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A "New" God

Almost two thousand years, and no new god!
— F. Nietzsche, The Antichrist

When we speak of a "new" God, we mean a new explanation, a new description. In the end, a God-explanation is all we have to express. We cannot prove God exists because God is the very ground and source of our existence, and our proofs end up being circular arguments. When asked what his name was, God told Moses: "I am that I am". Exodus 3:14. Similarly, Paul said "by the grace of God, I am what I am." 1 Corinthians 15:10. Aside from such tautologies, the God that can be spoken of is not the True God.

Michaelangelo did not think God was an old man with white hair and a flowing white beard, yet painted such a "God" onto several panels of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In these representations of the creation of the world, Michaelangelo shows God's effort to separate the land from the waters and create the heavenly bodies in the positions of the old man's hand and the furrows in his brow. God points firmly and deliberately at Adam to pass the spark of life from his finger tip to Adam's outstretched hand. Michaelangelo probably did not think God looks like Santa Claus, but he did conceive creation as an intentional act of a person, not a spontaneous random event, and conveyed this intention and purpose in the gestures of a man.

As for the ultimate reality of God? It cannot even be endured. If the truth about God were made manifest to us, it would destroy us. In Exodus 33, in the midst of the Israelite's wanderings in the wilderness, Moses asks to see God's "glory". God warns Moses that directly encountering God would be fatal: "You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live." Exodus 33:20. God instead arranges for Moses to see his backside. "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen." Exodus 33:22-23. In this way, whenever we get a glimpse of God, He is always ahead of us: a true and living spirituality is directed towards a future relationship with God, not past habits and opinions.

From the data of religion and culture it can be deduced that humans everywhere and in all places have shown a need for a spirtual relationship with God or some such divine principle. It is also evident that our relationship with God changes, over the course of lifetimes and through the history of civilizations. As Karen Armstrong put it in the introduction to A History of God:

The idea of God formed in one generation by one set of human beings can be meaningless in another. Indeed, the statement "I believe in God" has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular community.

The question for this generation and this century, then, is: "What does our faith mean?" We have to ask this question even if we choose to keep and cherish the inherited wisdom and riches of the past, the Sistine Chapels and Last Suppers, the Small Catechisms and Spiritual Exercises, the Divine Comedy and the Paradise Lost. We have to make a new God-explanation and a new God-culture, even as we affirm a common, universal and never-changing God-experience. That is Progressive Christianity.

Who is "Christian", and who is a heretic?

Picture Jesus's disciples in the early days of the religion, right after the Pentecost event described in Acts 2. They sold everything and kept only shirt and a cloak and sandals, and a walking staff, and they went out to preach. They didn't have a Church, a Bible or any formal creeds: all that came later.

They did not have impressive buildings, like the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Hagia Sophia, or the Crystal Cathedral. They did not have the support of kings or emperors or Presidents. They had an experience of God, and a desire to talk about it. Yet somehow, within 300 years, they had taken over the Roman Empire and began to spread Christianity beyond the marches of Rome's legions to every corner of Europe.

Now consider today's Fundamentalists. Here are the five "fundamentals" (as proposed in 1910, in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, and subsequently rejected by that church in 1927 in the Auburn Affirmation):

  1. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards that the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of Holy Scripture as to keep them from error.
  2. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards that our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.
  3. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards that Christ offered up Himself a sacrifice to satisfy Divine justice and to reconcile us to God.
  4. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and of our standards concerning our Lord Jesus Christ, that on the third day He rose again from the dead with the same body with which He suffered, with which also He ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of His Father, making intercession.
  5. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God as the supreme standard of our faith that our Lord Jesus Christ showed His power and love by working mighty miracles. This working was not contrary to nature, but superior to it.

None of these "essential doctrines" seems worth getting very excited about, let alone the life-changing "Good News" which inspired the first Christians. Take miracles, for example. Today only a dangerous fanatic would insist that a sick child be cured by faith in God alone, and even the Fundamentalists who insist that miracles did happen in the days of Jesus and the Apostles, would think twice before relying on them today. ( Luke 4:12 is a good verse for them: "Do not put the Lord God to the test.") But were second-hand reports of miracles so amazing to the first Christians, that they would sell all their possessions and travel to foreign lands to preach to people about them? Not likely. Miracles were a dime a dozen in those days: everyone's gods and magicians produced them. Is the Virgin Birth so important that threats of torture or death could not make the disciples be silent about it? What does it mean, really? Which of these so-called "fundamentals" announces a new and better way of life?

