“As ‘Progressive’ Christians’, can we identify a message about God that is…
Robin Scott asks:
“As ‘Progressive’ Christians’, can we identify a message about God that is credible and accessible and that engenders a sense of both possibility and urgency?”
The following is simply an initial exploration of the concepts in the question – to provide a starting point for further exploring some more extended answers.
What do we want to say about God, Jesus, the Spirit, the Bible, the Church, etc.? During my church upbringing and student days I was aware of much emphasis on the need to be doctrinally correct. There was also a very clear understanding of what “The Gospel” was: (of course it was the penal substitution message of evangelists like Billy Graham). The search for doctrinal accuracy may still be present in more conservative Christian circles today, but I sense a more general tendency not to be too specific about the ‘gospel message’ - beyond that “God loves you” and that God sent Jesus to “give you life”.
Today there is a tendency to major on doing works of social relevance to demonstrate God’s love through God’s people. I believe that such works are admirable and absolutely necessary. But it is also necessary to give some coherent intellectual and verbal expression to what Christian faith (or faith in Jesus) is actually about.
I sometimes ask in small groups, “If you had an opportunity to tell someone about Jesus, what would you say?” Very occasionally someone will strongly propound the old ‘gospel’ message that “Christ died for our sins”. However, most people will respond that it’s not really about words, but about actions; or that it’s about the drip-effect on people of how we live our lives. Very few will in fact come up with a statement about Jesus; why his life is important, why it’s important to “believe” in Jesus or what faith in Jesus actually is.
Yet we surely need an intelligible verbal account of how we see Jesus and of the meaning of faith in Jesus. In the gospel accounts, the ministry of Jesus is essentially two-fold: actions and words. Huge crowds flocked to Jesus both because of his miracles and to hear what he had to say - because it made sense to them. In the same way we need to have a proper balance between sacrificial and affirming actions and intelligible and reasoned explanation. It’s this reasoned explanation (or message) that I want to try and identify in my project. The contemporary message has to be both in serious dialogue with scripture and also expressed in metaphors and examples which are immediately intelligible to contemporary society. People need to feel at home with what they declare rather than be embarrassed or confused by it.
Credible means “capable of being believed”. How many of the things we present as “doctrine” are actually capable of belief?
Take the ‘penal substitution’ message which claims to be the ‘Biblical’ centre of traditional evangelism. Today most evangelists skirt around it because they know that a message that appears to speak about a God who kills his son to appease his own wrath can’t be spoken in today’s world. They may still mention things like “getting your sins taken away” and “being put right with God” and they may say it happens “through Jesus’ death on the cross” but they are unlikely to spell out the logic of penal substitution.
Understanding. Some people will say they “believe” something, yet if pushed will admit they don’t understand what it means. To take a simple example; what does the basic concept of Jesus as “Son of God” actually mean? People will say they “believe” it because it’s what the creed says or what the Bible says. But what does it mean? Or what would it have meant in the culture and time when the New Testament was written? Few people today would know; and if they tried to give a definition most would display fundamental misunderstanding of it. I don’t think you can use the word “believe” to describe verbal assent to a proposition which you don’t understand.
Fear. Of course, the above example has a lot of baggage attached to it which illustrates a further point. In popular understanding you can only obtain eternal life by “believing” that Jesus is God’s Son. So there is a great deal to fear and a great deal to lose by admitting that you don’t understand its meaning.
Fear of rejection by fellow-believers may also be part of the baggage. If I don’t understand (and therefore can’t really believe) I will not say so because then I might be rejected: by my peers and even by God. So my claim to believe may no more or less than saying that I need the security and hope that come to me through this group of people and so I will claim to “believe”. Thus mere assent to an idea becomes substituted for heart-felt and motivating belief based on understanding.
Culture. What is credible is also a matter of culture. There are things that cannot really be believed within a cultural norm – and this can work both positively and negatively. We have already mentioned the problems with spelling out the “penal substitution” message. A society that believes strongly in animal care and rights will not be able to embrace the concept of animal sacrifice; and a scientific, rationalistic society will find the idea of miracles offensive and impossible. So presenting the message of Jesus in terms of the sacrificial Lamb of God will be likely to get you labelled as barbaric, and presenting Jesus as a regular worker of large-scale nature-defying miracles will be likely to be laughed at as mere fantasy. The fact that the Bible does indeed speak in such ways simply goes to illustrate how culture does in fact change and how the metaphors in which we tell our sacred stories need a corresponding revision.
Emotional Needs. Credibility may also relate to deeper considerations within the human heart and psyche: especially the compelling needs for belonging, compassion, tenderness, affirmation and respect. To be found credible, theological concepts will have to affirm and align with these dynamics while ideas that contradict them may be rejected as non-credible. Perhaps a significant difference between the days of my childhood and the present day is that in the former time the intellectual formulation of a doctrine was all-important; but today many people will not tolerate intellectual dogma –whether religious or secular – and will demand that such claims to truth justify themselves at the level of the sentient, psychological and compassionate dynamics of life.
Thus parenting courses based on assumptions of empathy, respect, need-recognition, negotiation, conflict resolution and development of responsibility may be found credible; while the message of a God whose forgiveness and favour are conditional upon a crucifixion which satisfies his perfectionist “holiness” will be found abhorrent.
So credibility is not merely rational but also involves culture, emotional needs and natural instinct.
