We have entered an interesting time in Christianity, a "time" that has always been present through the history of the faith, but more visible now with the electronic conversation over the internet that spans nations and languages and cultures. Every so often, I like to take a sample of that conversation and respond to it. This time, I'm taking on the idea from a Catholic priest and writer that Progressive Christianity will "die out". While that may be--in fact, I believe ALL kinds of religions eventually transform over time--I was saddened by the author's lack of really understanding the basic movements he was critiquing.
So, I have featured the main ideas of his 12 reasons, and offered my own observations as a comparative religion scholar, contemplative Christian and spiritual director. The original article was hosted on the Catholic site Patheos. If you want to read the article in its entirety first, please go to :
I will also be hosting what promises to be a very dynamic interview with two mainline Protestant ministers on my radio show Deep Communion. We'll be talking about the future of the Christian church, the Way of progressive and Emerging Christianity and the personal experiences of call to ministry. Tune into ArtistFirst Radio on the internet on Wednesday, January 18 at 1 PM Eastern. If you miss the show, you can actually download an MP3 recording of the program.
So let us dive on in:
1. "Modernists deny supernaturalism and therefore they are not really religious. Progressives don’t deal in all that. For them religion is a matter of fighting for equal rights, making the world a better place, being kind to everyone and “spirituality”. They will conclude that if religion is no more than good works, then the religious ritual is redundant…and they would be right."
I am an Emerging Christian, and I revel in the supernatural and mysterious. I love not knowing, because it means my insatiable curiosity and I will be invited into an ever deepening relationship with God within me and all around me. I love ritual, because it is a form of dancing with Spirit. It is because of ritual and my profound respect for Mystery that I want to see the world become a better place, believe in equal rights for all people, and enter into relationship with people of all faiths and nationalities because my teacher, Jesus, also did this in his life. Religion is more than good works--good works are the fruits of a relationship with God, not the other way around which would only be an economic transaction of good works buying favor from God. But I do not find church to be the only place where ritual takes place--when I do centering prayer there is ritual. When I write poetry, there is ritual. When I close the circle at our Common House gathering, there is ritual. When my husband and I pray before eating, there is ritual. Ritual without the experience of God infusing life is dead, and that is what drives people from church when it has become rote, reactionary, punitive or institutionalized to the point where the "soul" of the ritual has been lost.
2. "Progressive religion is essentially individualist and not communal. Individuals with firm opinions will form ever smaller and more passionate groups with like minded people and the smaller the groups, the more they will eventually wither and die."
If you go into the most progressive church or the most conservative one, and ask each individual about the meaning and particulars of their faith, you will get a different answer from each person you ask. Why? Because all belief, dogma, creeds and traditions are filtered through the individual experience, and played out in their diverse lives. To think there is one communal voice is to miss the beauty of the many individual voices. What we need is a way that holds the both/and here--a way to be an individual in community, without the community becoming reactive or the individuals attempting to make the entire community as they are. That kind of communal experience requires maturity, mutual respect and dialogue, something often missing in the modern church.
The author is also such a linear thinker...things do wither and die, but he misses the fact that something new begins from that entropy. My egg shells from breakfast go into the compost and a new flower arises. We start with a dynamic person like Jesus and a small group, then grow large and institutional and political, and then break down smaller and begin again. ALL religions are like this. It's natural and dare I say human? This movement is like breathing, expansion and contraction, and is part and parcel of being alive and dynamic. The point is, most Emerging Christians do not FEAR this living nature of both the individual and the institution.
3. "Progressive Christianity is also subjective and sentimentalist. It eschews doctrine and favors individual spirituality and sentimental responses to doctrines and moral issues."
Actually, a great many of the Emerging and Progressive Christians are deep thinkers, scholars, researchers and the like. They know where the church doctrines arose and why, understand the human factor in all things church, and have tracked the rise and fall of church politics through the ages. But their reactions are not just rote--they are often based in good logic as well as a profound sense of compassion for all human beings, a compassion that is sometimes under-utilized in the institutional church. Jesus would never rank an institution above an individual soul. Jesus went apart to discern right and wrong, the manner of his mission, the Way he was being called to be in the world. That's not something you can do as a corporate entity. Then, the individual comes back to the community and share what he or she has learned. It is that give and take, the individual and the communal, that best serves any religion.
