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.