Category Archives: UC Forum News

Scholarship winning essay – My approach to Progressive Christianity

Prior to the establishment of the Rodney Eivers Annual Bursary this month, the UCFORUM with the help of Rodney offered an initial scholarship to students at Trinity College early in 2018. As part of the UC Forum’s Bursary Application process, interested parties were asked to write an essay exploring issues relating to progressive Christianity and traditional orthodoxy. Successful bursary recipient Deon Naudé writes about his response to Progressive Christianity.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4–6, New Revised Standard Version).

In many ways, I consider myself to be a progressive Christian. There are a multitude of respects in which the various progressive approaches to God, faith, scripture, and the Christ event resonate with my way of thinking. That was not always the case. Five years ago, I would have been aghast at the words of Marcus J. Borg—not to mention John Shelby Spong! The fact that I can read Spong and somewhere in my heart be profoundly uplifted by his words is a significant departure from my previous approach to the faith. And for that change I am glad.

Nonetheless, rather than giving myself up to progressive thought and wholeheartedly embracing it with all that I have (like I used to do with reformed evangelicalism), I find myself occupying a strange, often uncomfortable, liminal space. I see so much beauty and hope in progressive Christianity. And yet there are foundations and footholds within the conservative expressions of the faith off from which I am not prepared to step. In this essay I will explore this tension more fully.

A strength of progressive Christianity is its willingness to ask difficult questions and its openness to explore avenues of thought, even if those avenues lead to uncomfortable insights. In contrast, I often felt shackled by conservative theology. The conservative commitment to “the truth” is a noble and sincere pursuit, genuinely sought by women and men who want nothing more than to honor God.

But often this commitment—as genuine as it was—resembled to me an attempt to cling to the party line, at all cost. Exploration of ideas was, in my experience, never encouraged, except if it was exploration of our ideas and our understanding. And there was often the unspoken threat: deviate from the party line, and you will be labeled an enemy of the gospel, because to deviate from the party line was to deviate from the very truth of God. Yet, as Val Webb points out in In Defense of Doubt: An Invitation to Adventure: “The world of the early church was a scene of great fluidity of ideas. Diverse memories of Jesus vied for attention in the struggle to make sense of his life and death.” She continues: “Many today whitewash the early church, presenting it as a devout bunch of people living, working, and worshiping in blissful, loving harmony. Instead, much of the period was spent in controversy.” So I value progressive Christianity, because it embraces this authentic exploration and wrestling with divine truths.

Of great importance in exploring progressive Christianity, in my thinking, is the question, “If Jesus is savior, from what does he save us?”

The answer with which I grew up was always, “Jesus saves us by experiencing the wrath of God the Father in our place so that we can be forgiven of our sin and enter heaven.” However, I find Marcus J. Borg’s approach a lot more compelling. In his book The Heart of Christianity, he describes salvation as light in our darkness, sight to the blind, enlightenment, liberation for captives, return from exile, the healing of our infirmities, food and drink, resurrection from the land of the dead, being born again, knowing God, becoming “in Christ,” and being made right with God (or “justified”). “In the Bible,” he concludes, “salvation is all of the above.” Referring to Jesus, Borg also stresses, “It’s clear that his message was not really about how to get to heaven. It was about a way of transformation in this world and the Kingdom of God on earth.”

Michael Morwood also stresses the focus on this world in the message of Jesus. In In Memory of Jesus Morwood writes, “He was very clear about it: it is through their care and concern for others that people would come to know deep down their intimate connection with God.”

In The Trouble with God: Building the Republic of Heaven, David Boulton expresses this notion by recasting followers of the way of Christ as “radical religious humanists” whose aim is “to contribute to the making of the ‘republic of heaven.’”

Gretta Vosper puts forth a similar view in With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe, when she defines salvation as “removing the causes of suffering in the world, new life.” I very much value the “this world” and the “this life” focus of this view of salvation, because I think conservative Christianity has unwittingly confined salvation to an abstract idea that has very little to do with our lives in the here and now. It seems difficult for me to see how these conservative understandings of salvation can truly be integrated with Christ’s proclamation, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15, NRSV).

