A silent underground


I am so used to thinking myself of belonging on the heretical fringe of Christianity that it surprises me when I encounter individuals in a faith community who think in ways similar to my own.

It is not always easy to know how other people in a church feel about theological questions. You may sit in a church service with a congregation and sing the traditional hymns and listen to the pastor preach about traditional subjects, and never know that the person sitting next to you doesn't believe in the divinity of Jesus or in the literal truth of the resurrection. After the service, you go to coffee hour and chat about non-theological things like the weather and the parking situation outside the church. You get to know the people on some level, but how often do you actually probe deep enough into their own belief structure to know what they are really thinking? Underneath the veneer of a common faith tradition, there can lie a lot more variety than one might realize.

Last week, I attended a "Living the Questions" DVD seminar that a small progressive church sponsors. A core group of half a dozen or so people from the church regularly attend the sessions. That week's lesson on the DVD included an interview with Marcus Borg, in which he was asked whether it was necessary to believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus in order to be a Christian. He said no. Afterwards, during the discussion period, the pastor clearly felt it was important to discuss what Borg said. She mentioned that this statement could be shocking or controversial in some circles, and she felt the need to clear the air. But no one in the room seemed fazed at all. I was surprised to discover that I wasn't alone on this matter. There really are other people in churches besides me who see religion in unorthodox ways.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. When I attended a "Saving Jesus" DVD seminar (published by the same people who produce "Living the Questions") that was being offered at a different church, I sat in a small breakout group with two lovely, wrinkled women who were probably well in their 80s. One of them, who I presume was a member of the church sponsoring the seminar, said point blank that she didn't think that Jesus was God. Anyone who equates orthodoxy with the elderly and iconoclasm with the young would have quickly been disabused of that notion.

It makes me think that there might indeed be a silent underground of people who are trying to make sense of faith in the modern world, who are no longer satisfied with the old orthodoxies.

At the "Living the Questions" seminar, the subject came up of what Jesus's death meant, if he wasn't literally resurrected to save our sins. The DVD quoted one theologian who suggested that it really had to do with Jesus living an authentic life, a life that can serve as a model for us; and that living such a life can involve serious costs, then and now. The church sponsoring the "Living the Questions" seminar that I attended belongs to a particular Protestant faith tradition that has traditionally held certain ideas about Jesus and salvation, so I asked how the ______ian tradition fits in with a more universal and pluralistic perspective about Jesus. The woman sitting next to me, D., jokingly suggested that their church might not be a good representative of the ______ian tradition. That may be true. Obviously, some congregations are going to have more orthodox thinking in their membership than others, and within congregations there can be diversity of thinking. However, the pastor actually gave a very interesting reply in which she argued that, in fact, the faith tradition of that church did jibe with this understanding of Jesus. In any case, there was something refreshing about the revelation that I was in the midst of a body of progressive thinking people.

Another lesson from this seems clear to me--the importance of adult education in progressive church communities. It seems that there is much unlearning, as well as learning, that needs to be done, as people discover new paradigms in the Christian faith. I think that the "Living the Questions" DVDs serve as a valuable tool in that effort.


Garten said...

New to your blog and finding it very interesting.

I think it's important that differing opinions are allowed, even encouraged. What you believe and don't believe is less important than other things, like how you treat others. Besides, beliefs change with time.


Jan said...

I think you'd enjoy "Living the Questions" --a group of "heretics" watched that last year at my former church. Good questions and thoughts. I loved Spong on his thoughts about prayer, which is a later segment. Have you read any of Borg's books? They're mostly good.

Katherine E. said...

I'm a pastor in a Disciples of Christ church. We are non-creedal and value diversity of thought. (At least, most of the other Disciples clergy I know value that. For many layfolk, it's a different story. Several in my church seem to value conformity of thought over any openness to new ideas.) My husband is now teaching Marcus Borg's "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time." Started out, he had about 3 people indicate an interest. Then it was 15 when one of other classes decided to participate. Now we're up to about 30 people. I know it's challenging for many of our folks to encounter Borg's thoughts. I agree that there is much unlearning needed, as well as learning. Borg's books are pretty helpful with this, I think.

Mystical Seeker said...

Garten, welcome to my blog. I agree with you that we should not get fixed into our dogmas, even our unorthodox ones! Opinions are necessarily going to change with time.

Jan, I have read quite a few of Borg's books, and I like what he has to say.

Katherine, it it is interesting that your husband's course kept attracting more and more people. I wonder what the initial hesitation and the later growth in attendance that says about people's uncertainty and willingness to explore these ideas.