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[Chalice] Progressive Christianity on the Move [Chalice]

Presented March 26, 2006, by Louise Crede

Opening Words:

From John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop and author of the book Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

"The gods of our (traditional) religious systems have died. The god of church, synagogue, and temple is no more. The magical, personalistic, manipulative, supernatural, and sometimes vindictive powers of these deities have been used historically not to enhance life but to bless the status quo, to increase priestly power, and to support those claims of state that have expanded the wealth and power of the ruling classes. The God who is the Ground of Being cannot be so owned. God is a universal presence undergirding all of life."

Words for Meditation

Again from John Shelby Spong, this time from his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. After a discussion of some of the no-longer-believable assumptions upon which Christianity is based, he says:

"The only churches that grow today are those that do not, in fact, understand the issues and can therefore traffic in certainty. They represent both the fundamentalistic Protestant groups and the rigidly controlled conservative Catholic traditions. The churches that do attempt to interact with the emerging world are for the most part the liberal Protestant mainline churches that shrink every day in membership and the silent liberal Catholic minority that attracts very few adherents. Both are, almost by definition, fuzzy, imprecise, and relatively unappealing. They might claim to be honest, but for the most part they have no real message. They tinker with words, redefine concepts, and retreat slowly behind the rear guard protection of a few pseudo-radical thinkers. No one seems yet ready to invest the energy necessary to the task of reformulating the Christian story."

Progressive Christianity on the Move

My purpose in speaking to you today is to share my hopefulness for the future of Progressive Spirituality, which I consider you to be a part of. My perspective is as a Progressive United Methodist, Protestant Christian.

In recent years the loudest, most visible manifestations of Christianity have come from the conservative/fundamentalist ranks of the faith. Many Mainline Protestants have felt frustration and embarrassment that the conservative Christians assume to be speaking for all of us; that others may be thinking that this currently very vocal version of the faith is the "real" Christianity. You may have observed in our local paper that it seems like more clergy from the religious right are interviewed for their opinions than those from the center and the left-or is that just my paranoia? The Christian Religious Right has teamed up with the political Right to push an agenda not necessarily approved by the rest of us Christians.

Just a few decades ago, it seemed that the more liberal side of Christianity was taking center stage. Remember the National Council of Churches? It was so effective at that time that right wing politicians often attacked it as a communist front in order to discredit it. Martin Luther King, Junior successfully led a coalition of clergy and lay persons (of all persuasions) to peacefully combat the evil of segregation. The law of the land was changed due to their efforts. Brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, Roman Catholic priests, mobilized both a secular and ecumenical coalition to protest the Viet Nam war. The Sanctuary Movement, which sought to protect and shelter illegal aliens in churches, was strong and active in the American southwest.

It seems events in recent decades have knocked the wind out of the sails of more progressive thinking Christians. Retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong thinks that the urban riots in the late 60's, the national turmoil over the Viet Nam War, the Watergate scandal and 9/ll have caused massive public anxiety. I would add HIV-AIDS, global warming, (and its devastating natural disasters) the pro-life/pro-choice war, the high divorce rates, and economic uncertainty in light of plant closings, out-sourcing of jobs and doubts about the viability of social security and pension systems in our country. Add to that the shallowness and coarseness of popular culture. All of this has contributed to great unease in America. Religious historian, Karen Armstrong, in her book The Battle for God explains that when fear and anxiety rise, so does fundamentalism. People feel lost and afraid, they long for certainty and for many, fundamentalism steps in to fill the spiritual vacuum.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of the new book The Left Hand of God, says "Our economy teaches people that "the real world" is primarily about maximizing "the bottom line" of money and power, and "looking out for number one." Everywhere we look we find people acting to advance their own interests without regard to the consequences for others. This causes a huge spiritual crisis-making it hard to sustain loving relationships, families and communities.

