Friday, September 16, 2011

Less words (Sunday Reflections for September 18, 2011)

ProgressiveChristianity.org is a network of people and organizations promoting an alternative to conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. Started in 1994 by an Episcopal rector in Washington, D.C., it now includes individuals and congregations from 17 denominations, as well as various independent and ecumenical groups.
Among the resources it provides is a summary statement of “8 Points of Progressive Christianity.” I thought you might find interesting their recently revised version of that statement.
By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who . . .
1. Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an experience and of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;
2. Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;
3. Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to: conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, believers and agnostics, women and men, those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, those of all classes and abilities;
4. Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;
 5. Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;
6. Strive for peace and justice among all people;
7. Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth; and
8. Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.
This is certainly not the most elegant statement of belief or principles I have seen. It reads like it was written by a committee, which it probably was. Nor is it written “for the ages”—I’m sure it will be revised again. Yet I think that is one of its other points. Over the centuries, Christianity has become notorious for its endless production of doctrines, creeds and statements of belief. Theologians have then written millions more words interpreting those statements. (And Lutherans have been at the forefront of those efforts.)
A statement like The 8 Points is really an attempt to step away from all that. It is not systematic theology nor does it claim to summarize “The Truth” (in fact, it almost denies such a thing exists). It is more about behavior and attitudes than about intellectual ideas or beliefs.
My intellectual guru, English theologian Don Cupitt, has said that systematic theology basically stopped being written after about 1970, and I think he is right. The last two great Christian theologians were the German-American Lutheran Paul Tillich (who died in Chicago in 1965) and Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (d. 1968). They were the last to write “grand theology” that genuinely broke new ground or said anything original.
The few attempts made after Tillich and Barth have not really said anything new. Most theologians haven’t tried, however, because they have understood Cupitt’s point that the world has changed. Christianity, and religion generally, has run itself into an intellectual cul-de-sac. In other words, theology really just doesn’t have any new insight to offer about the world or human life in that world. That baton has been passed to the natural and behavioral sciences.
Unfortunately, it has been very hard for theologically-oriented churches to recognize or accept this new reality. Such churches are predominantly mainline denominations, like Lutherans, and Roman Catholics. We continue to insist on the importance of getting all our theological and doctrinal ducks in a row, when most people, including most of our own church members, don’t really care about such things or even understand them. Denominational offices and gatherings continue to talk and talk, and write and write. Yet fewer and fewer pay any attention to such efforts, which look more esoteric and antiquarian with each passing year.
A simple and kind of unrefined statement like The 8 Points is really an effort to say, “Let’s be done with all that.” It is an attempt to redirect the church away from an obsession with getting its thinking right and refocus on values and behavior. Of course, this is nothing but a scandal and a horror to those convinced that being a Christian is all about what you think or believe. Yet in my experience, while such people tend to very vocal, they are a shrinking minority.
I think the real weight behind a statement like The 8 Points is that it is not only more true to our times, but it is also more true to the biblical tradition. There is actually very little explicit theology in the Bible, and what theology there is certainly isn’t systematic. Only in the latter stages of the New Testament do we begin to see a fixation on “getting it right” in our thinking. Prior to that, and certainly in the life and teachings of Jesus, “getting it right” is all about our behavior, individually and as a community.
Apart from its specific statements, The 8 Points says that in the 21st century Christianity’s value is to cause people to ask “How shall we live?” not “What do we think?” In doing so, progressive Christians aren’t charting a new path but getting us back to an ancient one.

3 comments:

Michael_SC said...

"...religion generally, has run itself into an intellectual cul-de-sac.." Because theology consists of grand, profound speculations and theories founded upon the Bible... which oops, we now know is largely a literary construction, reflecting the beliefs/hopes/hatreds/agendas of the writers. I find the 8 points far more concrete and helpful than all the grand pre-modern confessions of the reformation era.

Doug said...

Sorry for the delay in posting your comment, Michael. For some reason I'm not getting email notification when they come in. As always, thanks for reading and responding!

PeteM said...

I’m glad Don Cupitt is someone else’s guru, besides me. I’ve been reading his books for about ten years and usually find insights that aid my thinking. I’ve been a Lutheran since 1956, and I’ve started spreading non-realism this fall by teaching Cupitt’s “Jesus & Philosophy” at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett, NY. The people in the class seem to have little problem with Cupitt’s identifying the Jesus Seminar’s red and pink sayings as expressions of Jesus’ ethics, in contrast to the gray and black sayings as expressions of “Church Christianity.” They understand that Cupitt’s Jesus is more interested in human relations than in heavenly matters, but we are beginning to ask what is the role of the church with its emphasis on the “vertical?” If the kingdom approaches as we rid ourselves of ressentiment toward others, does the church help or hinder this process? And apropos your post, what is the role of the creeds, which we say every Sunday, in the process? Can such “vertical” statements help in human relations? As I say the creeds, I think of great museums with objects from every era. The church is like a museum with expressions of faith of every Christian era. I don’t see the Lutheran Church dropping creeds, especially the Apostles’ Creed, so closely linked to Baptism, but the three-tier vertical world of the creeds needs a lot of translation these days. So can the creeds in the Sunday liturgy mean something helpful in our goal of improving human relations?
Could the Church be the fallback position when we fail to emulate Jesus and instead are encouraged to worship him?