And yet, my trust remains in the hope of the age to come. I am not willing to jettison the belief, as some progressives do, that the kingdom that Christ heralds in is a purely earthly endeavor limited to the physical realities of the time in which we now live. I am not willing to follow those who, like Don Cupitt, claim, “There is no Beyond. To say that the Kingdom has come, then, is simply to say that we now recognize that everydayness is all there is.” (As expressed in Cupitt’s The Last Philosophy)

That is not enough for me. I do think Christians should pour themselves out in love and service for the people of this world. That is very much a realization of the salvation brought by Christ. But if I did not have hope that at the consummation of all things there would be an eternal reality where we experience the full resurrection, restoration, and reconciliation of creation, I would find it difficult to believe that I am not ultimately working in vain. And I find it difficult to divorce the meaning of salvation from this ultimate eternal reality. So while I greatly appreciate the earthly emphasis of this progressive view of salvation, I nonetheless also cling to a cosmic, eternal hope, as emphasized by the conservative understanding.

Other central questions, when exploring progressive Christianity, are, “Who is God?” and “Who is Jesus?” Spong answers the first question by insisting that traditional theistic views of God have become untenable. Instead, he paraphrases the ideas of Tillich in describing a new understanding of the divine in Why Christianity Must Change or Die, “This God would not be a theistic power, a being among beings, whose existence we could debate. This God would not be the traditional divine worker of miracles and magic, the dispenser of rewards and punishments, blessings and curses. Nor would this God be the capricious heavenly superparent who comforted us, heard our cries, and became the terrestrial Mr. Fix-It for some while allowing others to endure their pain to the bitter end in a radically unfair world.”

It is important to note that in denying a theistic understanding of God, Spong does not deny that God is real. Instead he writes in Why Christianity Must Change or Die: “This God was not a person, but . . . the mystical presence in which all personhood could flourish. This God was not a being but rather the power that called being forth in all creatures. This God was not an external, personal force that could be invoked but rather an internal reality that, when confronted, opened us to the meaning of life itself.”

Karen Armstrong states it perhaps more strongly in A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam when she describes Hegel’s view of God: “Hegel had in effect declared that the divine was a dimension of our humanity.”

These understandings of God, then, lead to profound impacts on one’s understanding of Christ. In addressing the traditional view of the incarnation, Michael Morwood writes in Tomorrow’s Catholic: Understanding God and Jesus in a New Millennium: “This way of thinking is founded on a religious worldview that is no longer relevant as an explanation of God’s relationship with human beings. It is founded on an outdated cosmology which presumes God is up or out there somewhere and sends his Son down to this planet. That cosmology does not take seriously the reality that the whole universe is permeated with the presence of God; it presumes the sacred, the divine is basically elsewhere and visits us, or deigns to break into our exiled world in unusual ways.”

John Robinson, too, sees no way in which the traditional understanding of the incarnation can survive, other than in the form of myth when he writes in Honest to God, “Myth has its perfectly legitimate, and indeed profoundly important, place.” He continues, however, “But we must be able to read the nativity story without assuming that its truth depends on there being a literal interruption of the natural by the supernatural, that Jesus can only be Emmanuel—God with us—if, as it were, he came through from another world … To tie the action of God to such a way of thinking is to … sever it from any real connection with history.”

Despite these shifts in thinking on the incarnation, Spong nonetheless maintains, “I still find the power of the Christ compelling. … Something draws me back to him again and again.” He continues, “Beneath the God claims made for this Jesus was a person who lived a message announcing that there was no status defined by religion, by tribe, by culture, by cult, by ritual, or by illness that could separate any person from the love of God. If love is a part of what God is or who God is, then it can surely be said of this Jesus that he lived the meaning of God. According to the Gospels, he lived it with a consistent intensity. It was as if his source of love lay beyond every human boundary. It was inexhaustible. It was life giving.”

