Defining Progressive Christianity

An Open-Ended “Creed” for a Progressive Christian

Right: Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine, accompanied by the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325), holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.

Above: Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine, accompanied by the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325), holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.

I have often said so-called “progressive Christianity” is a notion forever in search of its own elusive definition; and that’s as good a way of explaining it as we may be able to find.  We live in a post-modern world that considers the age of Enlightenment to be a post-facto reality. As such, “progressive” thinking in an age of Reason has pushed the boundaries of nearly every facet of life, except one: those ‘traditional’ or ‘orthodox’ beliefs, based on certain creeds, doctrines and dogma that still dominate what it presumably means to be “Christian.” It hardly needs to be said that it is also why so many one-time believers have outgrown their one-time faith. Calling them merely “lapsed” is misleading. So much has elapsed in the world we have all come to know and take for granted, that the once-dominant Church — — despite all its denominational varieties — has fast become a post-modern relic.  Yet any critical examination of how Christian scriptures developed and how the history of the tradition evolved will quickly demonstrate how it has always been in a constant state of flux, or – if you like — “progression.”  It was only when it stopped and got stuck that we traded in the tent for a temple, and snuffed the life out of a movement that is progressive by its very nature. What then would constitute an honest statement of belief for at least this “progressive Christian?”

You can read more Here.

 

Posted in articles | Leave a comment

Exhuming Jonah, and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

Above: Jonah Cast Forth By The Whale, by 19th C French Artist, Gustave Doré

Above: Jonah Cast Forth By The Whale, by 19th C French Artist, Gustave Doré

Every Sunday School student learns the fantastic story of Jonah and the Whale. The miraculous regurgitation of the reluctant prophet after three days in the leviathan’s belly is a whopping tale as big as any fish tale ever told. He changes his tune and high tails it to the great city of Ninevah with his prophetic message of repentance.

There is only a passing reference in the king’s response, with regard to Ninevah’s great offense; and the wickedness from which they must mend their ways to avoid total annihilation: “By the decree of the king and his nobles … all shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

Of all the hotspots flooding the news and erupting in so many corners of our global village, one headline in particular caught my attention not so long ago. The news article came from Mosul, Iraq and was entitled, “Historic Tomb of Jonah Destroyed by Isis Militants.”

A photograph showed the explosion and subsequent rubble of a Sunni Mosque which was alleged to be the burial site of the Prophet Younis, the Arabic name for Jonah. Though ISIS claims to adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam, they have nonetheless blown up or bulldozed any Sunni shrine they deem “un-Islamic.” Go figure.

Well, that’s more than a little ironic, I thought to myself. God regurgitated Jonah from an early grave, only to have some fervent believers go and blow up his purported final resting place. What, once upon a time, God apparently could not do – or was not willing to do – was not a problem for some of God’s children hell-bent on advancing some twisted ideological agenda through means of violent force.

If one finds the mythic tale of Jonah and the whale too much to swallow, more incredible perhaps is what the people of ancient Ninevah presumably managed to pull off.  You can read about it here.

Posted in articles | Leave a comment

Embracing Resurrection as a Way of Life

“Jesus’ disciples” – early catacomb painting

“Jesus’ disciples” – early catacomb painting

A Series on the Teachings of a Galilean Sage: The Sermon on the Mount, Part IV of IV Parts

A pdf copy of this commentary to print and read is here.

Recently one Sunday morning, I awoke in the pre-dawn hours, as the lingering shadows were just beginning their retreat, and the likelihood of another glorious spring day seemed like a good bet.

Then I remembered it was Easter Day for Western Christendom, and I quickly began to recall so many years of liturgical practice in my own personal past that comprised this observance; leading the faithful in procession into an empty, darkened sanctuary, and then banishing the darkness with light, and song, a jig and shouts of “Alleluia!”

