Finding progressive Christianity

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An Episcopal church is located not far from my workplace. It has noontime services on certain weekdays, and it would be convenient for me to pay it a lunchtime visit during the work week, as a way of getting a weekday fix on my spirituality. It is true that conventional, Book of Common Prayer style Episcopal services don't interest me, but I was told in an e-mail exchange with the rector that they don't recite creeds as part of their weekday worship, which resolves one of my biggest objections to Episcopal-style services. So far, so good. However, I still haven't managed to make myself visit, in part because I've fallen into my more ingrained resistance to to the whole ceremony of the Eucharist, which is presumably a central part of that service. But I admit that I also felt a little resistant because of uncertainty over the whole question of how progressive this church is.

It turned out that a co-worker belongs to that church, and she told me that her husband, who regularly attends, doesn't agree with a lot of the church teachings and regularly discusses his objections on certain issues with the rector. This sounded pretty good to me. My coworker also wasn't fazed by my objections to participating in the Eucharist; she said you could just cross your arms and refuse to drink the wine if that was how you felt. Again, so far so good. But then, I read some online sermons by the rector, and that is where I found a sense of disappointment. The rector talked about the resurrection in one of her sermons, and she said some things that I just couldn't accept. For example, she said that "the bedrock" of Christian hope is "the resurrection of Jesus, with all its implications for our own eternal salvation." She added that, even though one might not accept a particular argument for this resurrection that was presented in the New Testament, she asks others to "not distance yourself from it. I ask you to trust in it, to accept it as reliable witness to God’s power and propensity for the great reversal."

Now maybe when she uses the word "resurrection", she means something other than the physical, literal walking on the earth by a risen Jesus. But I didn't get that sense from her sermon, and I must say therefore that I will not just trust as an article of faith something that I consider to be a violation the fundamental understanding of the post-Enlightenment world. Dead people don't physically rise from the dead and walk around and converse with others, as portrayed in the mythological resurrection accounts of Matthew, Luke and John. If this is what she expects someone like me to believe, then I am afraid she will be disappointed. It just ain't gonna happen.

She goes on in that sermon to express the notion that the hope of eternal life is the fundamental core of Christian belief. Once again, this has nothing to do with my faith. I couldn't care less about any focus on life after death. And, frankly, it is a point of pride for me that this isn't what my religion is about. To me, focusing on eternal life, if it exists, distracts from the mission at hand--building the Kingdom of God here on earth. My religion is about my relationship with God and others today, in the here and now. To me, focusing on any alleged "eternal life" would mean to turn my entire religion inside out, make it something that it is not.

Recently, I was thinking about the new pastor at the UCC church that I attend, and in particular his differences from the one he replaced. He tends to be a little more conventional in style than his predecessor, and his sermons are more Bible-focused and delivered more in more conventional ways as well. This made me feel a little bit skittish. Is he more orthodox theologically than I can be comfortable with? I'm not sure. But then I thought about the services since his arrival, and I realized that, despite these stylistic changes, there is still, thankfully, no confession of sins as part of the service (and the word "sin" rarely, if ever gets mentioned), no recitation of creeds (UCC services in general don't do that, as far as I can tell), no talk in his sermons about how we need to be "saved", and in general none of the elements of orthodoxy that would make me run screaming.

It is possible that this particular pastor does believe that Jesus was literally, physically resurrected from the dead. Perhaps, if I were to attend services on Easter day, I would know for sure where he stands on the subject. But at least, so far, he isn't telling the congregation that this is something that they should believe. He has not yet asserted that this belief is the "bedrock" of Christian faith. And for that, I am grateful.

21 comments:

Cynthia said...

So what about confession of sin ruffles your faith feathers? Is it sin or confession or both?

Mystical Seeker said...

It doesn't ruffle my feathers as much as creed recitation does. I recognize that we humans are flawed creatures. I just don't like having that fact rubbed in my face as part of the worship experience. I would rather focus on how we can do better rather than what is wrong with us. It is just a personal preference. Maybe part of it has to do with the whole atonement issue, and since I don't see Jesus's death as serving any atonement purpose, I also don't see any reason to bring the matter of our sins up in church.

Apparently the congregation I attend doesn't like it so had it removed, but the ex-pastor of the church tried to at least keep the recitation of sins around during the season of Lent, even if it wasn't said the rest of the time, but I don't seem to be seeing any evidence of it with the current pastor.