The first disciples certainly did not believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures. They didn't have the New Testament: it wasn't written yet. The Scriptures they had were the traditional Jewish works, the Laws and the Prophets. Jesus had explained these old Scriptures in new ways, and spoke of "new wineskins" to hold "new wine". (Mark2:22; Matthew 9:17; Luke 5:37). The Apostle Paul asserted bluntly: "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life". 2 Corinthians 3:6.

Fundamentalists need dogmatic litmus tests for determining who belongs in their club, and who doesn't because ultimately that's what Fundamentalism is all about: they try to convince themselves that they are "saved" and everyone else is going to burn in hell. When you are no longer concerned with dividing people into sheep and goats, wheat and chaff, making people believe (or say they believe in) impossible or nonsensical stuff ceases to be important.

"Saved" and "Unsaved"? or Universalism?

Fundamentalist Christians worship a hairy-thundering tribal war god that they can bow down to and call "Lord, Lord!" The "Left Behind" series, a novelization of the Book of Revelations by Tim La Haye and Jerry B. Jenkins, captures what they want perfectly in the twelth and last volume of the series, Glorious Appearing. Jesus does indeed appear, announces that he is "the Alpha and the Omega ..." (etc., etc.) and the armies of the Anti-Christ are destroyed, "simply dropping where they stood, their bodies ripped open, blood pooling in great masses." Blood .. and lots of it. And then fire. A lake of fire.

John the Evangelist said "God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16. When John says "love", does he really mean that God hates us and wants us to die? Does it make sense for an angry god give up his Son as a sacrifice to propitiate ... himself? Yet this is what Fundamentalists believe. It is the very core of their faith that we are all wretched sinners, but they, the saved, the Chosen Ones, are cleansed of sin by the "blood of Jesus".

The technical theological term for this is substitutionary atonement: that Jesus' death on the cross was a sacrifice that propitiated God's anger at mankind for mankind's sins, but only for a select few human beings.

The notion of atonement comes from sermons, like Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews, intended for pious, Temple-worshipping Jews. These folks still killed animals to make God forget about their misdeeds. Jesus' death was explained as a sacrifice which ended the practice of sacrificing animals on temple altars, and ushered in a new era of giving money and food and wine to the needy: the poor, immigrants, slaves, widows and orphans. Both Jews and Christians, however, have abstained from the practice of animal sacrifice for nearly two thousand years. We no longer view every misfortune as evidence that God hates us, and wants us to kill a dumb beast. Surely we can give this bloody sacrifice metaphor a rest, and deem it adiaphora (non-essential)? Not if you are a conservative Christian. They talk about the "wonder workin' power" of the Blood of the Lamb like it was a new detergent or they want to take a bath in it.

More troubling to me, however, is that somehow, Jesus' universal atonement became atonement just for the few. You can see the transition happening in Chapter 3 of John. After we read John's message of universal salvation --that God loved "the world" (3:16) and sent Jesus to save "the world" (3:17)-- the Fundamentalists among you would have me "Read on! Read On!" And so I shall: "Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." John 3:18. Even if Jesus did say this, which many scholars doubt, it still doesn't support the idea that God condemns us or that God hates us (unless we acknowledge his Son as our King) from the moment we are born (or, as they say today, as soon as we are "conceived in sin").

Progressive Christians believe that John's words better support a view called "kerygmatic atonement" (from the Greek world "kerygma", meaning announcement or proclamation). Jesus' death and resurrection proclaims or announces that God loves us.

An astute non-believer who has made it this far, goaded by yet another repetition of the God is Love meme, will probably want to throw back at me some variation of the Problem of Evil: if God loves us so much, why did he "create" evil, or why does he "allow" evil to exist? To this, Progressive Christianity has two responses, one which narrows the definition of "evil" considerably by excluding naturally-caused "evil", and another which dispenses with the remaining "evil" with a firm "I don't know and I don't care".

First, Progressive Christianity rejects superstition and takes a scientific view of naturally-caused "evils". For example, God did not cause the recent tsunami which killed over a hundred thousand people, nor did God send the diseases which likely will kill a few more hundreds of thousands in the wake of this disaster. Unfortunate natural events are not "evil", nor are they "God's will". An earthquake isn't a moral judgment. God didn't send the tsunami and God isn't going to boil or bottle clean water to save the survivors from cholera.

Second, as for man-made evil, Jesus told us: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye', while the log is still in your own eye? You hypocrite: first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." Matthew 7:3; Luke 6:41. Or as Reinhold Niebuhr said (using a trope which may go back to Boethius):

God give me the serenity to accept things which cannot be changed;
Give me courage to change things which must be changed;
And the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.

