, and with individual belief. There have always been heresy hunters, ferreting out in the name of God those who don’t hold to traditional beliefs. With social media and the Internet age, this democratization of the Inquisition has become something of a obsession in some circles.

That’s why we desperately need more Christians who are willing to make room within Christianity for people who just aren’t sure, for people with nagging doubts, and for people who just can’t believe the way tradition says they are supposed to.

We need Christians who will be companions along the Way with the doubters and disbelievers not guardians of orthodoxy erecting walls of exclusion to keep them away until they come around to orthodoxy.

Lately, though, I’ve seen this ethic of inclusion and open-mindedness even among progressive Christians erode some. It worries me when I see progressive Christians fighting for what the right way to believe is rather than making joyous room at Christ’s table for the rejected.

Because, here’s the thing. Were it not for a Jesuit making room for me, I would not be here today. Were it not for parish priests making room for me, I would not be here today. I would not have started working through the long and painful process of demythologization nor would I have experienced the joys of the second naivete and of remythologization.

I would have stopped listening for God, and never heard the divine call that would lead me to the home I never knew existed, to where I fit, to Christ’s table set with bread and wine.

I would not now, more than a decade later, be a priest.

Now, as a priest, I get to give that gift back to others in the midst and throes of doubts and disbelief. I get to welcome the unorthodox, to embrace the agnostic, to listen to those whose faith has evaporated.

I get to remind them, like I was reminded, not to underestimate just how wide the umbrella of Christianity is and just how long the pilgrimage of faith really is.

I get to remind them there is room at Christ’s table even for them.

Especially for them.

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  • MisterDavid

    Hate to argue for the sake of it, but what you are describing here doesn’t sound uniquely (or even particularly) progressive to me. Pastoral, yes; kind, definitely; but theologically progressive? Not really. I don’t see anything here that wouldn’t comfortably fit within any of the strands of Christianity through which I’ve passed.

    Although maybe I just got lucky 🙂

    • You might well have gotten lucky. Many people I’ve spoken with felt like their experiences with doubt were not accepted or valued.

      What would a theologically progressive response to someone experiencing doubt, disbelief, or agnosticism? What would a theologically conservative response be?

      • David J

        I agree. Too often I have seen doubters’ concerns treated with condescension or, worse, rejected outright. It seems that while some claim to be seeking “a new way to be the church” what they really want is for this “new way” to be very much like the old familiar way, and have little patience with those who are truly seeking a new experience of “church”.

      • charlesburchfield

        addicts main concern is to ‘protect their supply’ also addicts of any stripe including religious addicts do not have the capacity or motivation to grow up, take responcibility, have empathy or honesty. i know b/c i am one. (more or less in recovery thank god!)

      • MisterDavid

        Well what I was meaning is that your description is more of a skilled, loving, pastorally-gifted person, than of someone with a particular theological bent. I don’t know what contexts you have been in, but in England at least lines like ‘doubt is the shadow cast by faith’ (and other Philip Yancey-esque stuff) are the norm. I have never seen someone rejected for their spiritual struggles – usually they are commended for being honest enough to express them.

        Perhaps the thing you are putting your finger on is a (fear-based) desire not to engage with those things which we ourselves find uncomfortable. It’s easier to push someone away than to engage in the riddles of God that take us outside of our comfort-zone. And maybe that is an affliction more common to conservatives, though like I said I don’t see a particular theological basis for it, except perhaps that strain of (Calvinistic?) Protestantism that tends to choose separation from others for the sake of not being ‘watered-down’.

      • I see where you are coming from, but check out the response from eMatters2 above. This kind of response is fairly typical, at least of conservative American Christianity, in which doubt is far more often seen as a spiritual weakness to be conquered. And the response is with apologetics rather than acceptance. It is disturbingly common here for folks to experience rejection for their spiritual struggles or to simply get hammered by even progressives for critiquing or doubting certain doctrines of the church. Perhaps it is different in your context in England.

        But I agree that the appropriate pastoral response for anyone would be acceptance. I don’t necessarily think the appropriate response is always the typical one. I don’t think they are necessarily mutually exclusive and/or not related.

      • R Vogel

        Watching somewhat from the outside, I no longer identify as a ‘Christian,’ I think that like all counter-cultural movements Progressive Christianity was once a diverse collection of beliefs but as it has gained traction boundaries are being drawn. This seems to be the way of things. I am not sure you can really stop it.

      • charlesburchfield

        i think what cannot be stopped is ‘elitistism’ takeovers: you know, a priviliged, well educated class, financiallly/professionally successful dominating convos writting all the relevant books making the rounds on oprah. but maybe the antidote to the infection of progressive entitlement/arrogance is the anonymous post that trips you out of the bubble & back into the stream of consciousness of the holy spirit where you can breath and it’s fresh and freeky!

  • anna

    It’s been years since “religious” writing has brought tears to my eyes. This did.
    Thank you.

  • Kara Laughlin

    Thank you.

  • This is postmodern gibberish. Of course people can come with their doubts. Authentic Christians spend tons of time and resources on apologetics so they can address those for people. But I never see the “Christian” Left make any attempt at apologetics. They are too busy attacking the word of God (“Did God really say . .. .”)