I empathize with the above views of God. Theism struggles to answer basic questions about the nature of God, particularly in relation to the fact that evil and suffering exist in the world. There are conservative Christian preachers who have in so many ways painted a picture of God that makes God look petty and capricious; some ascribe to God the worst of our human foibles but insist on calling them good. I also value Tillich’s understanding of God as the “Ground of Being.” It resonates with the Apostle Paul who claims God is “above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6, NRSV). I think there is much here worthy of pursuit. And yet, alongside these concessions, I continue also to cling to traditional understandings. I readily admit I do not understand the intricacies of prayer. There are many challenging questions I cannot answer. Nonetheless, I am not yet ready to give up on being able to pray to a God who personally hears me, knows me, and cares for me. Spong might call my belief about prayer “naive at best and unbelievable at worst” and he could very well be right—but I am not yet ready to face a cold, silent universe, where God is a “what” rather than a “who”.

These issues are intensified for me when it comes to Christ. It is certainly possible for me to see value and beauty in the beliefs that Jesus was an ordinary human being, who, by whatever means, was able to live out his humanity in the fullest, most loving, divinity-saturated ways.

But I need more than this. I am not willing to give up on the notion that through the Christ event, that which was fully transcendent became immanent in the most humbling and kenotic of ways. I am not willing to give up on the notion that through Christ we see a God who gives up everything in order to be poured out in love for God’s children. I am not willing to give up on a God who embraces death—even death on a cross—to redeem a bitterly lost yet bitterly loved world. Whatever wisdom there may be in non–traditionally incarnational views of Christ, I am not willing to give up on the core understandings of Christ as the fully human and fully divine incarnation of the God who is love. That to me remains a refuge from which I am just not ready to sail.

I value and embrace progressive Christianity. I identify as a progressive. But I still remain at least within throwing distance of my traditional, conservative beliefs. It is, personally speaking, from within this liminal, in-between space that I perceive the Christian faith to have most beauty. I value, however, more than I can express in words, open, challenging, and respectful dialogue between all those who claim adherence to the Christian faith, and beyond. The Christian umbrella is a large umbrella, covering a broad, diverse community. Beyond this, we find ourselves in a colorful, diverse, eclectic world, spiraling outward into a glorious, mysterious, infinite universe. It is my hope that we can continue to explore the mystery of the divine and the material—and all things in between—with grace, humility, and a sense of adventure.

Deon Naudé (published with permission of the author).

Deon is in the final stage of completing a Bachelor of Theology through Trinity College, Brisbane. He is the library technician at Trinity College. This essay was also published in Journey On Line today. For information about the Rodney Eivers Bursary of $13 000 please go to the previous post.

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Exciting New Study Scholarship – The Rodney Eivers Bursary

The UCFORUM is pleased to announce:

The Rodney Eivers Annual Bursary – $13 000

Trinity College, UCA Queensland Synod

Rodney Eivers is the Chairperson of the UCFORUM

This bursary is awarded to new tertiary students of Trinity College Queensland, to assist with their course fees whilst studying for a Bachelor of Ministry degree. The aim of the bursary is to provide financial support to students and to encourage the development of a greater awareness of the breadth and diversity in theology and scriptural scholarship, as it relates to contemporary society.

Applications open – Monday 10 September 2018

Applications close – Wednesday 10 October 2018

The student will be awarded the bursary on or before Thursday 1 November 2018. The presentation of the bursary certificate/award will be on 14 November 2018.

For details and applications go to: The Rodney Eivers Bursary 

The Bursary requirements include the submission of an essay showing an understanding of Progressive Christianity. As this will require reading a selection of texts from a recommended reading list, applicants should not delay making a start on their application. The books are available from Trinity College Library.

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Core values of the UC FORUM

Our statement of values is a working document that is open to change and further input. We base our work on the following three principles:

  • Acknowledgement of a diversity of beliefs and respect for those who hold them, with a consequent need to encourage actively creation of a diversified unity centred on Jesus, rather than continued self-centred-divisiveness.
  • Dedication to continued teaching, learning and spiritual growth by open and frank discussion of significant church, religious and theological developments at all levels of the church.
  • Recognition of the importance of listening to the church membership and taking them into the confidence of the church bureaucracy in discussion of new knowledge and new approaches to spiritual development.