Like the last faded echo, the absence of whatever had gone before and was no more could mean only one thing. Things which were “cast down were being raised up,” as one lovely old prayer once put it, “and things which had grown old were being made new.” (Book of Common Prayer, p.540)

There were no hocus-pocus notions of resuscitation or reincarnation, as far as I was concerned; though some among us undoubtedly still believed in the magic of immortality. But those of us who’d lived long enough to find ourselves as good as dead more than once along the way — and nonetheless survived by nothing less than happenstance or grace to discover a gospel of second chances — knew enough to recognize a good thing when we saw it. We’d just call it resurrection, and leave it at that.

Those of us who’d lived long enough to find ourselves as good as dead more than once along the way …   knew enough to recognize a good thing when we saw it. We’d just call it resurrection, and leave it at that.

But on this particular morning I’d rise with the prodding sunlight, and Germaine and I would resume a weekly ritual that has become as routine as any meaningful liturgical practice. Piling the dog into the station wagon, we’d head out for a 3-mile trek around the Lafayette Reservoir.

Falling in line, we would join the parade of all the other 2-legged and 4-legged congregants on the circular path. Some were amblers, some hikers, and others serious joggers. It is as if everyone proceeds in his or her own way, and at their own pace, with one’s own journey, along the shared path. We’d greet others with a nod, a smile, and the usual greeting.  “Good morning to you,” one would say. “And also with you” – or something like it — would be the customary reply. There would be new faces and critters, but also others that have become familiar only because of the shared experience we repeat each week, separately and together. Somehow, it all seemed vaguely reminiscent; as if I’d done it all my life …

And besides, today was Easter Day. Again. It was the “pagan” festival of Estre, the ancient Anglo-Saxon (or Teutonic) goddess who represents the rebirth and renewal associated with the spring equinox.  Little wonder then that budding nature, eggs and bunnies, an Easter parade in some fashion or other, and the empty tomb of former things should all get jumbled together.

Of course, so-called mainline orthodox Christianity co-opted yet another pagan rite early on in its own tradition to make it all out to be something more; just as it had usurped what is aptly now referred to by some as the “voiceprint” of the wisdom tradition that preceded it in the teachings of a human Jesus.

In Paul’s earliest writings he shows little interest in that historical figure. The Christian faith quickly became a confessional religion about yet another dying-and-rising savior god. The various gospel traditions that included the teachings of the earthly Jesus were all written retrospectively. It is as if you are only meant to read all the parables, aphorisms and quips backwards; and in light of the numerous variations of a resurrection narrative that is hardly persuasive if you want to talk about any hereafter.

“The resurrection belief is the first overlay on the preceding wisdom tradition (of Jesus),” says David Galston. “The birth of Christian theology is the silencing of (the historical) Jesus.”

 Wisdom (i.e. teachings) is the foundation of the historical Jesus, not as fact but as voiceprint. What began as a lifestyle became, with remarkable speed, the worshipping of a Lord … What is necessary is to return to the school of Jesus, where Jesus is not confessed, not called Lord, and not even regarded as divine. To bring a silenced Jesus back to life – wisdom’s version of resurrection – means to initiate students in the lifestyle of the school. It means building a community th at addresses and solves the problems of our times on our own terms. It means extending the momentum of the teacher and the contours of his wisdom into the context of today. [from, “Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity”]

This commentary is the last of a 4-part series on the ethical teachings of Jesus from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It explores how we might, in fact, resurrect the voiceprint of this pre-Christian sage. We’ll work with what we’ve got; a gospel tradition that took the teachings of a human Jesus, and further encumbered them with confessional creeds about the man. Like sifting wheat from chaff, we’ll seek to discern both the pre-gospel voice of Jesus, and an adaptable momentum that might still propel us forward to a more meaningful understanding of our own particular time and place.

If there is still an Easter procession for the progressive Christian, this just may be it. You can read more here.