Lerner says the Religious Right correctly articulated that there was a crisis, but they unfairly blamed that crisis on gays and lesbians, African Americans, independent women, and most recently on all secular people, liberals, and even "activist judges." The political right hooked up with the religious right, promising to do something about the crisis of values in our culture.

Jack Good, in his book The Dishonest Church, discusses how people differ widely in how much disorder they can tolerate in their lives. He reminds us that some folks are like Felix on the old Odd Couple show, insisting upon imposing order on their world, and some are like Oscar, who have learned to live with disorder, even if they don't like it. He dubs these two ways of coping with reality chaos-intolerant and chaos-tolerant. We humans want to make sense out of our world, to find meaning and purpose in our lives. Many people begin their faith journey by believing in a world ruled by a divine power that micro-manages every detail of their lives. Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life has sold many millions of copies in the last few years. He tells people that God has their lives planned in complete detail, that everything that happens to them is God's will-part of His Plan. You may not like "the plan" you're experiencing, but if you just have faith and hang on, God will finally vindicate your life. Warren's book and his mega-church meet the needs of chaos-intolerant people.

But there are many people who are chaos-tolerant. They recognize that the world seldom offers storybook endings. Studies have shown that education helps people move toward being able to tolerate more chaos. The more they know about the world, science, other cultures and religions, the more they are likely to see that the world is far from black and white, and they learn to live with conflicting views and still find meaning for their lives, often balancing paradoxical truths.

Now that Barbara Brown Taylor is a college teacher rather than a local Episcopalian parish priest, she often finds herself answering people's faith questions by responding "What does it all mean? I don't have a clue. Do you?" She admits that when she was a parish priest, she wasn't so forthright. Some parishioners wanted definite answers.

Jack Good reports that sociologists of religion have discovered that people are not leaving the main line churches primarily to go to fundamentalist churches. He says the mainline churches' attempts to hold on to their members by moving toward more authoritarian, narrow interpretations of religious truth is a huge mistake because it is alienating the very people who have traditionally found their homes there, the more highly educated people. Those are the very people who have moved to a higher level of spiritual cognitive development and they are not satisfied with ancient dogma made irrelevant in modern life!

Mainline Christians have a hard time believing this because we see so many people leaving our churches and going to the mega-churches. Those churches seem to be meeting many people's needs to belong to something big - where it all seems to be happening - the "in" place to go, a place of certainty. But what we Mainliners often don't see is that large numbers of people are just dropping out and not going anywhere, despairing of finding a church that meets their spiritual needs.

I believe things are finally beginning to change. So does Bishop Spong. In a recent article "The Rise of New Religious Voices to Counter the Religious Right," Spong articulates with dismay the thinking of popular evangelical voices like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson, as well as the new Roman Catholic Pontiff. He says Pope Benedict's pronouncements are reminiscent of the Dark Ages and are breathtakingly ignorant about women and homosexuals. Spong says their thinking only serves to assure people that religion is an alternative to an anxious reality.

Spong feels that the Iraq war's failure, the Terri Schiavo case, religious leaders telling people how to vote, Robertson's bizarre statements about "taking out" the Venezuelan president and why Ariel Sharon had his massive stroke, are beginning to wake people up. He also points to religious voices that are beginning to speak up in opposition.

Spong lists four new books which give him great hope that things are changing: Jim Wallis' book God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, former President Jimmy Carter's book Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crises, Rabbi Michael Lerner's book The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right, and the last, by Rev. Robin Meyers, to be published this May: Why the Religious Right is Wrong: A Minister's Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag and Your Future.

Jim Wallis is a conservative evangelical, but he is also a social activist with great integrity. Wallis challenges us to make our religious communities and our government pro-justice, pro-peace, pro-environment, pro-equality, pro-consistent ethic of life and pro-family. (He questions how people can be pro-life and pro-death penalty at the same time and he thinks the American family is in great crisis - but to say gay and lesbian people are responsible for the breakdown of the heterosexual family is simply wrong.)

