Progressive Possibilities


Jim Adams, the founder of the Center for Progressive Christianity, has written an article that is posted on the Center's web site. The article, titled "God, Darwin, and the Church", directly addresses many of the concerns that I expressed in my previous blog entry. Among other things, he offers proposals for what he would like to see take place in progressive church services. I believe that if I attended churches that adopted the approach that he suggests, I would find that a lot of the frustration I have experienced would evaporate.

But before he gets to those proposals for worship, he offers a very simple proposal that lies at the heart of my own faith journey:

In order to survive, let alone grow, progressive churches may need to adopt an understanding of religion that does not emphasize believing propositions that contradict the findings of science.

Yes, yes, yes! This is fundamental to what I believe, and it is something I have expressed repeatedly in this blog and in blog discussions elsewhere. I cannot, I will not, believe in a religion that contradicts the findings of science. Of course, this does lead to the next question: if religious faith isn't about belief in miracles and supernatural interventions that defy the laws of science, then what is religion about? The very next sentence in the article addresses this question by suggesting that a religion need not be about dogmatic faith assertions:

In fact, churches may need to de-emphasize all forms of believing and present Christianity as a way of life rather than as a series of beliefs.

This dovetails with what Marcus Borg has said in his own writings. In his book The Heart of Christianity, Borg defines four different kinds of faith; what he calls assensus represents the sort of faith that is built around believing various assertions of dogma--which he and Jim Adams both say can serve as a hindrance to a mature faith. Borg writes:

For many, Christian faith began to mean believing questionable things to be true--as assenting to the truth of claims that have become "iffy."
Instead, Borg believes that faith should be defined in terms of fiducia ("trust"), fidelitas ("fidelity"), and visio ("a way of seeing").

In Jim Adams's article, he continues with what it means when religion no longer becomes about affirming dogmatic assertions:

In this approach, religion is understood to be the business of trying to make sense out of existence. Existence from a purely logical perspective is, of course, nonsense. As Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize winner in particle physics, famously stated, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless." Yet nearly everyone feels driven to find some meaning in this pointless universe.

If a church wants to stay alive, it will advertise itself as a community of people engaged in the task of making sense out of that which is nonsense. Individuals engaged in the task may develop a variety of beliefs. Some may accept conventional Christian doctrines, and others may be skeptics or atheists, but they can pray and worship and think together if they do not feel any pressure to conform their beliefs to a real or imagined standard.

Jim Adams thus argues that progressive churches need to deemphasize the notion that Christianity is a faith rooted in dogmatic assertions, in favor of an emphasis on spiritual practices and discovery.

He devotes a lot of his article to the subject of prayer as a spiritual practice; how can rationalists justify the act of prayer? His response is this:

Since they do not believe that prayer will cause God to intervene and change reality, they think that they would feel foolish asking for what they want. They may need help in discovering that while prayer does not change external reality, the practice can change the reality within a person, and the changed person can have an impact on the world and other people.

Every time I sit in a church service when "intercessory prayer" is discussed, I start to get a little uncomfortable. If the ostensible purpose of that prayer is to somehow sway God to do something that we ask of "him", I then find myself having a hard time involving myself in that part of the worship service. I don't believe in a God who "intercedes" in this way. Frankly, I wish the word "intercessory" were banished from the praying portions of worship services. For me, these prayers are more about listening to God, being in the presence of God, and laying before God our hopes and concerns. But asking God to intercede? I don't think so.

Lastly, but most importantly for the purposes of what I raised in my previous blog entry, Jim Adams makes proposals for how he would like to see worship services in progressive churches altered: "Atheists and skeptics can also find meaning in worship," he writes, "if those responsible for designing worship services do so with atheists and skeptics in mind."

I wish he wouldn't use the term "atheists and skeptics" in this context, because I am not an atheist, and to me a disbelief in the unbelievable is not the same thing as "skepticism"; in any case, what he proposes directly speaks to my concerns. Instead, I would suggest that he broaden the category of people he is referring to, perhaps by simply calling them "rationalists". I would suggest that a rationalist is one who believes in science; and a faithful rationalist is one who believes in science and who also believes in God (or some kind of sacred, transcendent reality) at the same time.

