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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