Faith, Hope, and Love

I have been an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church for seven years and served as Rector at small church for six years. The Episcopal Church in my diocese is fairly progressive, smart, and invested in mission and ministry. But, like everywhere these days this diocese struggles with the issues at hand. Sometime soon I want to write about my journey through the waters of human sexuality. But today I want to write about "Progressive Christianity."

Progressive Christianity has been on my mind a lot. I think, in part this is because I have been a progressive Christian my entire life and didn't know that nor understand it fully. Still don't, but I am learning. And it is exciting. I also want to write about progressive Christianity because the RevGals blog site has a book discussion on "Velvet Elvis" by Rob Bell. This book, and I've only read about half of it, takes much of our Christian faith tradition and beliefs and looks at them through a new lens. Bell uses smart engaging language to do this. The book is clever in its design, font, and pagination. I enjoy reading the book. However, he is not saying anything new. If one has been immersed in progressive Christian thought for awhile then one already understands what he is saying. For the most part he uses words and language well to unpack his thinking, beginning with the image of a road side painted velvet Elvis to illustrate that understanding Christianity is like art, it's never complete. As soon as one thinks it is more is revealed and more needs to be explored.

My reflection today however is influenced by an article in the magazine, "The Progressive Christian." The publisher of the magazine defines it's intent "to offer our readers a magazine that ememplifies "progressive" in the best sense of the word by encouraging reasoned but passionate, creative thought and responsible action. We won't promote controversy for its own sake, but neither do we run from it; if you agree with everything we print, we are doing something wrong. Our aim is to help bring vital contemporary issues into the conversation with the christian faith and with the wisdom of ofther religious traditions..." (Volume 181, Issue 3, page 3).

This article, written by Fred C. Plumer (President of the Center for Progressive Christianity, Gig Harbor, WA), looks at the spirituality of progressive Christianity. He argues, and I would agree, that most people are more comfortable today talking about spirituality than religion. Even people who do not consider themselves religious will describe themselves as "spiritual."

In this complex global and often secular world, what are the defining characteristics of spirituality? Plumer states that the primary characteristic is "some strong connection." By this he means a connection to something greater than one's self and a connection to others. Diana Butler Bass argues this same point in her book, "Christianity for the Rest of Us," as does Marcus Borg in his book, "The Heart of Christianity." (I'm not sure if Bell does, perhaps if I finish the book I'll see if he too argues this point). Plumer goes on to describe this connectedness as having an emotional component of religion that shifs our consciousness and transforms us. There are particular practices being lived out in congregations that encourage and enable this emotional connectedness. These include the use of meditation, or drums, or Taize chants, and other forms of, as Bass would say, ancient forms of Christian tradition being practiced in new ways in order to connect people to the historic faith in ways that meet our modern day disconnectedness and help us feel part of community.

Plumer argues that where these practices differ in progressive Christian communities from a more orthodox community is centered in the communities theological, Christological, and sociological understandings. He says, "By 'progressive Christian,' I mean...(people) who start with the assumption that very person is a precious creation and a child of god regardless of color, sexual orientation, religious convictions, and yes, even their political party. Most would reject the Augustinian concept of 'original sin.' Aside from the psychological damage that has been done over the centuries because of Augustine's interpretation of Paul, the idea of sin continues to be terribly divisive. It has come to mean that some are in and some ae out, that some are saved and some are not. It is a form of tribal divisiveness that still haunts most religious expressions in the world." (15 of issue mentioned above).

Plumer goes on to state that he agrees with Irenaeus (Bishop, second century) on this point. Irenaeus, he says, argued that all humans had not been created perfect in the image of God, rather all humans were created "perfectable." We have the potential to grow into the image of God. Sin is a product of learning and growth and therefore part of God's process. What is most important is to remember (and this is the summary of most of my sermons): that we are loved for being who we are at this very moment, in all our brokeness. And that in the process of being loved and REALIZING the depth of that love, we are changed, because we must love others in that same generous way. This is the go and do likewise of Jesus' teaching to love God, love self and love others.