I guess this is just another reason why I don't really make for much of a Christian.

Annie said...

I find myself wondering if you believe in a metaphorical resurrection, if you will. If the Gospels are not a literal historical fact, but the spiritual journey of each of us?

It isn't easy to check each congregation to see what their views are--I know! And right now, I am timid about pointing people toward my church. Sometimes I wish they'd post it out in front: We believe . . .

Cynthia said...

One way I view confession is in relation to the Church being the Body of Christ, and the Body is indeed sick and addicted. Confession is like the first step of the 12-step program: We admitted we were powerless and needed the help of a higher power. Perhaps individually we don't need to confess again and again, but we join with the community, some sick, some healthy, and acknowledge our corporate need for healing, while working on how we can do better at the same time.

Matthew said...

Faith language is very different (though is often sounds to be of the same sort) from belief language. Faith language, interpreted literally, will lose it's transformative power. I understand your current way of 'hearing' rejects traditional phrasing and creeds. As I've grown spiritually I've been surprised to discover many traditional phrases taking on a new life...one I never thought they could have! An example- "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life...no one comes to the Father, but my Me." At first read this phrase sounds divisive and incredible by today's standards of credibility (unless you're gullable)- segregating those with 'correct' belief from those who don't. But once the context of Jesus' confrontation with both the Jesish Temple Cult and Roman Imperialism is understood, the wording takes on a completely different meaning and shines forth with life!

I know of a senior UCC pastor whose sermons are free from the sort of literalism you're seeking to avoid. His name is Karl Johnson and he's at the Neighborhood Church in Palos Verdes, CA (physically distant from SF); but their website does have MP3 sermons of his (plus other pastors at the church.)

Listen online- http://www.neighborhoodchurchpve.org/onlinesermons.html

Good luck in your searches,
Matthew

Matthew said...

Blogger seems to have truncated the url I posted. If this one fails to connect search- Neighborhood Church Palos Verdes Estates, CA:

/www.neighborhoodchurchpve.org/default.htm

Follow 'Listen Online' link from home page.

Grace said...

Mystical,

How can we put God in a box, though? What if He doesn't cooperate with your understanding in a post-enlighenment world? :) And, who is to say that God does everything today as He has done in the past? If the "incarnation" is true, I'd say this is a unique event!!

Have you thought of this? Also, I have to point out that people in Biblical times certainly did not expect the dead to be up and about taking noonday strolls either.

As a matter of fact, when you read through the book of Acts, when the apostles preached concerning Jesus and the resurrection of the dead, reaction ran the gamet from outright mockery to accusations of pure madness!!!

Peace. :)

Mystical Seeker said...

Grace, many people think that God intervenes in the modern world that we live in, so qualitatively there is no difference from saying that God miraculously raised someone from the dead 2000 years ago and saying that God cured Aunt Gertie's cancer or whatever. In pre-Enlightenment times, people were more likely to believe in such things. But in the modern world, we should know better.

Eileen said...

Mystical - I don't think a church exists which isn't going to rub us wrong or weird in one way or another.

We're humans, churches are run by humans, and as humans, we are prone to messing things up and also being diverse and divergent. The trick I think, is to find some place that gets you as close to comfortable as possible, and learn to live wiht those things that don't work for you.

You need a progressive, non-creedal space to worship. It may not be perfectly progressive, but, it will be a start to find a place that meets those two requirements.

I wish you success in your journey. Try not to get discouraged. You have spiritual needs that need feeding!

Grace said...

Well, Mystical,

I actually think God can miraculously heal people today, although I don't feel this is the way the Lord normally operates in the world anymore than in Biblical times.

But, I guess the point I'm trying to make is that we can't limit God by our own cultural paradigm. How can we be certain than an anti-supernatural kind of bias just doesn't reflect a kind of mythology all it's own?

Maybe post enlightenment types are too quick too discount anything that seems miraculous or outside of the ordinary. Do you see what I'm saying?

I also can agree with much of what Eileen is sharing. There is no perfect church, that's for sure!!

God bless!!

Mystical Seeker said...

Grace, I think the reason we have to reject supernatural explanations for events in the world is that this is the twenty-first century, and we should know better than that. The God of the Gaps is dead; those gaps where God was supposedly found just kept getting smaller and smaller over time, to the point where in modern times it is simply not intellectually tenable to believe in a God who pulls the strings of the world in that way.