It is almost as if he were directly speaking to me when he gives examples in his article of what he means by designing worship services with certain people in mind. He writes:

In order to worship enthusiastically, however, most of the people who embrace Darwin need fairly constant reminders that they need not take literally the words of the liturgy. The sermon or homily is critical in this regard. Whenever preachers want to comment on a Bible passage or some part of the ritual, they have an obligation to make room for both the conventional believers and the skeptical members of the congregation. For example, if the text includes some mention of Jesus's resurrection, the preacher can say, "For many Christians Jesus emerging from the tomb was an historical event, but the language used by St. Paul, who did not mention an empty tomb, makes more sense to other people. Paul used words associated with dreams and visions to suggest that he and others experienced Jesus's resurrection as an internal realization, an inner glimpse of what Jesus meant to them. Either way you want to take the resurrection, you may find that the story offers insight for your own situation."

A preacher can use a similar approach to a Bible story that has no acceptable parallel in the letters of Paul. In talking about the passage where Jesus calms a storm, the sermon can point out that, while some people take this to be a report of an actual event in the life of Jesus, others think that early followers of Jesus made up the story to reflect their attitudes toward him in the light of their deepest fears and longings. Whichever approach you take, the questions to ask yourself are: What is it about this story that caused people to repeat it and later to write it down? What is there in the story that might help me to understand my own fears and longings?

In most of the ostensibly progressive churches that I have attended, preachers don't say anything like "Either way you want to take the resurrection, you may find that the story offers insight for your own situation." Instead, for the most part they preach as if there is only one way to take the resurrection--literally. And that is where they start to lose me.


Connie said...

Mystical, I have read a number of your entries and have been moved by your search for a church that reflects your heart and mind and values. I'm not sure anyone can offer advice or even simply their own story that will help you, as you will eventually discover for yourself what fits. But having said that, let me give it a go.
I gave up on organized religion after college for some of the reasons you mentioned. Every time I was supposed to say the Nicene creed, I would look around me and think, "Do these people really believe this to be the literal truth? Does the minister believe this to be the literal truth? If so, I don't belong here anymore."
If someone had ever expressed that stories about Jesus's birth and resurrection were metaphors, as Bishop Shelby Spong now does, I might have stayed.
Many years went by before I realized that I wanted, more than anything else, a community. And without boring you with all the details of how I got there, I ended up in a Unitarian Universalist church. At first it struck me as the most un-church like place I'd ever been in--people chatting noisily before the service began, the choir dressed in street clothes (jeans--omygod!) and getting up to sing around a piano, no mention of Jesus and probably not one of God either. Who WERE these people?! But I felt like one of them, and I agreed with all the bumper stickers on their cars in the parking lot, so I stayed. And it has been a wonderful journey.
I have felt honored, supported, and encouraged to seek my own spiritual truth. To do so, in fact, is one of the UU 7 Principles (not a creed but a covenant) around which we gather. Because we understand that "truth" comes from many sources—cultural, religious, the natural world—we don't cut our thinking at any particular doorstep. Right now, for example, I'm studying Zen meditation, led by a member of my church, who is a former Episcopal priest.
Some outsiders think that UU's are just religious goofballs who don't believe anything. I have found just the opposite. It's true that we don;t have to follow any particular party line. But I haven't met a UU who wasn't on a deep spiritual path. We just don't like being told what to think, especially when it contradicts reason and science.
In addition, we believe in social justice, so I know where to find my fellow congregants--in the soup kitchen, going door to door to make sure the equal rights bill for gays and lesbians gets the vote, speaking out in public places against the war. Since most of us believe we can't know what happens in the next world, we care passionately about this one.
Of course, not every UU church is like every other one. The other UU church in my town is more formal, more traditional, and, I've heard, a little less welcoming to newcomers. I'm not sure I'd fit in there. And, to be honest, the minister does make a big difference. Some are better than others, and in my own church, we've had a few who didn't quite fit our congregation.
I'm not sure whether any of this helps, but you seem to be looking for a church that looks just like mine, so I had to respond!