President Carter discusses how religious fundamentalism is being used to distort the public values our nation was founded on as well as to shape American foreign policy in a dangerous direction.

Rabbi Lerner is best known as the power behind Tikkun, an online journal striving to "mend, repair and transform the world." He is trying to bring together Christians, Jews and secularists to confront the destructive agenda of the Religious Right. Lerner is the only major Jewish voice in America working in the cause of justice for Palestinians. He wants us all to join in building a more humane world and his book lays out a detailed plan for how to go about it. Spong calls him a modern day Amos.

Robin Meyers is a United Church of Christ pastor in Oklahoma City. He and his family have born the brunt of the hostility of control-oriented right-wing Christians. Spong says if you treasure this country and tremble at its present direction, this book is a "must read."

Another ray of hope, for me, is The Center For Progressive Christianity. This is the U.S. branch of an international network called, which is also the address of its web site. They have 8 statements describing who they are: (See how many you as a Unitarian identify with.)

We are Christians who:

  1. Proclaim Jesus Christ as our Gate to the realm of God.
  2. Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the gateway to God's realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us.
  3. Understand the sharing of bread and wine in Jesus' name to be a representation of God's feast for all peoples.
  4. We invite all sorts and conditions people to join in our worship and in our common life as full partners (including but not limited to): without imposing on them the necessity of becoming like us.
  5. We think that the way we treat one another and other people is more important than the way we express our beliefs.
  6. We find more grace in the search for meaning than we do in absolute certainty, in the questions than in the answers.
  7. We see ourselves as a spiritual community in which we discover the resources required for our work in the world: striving for justice and peace among all people; bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers.
  8. We recognize that our faith entails costly discipleship, renunciation of privilege, and conscientious resistance to evil-as has always been the tradition of the church.

The Center for Progressive Christianity and CrossWalkAmerica are conducting the Walking the Talk campaign to energize and increase the visibility of progressive Christian congregations nationwide. Their campaign coincides with a walk from Phoenix to Washington, DC, starting on Easter Sunday, April 16. Their purpose is to raise public awareness about the misuse of Christianity in America. They want Americans to realize that Fundamentalist Catholics and Protestants do not by themselves define Christianity. They have adopted twelve progressive theological principles called The Phoenix Affirmations to the people of America. These affirmations are similar to the ones I just read you from the Center for Progressive Christianity.

Another hopeful sign that a more progressive Christianity is emerging is the work that has been and continues to be done by the Jesus Seminar, more than 200 scholars with advanced degrees in biblical studies, religion or related fields. Since 1985 they have been courageously searching for the authentic words of Jesus. Of course, they have been vilified by the religious right. They have published The Five Gospels (which includes the Gospel of Thomas) and The Acts of Jesus, seeking to make broadly public the results of Biblical scholarship over the past 200 years. Steve Ward just told me yesterday you had one of them here back in 2000, Dr. Davidson Loehr. I read his sermon, The Four Faces of Jesus on your web site. It reminded me of the book I've just finished by John Dominic Crossan, emeritus professor of biblical studies at DePaul University in Chicago: Jesus, a Revolutionary Biography.

When my husband and I attended a weekend conference last April at Omaha Nebraska's First United Methodist Church, we were privileged to hear Dr. Crossan. The year before, Bishop Spong spoke there and this year the speaker was Karen King: all of them are scholars of the Jesus Seminar.

We also attended a conference in Kansas City, Missouri last October entitled "Strengthening the Bond: Progressive Values, Gay Rights and the Faith Community." (Can you believe that was in Kansas City!) The conference was held at the Broadway Baptist Church. It's no longer part of the Southern Baptist Convention - they don't fit in that group any longer! This very diverse church featured a praise band whose members included obviously gay, lesbian and transexual people. It was there that we learned about the curriculum we're now teaching at Vermont St. UMC called "Living the Questions." Developed by two young United Methodist pastors serving in the Phoenix area, Living the Questions features some 24 speakers on two DVDs, including Crossan, Spong, Marcus Borg and Stephen Patterson, all Jesus Seminar scholars. When we met the first night for that class, 32 people showed up-more than the room could comfortably handle, so we offered it also on Monday nights and more people who could not come on Wednesdays showed up! There is definitely a hunger for a spiritual educational program that allows people to ask questions and does not give them authoritative answers. The curriculum stresses that faith is a journey, that we are all at different places on the journey and that we will never find answers to all our questions in this life and that's okay.

