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Library Learnings: Why Weren’t We Told? A sweeping, engrossing look at progressive Christianity Down Under


“Why weren’t we told?“

Your librarian—the other one, the one not writing this article—wondered this aloud, like a mantra, while searching out progressive Christianity. It was voiced not so much as a question, but as a reprimand. It was clerics whom she accused. Of what? Of holding back from sharing with her, with the laity, what commonly they learned in seminary, even decades ago: outside-the-box understandings of the faith. Typically, they kept these to themselves, they explained, so as not to trouble their stand-pat congregants. That’s why we weren’t told. 

So, how could we not buy this particular paperback…now to be found in the SSUC Library, albeit highlighted, dogeared, and otherwise manhandled…which its editors describe as being a handbook on progressive Christianity: Why Weren’t We Told?  

This is a remarkable book—one-of-a-kind may not be too strong an adjective. Published in 2013 by Polebridge Press, the publishing imprint of the Westar Institute [think The Jesus Seminar], the almost-300-page book is a muster of more than 100 separate and distinct writings, the work of 30 contributors—the reader is introduced to each. Compiled and edited by Rex Hunt and John Smith, both forward-looking Uniting Church in Australia ministers, it points up progressive Christianity Down Under, and attests to its well-being…its progress…in both Australia and New Zealand. 

In his review of the book for Briefing—Free to Believe, Alan Coles admits, “I’m usually turned off by extravagant and often inappropriate hyperbole used widely as a sales tool to sell almost everything. However, ‘excellent, inspiring, informative, encouraging, and fascinating’ is an accurate description of this richly packed” volume. Another reviewer, Jim Burklo, a frequent contributor to progressivechristianity.org, agrees: it’s an anthology that serves as “a richly eclectic introduction to theologically and socially progressive Christianity.” 

Goodness, just the table of contents, which spills onto a fifth page, is immersive: there are in the 10 opening pages a couple of introductions, a foreword by New Zealand’s legendary centenarian Sir Lloyd Geering, and a tribute to him; then come 84 pages crammed with 60 cameos about matters that matter to progressive Christians, everything from “dubious doctrines” to the problem of evil; this is followed by 30 pages in which the faith’s “free thinkers” are introduced; next, 20 lengthier essays—the second coming, the Cosmic Christ, etc.—are spread across 87 pages; then come 24 impelling stories [in 25 pages] of progressive congregations and groups, mostly in Australasia; this is followed by a 20-pages-long “resources toolbox” filled with progressive Christian hymns, prayers, liturgies, blessings, affirmations; then come 53 websites “worth exploring further”; and, last but not least, there’s a bibliography chockablock with 278 titles—it fills the book’s last dozen pages. There’s got to be in all this something for everyone!  

Let’s now, after skimming the surface, take a deeper dive into this jumble, let’s treasure hunt…keeping in mind that what’ll follow is merely a sampling of all the book contains.

Opening pages

*  In the book’s foreword, Lloyd Geering, who’ll be 103 years old this February, sets the stage by recalling how someone who’d once long ago been a fellow student complained to him, “‘I have been a loyal churchman all my life, and I am a reasonably intelligent person. Why have I not been told all this before?’” He was, of course, referring to progressive Christian thought, which Sir Lloyd had been detailing. “His complaint was fully justified. I was simply discussing what scholars had been writing about for quite some time, but none of it had ever been heard by people in the pews.”

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Sir Lloyd, “the voice of modernity in matters of religion”

The Rev. Professor Sir Lloyd Geering, described by the BBC as “the last living heretic,” is, according to Adrian Skelton, executive officer of the Uniting Congregations of Aotearoa New Zealand, “treasured by the many New Zealanders…whom he has helped to a ‘saving,’ non-orthodox understanding of the faith.” Not 2-1/2 years ago, Victoria University’s religious studies professor Paul Morris explored the man’s legacy, and concluded, “the impact of this influential thinker cannot be underestimated.” 