We welcome comments about this statement and consider it subject to review and revision at all times.

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Award of Bursaries

Good news for two students of Trinity College in the Queensland Synod of the UCA.

They have been successful in their submission of essays on Progressive Christianity and each will receive a UC FORUM bursary to cover costs associated with their studies this year.

Bursary applications for 2019 will be advertised towards the end of this year.

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The UC FORUM’s Foundational Perspective

Looking at the formation of the UC Forum 10 years ago

Professor Rod Jensen, former chair of the Qld Ministerial Education Board and lifelong active layman in the Methodist and Uniting Churches, passed away on Sunday 23 August 2009.

Prof Jensen was an inspiration to many people who have wanted the church to engage more intentionally with contemporary society, to make appropriate adaptations and changes that would address the obvious fall in worship attendances and the aging of congregations.
After comprehensively researching ‘the problem’, he published his findings and reflections in Two Small Books on Laypeople and the Church in 2007. In essence, he called upon the laypeople of the Uniting Church to take responsibility for leading the church to position itself for a rapidly changing world.

He also challenged the clergy and leaders of the Christian church to come to terms with its decline in positive and effective ways. Many lay people heard this call and as soon as Rod’s book was released, they formed the Uniting Church Lay Forum (now UCFORUM, who under Rod’s leadership and encouragement identified the central themes for renewal of the Uniting Church as:
The need to present the Christian message in a manner consistent with the experience and insights of modern society. The need to appeal to the contemporary generations of younger groups. The need to eliminate the divisiveness of ideological splits in the church by the encouragement of diversity within and between congregations and in methods of ministry
The need to engage the laity in open and frank discussions of different theological developments and approaches to worship. The need to interpret the Christian message in the light of developments in modern science and technology. The need to cultivate spirituality rather than religion in our churches.

This enterprise had begun when Rod died in 2009 and Rod’s founding influence, commitment to working with all stakeholders in a supportive and sensitive way, his love of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his writing and research and indefatigable faith in humankind has sustained and inspired the Forum for a long time and continues to attract more members.

In Rod’s own words the nucleus and momentum for change must begin with us (the lay people of the church).  Thank you Rod for your friendship, knowledge and example.

Note: The UCFORUM has a broader membership these days with many ministers, retired ministers, former moderators, lay people, theologians, friends from other denominations and many who no longer attend any congregation.

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Bursary Applications for students of theology in 2018 close 30th October

UCFORUM and Fresh Steps in Faith Pty Ltd Bursaries

We have posted application forms and other material to students who expressed interest in receiving assistance with their study expenses at Trinity Theological College in Brisbane in 2018.

It is not too late to make an application. Closing date is 30th October 2017 and successful applicants will be advised after 30th November 2017.

Application forms are available from Dr Paul Inglis

We are pleased with the amount of interest in this offer of up to $5000 for graduate studies and up to $500 for short courses.

We also welcome expressions of interest for grants in 2019. We will advise these people when applications can be made formally.

The condition for receiving assistance is the provision of a short essay: “My Response to progressive Christianity”

Important Note: The personal position of the applicant in favour or against arguments presented in the field of progressive Christianity is welcome and will not be used as a determinant of acceptance for a bursary. The award will be based on evidence of understanding. The purpose of the awards is to equip more students to have an awareness of the growing interest within many congregations of critical scholarship in the field of progressive Christianity.

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Bursaries to encourage progressive reading by theology students

A call for expressions of interest in proposed scholarships to support theological studies at Trinity Theological College, Brisbane.

Paul Inglis, 7th May 2017

It is clear that maPaul-150x150ny of today’s congregations include people who have been educated to think critically, have opinions and judge knowledge that is presented to them on its merits and their own life experiences and education. It is also clear that many congregations welcome people who ask questions and have doubts about many taken for granted theological shibboleths. It is always refreshing to hear a preacher say that what he or she is about to say is open to examination and critical study. Congregations of the future are likely to be more diverse in their thinking and require leadership that facilitates a safe environment for a range of perspectives. We want to support the development of this leadership.

The Uniting Church was quite adamant at its formation that there will be flexibility and more to learn about the scriptures as new scholarship emerges.