Herb and I have been teaching a Sunday morning class at our church, using Marcus Borg's book, The Heart of Christianity. Borg speaks of an Emerging Christianity: an earlier paradigm and an emerging paradigm. The earlier paradigm thinks the Bible is a divine product with divine authority. The emerging paradigm sees the Bible as a human response to God. The earlier paradigm interprets the Bible literally, the emerging Christianity takes the Bible seriously, but interprets it historically and metaphorically. The earlier paradigm saw the Christian life emphasis to be on the afterlife and what to believe or do to be saved. The new paradigm works for transformation in this life through relationship with God. The response to the book has been very positive, some people even expressing relief at finding a new way of seeing and living their faith.

I'm happy to report that the Reconciling Ministries Network is alive and well within the boundaries of the Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church here in Illinois - not an official part of the conference, but alive and well. The network is working hard to change United Methodism's position against ordaining or marrying gays and lesbians. We will be sponsoring a dinner and speaker at the Church's annual conference in Peoria in June. Herb and I have recently visited three congregations of United Methodists who are part of this Reconciling Network. One had the best PFLAG meeting we've ever attended! We also have attended a Disciples of Christ Church which calls itself "Open and Affirming." This is all a breath of fresh air for us and we pray that someday the community of Quincy can be open and affirming of gays, lesbians, trans- and bisexuals.

We consider our friends in the Unitarian Church to be fellow travelers on our faith journey. We think you'll be pleasantly surprised at how much we progressive Christians have in common with Unitarian Universalists. One of the favorite books read last year in my Methodist preachers wives and clergy women's book club is entitled If Grace is True, Then God Will Save Every Person. The authors are a Quaker minister and a theologian with ecumenical experience in the American Baptist and United Methodist denominations who now pastors a Quaker church.

We all need to work to find as much common ground as we can with people of all faiths and versions of those faiths. We are all on a faith journey and there is so much work to do in a chaotic and hurting world. I hope you'll read Anne Lamott's wonderful book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, if you haven't already. To quote the cover: This book "is a spiritual antidote to anxiety and despair in our increasingly fraught times." In it she struggles with her hatred and fear of President George W. Bush and the Religious Right. She knows that hating can hurt the hater worse than the hated and she wants to let go of some of it. She wonders if she could try to love her president as Jesus did, without having to want to have him over for lunch. But she knows Jesus ate with sinners and she knows he would eat with her president, even if he knew that the White House would probably call the police or the Justice Department on him later for his radical positions.

Even if we don't all have the same beliefs there is much that we can do to work together. We can build Habitat for Humanity houses, work with Heifer International to educate people how to raise animals effectively to improve their lives, work with the local study circles on race, and give more money to programs that help change systemic problems rather than just giving charity alone. We need to change the reasons the charity is needed in the first place.

Thank you for letting me share my hope with you!

Closing Words

From Jim Wallis' book God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. He talks about the need to build movements of spiritual and social change and says,

"It's a calling that is quite consistent with the virtue of humility because it is not about taking ourselves too seriously, but rather about taking the commission seriously. It's a commission that can only be fulfilled by very human beings, by people who, because of faith and hope, believe that the world can be changed. And it is that very belief that changes the world. And if not us, who will believe? After all, we are the ones we have been waiting for."

Suggested Readings on Progressive Christianity:

©2006 Louise Crede

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Crede, Louise. 2006. Progressive Christianity on the Move, /talks/20060326.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.