by Ian Harris Otago Daily Times November 14, 2014
Every social, political and religious movement should be open to periodic self-critique. That can be uncomfortable, but the impulse towards a clear-eyed self-awareness is a sign of health, and every such movement is the better for it.
The Labour Party is in the throes of this soul-searching. The neo-liberal economic fundamentalists currently in the ascendant are not. Pope Francis has pitched his bishops into a review of the settled Catholic stance on homosexuality and remarried divorcees – and, not surprisingly, is meeting resistance. And at the other end of the spectrum, signs are that some within the Progressive Christianity movement are wondering whether their cause is quite the full package after all.
One such is Canadian Bruce Sanguin, a United Church minister, who brings a distinctive perspective to the movement he is part of. He calls it “evolutionary Christian spirituality”, in which “everything and everybody is involved in a sacred, evolutionary process – including the Christian faith”.
Reflecting on progressive audiences he has addressed in Canada and Australia, Sanguin notes that progressives generally are ageing. They have awakened to the limits of traditional Christianity, he says, “but they are still juiced by the whole modernist and postmodernist deconstruction project”. (Modernism homes in on reason, science and logic, while postmodernism blurs all the edges.)
That poses some challenges to progressive Christianity, Sanguin says. He sees five:
● The movement barely resonates with young people.
“Younger people aren’t as fascinated by all this fuss over scholarly accounts of what Jesus did and didn’t say,” he says. “They are looking for inspiration, and hear a lot of information. Many migrate to more conservative denominations who still think that Jesus is a big deal, and are increasingly integrating the justice dimension once owned by liberal Christianity.”
● Progressive Christianity seems stuck in a reactive phase – it’s against biblical literalism, homophobia, and the theology that Jesus died to atone for the sins of the world. With the movement under fire from religious conservatives, this reaction is understandable. “I suspect, though, that the way forward is to stop defending and start transcending.”
● There’s a lot of unnecessary wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Christian tradition. Progressives emphasise what they take issue with – “but our need to be relevant and to differentiate from ‘them’ often leaves us with little more to offer than secular humanism.” Sanguin adds: “I’ve felt for some time that the reduction of Christianity, or any religion, to values and virtues is not actually progressive. It’s the modernist project. We espouse taking the Bible seriously, not literally – so why not apply this to traditional doctrine? Let’s be curious, not dismissive.” During a high Lutheran service he attended, he admits that sometimes he had to “swallow hard and plug my ears”. Despite that, he was also surprised by hidden layers of meaning within the liturgy. “Over the last couple of thousand years some pretty intelligent souls got some things right,” he says. “In an evolutionary paradigm, the principle is to transcend and include.”
● Progressives run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Sanguin says there is no religious feeling without some sense of providence or divine activity in the world. This does not require belief in a deity who intervenes directly in any given situation. If, however, progressives rule out any notion of providence they are left without any felt sense of grace – that overflowing generosity of spirit that renews and transforms. “In an evolutionary paradigm, there is a felt sense that the Whole is moving in a biased (not predetermined) trajectory toward an increase in beauty, truth and goodness.”
● The practice of progressive Christianity “pretty much comes down to justice”. While this is a strength of the movement, progressives must acknowledge that evangelical churches, many with a younger membership, have often become more radical in applying it. “If we progressives don’t have practices to help us to evolve our hearts and minds – to ‘have the mind that was in Christ Jesus’ – even our justice work will be part of the problem.”
So where to from there? Sanguin suggests that progressives need to evolve their “spiritual intelligence”, and points to rich resources within the Christian heritage, including the contribution of Christian mystics.
Clearly, the mystics’ experience cannot be lifted out of their cultural setting centuries ago and superimposed upon our own. It needs to be rethought and re-expressed in the context of our western secular culture and worldview, including new knowledge about human consciousness. But Sanguin has given some useful pointers to work on.