Posted in articles | Leave a comment

“Jesus, and the Ultimate “Selfie”

The Ethical Teachings of a Galilean Sage: Commentary on The Sermon on the Mount. PART III of IV Parts

hidden treasure engraving

“Heaven’s imperial rule is like treasure hidden in a field.”  Mt.1344, and Instead gather your nest egg in heaven, where neither moth nor insect eats away and where no robbers break in or steal. As you know, what you treasure is your heart’s full measure.” Mt.6:20-21

When the gospel writer we know as Matthew composed his compilation of Jesus sayings from available source material in an oral tradition to which he had access, the parable of the treasure hidden in a field must have seemed to fit with his characterization of the itinerant Galilean sage he’d heard so much about. Despite the likelihood Jesus himself never came across such good fortune, Matthew’s early faith community of Jesus-Jews were probably wrestling with what to do with some small degree of modest affluence that they eked out for themselves in the harsh economic conditions of Roman imperial rule.

The parable of hidden treasure was akin to the extreme unlikelihood of winning the lottery. It’s never going to happen, but everyone dreams about what they’d do differently if they did.  In the face of such extreme unlikelihood, the parable prods one to “measure what you treasure.”  And it seems an obvious and universal theme in every age that we treasure financial wealth, and all it can bring.  It can trump almost anything else.

The matter of one’s true self is one of the questions with which we began this series on the Jesus Ethic found in that compilation of teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5-7) with the so-called beatitudes, originally meant to convey comfort and reassurance to those who found themselves on the margins of society and at the very bottom of the economic system.  Those who first heard Jesus’ words constituted those “invisibles,” which societies typically prefer to remain out of sight and out of mind.

But more so, when you look at the sum total of Jesus’ teachings, and particularly the collection of parables, there is either an overt or underlying theme to nearly all of them that has to do with the question of wealth and poverty.

Moreover, Jesus didn’t seem to care about a kind of economic justice that was compensatory, reciprocal (measure for measure), or bore strict adherence to any set of rules. The “imperial reign of God” that he was forever going on and on about had to do with sufficiency or adequacy for all; measured with reckless abandonment when it came to generosity and compassion, and over and against obligation and what is merely fair.  And it usually starts with removing ourselves from the center of our universe.

As with so many of the parable, so too in the Sermon on the Mount that began with the assurances of blessing to the poor and the disenfranchised – and after a summary of instructions certain other matters regarding fractures in human relationships – Jesus returns to these matters of economic justice, charity and earthly possessions.  The injunction to “measure your treasure” is an introspective journey, however, that requires more depth perception than the average “Selfie.”

The Selfie phenom is hardly a new invention since the invention of the flip lens on your hand-held device. But it certainly is a craze that reflects the fact we seem to be enamored with the idea of a reflection of ourselves just about everywhere you turn.  Of course self-reflection on a deeper level has been around for a long, long time.

Jesus’ teachings to “turn the other cheek” and “love one’s enemies” was an invitation to an inward journey of the self; and a call to reclaim our true human nature. The proscription to wrestle with how we measure what we treasure would appear to be part of the same journey. How we might actually undertake such a task will be considered in Part IV of this 4-part series.

Meanwhile, you can read an extended version of this commentary here.

Posted in articles | Leave a comment

Jesus: The Ethical Teachings of a Social Deviant

Series on the Teachings of a Galilean Sage: The Sermon on the Mount, Part II

“Sermon on the Mount” – Hungarian artist Kalroly Ferenczy, Budapest, 1896

“Sermon on the Mount” – Hungarian artist Kalroly Ferenczy, Budapest, 1896

 

“Don’t react violently.”  “Turn the other cheek.” And, “Love your enemies.” – Matthew 5:39,44

Recently, crowds took to the streets from Kiev, to Bangkok and Caracas. Then again, the social world order seems to erupt in chaos and violence on a regular basis.  Regimes hold on to political power at all costs, while those who are more often than not economically oppressed – as opposed to just ideologically of a different mindset — demonstrate and confront government forces with little more than their willingness to stand in opposition; and, in hopes outside forces might be willing to join their struggle, and match entrenched power with equal force by those others who have their own national interests at stake.

If all that seems like pure political commentary, consider this: The socio-political landscape in first century Palestine, CE, wasn’t much different. The practical means by which the imbalance of power was wielded by some over others may have been rather primitive by today’s technological standards; but the end game was the same.

