Saturday, 2 January 2010

Progressive Spirituality and Religious Fundamentalism

I have been pondering whether I need to get agitated as a progressive Christian with the fundamentalisms on both sides - atonement / sacrifice theology on the one hand and hard ‘scientism’ on the other.


I am pretty sure that I will primarily remain a Christian progressive, but will always struggle with the metaphor of atonement - though I of course understand intellectually what was being explained. But I think progressives need to better understand how the ‘myth’ (story) of atonement works, and why it has become so central and so defended without nuance. [I see clear explanation in the story of the Prodigal Son and the ever loving father - no sacrifice was required by the Father, though ‘sacrifice’ was made by the wayward son by the act of “turning” to return to the Father. The Father’s arms are ever open, the son just needed to understand that at last!]

We can go even further into “inter-faith” and the “new spirituality”, which can push progressive buttons at the other wing of the spectrum. Increaaingly there are lots of common understandings on ways of incorporating “spiritual practice”. My reading of Paul helps us see that faith and doctrine is never “black and white” - spiritual growth is a dialectical struggle, as insight wars with tradition, until a breakthrough, and then on to the next struggle, and next breakthrough. (Its been that for me intellectually and in my spiritual journey down the decades. From University evangelical, to liberal, to progressive, to my growing move to incorporate inter-faith and the new spiritualities into my frames of reference.)

In the end I come back to Jonathan Sacks “Dignity of Difference” book. Looked at from ‘height’, there are many pathways to the One, and all are “true” in a sense; or better, the “mythos” for each path contains Truth, but can never bound True Truth. Increasingly I “know” that the more we see the “landscape of many paths” the more we can root back in one path, even a pretty orthodox Christian one, and take from that overview the equivalence that we glimpse in other faiths and spiritual teachings. Nature shows that infinite difference is to be celebrated, not forced, something equally relevant to the ‘natural selection’ of ‘ideas’ (memes), which are tested and honed (integrated) into the next best stage of our understanding by evoltionary means.

This is something Progressive Christians and SBNR folk need to be very aware of. In my view we must take time, and allow, for dialogue with fundamentalists and evangelicals. I know I am becoming more “neo-orthodox” as I try to ‘feel’ these things rather than always rationalising them. Indeed I have now integrated much of my Charismatic and “guidance” experience as an evangelical as being a “true” experience of “spirit” in action. God acts from within us - and is not ‘external’, so its us who change whenever we are “led” or have our hearts “strangely warmed”; and in my view each step must be integrative, not a point for throwing away our past theological “meme”.

The early Christian communities post resurrection experiences of Jesus, and Paul’s visions of being called from place to place on his travels, are typical of biblical stories progressives struggle with when starting from the rationalist paragdigm. But increasingly I see that there is a fruitful place for dialogue here. Call is consequent on the openness (faith) of those “called”. So, based on my point about seeing the whole spiritual ‘Landscape’, what is described in the NT is no different from the vision quest of indigenous peoples and the whole gamut of ecstatic and practical spiritual encounter in nature, and mediatation techniques to engender different states of consciousness, etc, in some Christian forms and in many of the world’s faiths. And so, hard though it is to make sense of this, given the “law” context in Judaism and the guilt context in Christianity, it is not a defensible answer to get cross about particular atonement theologies!

In my professional life I am a huge fan of facilitated dialogue processes of conflict resolution, and it seems to me that theology desperately needs the humility to engage from wherever people are at. Just because we have “integrated” progressive insights into our Christan paths, or gone beyond to integrate global faith understandings, or go beyond that to explore alongside the “free spirits” out there, it does not mean we should give up on the need to dialogue with all people of faith or none - for all conversation that brings people to awareness, including us, needs to be tried.

Also posted on the Progressive Christianity Network Britain's Forum: http://www.pcnbritain.org.uk/index.php/forums/
And on my Facebook site: http://www.facebook.com/john.hetherington?v=app_2347471856&ref=profile in the Notes Section.

1 comment:

Widely Interested said...

I find your blog about progressives and fundamentalist very interesting. I agree that engagement and conversation needs to go on across "traditions" and "perspectives". I have found it hard sometimes when I am being clubbed with the latest "absolute". I actually believe that the fundamentalist perspective can and does lead people to faith in Christ. However, that perspective seems to make Christianity less and less credible in the marketplace of ideas and for those that start out in fundamentalism, once you start on journey away from it, the journey can be very hard.