Be that as it may, he, back in 1966 and 1967, when he was principal of Knox College in Dunedin, “faced a church trial in which his opponents in the church’s hierarchy tried to defrock him,” Westar Institute member Thomas Schmidt reported in his 2014 review of Sir Lloyd’s book, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic, another volume in SSUC”s Library. It was, according to Morris, “the infamous accusations of ‘heresy’ the Presbyterian Church levelled at him…for denying the immortality of the soul and the physical resurrection of Jesus which catapulted him into the public consciousness as the voice of modernity on matters of religion.” 

As explained in the foreword to Reimagining God, he’d “dared to follow the lead of the best theological scholars of the day in proposing what was widely accepted by theologians, but carefully kept from the people in the pews: that Jesus’ resurrection was the stuff of ecstatic experiences rather than an historical event.” Skelton, too, comes to his defense: “Lloyd was a reluctant heretic; like other academics…he was a victim of the gulf between academic theology and the conservative beliefs of lay people in the pews.”

After a dramatic, two-day trial—which was televised!—the church’s National Assembly judged that no doctrinal error had been proved, dismissed the charges, and declared the case closed. 

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*  In his introduction, Fred Plumer—at the time he wrote his prelude, president of America’s The Center for Progressive Christianity—reckons, “…we need terms like ‘progressive Christian’ to remind us that we are on a spiritual journey into the Great Unknown. The idea that we are always progressing helps us not only from becoming complacent about our faith, but hopefully it keeps us from assuming that we have arrived….”

Cameos

*  ‘“Progressive Christians see themselves as living within a river of life that is never static. Older formulations and ways of living that no longer serve the cause of human flourishing need to be reshaped or radically altered…. The heart of Christian living and conviction is found for progressive Christians in the way of life pioneered by Jesus….” [Keith Rowe, “Being a ‘progressive’ Christian”]

*  “…If humanity, collectively and individually, were to learn to live within the possibilities for life pioneered by Jesus, and allow them to be re-expressed within the differing cultures and faiths of our world, humanity would move to a higher stage in the evolution of life and the fulfilment of the purposes of God.” [Keith Rowe, “Christology”]

*  “…Jesus was not teaching people how they must behave or think so they might end up in some wonderful place when they die, but rather a path which could enable the follower to experience something profound and transforming—something that will change one’s way to view and relate to reality in the present moment. It was his assumption that what he experienced, we, the followers, might experience as well.” [Fred Plumer, “Spirituality”]

*  “We are always becoming. To be alive is to be becoming. Change is. Life refuses to be embalmed alive. And that is what faith is all about: a way of living, an attitude, a vision, that creates us daily.” [Rex Hunt, “Faith”]

*  “By recognizing the contextually specific origins of religions as the human desire to bond with Something More, however described, we can move beyond truth claims and doctrines as the foci of religion, and share the common search for human transformation, whether called salvation, liberation, enlightenment, healing, or perfection….” [Val Webb, “World Religions”]

 

Free Thinkers

*  “…From a progressive Christian perspective…autonomy and freedom of choice in matters of belief and practice are essential. To put it another way, progressivism highly values internal authority—be it reason or experience—over any external authority, and thus makes heresy not only a positive option, but, as Peter Berger nicely puts it [in The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation], an imperative.” [Paul Laughlin, “Heretics or Heroes?”]

*  In “Charles Strong: An Early Australian ‘Heretic’,” Norman Habel observes, “Strong [1844-1942] had a disdain for religion that focussed on preparation for life after death, salvation and damnation, services and sacraments, the Bible and vestments. The task of the church, he claimed, is to preach ‘freedom, justice, peace, compassion, and reconciliation’.” Furthermore, “An extraordinary feature of Strong’s spirituality is its distinctive incarnational base. …the incarnation is not an ephhapaz (once and for all) event, but an expression of an eternal present reality. The word or spirit becomes/is incarnate in every human. Every human is an expression of the incarnation of God’s presence….”

