Progressive Christianity: Imagine a Future Like the Kingdom of God

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Progressive Christianity. Read other perspectives here.

In 1971 John Lennon wrote "Imagine," a track on the album of the same name. The song's lyrics encourage the listener to imagine a world at peace. The impediments to a world at peace, according to the song, are living for fear of punishment or hope of reward rather than focusing on the present, religion, violent nationalism, and materialism. These factors are presented as divisive, working against unity and peace.

In 1971 when Imagine was released the U.S. was just entering the second decade of involvement in Vietnam. Eighteen-year-olds had just gotten the vote. Carroll O'Connor was offering a gallows humor version of a sexist racist on the CBS sitcom All in the Family. It was just three years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of busing to achieve racial desegregation in schools. Several major cities including Chattanooga and Camden experienced incidents between police and ethnic minority citizens that sparked riots. While a majority of Americans identified themselves as Christian and as church goers, Imagine apparently appealed to a growing dissatisfaction with rigid governmental, religious, and social authority. Imagine became the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed album of Lennon's solo career. In 2012 Imagine was voted one of the top 500 albums of all time at #80 in the list.

The song ends by Lennon inviting listeners to join him so that the world may live as one.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

It's not 1971 anymore, but forty-four years later lots of people have joined Lennon in imagining no religion.

Their motivations are no doubt varied and nuanced. But one reason is that many people view religion as the culprit in the woes of our world. When religious extremists on an almost weekly basis slaughter innocent people in public places, it is not hard to understand this perspective. Others see religion as the culprit in discrimination against lesbians, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons. David Kinnaman's 2007 book unChristian: What a New Generation Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters listed the reasons for the disaffection with institutional religion felt by those younger than thirty-five. One reason was that they view the church as judgmental with regard to homosexuals. Another group of people view religion as the culprit because they have suffered abuse at the hands of church leaders.

Still others have no trouble at all, as Lennon suggests, "imagining no religion." Because they regard religion as irrelevant. They may be among those who consider themselves to be "spiritual but not religious," that is, not affiliated with any institutional religious organization. They may self-identify as atheists or agnostics. The Pew Research Center's recent statistics on "America's Changing Religious Landscape indicate that the number of those who identify themselves as Christians has dropped sharply over the past seven years, while those who list themselves as having no religious affiliation (the "nones") are increasing, and not just in the under thirty-five age group. Persons who, for a variety of reasons, have come to consider religion as irrelevant, do not feel it is a necessary requirement for surrounding oneself with a supportive community or living an ethical life that includes a commitment to social justice.

In addition to those who view religion as culprit and those who view it as irrelevant, there are still others who view it as the cure. Some send members on mission trips and support initiatives to end malaria and other preventable diseases around the world. Some lobby to restrict abortion rights and/or reverse the recent gay marriage legislation by the Supreme Court. Some work to end child poverty and to pave the way for ordination of gays in their denominations. Some are activists on behalf of those who have been abused by others, including clergy. Sometimes people of faith work together to achieve common ends and other times they work separately, seeking to achieve diametrically opposed goals. But in all this, people of faith believe religion is the cure.

Well, not religion in general, but their (my) interpretation of it in particular!

In December 1980 John Lennon was interviewed by David Sheff for Playboy magazine. Lennon told Sheff that Dick Gregory, social critic and civil rights activist, had given Ono and him a Christian prayer book, which inspired the concept behind "Imagine." Lennon told Sheff that

7/29/2015 4:00:00 AM
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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.