The spirituality of progressive Christianity Plumer says must include opportunities for silence and reflection. We need to create space and time and practices to move from the chatter in our heads. This point was also raised by Bass and others. We live in a noisy busy world. We need to enable opportunities for silence.

I agree with this and then I hear the rebuttal of one of my thirty something parishioners who says that she doesn't know what to do with the silence, it makes her anxious. She lives in a sound bit age and wants everything in short increments. And then she adds, but now when I try to worship with kids, I find that I appreciate the quite time before our worship (begins) so I can have a few minutes to pray and be still while my kids are in Sunday school. You see, at small church we begin every service with the lights dim, candles lit, soft music playing. We offer this quiet time for about 15 minutes before we start the worship. Although I would argue that the worship time begins with this quiet time...

What I am learning is that progressive Christianity has given me the language to articulate how I know God and how I have been a Christian ever since I was a little girl. And the Episcopal Church has given me a way to grapple with my faith and still be Christian. Someday I'll write more about my journey, but suffice it to say I have been in and out of Christianity over my life time, but I have not been in and out of God, prayer, and (well usually) faith. I am excited about the opportunities to create worship that engages our ancient traditions and practices and bring them to life in new ways. New ways that meet the needs of a hungry people looking for community and spirituality without being too bogged down by dogma and doctrine and "right" belief and "Truth."...if you know what I mean...

Comments

Grace thing said…
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Grace thing said…
Wow. You did a great job at defining progressive Christianity, through the Plumer article as well as through you. Thank you. I am in the process of realizing that I, too, have always been a progressive Christian, even when I didn't know I was one. How wonderful to have language for it now, thanks to so many current writers and thinkers...or maybe they were always there, I just wasn't aware of them. Thank you for this thoughtful post.
mompriest said…
You're welcome.
Mystical Seeker said…
New ways that meet the needs of a hungry people looking for community and spirituality without being too bogged down by dogma and doctrine and "right" belief and "Truth.".

I can't even begin to tell you how important it is for me to be part of a community that doesn't focus on "right" belief and its own authoritarian notion of "Truth".

Yet I wonder sometimes where progressive Christians draw the line. How many people who describe themselves as progressive Christians would be willing to entertain rejecting certain ancient Christian dogmas--the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the literal resurrection? I have seen little evidence of that within progressive Christianity. It sometimes seems to me that modern day progressive Christians will only go so far when it comes to looking at dogma and truth.
mompriest said…
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mompriest said…
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Songbird said…
I think of myself as progressive, and I've been quite willing, at times, to reject those ancient dogmas. Oddly, I seem to come back around to them and re-appropriate them. I spent most of 2000-2002 trying to shake off the Trinity, and now I find it means more to me each year. My Christology waxes and wanes: never lower than on Good Friday and never higher than on Easter Sunday! I'm more willing to accept a poetic mystery as part of my faith and to separate the practices around it from any sort of scientific or literal conclusions I draw about the world.
But perhaps it's easier for me, since I am in a tradition that encourages the individual to reach her or his own conclusions.
mompriest said…
I have never fully rejected the dogmas and doctrines per se (ok, yes I do reject 'original sin'). But I appreciate a tradition that enables me to live with them and wrestle with them and not necessarily "have to" embrace them in some lock stock and barrel literal way. I returned to Christianity because of Christmas and Easter. I finally decided that if I was going to celebrate those two "holidays" (holy days) then I was clearly Christian and I needed to embrace that reality above all else. Now, exactly what Christmas means (the Incarnation and the God with us) and what the Resurrection means (God bringing forth new life from chaos and death)...well I am content to wrestle with those for the rest of my life...knowing that I will never really fully understand. It is after all mystery. And in that my post modern progressive Christianity is given full credibility - the opportunity to live without answers and without certaintity. I'm ok with that.