 

Essays

*  “I am firmly resolved I can never say or assent to the traditional creedal forms of Christianity…. Frankly, Nicaea [the Nicene Creed] doesn’t speak for countless thinking progressive Christians. It dangerously distorts the Jesus of the gospels, and sounds like gobbledegook in a 21st-century service of worship. Literally understood, the Nicene Creed enshrines very questionable theology that, I hazard to suggest, is not really believed by a majority in the pews of mainline denominations. As instances, I cite the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, the second coming, and even, perhaps, a literal bodily resurrection….” [Noel Preston, “Why I Can No Longer Say ‘The Nicene Creed’”]

*  “…At its core, progressive theology or religion must be eco-centric. Eco-theology is not an ‘add-on’ to mainstream theology or religious practice, a mere development of the unchanging, dogmatic centre. This is not a flavour-of-the-month theology or subset of systematic theology, like some regarded ‘political theology’ or ‘feminist theology’ or ‘pastoral theology’. This is the main game.” [Noel Preston, “Exploring Eco-theology”]

*  “Jesus didn’t want to be worshipped. I don’t even think he wanted to be followed, if by ‘follow’ we mean creating a whole new religion around him. We’re stuck with it now, and I make my living trying to keep it alive. But I’m pretty sure Jesus himself would direct us back to the original experience of actually entering and enacting the realm of God. Jesus did want people to know what lit him up was also available to them—if they were ready, willing, and able to surrender their small selves, and be transformed….” [Bruce Sanguin, “When Christ is Cosmic”] 

 

Progressive Congregations and Groups

*  For this section of the book, John Smith sought written submissions from assemblages of progressive Christians, mostly in Australasia, but concluded that, “In many ways the written reports did not do justice to the…enthusiasm that this movement has created. People talked passionately about experiencing a transformation” as a result of their experiences within these groupings. 

*  “…for some considerable time in Australia and New Zealand there has been an enormous energy force hiding just below the surface of devout participation in the orthodox Christian Church, and we are now witnessing its emergence,” he writes by way of setting the stage for the many reports from the field. “Many people feel that for many years they have been living a form of schizophrenic existence when participating in orthodox Christian worship, while privately disagreeing with the language of the creeds, hymns, prayers, and time-locked doctrines.”

*  In his end-of-the-chapter summary, Smith reports, “A common thread in all groups was the importance of embracing a faith that has ‘intellectual integrity’. Those who joined these groups were seeking an opportunity to share their concerns that ‘contemporary knowledge’ and ‘personal life experience’ had brought them into conflict with a traditional interpretation of their faith. These progressive groups are providing an opportunity to safely share with those who have had a similar experience, whilst acknowledging the diversity of their personal journeys.”

 

Resources Toolbox

*  Stanzas from two different songs by Andrew Pratt: “At the learning curve’s beginning, hardly knowing where we head, finding how to learn while living, grasping all that’s seen and said.” And, “Let us nurture fresh expressions, different ways of being church, sharing love and understanding, joining people in their search.”

*  Excerpts from a responsive prayer by Keith Rowe: “God, spirit, energy within life, weaver of beauty, drawing humanity together into a single family, hold us in our weakness, direct our strength, and fill us with love that persists. Mystery at the heart of life…we immerse ourselves in the sea of life and love that is your presence around us. …Open the windows of our minds,  our imaginations, and our deepest sensitivity, so we may know ourselves to be embraced by grace, touched with possibility, and invited to share in the creation of new futures.”

*  An “affirmation of faith” by Pam Roth: “We join together in making this pledge in the confidence of that which unites us all: The humanity we share demands a fair portion of earth’s bounty as the birthright of all, freedom from abuse as the privilege of all, forgiveness for wrongs suffered, as the resurrection for all.”

*  Excerpts from a prayer by Rex Hunt: “…may we…be nudged to see new perspectives, to give back, to reach out, sharing our talents, our riches, and ourselves with those who are discouraged, disheartened, or simply unaware. …May our attention be grabbed, and may we be seized with the miracle of life itself, that we might be filled with new passion, new resolve, to take the next step, risking the way of Jesus.”

Oh, yes, Why Weren’t We Told? is a book that has much to tell. Read it, enjoy it, and learn and benefit from it.

Ken Fredrick