“…One of the great truths of life is that we can never really stay where we are—both the best moments and the worst moments pass, and time gathers us up in its current, and we have to keep moving.” —from Nancy Steeves’ reflection on “Journey,” January 5, 2020.
Members of book discussion clubs get together to hash over the book they’ll have read since last they met. Well, duh! What else would they do, you ask. At their January 29 assembly, members of The Spong Group, the long-lasting religion book deliberation bunch at Sherwood Park United Church, set aside a book study altogether in order for each to share out loud something or another of his or her own individual spiritual journey toward progressive Christianity: where am I in my thinking? How did I get here? What influenced me along the way?
You’re thinking, that’d be a perfunctory enough excursion for those within the gang who were born, reared, and came to adulthood in United Church congregations: as their understandings changed and developed, so did those of their church…so much so that it has even found room within its confines for the envelope-pushing Gretta Vosper. So they could and did meander off the straight and narrow, and still found themselves accepted, more or less, by the stolids—this they reported.
But for some among the “Spongers,” the path to progressive Christianity was long and hard, confusing and anxious. Consider how one was raised a Baptist, went to a Presbyterian school, taught at another run by Catholics, and ended up as a quick-off-the-mark stalwart member of The Jesus Seminar, that group of scholars who sought to discover the historic Jesus…and, in the process, drove conservative religionists wild.
Another in attendance grew up in America in different non-denominational, fundamentalist, evangelical congregations, and reported how, “Every once in awhile, I would hear about someone wanting to break out of the mould, and believe differently. I always thought that was the height of arrogance.” Through marriage, this individual came to adopt mainline Protestantism (“…it was the same religion I’d grown up in, except there was a liturgy and a creed….”), but it still took years of reconnaissance and reflection for progressive Christianity to be embraced.
Two others struggle still to let go their long-drawn-out ties to the Lutheran church. One hails from Camrose, the Mecca of Lutheranism in western Canada; the other, from America’s Midwest, was raised in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, arguably the church’s most conservative wing. Leave-taking is easier said than done.
“New beginnings,” by John O’Donohue
“In out-of-the-ordinary places of the heart, where your thoughts never think to wander, this beginning has been quietly forming, waiting until you are ready to emerge. For a long time it has watched your desire, feeling the emptiness growing inside you, noticing how you willed yourself on, still unable to leave what you had outgrown.”
It’s as Dave Tomlinson has it in his book, Black Sheep and Prodigals: An Antidote to Black and White Religion [books with bold-faced titles are found in the SSUC Library collection]: “We all need to go on our own existential quest, which is always a search for God, whether we realize it or not, but also a search for our own true self. …But there are always things to leave behind, to depart from, not least the beaten track of other people’s opinions and expectations….”
In another book—actually, your Library’s beginning-of-March “Featured Book,” The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom—Mexico’s don Miguel Ruiz, a spiritual teacher, explains why moving on can be convulsive: “As children, we didn’t have the opportunity to choose our beliefs,” but, through “human domestication,” these convictions came to rule our minds, to be “our truth.” Even as adults, “…we need a great deal of courage to challenge our own beliefs. Because even if we know we didn’t choose all these beliefs, it is also true that we,” growing up, accepted them.
So, for some, anyway, heeding Paul’s avowal in 1 Corinthians 13:11 [King James translation] is uphill: “When I was a child, I spake as a child; but when I became a man [an adult], I put away childish things.” It’s as Gretta Vosper put it, just lately, on her website: “We never know too much to question what we know.”
In a recent Q&A exchange on the progressivespirit.com website, Presbyterian cleric Matthew Syrdal replied to “Glenda,” who bleated, “…I am hearing someone who is undergoing what might be called a spiritual ‘moult’. A ‘shedding of the skin’ that no longer fits can be disorienting; and many people that tread this path describe it as being ‘lost’.” Hang tough, he concluded: give yourself “the permission and freedom of spiritual exploration.”
It’s worth it. In a sublime essay about the spiritual practices of Celtic Christianity, writer Jessica Brown once told of “thresholds,” which are “those literal and metaphorical crossing points that can serve as designated spaces or times to open to God”: “The gift of the threshold is that…it beckons to the wild expanses of that which we do not yet know—territories such as grace, reconciliation, healing, and hope. …I think the value of marking these transition spaces is to freshen our hearts so that when we face what is coming next, it is…with a kind of readiness to receive what we don’t yet understand.”