thanks for your thoughts everyone!
Gannet Girl said…
Nice post. I still haven't read the Bell book but I am a bit puzzled from what I read on the RGBP site insofar as its claims to newness. There are parts where I could point directly to sources from church traditions and practices of centuries ago, although I'm not entirely sure Rob Bell knows that. Your piece here reminds me that my experience of progressivism has been a melding of contemporary and ancient in ways that enable us to keep re-engaging and keep questioning all things in both theology and practice. I know very little about the world Rob Bell seems to come from, but maybe to him that experience is indeed something new.
mompriest said…
Gannet girl, I think Rob Bell is not saying anything new at all, but he does use some fresh images to convey these ideas that have been around for awhile. I have used his images (faith is like art, a work in progress), along with Bass's (Nomad to Pilgrim) to help articulate to small church the reality we live in...

thanks for stopping by and posting.
Being steeped in the theology of "original sin"... my thought is how the phrase/concept/ideology has been abused and abused and misunderstood time and again. Unfortunately because of that people abandon it altogether... "we are broken from the get-go and need Jesus to restore us to wholeness". That's it in a nutshell. If we abandon this component of theology where does that leave us?
mompriest said…
I believe we are created in the image of God. Not perfect, but with high potential. I think that sin is a major component of life and we need to have language that articulates sin as it relates to our brokeness - broken in relationship to God, self, and others. And all the many ways we cause this brokeness in our lives and in the world. Therefore we need to have a means for healing, wholeness, forgiveness, reconciliation. For me this comes in and through God and in the history of how God is active in this world. And as a Christian it means how I understand God working in and through Jesus. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

As an Episcopalian I am not steeped in the language nor the theology of "orignal sin" and am probably one of those who knows it from the "abused and misunderstood" perspective. I just do not agree with the idea that we are born, because of human sin, in any way less than God created us. We are born good, in the image of God. But I do believe we fall wayword along the way of life. And from that waywordness we need to be redeemed and saved.
Kievas said…
Having been steeped in dogma and tradition for most of my church experience, I find that my progressiveness meter now tends to swing back and forth. I would define myself as progressive on most issues (social and political especially). However, like Songbird, I hold on to a few central assumptions, and I think my faith would be much less "solid" were it not for these beliefs.

I also hear you about silent time. I find it the most effective way for me to communicate with God. I do enjoy our corporate worship time, which is often loud and lively, but it's a very different experience from those one-on-one quiet moments.
mompriest said…
It's true that some "progressive" Christians have let go of many of the core beliefs. Here I think of Spong, in particular. But it seems to me that most of the folks I have read do retain and in fact promot the cenral tenents of Christian faith and belief: the incarnation, the divine/human nature of Christ, the resurrection, the need for salvation. But there is a wide discrepency in how these are understood to reflect what God is doing and how.

As I said earlier, I am a Christian who lives and celebrates Christmas and Easter. Which means, as a priest, I tell the story from the tradition. I seem able to be both progressive in much of how I understand my faith, and yet able to stand firm in tradition as well. I think this is what Diana Butler Bass is getting at in her book, "Christianity for the Rest of Us." Or at least that's how it speaks to me. I am learning to have a langauge that enables me to embrace the tradition and doctrine of Christianity and still speak about God's love for all.