4. "Progressive Christianity is historically revisionist. They re-write history according to their prejudices.. A religion that destroys tradition therefore destroys itself."
And "historic or traditional" Christians tend to inflict a "one way to read the Bible" on their congregations and parishes, as well as defining for "everyone" how they choose to interpret history. The interpretation of any piece of writing will tell you more about the interpreter than any one way or truth that actually exists in the words. I would say most Progressives and Emergent folks aren't historically revisionist, but rather, have deepened their ability to find nuance and exciting meaning in Biblical texts that transcend the literal and merely historical. Why would metanoia, parable and living example be so important to Jesus himself if he wanted us to all become historians, literalists and legalists? The real "tradition" of Christianity was small home churches, a man asking his disciples to see him in all peoples, outside the institutional and politic spheres of the day, who used agricultural and home-based metaphors, who actively challenged the boundaries between nationalities, who showed kindness and mercy to the enemy, who forgave when most of us would be picking up a sword. Emerging church folks take Jesus and the history of our teacher very, very seriously indeed.
5. "Progressive Christianity is based on out of date Biblical scholarship."
Actually, Progressive and Emerging Christians take the Bible incredibly seriously. And while the historic record is important for us, the "poetry" of the Bible is even more so. Jesus would not have taught in parables if he did not wish us to look deeper into the morass of language. We listen, instead, for the "truth" that does not need to be fact. We are far more mystical than the average "Catholic" priest! There is simply no need for the Bible to be "literal" or "historic"--it is filled with beauty, sweeping deep philosophy, and the power of human transformation.
6. Progressive Christianity will die out because it makes no great demands for its devotees to be religious. 'You should come because you love God, not because you fear him.' While this sentiment may be laudable, they shouldn’t therefore be surprised if no one comes to Mass.
This part of the article also mentioned that we have lost our fear of God, as if that were a bad thing. That's one part of Emerging or Progressive Christianity that I truly appreciate. We cannot fear a God who is held up as Parent--unless we ourselves have been abused and at the mercy of a punitive adult in our life. We cannot "believe" in a God that would eternally punish some of His children and "reward" others for good behavior. It's just not our living experience. When God is all around and within us, we are already participating in Heaven. I still am filled with awe--a word that has aspects of fear and wonder certainly. I love this teaching story from the Sufi tradition: Hafiz was on his way to Mecca, and at night he lay down with his feet pointed toward that holy city. Other pilgrims fussed at him, outraged that he should display the bottoms of his feet in such a way. He raised his sleepy head and asked, "then can you please point me to where God is NOT?"
Church services have become difficult for many because they do not reflect the everyday experience of God, That in which we Live and Move and Have our Being. They are a "show" rather than a time apart where the presence of God can be felt and experienced and shared. When the Mass or service catches up to this idea and takes it seriously, people will be back. Truthfully, I believe the Episcopal, Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican forms of worship have it right--more emphasis on language-less ritual and less on the "sermon". The corporate experience of the presence of God is wildly important--the structured transmission of creed and dogma are not. That is part of the "job security" of the institutional church. If the church would simply soften their grip on tradition, belief, rules, literalism, etc, the people would return with joy. Jesus himself taught us to be wary of institutions--they got him killed in the end after all. But he also taught us that relationship with others and the world is the very Bread and Wine of Life. Institutions may pass away; relationships, never.
8. Progressives allow for moral degeneracy and that saps the strength out of real religion. Real religion requires self discipline. The modernist sees religion not as self denial but self fulfillment. Another aspect of this point is that progressive Christians use artificial contraception and endorse abortion. It’s not rocket science to conclude that a population who stop having babies will soon die out.
I wonder how writers like Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, or local pastors like the late Rev Dr. Tom Thresher or my own Rev Dr. Paul Lance would feel about being called "morally degenerate". I laughed out loud at this point. Anytime a religion makes another human being an "other" without a face, you will have war. Can you imagine what Jesus would say to this statement in above? I suspect he would council us all to "shake the dust off our feet and walk on".