It isn't just the Enlightenment that leads us to this point. Ask any Jew why it is that God didn't intervene to save six million of them from the Holocaust. On both a moral and an intellectual basis, there is, in my view, no justification for the idea of an interventionist, supernaturally theistic God. What Marcus Borg calls "supernatural theism" is what I think we have to reject if we are going to proceed with a modern faith.

To me, any conception of God that defies human rationality is a throwback to a pre-modern conception of the world that is outdated and not credible.

Grace said...

Mystical,

It's going to be hard for me to find the words to share. It's just that we cannot wrap our minds around the totality of God. When I was just a young girl I remember lying in my bed one night. (I was an agnostic at the time.) But, more than anything I wanted to know God, if He was really there. I was searching for truth.

I was asking, even accusing God. Asking why God, if you're there, if you care, why do you allow so much pain and suffering in the world, like the holocaust. Do something!!

Mystical, I can't fully explain or understand this, but suddenly I was flooded with this sense of the awesome presence of God. I sensed his holiness and awesome love and power. Although I didn't realize it at the time, it was an experience something like shared out of the the book of Job.

I was totally humbled, and through all this later came to faith in Christ. Jesus is God's answer and intervention, Mystical.

Even from the depths of a Nazi death camp, Corrie ten Boom could write,

"No matter how deep our darkness, He is deeper still."

It is so true that God is immanent in the creation. It is in Him that "we live, and move, and have our being," as the Scripture teaches. (Some call this panentheism.)

But, God is also personal and loving, seperate and greater than the creation, transcendent as well.

We can truly have a relationship with Him, and He intervenes in our lives everyday.

It's just a paradox, Mystical.

John Shuck said...

Hi Seeker,

Nice post. I don't use the confession of sin any longer in worship. I reject that humans should be defined as sinners. You put that well.

I wrestle with the traditional language problem. Some of it has too much baggage no matter how it is interpreted. For instance, I tend to avoid the "I am the Way" passage from John just because it has been used so much for Christian exclusivism. To tell you the truth, I think it was always about exclusivism. John's community saw itself as the "correct" community. I don't insist. If it works for others, I have no objection.

Here are my two cents on the miraculous/non-miraculous. Now and then we are fortunate enough to have transcendent experiences, where it all seems to make sense. I think that is wonderful. We should treasure them and respect the experiences of others (unless of course these experiences inspire us to do harm).

I wouldn't call those miraculous in the sense that they are supernatural. Usually they come in the language and symbols to which we are accustomed.

I have been thinking about the Bible. I realize that I don't believe it or believe in it. I don't believe in it or believe it any more than I believe in or believe Shakespeare. This has been quite freeing. I no longer need to defend it or to explain it. I like to understand it and enjoy it (and to criticize it on occasion) but I accept it for what it is--the reflections and struggles of many people in an ancient time.

I do find it amusing that we are all helping you find a church! As if you are not ok without one!

Cynthia said...

Of course you're okay without a church, but it is less complicated to stand on the outskirts of the church and make comments, give reasons why one is not a part of a community of faith, and talk great theology with a cloud of witnesses.

It's like being in love with the love of your life but not taking the plunge to make a commitment.

Eileen said...

Cynthia - I think, ultimately, that's how I feel.

But, I am also ok with those who seek God in their own manner, taking what is meaningful to them, and using that.

Church isn't for everybody - and at this point in history, it isn't likely to be - way to much investment in doing church "right" to be a place where the earth's truly diverse people can converge.

At this point, most churches don't even want to be for everybody.

Eileen said...

I'm sorry Cynthia, I didn't finish my thought - that should be, I ultimately feel that I want to be part of a community to struggle over it with - this meets other needs in me, and, as I was raised RC, I am comfortable with the love song of the liturgy - with what it has meant through time, and the faith communities it has nourished.

I was always comfortable with RC worship, just not with it's exclusivism, and rigid teachings on things which I think it would be better off to let go of (especially in terms of human sexuality, women's ordination, and excluding others from communion.)

Cynthia said...

Eileen,

"Most churches don't even want to be for everybody": how true and how sad. Even so, I have a lover's quarrel with the church but still I remain with my lover, even though it disappoints as much as it blesses.