I've enjoyed this conversation. Thanks everyone for stopping by and leaving your thoughts.
RevErikaG said…
Thanks mompriest, for a stimulating post. Now that my thumb is a bit better (I jammed it throwing the softball with my husband!), I would like to chime in on the conversation.
Let me start with Rob Bell-- who is someone I think is not saying anything new, but like scriptures says, has found way to put old wine in new wineskins. He's a student of the faith, and has found a way to translate it into the language of the worldview I live and breathe. Much like Process theology for the Boomers, the emerging theology of today is about helping us make sense of the gospel in terms we know. Part of that is living with the tension and reality that labels are not always completely true to who we are and what we believe. You, Kievas and others have proven that in your ways of talking about what it means to be progressive.
Now, here's another point that might pinch a bit-- while I appreciate what Plumer says about what progressive Christianity, I am not sure that I believe that they are really as open as they claim to be. Many times in conversation with persons in my area who wear the label, "progressive" on their person, I rarely experience the open spirit mentioned. But that's my experience here in Southern California. I've got to run and do a funeral...been a crazy week...but look forward to seeing how this conversation progresses! :)
mompriest said…
Thanks RevErika for dropping by and for your comment. Didn't pinch 'cuz I appreciate the conversation. Aside from this article in The Progressive Christian I don't know Plumer, so I can't speak to his breadth and depth of "progressiveness" and openess, nor any of the others. The article just became a launching pad for me and this conversation, which also connected with the REvGals book review on Rob Bell...I work for a parish that is sooo far from progressive that I have no one to really talk to about these ideas - and it doesn't come up much in my conversations with colleagues around the diocese - so here is my forum to "process" some ideas and see where other folks are.
RevErikaG said…
mompriest-- thanks for the feedback and speaking an important truth-- for most of us our congregations don't reflect the same values, ideas, theological perspectives, (add your favorite thing I'm missing here), that we clergy have--or there are few who do. The blogosphere is a super cool blessing because it allows those of us that "are not like the others" (thanks Sesame Street), to talk about the things that matter to us. So it is a virtual table we all can sit around!
The question I am wrestling with right now theologically is where to begin the theological conversation. Is it with God like systematics? Jesus? or what identity--people and church. I think I think too much!
(Rob Bell's theological and biblical guru is NT Wright, by the way.)
Thanks for stirring an interesting pot!
mompriest said…
N.T. Wright. Well, that explains a lot....not sure I can even finish the book now...:-)

I'm not sure I understand the context in which you want to have this theological conversation. I assume you mean via blogging (not congregation)...systemics is always interesting, I like to look at the ways people attempt to explain the mystery that is God....so long as we don't think we actually know...but then so are the other areas you raise, Jesus and or people/church....

I intend to write, soon, on other topics, like what is going on in the Episopal Church these days and the "world-wide Anglican" commmunion...now, there I will open a can of worms...
Nancy said…
I have enjoyed reading this post and all the comments. I read Velvet Elvis last summer after hearing about it from my college aged daughter. I can't get specific as I don't have the book in my possession at the moment to refer to, but a lot of what Bell has to say made a lot of sense to me. I had not heard many of these ideas before and I found the whole thing to be pretty exciting. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.
jledmiston said…
Hi Mompriest -
I agree that Bell doesn't say much that's terribly new, but he couches things in a way that new people can hear it. I remember reading the Rick Warren book a few years ago and thinking it sounded like what I'd been hearing all my life. But somehow he said it in a way people could understand anew.

Thanks for a good post.
LutheranChik said…
Someone -- it may have been my pastor or one of our mentoring pastors in my lay ministry program -- used the most helpful terminology in talking about Christian dogma: In talking about the creeds, and how they tend to be perceived by the unchurched or confused/doubting as a gatekeeper keeping The Other Out...this person said that the creeds were not like a club with which to beat people over the head, but rather an invitation to consider the Christian story from the historical/catholic perspective. Being part of a congregation that definitely does NOT bonk people over the head for not thinking the "right" things about God, this resonated with me.
mompriest said…
Yes, I would agree. I have no problem reciting the Nicene Creed every Sunday because I know it to be a profound historical document that connects a long history of Christianity. I may not completely agree with the language (Father, Son...) but neither do I completely disagree with it. I appreciate the opportunity to use Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier on occasion (like at the Blessing that follows the Post Communion Prayer). Thanks for raising the point and sharing. I appreciate it!

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