The surest sign that conservative Christianity doesn't deserve the title "Christian", despite lip-service to ancient creeds, and worship of stone tablets, is that conservative Christians seem to be completely obsessed with controlling how other people lead their lives, and not troubled enough by their own behavior.

Social Justice

"Progressive", like "liberal", implies politics. Progressive Christianity, however, must go beyond mere politics and actively promote social justice. Social justice is the practice of compassion, justice and mercy. Justice in this sense does not mean punishing criminals. It means treating all people fairly, honestly, equitably and with dignity, recognizing and respecting human rights. Mercy does not mean withholding punishment, but rather helping the poor and needy, the "widows and orphans", the stranger and the immigrant —the most vulnerable in society.

Historically, one might say that Social Justice is what raised Judaism from a a parochial worship of a tribal war god into a world religion, and it is what allowed Christianity to conquer the Roman Empire. Justice is grounded in humility. The Jews were humilated by the destruction of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE by Assyria and the kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE by Babylon. The Prophets, after the Exile and the first destruction of the Temple, de-emphasized God's role as a tribal war-god and the practice of Temple ritual. The Prophets began to assert that God did not want animal sacrifices, but rather wanted us to treat each other fairly, honestly, and with love, mercy and justice. Hosea, speaking for God, said "I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." Hosea 6:6. Amos said: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream". Amos 5:24. Micah said: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6:8. This Prophetic concern for Social Justice continues through the teachings of Jesus and Paul and the early Christian church. Indeed, the origins of the Eucharist may have come from a ritual sampling of bread and wine, gathered from the Christian community and then distributed to the poor.

While social justice is a necessary concern of Progressive Christianity, it is not sufficient to distinguish it from other, more traditional expressions of Christian faith. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has long promoted social justice, though it is not in any sense a progressive institution (though there are certainly many progressive Catholics). Likewise, there are many secular institutions which promote social justice, but have no interest in the life-affirming personal God-experiences which Progressive Christianity tries to preserve from the heritage of dying forms of Christianity.

Institutional forms of Progressive Christianity

The Roman Catholic Church has only recently, grudgingly, admitted that Galileo was right about the heliocentric explanation of the movements of the planets, or conceded that Luther's doctrine of justification by faith is the correct one, in each case taking 500 years to abandon a pernicious stubborness. The Church still clings to outmoded forms and doctrines, such as the celibate male priesthood, and abusive doctrines of hell and damnation, repression of homosexuals and medieval opinions about reproductive practices.

One can raise similar objections to most established churches. Though some are "more progressive" than others, there is no "Progressive" denomination, with the possible exception of the Unitarians, who don't seem to want to call themselves "Christian" anymore. Most likely, though, if you a Progressive Christian, you are an individual in the minority in an institution which is not progressive.

Still, Progressive Christianity is organized. Some entire denominations could be termed "progressive", such as Unitarian Universalism and the United Church of Christ. Other denominations allow for, but do not explicitly recognize or promote progressive tendencies, and as a result, vary from congregation to congregation and even person to person. There are many individual Lutheran and Episcopal congregations which can and do identify themselves with the progressive movement.

Since none of these people can agree on a creed or doctrine, Progressive Christianity isn't a denomination. For example, many liberal Christians believe in Universal Salvation, but insist on the divinity of Jesus Christ and on the doctrine of the Trinity, and so could not be Unitarian.

There exists barely enough common ground to create an institutional framework or "network" for cooperation among these liberal churches, organizations and individuals: the Center for Progressive Christianity, or "TCPC". Whether this is a fad or flash-in-the-pan remains to be seen: the TCPC is so new the ink hasn't even dried on its founding documents.

TCPC has stated (and continues to work on) eight "points" of agreement for the movement as a whole:

The "8 Points"

By calling ourselves progressive, we mean that we are Christians who…

  1. Have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus,
  2. Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way 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’s name to be a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all peoples,
  4. Invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable (including but not limited to):
    • believers and agnostics,
    • conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
    • women and men,
    • those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
    • those of all races and cultures,
    • those of all classes and abilities,
    • those who hope for a better world and those who have lost hope;
  5. Know that the way we behave toward one another and toward other people is the fullest expression of what we believe,
  6. Find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty - more value in questioning than in absolutes;
  7. Form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace and justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God’s creation, and bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers; and
  8. Recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

“The 8 Points” (version 2003), The Center for Progressive Christianity; www.tcpc.org

This writeup, like the progressive Chirstianity movement, is a work in progress. Here are some resources I have found on the internet while researching this writeup, or which have since then been brought to my attention:

  • The Center for Progressive Christianity: http://www.tcpc.org/
  • Sojourners Magazine; Christians for Justice and Peace: http://www.sojo.net/

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