And if the best we can do is wonder and seek and try to understand, we’ll be in good company: “I marvel at the last words used to describe the disciples in the gospel of Matthew [28:16-17],” Presbyterian pastor John Ortberg writes in his book, Faith & Doubt. “‘Then the 11 disciples went to…the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.’
“This is an amazing picture. They have seen him, listened to him, followed him, studied him, and seen him crucified and resurrected—and the last thing we read about them is, ‘and some doubted’. … biblical scholar Frederick Dale Bruner says, ’The Christian faith is bi-polar. Disciples live their lives between worship and doubt, trusting and questioning, hoping and worrying.’”
And that’s okay. In this same book, Ortberg recalls, “There is a wonderful, tiny verse  in a rarely read New Testament letter called ‘Jude’: ‘Be merciful to those who doubt.’”
“Doubt,” by Alice Smith
“Concrete certainty solidifies fluid possibility, and stultifies natural evolution, diminishing mystery and wonder of the Divine. Doubt creates the rising question that leavens the bread, the fruitful searching that ferments the wine, and the endless exploring that finds the unexpected spark of light in the darkened tomb.”
So, what was it that underset these Spong Group seekers on their spiritual quests? To what helps did they turn as they questioned groupthink and strayed from orthodoxy?
Some in attendance at SPUC that January night singled out mentors who’d helped them in their searching, like the philosophy professor and gentleman who didn’t judge or constrain, but who listened and encouraged. Others pointed up adult continuing education studies, like the Living the Questions DVD, Painting the Stars: Science, Religion, and an Evolving Faith (“I realized that we were making God too small—putting God in boxes”). Finding fellow travellers, heading in the same direction, buoyed some: they were not alone in their quest, as they had feared, there in the straight-arrow churches from which they inched toward freedom, while fellow parishioners marched in place.
But the one resource that was influential for all the book discussants was, to be sure, books. They were suasive, which Sheldon Legrow also found them to be: in his letter to the editor in the new issue of Broadview [“A deeper relationship”], this Newfoundland retiree thanked “authors such as Karen Armstrong, Bart Ehrman, Alvin Boyd Kuhn, John Shelby Spong, Gretta Vosper, Marcus Borg, Tom Harpur, and others, for helping me on my journey.”
Ortberg again: “We read because we want to know if there is a reason to believe. And sometimes when we read, someone names a truth that resonates so deeply inside us that we find ourselves laughing or crying because we never knew there was a name for what we hoped.”
Typically, these books—just the sort you’ll find on the shelves in the SSUC Library, including works by most all of the writers Legrow cites—brim with discoveries and dissension, ideas and insights, surmises and sense: they are thought-provoking. Good reads to take on a journey, to help you find your way forward on your spiritual journey. As a preview, and to pique your interest and imagination, here are notions from just 15 such books:
* “The reason so many of us lost our childhood curiosity is that we’ve been tamed. Our world is populated with domesticated grownups who would rather settle for safe, predictable answers, instead of wild, unpredictable mystery. Faith has been reduced to a comfortable system of beliefs about God, instead of an uncomfortable encounter with God.” —Michael Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith.
* “…one of the healthiest things we can do is question everything we have ever been taught. This…is simply what becoming an adult is all about. Once we are old enough to figure things out for ourselves, we can look back at the beliefs we were taught to live by, and decide what works for us and what doesn’t. …Life is too short to spend it living according to someone else’s dogma.” —Daniele Bolelli, Create Your Own Religion.
* “Leaving behind a faith that does not nourish is one thing; reclaiming one that will is…more difficult…because the prevailing culture, especially within formal church and religion, tends to protect the old values, and can be…harsh in its treatment of those whose spiritual growth leads them in other directions.” —Diarmuid O Murchu, Religion in Exile—A Spiritual Homecoming.
* “…within Christianity there are scores of diverse beliefs…. In every congregation there are now and always have been individuals holding divergent beliefs. Within each individual Christian, at various times during a lifetime, beliefs vary. I doubt that there is anyone who has precisely the same beliefs as an adult he or she had as a child.” —John McQuiston II, Christianity Without Superstition: Meaning, Metaphor, and Mystery.