By “accessible” I mean capable of being grasped by ordinary people. The message is for everyone, not just for academic theologians. It must be able to be grasped in the context of life –today’s life.
The doctrine of the Trinity, propounded by the majority of the early church Fathers must count as one of the most abstruse and obscure of all doctrines – almost entirely unintelligible both in its language and in its concepts. The vast majority of trained clergy would, I guess, be unable to explain it to the ordinary person. Yet it forms the basis of Western Christian orthodoxy.
By contrast Jesus spoke in story-language, creating scenarios which ordinary people could relate to and from which he invited them to draw their own conclusions. Surely not a recipe for precise doctrine. Rather, it seems to imply that the understanding of God must be derived from extended understanding of ourselves and of our experience of realities and relationships in the world around us. The idea of God is able to be – and I would suggest needs to be – reconsidered in each generation. It is not a fixed concept delivered by verbal propositions in the Bible. It needs to make sense and be convincing to people, and the work of theology is to help people find such conviction; weighing new insights against older wisdom, and enabling both continuity and radical development.
And as I implied above, there are no “right answers”; people will form their own conclusions. The more provisional these conclusions are, the more likely we may be to find insight and consensus by negotiation – or even to genuinely agree to differ; because love (and not propositional truth) is the name of the game.
By ‘possibility’ I am referring to both enabling and confidence. In my experience many people do not believe that they have the capacity or the right to deal with “theology”. They see it either as a specialised subject for trained ministers and theologians (and as a result may even dismiss and despise it) or they see it as a spiritual mystery which is beyond their capacity to access. There’s an old joke which illustrates this:
Jeannie and Jock always go to church together but one day Jeannie is ill and Jock goes on his own. On return Jeannie asks him, “was it a good service Jock?” “Oh, marvellous, woman, marvellous!” says Jock. “And was the minister’s sermon good, Jock? “She asks. “Oh, marvellous, woman, marvellous!” “And what was the minister talking about, Jock?” enquires Jeannie. “Och, woman,” says Jock, “far be it frae me to understand what the holy man says!”
The total disempowerment and lack of confidence expressed in Jock’s attitude (and the leader-centred dependency which undergirds it) are still a massive problem in today’s educated world. We need to pursue by all means possible the task of getting people to believe that they can have relevant insights into God, that they have the right to question what has been delivered and to “experiment” with doctrine for themselves.
Fear is, again, a major element here. When faced with concepts such as the Bible as “God’s Word”, delivered in set form, once and for all; or of the sacred and un-contradictable nature of preaching, people may lack the courage to dare to ask critical questions and may instead just assume that they are ignorant and incapable in the face of mysterious, holy truth. After all, what if we get it wrong? And what if we end up dismantling things we can’t re-assemble? What if we lose faith or ‘displease’ God?
So whether in church services or in home (or other) groups, I believe we need to help people thrown off the dominance of delivered doctrine, to keep asking questions about things they find non-credible, and to gain confidence in their own ability to negotiate the underlying concepts with contemporary relevance and without fear.
(Sadly, my experience suggests a significant number of people seem to prefer to try and justify (as ‘biblical’) out-dated metaphors which are more familiar and comforting to them).
My final question for the moment is about how we can put an edge on the message. In “evangelical” understanding the ultimate threat of eternity in hell is a strong incentive to believe – or at least to comply. But what of the Progressive message?
One evangelical colleague recently complained to me, “If there’s no hell then surely anything goes and sin doesn’t matter; you can all do what you like because you’ll all end up in heaven, good and bad alike. God’s justice and holiness won’t matter”. So this man sees it as his place to warn people about the eternal consequences of sin and call them to repentance. He claims that this methodology builds strong churches with people actively seeking righteousness together, etc.
It’s all well and good for Progressives to dismiss such a position, but what, if anything, do we want to call people to? Faith is not just about debunking and deconstructing – in fact faith per se is not about that at all. Faith must be about actively following Jesus in his attempts to establish God’s Kingdom of compassion, justice and peace. Faith means putting ourselves on the line! But how do we make that urgent to people? What actions or projects should we be taking up through which people who decide to walk with us can experience the transforming Spirit of God at work? What is our picture of the nature and shape of the Church for today and tomorrow?
And to end where we came in: what is the urgent message that goes with the action: that is, our declaration about God, Jesus, the Spirit, the Kingdom, the Church and other major issues?
Perhaps our message, following Jesus’ own, must comprise both grass-roots encouragement alongside radical critique of establishment: a message that affirms and empowers ordinary people among whom God’s love longs to flow; while at the same time constantly calling on institutional authority, religious or secular, to justify itself and its demands, and to act out of servanthood rather than dominance and control?
Some questions we might ask:
1. Message: How important do you think it is to be able to give an explanation of why we believe in God, Jesus, etc? Might it be sufficient to do good and loving deeds and give no explanation of our faith?
2. Credible: What kind of considerations makes our message credible or non-credible?
3. Accessible: Do you feel your faith is “at your fingertips”: something you easily work with and enjoy: or is it something you hold more with trepidation and fear?
4. Possibility: Can we just play about with theology, making up our own ideas, or is there some essential body of truth which needs to be formulated and handed on – and if so what is it?
5. Urgency What if anything does Progressive Christianity make you feel compelled to share with other people? What thing would you like them to find that you have found?
Robin Scott 29th April 2014