And, in the context of the Matthean texts commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, the itinerant Jewish peasant teacher and sage who would long be remembered as uttering such impractical non-sense as “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemy,” was the same historical figure that was executed as an insurrectionist, not a “resurrectionist.”  As I’ve put it bluntly elsewhere, Jesus didn’t die for our sins, but because of them.

Clearly, the earliest legends of what Jesus said and did that would subsequently be recorded in what became known to us as evangelion (the good news of the canonical and non-canonical gospels) sought a way to somehow explain away his suffering and death as a divinely orchestrated redemptive act. An entire theological proposition about expiation and atonement subsequently arose to dominate religious beliefs systems within the Christian faith tradition.

But the historical Jesus who lived and died in the midst of such chaos and violence would have never imagined such a theological extrapolation be applied to himself. He had no messianic complex; despite the title that would subsequently be accorded him as “the Christ;” and with the subsequent words attributed to him as the one and only salvific son of God. Despite what would become a core tenet of orthodox Christianity, his life and death was not an apocalyptic in-breaking of some other-worldly Divine; interceding to set things right and offer personal salvation to right believers.

Instead, his ethical teachings such as those recorded in that collection of wisdom sayings, aphorisms and parables known to us as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), comprised a worldview that deviated so radically from what was taken to be the accepted norm of conventional thinking and routine religious posturing that it was – and remains – at odds with what we all too willingly concede to be  “just the way things are” when it comes to “human nature.

In this regard, not only was Jesus a true social deviant to the normal ways human beings have long been accustomed to thinking and acting – dismissing our actions as just human nature — but his teachings reveal to us an alternate view of a fuller humanity of which we are presumably capable.

What Jesus’ teachings actually propose is a complete deviation from what is all too readily assumed and accepted to be the default condition of what constitutes who we are as human beings; as well as the kind of world we shape for ourselves as a result of this misbegotten default view of human nature.  The wisdom teaching of the Galilean sage is a direct refutation of the accepted norms of conventional wisdom about the way things are; and not just naïve and wistful thinking about the way we all wished they could be.

To read a fuller commentary on Jesus’ deviant behavior, go here.

Posted in articles | Leave a comment

Rich Man, Poor Man: The Bigger Message of a Jesus Ethic

“A Bigger Message” by renowned contemporary artist, David Hockney, is a re-imagined rendering of the original Claude Lorrain’s 17th C. painting entitled, "Sermon on the Mount"

“A Bigger Message” by renowned contemporary artist, David Hockney, is a re-imagined rendering of the original Claude Lorrain’s 17th C. painting entitled, “Sermon on the Mount”

First in a 4-Part Series on the Sermon on the Mount

We live in an age where income inequality is no longer a gap, but a chasm. And the situation is no longer described as unfair or unjust, but untenable and dangerous.  While religious zealots of all sorts continue to contort over personal morality, the deeper issue has to do with ethical behavior. What, for instance, constitutes a ‘Jesus ethic?’

Biblical scholars generally consider those teachings attributed to Jesus in that part of Matthew’s gospel, commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, with the corollary being the Sermon on the Plain, Luke 6), as likely comprising much of what can be considered most authentically and historically the real deal.

But reaching back as close as we can to who the historical Jesus may have been is not the end of it. At the heart of it, a Jesus ethic itself has little concern with what you believe about the man, but what you do about the message.

This commentary begins a new series for those of us who might consider ourselves progressive Christians, but who still find ourselves economically better off than the vast majority of the world’s people; asking how might we authentically and honestly engage this ethic?  What is the “bigger message?”

You can read more here

Posted in articles | Leave a comment

The Holy Nativity of a Human Jesus

De-mystifying the deification of a human birth, and restoring the full humanity of a remarkable life

One of thousands of depictions of the Nativity of Jesus. The full cast of characters, some winged, some with haloes. But does it portray an event any more miraculous than one every parent of every newborn has experienced?

One of thousands of depictions of the Nativity of Jesus. The full cast of characters, some winged, some with haloes. But does it portray an event any more miraculous than one every parent of every newborn has experienced?