* “I have always been a seeker. I still am. …[I am] someone who keeps searching for the ’truth,’ knowing that probably I will not find it. As a seeker, I have always had a thirst that is probably insatiable. …[But, searching,] I have tapped into something that has made my life more meaningful, joyful, and fulfilling. …We may never find that ultimate truth, but the journey should lead to some fascinating, purposeful, and fulfilling places.” —Fred Plumer, Drink from the Well.
* “Always seek to be learning something new. Test all things—always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them. Never seek to censor, or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you. Form independent opinions on the basis of your reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others. Question everything.” —Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.
* “Central to the Christian experience is the art of questioning God [which demands] naked, honest, vulnerable, raw questions…. This type of questioning frees us. Frees us from having to have it all figured out. Frees us from having answers to everything. Frees us from having always to be right. It allows us to have moments when we come to the end of our ability to comprehend.” —Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith.
* “To regard any set of beliefs as absolute and unchangeable is to make an idol of something that is human, finite, and fallible. We should accept the beliefs of others or those from the past only if they have the inherent power to convince us. …We rightly resist other people’s beliefs imposed upon us, for that would be tantamount to intellectual slavery. If we settle for simply repeating the creeds of former generations as our own, we allow ourselves to be turned into ventriloquists’ dummies. …[We must be free] to believe what we find personally convincing and [what] inspires us to walk into the unknown future with hope and faith.” —Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic.
* “…the goal we have on entering [a spiritual pilgrimage]…is changed as we progress. Our need to understand metamorphoses gradually into the pleasure of being affected and changed by the search. We are different just for having the patience to remain within the mystery for an extended time, and though we don’t know it at the beginning, this change in perspective was the point of entering in the first place.” —Thomas Moore, The Soul’s Religion—Cultivating a Profoundly Spiritual Way of Life.
* “Many of the key decisions of life are taken as a risk which goes well beyond any evidence, but which commits one’s life in a specific direction thereafter. Faith is a commitment made in objective uncertainty, with the risk of irrevocable commitment, in response to an encounter with a reality which reason cannot comprehend.” —Keith Ward, God—A Guide for the Perplexed.
* “…true belief must always be shot through with a healthy dose of not-knowing. …There is doubt, and therefore risk, at the heart of any true religious commitment. The kind of certainty, the rigid conviction that ‘we alone have the true truth,’ so prominent in various religious quarters today, is more the product of insecurity and an unwillingness to bear life’s ambiguities than it is of actual spiritual insight.” —Tom Harpur, Harpur’s Heaven and Hell.
* “Faith is not belief. Belief wants to have certainty, and so it puts faith aside. But faith is an affirmation of something that hasn’t been seen, that can’t be grasped. It’s not certainty. If you’re certain about something, you don’t need faith. When you believe in something, you think you’re right about it. When you have faith in something, you’re open to the idea that you might be wrong.” —Jay Bakker, with Andy Meisenheimer, Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed: Walking with an Unknown God.
* “…religion is not just a set of propositions in one’s mind. It’s something you sing and dance and eat and pray. It’s enmeshed in art and literature and architecture and drama, in symbols and myths and rites and liturgy. It has to do with vocation and morality and character. It’s experienced through taste and smell and sight and touch and hearing, not just thinking. It is a matter of heart as much as head.” —Scotty McLennan, Jesus was a Liberal—Reclaiming Christianity for All.
* “…we need both faith and doubt. The birth of every infant whispers of a God who loves…; the death of every infant calls his existence into question. Writer Michael Novak says that doubt is not so much a dividing line that separates people into different camps as it is a razor’s edge that runs through every soul…. I believe. And I doubt. The razor’s edge runs through me.” —John Ortberg, Faith & Doubt.
* “The author Maya Angelou speaks of a lifelong journey of faith. She says, ‘I’m startled or taken aback when people walk up to me and tell me they are Christians. My first response is the question, “Already?”’ In other words, ours is, or should be, ‘a story that is always evolving, one in which the ending is not yet written’.” —David Felton & Jeff Proctor-Murphy, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.