    If people deny the deity and exclusivity of Jesus, mock the word of God, etc. as the “Christian” Left does, then we have a precise theological term for them: Non-Christians.

    • There’s room at the table for you, too, even if we might disagree on this.

      • What table? The table of Christ? I won’t be unequally yoked.

      • charlesburchfield

        hey e, you seem really really angry about more than what is going down right here right now. i thought at first you might be some class of troll but i feel there is a person in you who is much afraid that the foundation is slipping under your feet.

      • Baiting your opponents, or trolling, is exactly what Jesus taught to do. Greek philosophers did it all the time. Doing it online today in modern times is the white man’s privilege. 😉

      • charlesburchfield

        Tim, trolling is an art I think!

      • Guest

        Troll calling someone else a troll?

        Oh, the irony!


      • Gwen Acres

        Oh dear…

        My journey changed me over time. You might surprise yourself someday!

      • Who says you own the table?

        But here in the U.S. our sectarian Christians merely quarrel like talent agencies disputing who owns the screen rights to the Jesus Christ story. We’re hassling over the ownership to one of the most valuable properties of all time.

        –Timothy Leary (2005) Who Owns the Jesus Property? (Chap. 3) Start Your Own Religion. Ronin Publishing. p. 36.

      • charlesburchfield

        wow! good quote! JESUS(t.m.)

      • I didn’t say I owned it. I said it is Christ’s table (it was pretty clear — re-read it).

        My point is that his table was well-defined in the Bible. The “Christian” Left mocks the Bible at every turn.

      • You’re acting as if you’re the Table Captain, and nobody is invited but those whom you invite. Quit the charade.

      • LOL. Thanks again for proving that the “Christian” Left and the rabid atheists are virtually indistinguishable. That’s my point here! (And that’s a dig at them, not you.)

        Christ-haters like you and progressive “Christian” wolves agree: Jesus isn’t divine, the Bible isn’t the word of God, Jesus isn’t the only way of salvation, etc.

      • Thanks again for proving that the Talibangelicals like you and the rabid Taliban are virtually indistinguishable. But then we knew that already.

        “[…] the Quran derives from a Syriac Christian lectionary.”
        The Christian Origins of Islam, by Peter Leithhart

        “Both Christianity and Islam are now antique political systems and secularism is the clear victor. Christianity only seems more peaceful than Islam because it is protected within secular political systems.”
        Is Islam the most violent religion?
        Diane Agorio, Oct. 24, 2014

      • Guest

        The man/woman is obviously ill.

        Goes around posting offensive, caustic remarks, and then plays “gotcha!” when people respond negatively to him/her.

        Very sad. I can’t imagine what his/her personal life is like.

      • Guest

        He’s just trolling you. He does it all the time. Don’t sweat it.

    • Eve Fisher

      Allow me to suggest that you’ve been reading the wrong blogs. Or listening to someone else’s idea of what the Christian Left is. I have never attacked the word of God in my life, or denied the deity of Jesus, but I am a Progressive Christian, and I believe that Jesus meant what He said: ” For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

      • Hi Eva,

        I’ve been following the “Christian” Left for years and was in Leftist churches (Disciples of Christ and Methodist) for decades before I wised up and left. Examples: Founders of the “Christian” Left Facebook site include The “Christian” Left, led by Mark “Jesus is not my God” Sandlin and Chuck “Jesus is not the only way but He sure is a bigot” Currie. Sample from Sandlin’s blog: Pretty subtle, eh?

        Then there is Jim “the Gospel is all about wealth redistribution” Wallis. And so many more. If you don’t deny Jesus’ deity or question the authority of the Bible, that’s great!

      • Eve Fisher

        You do realize that people are writing offensive blogs on all the channels? Try David French sometime, who apparently really does believe that God is a Republican American:

        I used to read and listen to people who said what I consider offensive, especially those who were “Gospel of Prosperity” types (Jesus died so that I could be rich, rich, rich!) and “Gospel of Ayn Rand” types (It isn’t selfish if I do it). But I realized that looking for ways of offense is actually the exact opposite of “seek peace and pursue it”. Not to mention that God doesn’t need me to ferret out all the wrong-thinking of the world: just in myself.

        So, my suggestion is that we stop looking for offense, and find brothers and sisters. They are everywhere, for, as Jesus said, “I have come to save sinners,” and Paul: “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

      • I bet you deny the deity of us all, which was Jesus’ point, you naughty, naughty boy! 😉

        “I am a son of God,” well there’s the whole thing in a nutshell. If you read the King James Bible… You will see in italics, in front of the words “son of God,” the “son of God.” Most people think the italics are for emphasis. They’re not. The italics indicate words interpolated by the translators. You will not find that in the Greek. In the Greek it says, a son of God.

        It seems to me here perfectly plain. That Jesus has got it in the back of his mind that this isn’t something peculiar to himself. So when he says, “I am the Way, no Man comes to the Father but by me.” This “I am” this “Me” is the divine in us.