I am very fulfilled by my faith, and my discipline of prayer and writing are as strict as any monastic. I just don't have to hate, to "punish" myself. Again, faith is not a road of thorns, it is merely narrow. I choose carefully my entertainment, order my day by a Rule of Life and live with joy.
And perhaps this fellow has not read about the effects of over-population. If love is based on relationship then of course we will enter into relationship with our children with both commitment and happiness. We simply choose when that time is best. And a great many of us would never have an abortion; we simply cannot say that such a decision is "right" or "wrong" for every woman, circumstance,and every life. We are compassionate, not rigid.
9. The Church of the South is on the rise. Christianity is most vital in Africa, Asia and South America. The Christians there are both historic and modern. They’re young, they’re energetic and they follow a joyful and dynamic gospel. The African Anglicans moving to expel the Episcopalians is a hint of the future. Historic Christianity will rise up and defeat progressive Christianity simply because the first is authentic and the second is a counterfeit faith.
This passage merely made me ill. Of course young people will move to "expel" the Other because they are still trapped in the black and white thinking and the power of belonging to a tribe that in this case just happens to be called the Catholic Church. This is the language of the terrorist, no matter how benign. These poor young people are trapped by the dogma, but also by the power of belonging which for many serves as a counterfeit sense of self. How is this joyful? This paragraph shows the aggression, fear and rigidity that has been driving people out of the church for years. This is the Christianity that must gently pass away if we are to have the peace Jesus intended for us all.
Emerging Christians actively cultivate relationship with people of all denominations and faiths because our God is the God of all of us. We aren't playing on a team, trying to win against other teams--we are a family. Just because a man in India sees God in a certain way, uses a different language and ritual does not mean he is wrong, any more than two children sitting at a dinner table with their father will see the man in a different light. We rejoice in our diversity because that means we see more of God's face, not less.
10. Progressives are dull and respectable. They used to think they were the radical ones, but they’ve gone grey and suburban and become part of the establishment.
Interesting, isn't it, that the writer again resorts to the use of "other" and mere emotional reactionism? I am 52, and anything but dull and respectable! And just a couple paragraphs up we were called morally degenerate and heodonists! HA! I don't think you can do both very well! The Emerging and Progressive Christians I have met actively work in the world for social justice, for new economic, social and political models, for new ways to be in relationship with others. The point above is a patent and sorry attempt to look down on something the author does not, in fact, understand at all.
11. The Historic Christians are now the radicals. When the whole world becomes liberal it is the conservative who is the radical. When the whole world is blinded by materialism it is the supernaturalist who is the radical. Christianity is only good news when it is radical and so it is the historic and heroic Christians who will prevail.
Again, look at the language usage here--triumphalism, tribalism, fear, on and on. I would pray all kinds of Christianity will exist side by side, each "feeding" its people with the relationship with God rather than "in" and "out" clubs. When did Jesus ever preach "mock your neighbor" or "be triumphant?" That is the very language of the Roman Empire and sadly, the institutional church that inherited and became the New Rome. And that is why people leave the the institutional church--because they have stopped doing "churchianity" and have found an authentic relationship with God. If we look at Jesus, he had to leave the institutionalism of his childhood faith because rules, priests, and books had become more important that the heart to heart communion with God. Such things had become idols. Isn't it interesting that when "emerging" or "progressive" Christians seek the authentic as Jesus did, then they are chastised by those in power, those who have a deep investment in the institution?
12. All Are Welcome…to leave. The irony is that their final, infallible dogma for progressives is that “all are welcome”. They never stop to realize that a religion can only be a religion if it has boundaries.
Yes, I agree. But who sets the boundaries and why? Boundaries can do two things--they can create a bowl where transformation is possible, where relationships are made and creativity can cook OR they can wall off change, create inbred fear, and limit the spiritual growth of the community which will always entail change, creativity, and dialogue. I set the boundary of a Rule of Life, and my boundaries are firm with meditation, writing, and caring for my husband, animals and the many holy others in my life. I have porous boundaries with people of other faiths and ideas because they enrich my own God experience! I continue to learn and grow, and know that should all churches one day stand empty, God will still be within and around us all, a vaster cathedral than anything built by mere mortals. This is what the Emerging and Progressive Christians I regularly interact with really stand for.