Mystical, I truly hope you find a community that will help sustain you, challenge you AND that needs you. Perhaps this blogosphere is the beginning.

Eileen said...

Me too, Cynthia. I switched to TEC, and I have a great parish (not perfect!), which works for me.

TEC isn't perfect, but, it's better than where I was. At least conversation is possible there.

But that's me. MS got to do what works best for MS.

Mystical Seeker said...

If the church is indeed one's lover, then perhaps those of us whose first love turned out to be based on deception and lies approach subsequent romances more tentatively.

Maybe my fundamentalist upbringing makes me more sensitive to these sorts of issues that others just deal with as part of the process and accept as part of the price of one's spiritual romance. The problem as I see is that it is often a total mystery to me what people really think and how they think about these things, from the clergy to the congregation.

Sometimes I get surprised. I had a conversation after church with someone who I had assumed to be somewhat more orthodox than I was. She mentioned something about Claremont College in southern California, and I brought up that the Center for Process Theology was located there. Much to my surprise, she then proceeded to make some positive comments about process theology and John Cobb. Who knew?

It seems like the symbols and mythology always get told as if they are true in church services, even if the pastor or much of the congregation doesn't really take them literally. The real thoughts that lay behind the rituals and symbolism of church service are shrouded in mystery. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe this allows for diversity of thought and free interpretation by the congregation. But until you realize that this is how the game is played (and, to confuse matters, in conservative churches, this is not the game that is being played, because they do take it all literally), how can you know that? It's a big mystery that you just have to figure out.

But then what happens when a clergy member gives a sermon that unveils that shroud of mystery, where her basic thoughts on these subjects are revealed, and they turn out to be the very sort of conventional ideas that you ran screaming from in the first place?

Eileen said...

MS - I think most churches outside of Fundagelical churchs, will house a diversity of belief.

In my experience, ordained persons often (although not always) hold more traditional, orthodox beliefs - they are the teachers and perpetuators of traditional faith, and have a strong connection to that role. Good pastors understand how to balance their own orthodoxy against the diversity of belief in their congregations, so they don't "lose" congregants.

The bottom line is, I think, if you believe in God, and find God in the service, it doesn't matter what the pastor says in some sermons, or that they hold very different ideas then you. None of that matters to God, and I think it's helpful to keep it in that perspective.

All that matters is you find a place to meet God, regularly.

Human beings are always going to converge on some points, and diverge on others. For a recovering fundagelical, I can see where the theology of the pastor could seem very intimidating, especially if you are used to being called out on wrong belief. However, you need to keep in mind, that your divergent ideas aren't the only ones sitting out in the congregation before that pastor - some may have similar ideas, and others my be more traditional than an orthodox clergy leader.

Eventually, I think, you have a good chance of finding a spiritual home. It won't be perfect (as nothing as), but it will be a place you feel safe, and connected on more levels than not.

Post-englightenment spirituality is part of God's realm, too.

My recommendation is to continue doing as you are doing, and stay connected to progressive Christians in the way your are right now (online). I don't know if we'll see truly Progressive churches in our lifetimes, so all we can do is work with what is in place at this time. It does involve risk, just like any other relationship, and unfortunately, from time to time, there can be some confusion and hurt too. It's too big, and too important a thing to most spiritual people.

I think, in the future, there will be more truly inclusive, progressive churches. But, with 2000 years of tradition of NOT being inclusive, that change isn't going to happen tomorrow. It's going to involve work, and struggle on the part of clergy and laypeople who feel strongly enough to stick their necks out for it.

I have faith that you will find some resolution on this matter in time.

Peace.

Grace said...

Mystical,

Why not just set up a time to meet with the pastor of any churches that you're interested in attending, and asking them point blank concerning their personal beliefs and convictions? This is important to you, afterall. You'll know if they feel defensive, and offended that it's not a good sign for you.

I work at a residential school for needy kids, and I generally attend an ecumenical chapel here at the school. But, soon my husband and I will be relocating for the weekends I'm off, so we need to find a new church.

After sharing on these blogs for over a year, and reading comments from some of the clergy, you can be doubly certain I'm not going to hesitate finding out, either. :) God have mercy!!

Although, I agree that there is no perfect church. If there were, I would definitely ruin it up by joining. (LOL)