Reviewed by Rodney Eivers – 22nd May 2017
Glorify by Emily C. Heath
Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity
I was drawn to this title in the MediaCom catalogue by its subtitle “Reclaiming the Heart of “progressive” Christianity”. This is because, for all my own commitment to “progressive” Christianity I have to struggle with how we can generate enough passion about this option which will provide people with emotional satisfaction leading them to staying with it as a guide to the way we might live.
Although Emily Heath has much that is positive to say, the content of the book does not live up to my expectations.
Rev. Heath is at pains to identify with the “progressive” Christianity movement. A favourite phrase repeated in one form or another in pretty well every chapter is “We progressives”, yet her progressivism bears little resemblance doctrinally to what would be the standard for proponents such as, Spong, Geering and Borg – especially Gretta Vosper of “With or Without God” – with their dismissal of supernatural attributes of a 21st Century faith.
At one point Emily Heath goes as far as to acknowledge that she accepts a literal resurrection. She then goes on however, to discuss this in metaphorical terms typical of modern liberal orthodoxy which is still anxious about disenfranchising itself from the wider church committed to the 4th Century creeds. Such a retreat from literal interpretation avoids the challenge from an educated public prepared to challenge supernatural interpretations of Bible stories.
Despite this, God, in this book, is spoken of virtually in theistic terms, as some form of ‘being” with whom one may make contact. I doubt that this is really Heath’s base position.
Her attachment to progressivism clearly comes from its acceptance and support of homosexuality and other elements of the LGBTQ community. With her being an openly gay minister of religion, recently married, thanks to changes in USA law, this is understandable.
She is spot on with her analysis of what is happening with the decline of church attendance, especially for the mainline denominations. She notes the reticence of today’s generations to join or commit to anything. This is being exacerbated by the attachment to screens and social media in preference to face to face interaction.
I am fully with her also on the place which local community interaction can play, perhaps must play, in maintaining and sustaining a vibrant Christian presence and initiative.
So I find the prominence given to “doing it our human selves” is made to sit uneasily against depending on God to sort it out.
The trouble is, what sort of God are we talking about here, assuming that we have moved away from the mediaeval, theistic persona waiting out there to come to our aid if we use the right prayer formula?
There are so many avatars of God. Jesus imagined God as a loving father but he also spoke of the God of nature, the creator of flowers of the field and of being neutral as to human welfare. “God causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust”.
Some speak of God as representing the spirit of love. As Don Cupitt has highlighted, the word “life” in common usage has become synonymous with God. Some see God, as the inner voice of conscience and reflection with which we each have an ongoing conversation. Another picture of God, somewhat allied to “life” or “what is” is that entity which comprises all the collection of chance events and probabilities ranging from formation of the cosmos to ordinary day to day living. That is, any moment in time. In this characterisation God itself does not know what is going to happen next. It is unpredictable. It is interesting that in this last case we can pray to this god with intellectual integrity. In praying, for ourselves, or for someone else we can express a hope that the dice of life will fall our way. Is this not, indeed, what we are doing these days when instead of praying for someone with terminal cancer, we do not ask for supernatural healing. We simply express a wish, a hope, that the doctors will do their best or that the end will be relatively peaceful.
So what is the God whom we are to glorify?
Perhaps the best we can do is to celebrate life and express our gratitude that we have the privilege of experiencing this great gift of living, of consciousness, of knowing that we exist.
With these caveats I would suggest that although Emily Heath may not have found the secret to “heart” for most of us who call ourselves progressive, there is much of value in reading her take on the issue.