The Basis of Union stands as witness:

” PARAGRAPH 11 11. SCHOLARLY INTERPRETERS The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word. In particular the Uniting Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives thanks for the knowledge of God’s ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith. The Uniting Church lives within a worldwide fellowship of Churches in which it will learn to sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought. Within that fellowship the Uniting Church also stands in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help it to understand its own nature and mission. The Uniting Church thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr. It prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.”

Through the generosity of the UCFORUM chairperson, Rodney Eivers, we will be maRodney2king available an annual sum of $10,000 to be distributed to students who are prepared to show evidence of reading, but not necessarily endorsing, the thinking of contemporary progressive theologians. The amount of individual bursaries is dependent on interest and further discussions with the Queensland Synod’s Board of Christian Formation. The manner of selecting these students will not be complex and involve writing a short reflection that makes reference to some progressive writers. A comprehensive reading list will be made available. Many of the authors are now represented in Trinity College library and other texts will be accessible from the UCFORUM.

More details will be made available in the near future, but in the meantime we are keen to gather expressions of interest from prospective and current students. We would like to have an email list of people we can send information to when the bursaries are launched. Perhaps you have some study plans yourself or know someone who would value being on our mailing list. Please pass on this information.

Please send your name and email contact details to: ucbursaries@bigpond.com

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Formation of the Progressive Christianity Network – Qld.

The Plan

In line with long held plans to ‘catch up’ with other States and have a Queensland Progressive Christianity group, this concept was boosted considerably on Saturday 11th March. The gathering at the Treston seminar stayed on to discuss a draft proposal prepared by the committee of the Modern church lookformer Progressive Spirituality Network. The plan is to transition the hundreds of members in the latter group into the proposed PCNQ while establishing a close relationship with the ever growing UCFORUM. Of course many of our members belong to both groups. Paul Inglis has accepted an invitation to chair the group in the formative stage.

We now also have many international links and are aware of a need to move forward with them in mind. At the same time, as the Common Dreams Conference proved, Queensland has a lot to offer the progressive movement and there will be much about the PCNQ that is distinctly us.

What’s in a name?

The name for the group is not yet finalised but we are keen to align and link to interstate groups for several reasons. Feedback at this meeting and emails I am still receiving will help us to make the ‘right’ decisions.

What is the purpose of such a group?

The scope and purpose of the group is still under discussion, but the following have been mooted:

  • to provide a safe place for progressive thinking Christians and others to come together and discuss the many issues in the life journey
  • to be an organising group for seminars and conferences
  • to continue the work of the former progressive spirituality network
  • to build links with non-Christian groups with strong interest in progressive spirituality and religion
  • to welcome atheists in the ongoing conversations about the meaning of life
  • to work with similar interstate groups when planning visits from keynote speakers
  • to publicise events related to our interests
  • to make appropriate commentary on contemporary matters
  • to explore the growing literature and scholarship in the field.

 

Some proposed initiatives

The planning team has already begun the process of setting up a Round Table group made up of representatives of all progressive and ‘explorer’ groups and individuals who can informally come together to find common ground and share in initiatives.  A draft paper on this proposal is available on request from Paul. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome.

We will be considering whether this is part of the brief for the PCNQ.

We want to reach as many interested people across the State as possible and an early challenge will be to find ways to support individuals in isolation from progressive groups. Already we have many members who correspond with us and receive reading lists and other information.

Watch for further developments and please continue to participate in our activities.

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Seminar Feedback

 

ReportParticipant Feedback Please

Our most recent seminar on Diversity generated a great deal of conversation about this important topic. Early feedback has given us some insights into the concerns of our growing membership. For instance, the question has been asked: Are we sufficiently hearing the female voice in a strong and influential way? and Is the Church willing to come to grips with its own historical and cultural retention of practices which reduce the possibilities for truly inclusive and welcoming communities?

If you were in the crowd participating in this seminar, we would like to have your feedback about any aspect of the content or process so we can continue to refine and improve on the delivery of our forums. We also welcome topics for future forums. Please send comments to Paul Inglis.