John Shuck said...

I resonate with what Jim Adams says here. I am curious as to why there are not more congregations in your area that would go along with what he wrote.

Paul said...

I am very sympathetic to what you have written here and to what Adams says. I consider all theology to be metaphor. As a preacher I would find it awkward and as a listener offputting if one had to pause with every story and talk about the different ways one can take it. I don't assert the biblical stories are literal accounts of "actual" events but I don't pause and say, now this is symbolic. I let people make of the biblical narratives, and my sermons, what they will. Folks in the congregation I pastored knew the no questions were off limits, no doubts forbidden, and folks came to Bible study who didn't identify themselves as Christians or believers, simply because they enjoyed the discussions and felt it enriched their own spiritual journey.

In sum, I like the direction; the application is a tricky art form, at least from my perspective. I value rationalism and I value folk piety: both can be liberating or oppressive, it's the application that makes the differenc.

Mystical Seeker said...


Thanks for sharing your experiences with a UU church. I visited a UU church in my area,and while I do appreciate the UU tolerance and encouragement of spiritual development, in my case I and felt that I wanted a form of worship that was more focused on the Christian tradition and that wasn't afraid to use God-language regularly. It sounds like you found a great church that really works well for you. And I have no doubt that different UU churches have different personalities.


Interesting question as to why I don't see more of Jim Adams's ideas in practice in churches in my area. I agree that you'd expect to see more of it, but I just haven't really felt that this has been my experience in most cases.


You raise a good point that it is not feasible for preachers to constantly have to qualify everything the preach about. I'd settle for an occasional bone in that area, probably. I think what makes me sensitive about this is that I came from a religious background that really did take all of this stuff literally, so when I go to a church where the literalness of biblical texts is not explicitly addressed, then I feel like it is a tacit concession to a default position that it is all literally true. Maybe it is not fair of me to draw that conclusion, but I admit that my upbringing makes me sensitive about these things.

Paul said...

I appreciate the sensitivity. I come from a very similar background. Maybe I've been away from it longer but there's a lot in our tradition that makes my flesh crawl if it even hints--to my hot buttons--that it comes from that place. Even using the name of Jesus a bit often makes me nervous because it suggests an entire ethos and worldview, so raw nerves don't go away, even after 36 years in more liberal circles. We do need to be more explicit in addressing the issue, at least from time to time. So thanks for putting it out there.

Grace said...

I can definitely agree with Borg that faith is "trust," more than intellectual assent to a bunch of propositions.

But, how can we say that we're truly trusting, seeking and open to God when we limit "a priori" what He can or cannot do? Is God limited by finite human perception?

Can't rationalism itself become a kind of idol? To me, it's just reflects another kind of bias.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Mystical Seeker,

did you notice who Adams quotes in his lead off? Anyway, regarding intercessory prayer, John Polkinghorne, theologian and leading particle physicist, talks about the cloudy areas of existence where conversation with God can have some influence. So, while science has its laws, there is room for God to work. Polkinghorne, by the way, embraces Process thinking.

Mystical Seeker said...


Can God do evil? If the answer is no, then one is limiting God's nature.

In other words, limiting what God can do is part and parcel of the concept of God, because God has a nature and God is inevitably limited by what we define to be God's own nature. For example, when we say that God is loving, or that God can do no evil, we are in effect limiting God because we deny that God can do things that are evil, which would be contrary to God's nature. (There are those who would go to such extremes as to claim that God's nature is defined by whatever strikes God's whimsy at the moment, and that God can be as capricious as "he" wants to be, but I consider that a meaningless and morally empty concept of God that equates Divine goodness with power and which reduces God to an irrational level.)


Polkinghorne is an author I need to familiarize myself with more. Thanks for pointing that out.