        We are sons of, or of the nature of God. Manifestations of the divine. This discovery is the gospel. That is the Good News. But this has been perpetually repressed throughout the history of Western religion…

        Alan Watts Jesus and His Religion

      • Not sure where you dig up your sources, but the Bible most certainly does not teach that we are all Gods. I recommend getting a good study Bible, or doing a quick Internet search on a passage before saying silly things about it.

      • You simply can’t address why “the” in “the Son of God” is a totally dishonest translation. So let’s talk about me! Where I “dig up” my sources! What good study Bible I need! *chuckle*

      • Distributing wealth? “Liberal distribution” is Biblical. You might want to crack open that Bible some day and read it, instead of whacking people over the head with your misunderstandings of it.

        • “…to each according to his ability.” ~Matthew 25:15
        • “…not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.” ~ Acts 4:32
        • “…and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” ~Acts 4:35
        • “…the daily distribution.” ~Acts 6:1
        • “…your liberal distribution…” 2 Corinthians 9:13

        And now we know where Karl Marx got his famous motto; “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is straight from the Bible.

      • Yeah, atheist Karl Marx went to his go-to source, the Bible. You, and he, have no idea of the context and invent the notion that Jesus was saying that the government should be the middleman to ensure everyone did that. Nice try!

      • This is what you sound like bleating “context” at every turn:

    • And you’ve fallen for traditional gibberish, a 3000 year old fear insurance confidence trick.

      […] they perform their ritual, and persuade not only individuals, but whole cities, that expiations and atonements for sin may be made by sacrifices and amusements which fill a vacant hour, and are equally at the service of the living and the dead; the latter sort they call mysteries, and they redeem us from the pains of hell, but if we neglect them no one knows what awaits us.

      –Plato (4th century BCE) The Republic. Book II.

      And yes, your fear insurance is a confidence game.

      • Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
      • Ephesians 3:12 confidence through faith
      • 1 Timothy 3:13 increased confidence in their faith

      • Your quotes, as in your other comments, prove nothing, because you begged the question on your definitions. But thanks for proving my primary point: Anti-Christians like you have views indistinguishable from fakes like the author of this post.

  • Eve Fisher

    Thank you. It’s interesting reading this blog entry because today I was thinking about why so many “liberals” – even (gasp!, how dare we!) us non-Catholics! – like Pope Francis, and the reason isn’t, by and large, that we’re hoping that he will change the basic teaching of the Catholic church. The reason is because he treats people like human beings: instead of instantly telling a gay person, or a divorced woman, or a number of others that they are sinners! And need to repent! Right away! Before he, the holy of holies, has anything to do with them! Instead, he says, “Who am I to judge?” He holds them. He loves them in the light of God. And that’s what people are longing for. He makes them feel that – for a moment – the Church is actually open to sinners. That the umbrella includes even them.

  • Kimberly Zarley

    I don’t know what churches people are going to when they claim there was no room for them at the table. I’ve never been to a church that didn’t welcome everyone to the table…and I’ve been to Catholic, Charismatic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, UCC, Disciples Churches, and more. i’ve also been to the most progressive Theological and Divinity schools in the country – – – one of which was not allowed to offer communion at staff retreats because it offended some of the staff. (How open is that?) Seriously. The comparisons between Progressive and Conservative has to end. All means all. Glad the you found comfort among the Progressives. But how ’bout we just let God help all in the myriad expressions of the church, leave it at that, AND celebrate that we’re all on the same team?

    • Well, I was made to feel mightily unwelcome when I expressed doubts of faith at Coral Gables Congregational Church in Miami, and I am extremely bitter and angry and hurt. I believed in the UCC and it’s progressive window dressing. I found out the hard way when they say “you are welcome here, regardless of your faith journey” as long as you’re in lockstep with the pastor and it’s congregation.

  • Thanks… I’m glad to see this subject addressed, even though I find it challenging. It is good to read your perspective. Of the three groups, “people who just aren’t sure”: I don’t have trouble with them, and feel called to accept and assist… “people with nagging doubts”: also no difficulty, I don’t think we’re human if we don’t have doubts… but then we get to “people who just can’t believe the way tradition says they are supposed to”, and I’m not sure what to say. In some respects I’m certainly far from traditional, and even argue for reinterpretation of some biblical passages, but aren’t there some core, bedrock beliefs that separate those who are Christian from those who are not? Did not even Jesus speak a parable of some who only thought they were believers when he spoke of the sheep and the goats? (Matt 25?) Than again (continuing in my pondering) the dividing line in that passage is more along the lines of what people do or have done, not what they believe.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Matt 25 has absolutely nothing to do with ‘belief’ and thus supports David’s point.

  • Not a table I want to attend.

  • Josh Magda
  • Sam Ochstein

    David, thanks for sharing a bit of your journey in this piece. I have been (am on) a similar path. Peace to you.

  • Mona Villarrubia

    I just read this today and was touched. I have been lucky enough to have been nurtured in my faith and doubt journey by my Catholic roots and supported by my many Catholic friends. I have more recently experienced a faith community among Reform Jews, and in the past two years have found a home in a UCC congregation. I have published a book about my faith journey called Traces of Hope, and that is how i feel. There are traces of hope and shadows of doubt and I continue to pursue the hope.