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.  Isaiah 11:6

The holiday shopping season had barely begun this last year when a giant warehouse retailer that sells everything from tires to tortellini, caskets to fine cabernets, scrambled to do damage control at their Simi Valley location; when some of the Bibles they were selling to holiday shoppers in their book section were mistakenly labeled as “fiction.”  Costco immediately repented of their venial sin, but blamed the distributor for the unintentional faux pas, as well.

“Of course it’s fiction!” was my spontaneous retort to the onscreen newscaster delivering the retail disaster on the morning news. “Well, at least part of it is pure fiction,” I muttered to myself, since the reporter didn’t seem to be listening.

The compilation of hundreds of numerous and variant texts deemed sacred to various folks and bound together as the Holy Bible is part fiction, part poetry, part prophecy, part myth and legend, part history or historical narrative, with a little mail correspondence thrown in. And all with plenty of redactive and editorial license taken by those entrusted over the centuries such writings were collected, in order to pass along some vestige of what might have been anything close to “original.”    And, nowhere is there more pure fiction than the multiple and varied imaginative accounts of Jesus’ birth.

If we remember that gospels are neither intended to be biographies of an historical figure, nor even a dependable historical record, we can readily label the multiple accounts of the “first” Christmas as fanciful fiction.  Then we can instead proceed to ask what the gospel writers may have had in mind when conjuring up such wonderful tales.

The key question is why the birth of a very human Jesus — with the teachings he gave us, and the life he exemplified for us — wasn’t sufficiently holy, and something sacred enough to be joyfully welcomed?  And how elevating Jesus to godlike status not only denies him his full humanity, but convolutes our greater capacity to embrace the fuller meaning of the man, as well. Read more here.

Posted in articles | Leave a comment

Thanks for Nothing: A Commentary for Thanksgiving in an Age of Anxietry

Consider amber waves of grain as wild lilies of the field.

Consider amber waves of grain as wild lilies of the field.

American retailers have essentially pre-announced that the annual Thanksgiving observance — when we presumably pause to gratefully remember everything we have — has been cancelled so bargain shoppers can get an even earlier jump-start on their holiday shopping for all the things we don’t have yet.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world a typhoon of record proportion hit landfall only a few weeks ago; nearly wiping an island nation off the face of the earth, and leaving those who survived with virtually nothing. Then last week an unseasonable swarm of twisters flattened whole towns across the Midwest. By comparison, it all makes the plight of those first pilgrims facing the harsh realities of their first wintry Thanksgiving in a brave new world look like a walk in the park.

And, all the while, the airwaves and media have been filled with docu-dramas and documentaries commemorating the half-century mark of those events that shattered an age of relative innocence for those of us old enough to remember it; ushering in an age of extraordinary upheaval and anxiety, starting with what social critics and historians alike attribute to the assassination of JFK.   Juxtaposed and taken together, these events represent an age of anxiety hasn’t really abated much in the last fifty years.

Jesus masterfully taught in the philosophical tradition known as Jewish cynicism, with such parabolic tales and quaint-sounding imagery as the “lilies of the field.” And he did so at a time and age that – while seemingly ancient to our modern way of thinking – may not have been all that different from our own anxious age. Consider then our fretful, misbegotten ways, the peculiar gift of nothingness, and the wild lilies of the fields. Read more here.

Posted in articles | Leave a comment

“Christian” A-theism Series, Part III: Jesus, My Imaginary Friend

Jamie's JesusA progressive Christian can explore new possibilities to be found in pushing beyond the constraints of theism and a-theism; and the blunt and limited question of believing or not believing in a “theistic” notion of “God.” Folks typically fashion our notion of anything we deem sacred “Oneness” in anthropomorphic terms, so we can more easily relate to the idea, as expressed with the limitations of our human language and experience. The Christian then proceeds to incarnate that God notion with a Christology in which Jesus is historically construed as a co-eternal mediator and – peculiarly – a substitutionary sacrifice.

But for those progressives for whom such a construct is no longer viable or credible, it can be asked what might still be found amidst the theological rubble in a post-modern – even post-deconstructionist – age? Indeed, what may have been there from the start of the entire imaginative process; known in the earliest days of a pre-“Christian” movement, known simply as the Way (of Jesus)? As near as we might be able to discern it with our own creative and interpretive imaginations, what resemblance might it bear to the “voice-print” of an extraordinarily imaginative character we might want to befriend?

In the post-modern quest for a historical Jesus, some now hypothesize we may be dealing with a composite figure; while others even argue Jesus was only a fictional character, a contrivance for socio-political purposes.  But even if one were reluctant to embrace the factual premise there was at least one such itinerant Galilean peasant sage that existed in the early part of the first century CE, one can hardly ignore the multi-faceted movement that subsequently arose as a result of such a figure, imaginary or not. Every subsequent individual orator, writer, or their collective early faith community then employed their own active, creative and interpretive imaginations to configure, or reconfigure, whoever, or whatever, that original figure may have been.  

It is precisely our own interpretive imagination that draws us into the same sacred activity that is so central to the life and teaching of the Jesus character so consistently portrayed in what so many biblical scholars believe are the most authentic words of that historical figure (or figures). If nothing else, it seems clearly apparent that the Jesus character portrayed in so many of the tales and teachings with which “he” is credited, is clearly that of a social visionary with the most active and creative imagination. His ethical teachings and whacky parables routinely upturn conventional wisdom and common assumptions.

Who – except perhaps in their wildest imagination — would turn the other cheek, walk a second mile, give without measure, or forgive without counting the cost to one’s own self? Or reconsider what imaginative nonsense is found in the storylines of the lost sheep, the prodigal’s unwarranted gift of grace, the “good” Samaritan’s unstinting compassion. Can you imagine such a thing? Every injunction how to treat others, give to others, care for others, forgive others, arises out of the act of imagining the way things could be, or ought to be, instead of the way things are. 

Every similitude this Jesus character offers when he gives us another pithy saying about how the “reign of God is like this,” or “like that,” strikes a resonating chord for those who might have eyes to see and ears to hear. In short, every image of that other “kingdom” is borne out of an extraordinary imagination, by a character that may have either been the most imaginative character that ever lived, or we could ever imagine.  Read more.

Posted in articles | Leave a comment

A Pessimist for Peace, and the Question of a “Just” War

Dante & Virgil in “The Barque of Dante” – Delacroix (1798-1863)

Dante & Virgil in “The Barque of Dante” – Delacroix (1798-1863)

“The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in time of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” – Dante (1265-1321)

On their way to Hell, Dante and his guide Virgil in “The Inferno” encounter a collection of dead souls whose ultimate fate remains undetermined because they had equivocated at a time of great moral crisis when they were alive.  They are castigated as the worst of sinners, repulsed by both God and Satan. They are consequently condemned to a fate of eternal equivocation that is presumably worse than the certitude of damnation, or the blessed rest of everlasting peace.

Now our nation is currently embroiled in a contentious debate over the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, and what should be the appropriate response by the U.S. and the international community.   Is there a moral imperative to act? If so, how?  What is the justification for a violent response to a deplorable, unjust and violent act?

An inconvenient truth is that the mere threat of armed force has prompted diplomatic negotiations for a peaceful settlement; where the staggering casualty count in a bloody civil war and the plight of over a million refugees have previously failed to bring the warring parties to their senses. How do “peace-loving” nations confront the evils of war, without we ourselves becoming the evil we deplore? And finally, for those of us who identify with a religious tradition of some sort, what do we have to say to our human family as a people of faith?

As a person of faith, I neither fear, nor believe, in a heaven nor hell. I fear equivocation in a time of great moral crisis such as we face today. Though I am not a pacifist, I believe in non-violent resistance, and remain a pessimist for peace; preferring to stake my bets on the possible futility of peace as preferable to the utter futility of a cycle of violence that all but pre-empts the possibility of anything else. Read more here.

Posted in articles | Leave a comment