I think Marcus Borg also believes in the power of intercessory prayer, for what it's worth. I honestly forget the details of his view on this. I think, and I could be wrong, that he doesn't view it in terms of a coercive power from a theistic God who changes the world in response to our pleas. He seems to see it more in terms of a sort of non-coercive web of influence within the universe, of which we and God are a part. I need to look up a reference to be more precise about how he views it, but it seems to be rather subtle, and also not necessarily well defined--I think he just believes that intercessory prayer "works" without explaining why. However, since we are praying to God when we make intercessory prayers, I would guess that the implication in most people's minds as they make such prayers is more along the lines of appeals to traditional theistic coercive power than anything more subtle as Borg is proposing.

I think that the coercively powerful, supernaturally theistic model of God is so ingrained in most of us that it is hard not to fall into that model when making intercessory prayers.

OneSmallStep said...

**In other words, limiting what God can do is part and parcel of the concept of God, because God has a nature and God is inevitably limited by what we define to be God's own nature. **

Agreed. Limiting God is necessary when holding any sort of definition about God. Otherwise, the conversation is meaningless. As you say, one puts limits on God by saying God cannot commit evil, or God cannot commit sin. Therefore, for many, they would use that limit to say that if someone says God is ordering someone to kill another person, then the order cannot be from God.

Grace said...


Maybe I can share in another way. I'm struggling here to find the right words. Plus, I don't want to just cause offense. It's true. I think God is limited by His nature. I agree that He can't do evil.

But, is it possible that our past experiences and prejudices, even cultural conditioning can limit our ability to know and see the God who is actually there. Is God bound by our personal opinion of how He can choose to be and act in the world? Wouldn't a God like this be little more than a mental idol? Is the almighty even bound by "rationalism?" Hey, it's something to think about. :)

Christians feel that God has revealed Himself in Christ. Here is part of the witness of Scripture.

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world...Heb.1.

In a deep sense, Mystical and One, what can we know specifically of God except what He's chosen to reveal concerning Himself?

Mystical Seeker said...

is it possible that our past experiences and prejudices, even cultural conditioning can limit our ability to know and see the God who is actually there. Is God bound by our personal opinion of how He can choose to be and act in the world?

Certainly all of our experiences and prejudices influence our understanding of God. That is how each of the world's religions can capture different pieces of the reality of God--the blind man and the elephant, if you will. This is, of course, one argument for religious pluralism.

God may not be bound by our understanding of her nature, but that doesn't mean that we can't try to make inferences about what God's nature is. If you are objecting that since we cannot know God's nature with absolute certainty we therefore should not make statements about it because we would inevitably be wrong and so would be making an "idol" of our wrong assertions--well, I disagree. Religion is all about making such provisional inferences about God's nature. It happens all the time. Without such provisional inferences, there would be no religion at all. We'd just be worshiping a big empty nothing.

I would suggest that our understanding of God's nature evolves; certainly, the Bible shows that over time people developed different understandings of how God worked. Theologies evolve. I happen to think that this evolutionary process is part of our ongoing conversation with God; God is constantly speaking to us, and we are constantly listening. And part of the evolutionary process is necessarily influenced by our understanding of how the world works. That is where scientific rationalism comes into play. We know that the world is not as the Bible writers thought it was. Their cosmology was wrong about a lot of things. This allows us to better understand how God operates in the world.

And if making absolute assertions about God's nature is a case of idolatry, then using the Bible to generate such assertions is certainly also idolatry--which is to say, biliolatry. After all, the Bible, in its evolving theology about God, clearly got some things wrong. A God of love does not order genocide, as the book of Joshua claims. I assert that God is loving. Could I be wrong? Sure. God is not bound by my assertion that that God loves. But God is bound by his/her own inherent nature, and since I believe that love is part of his/her inherent nature, when I assert that he/she isn't loving, that implies that God does things that a loving God would do. It isn't the fact that I say that God is loving that makes God bound to refrain from ordering genocide; it is the fact that a loving God doesn't do such things.

OneSmallStep said...

**In a deep sense, Mystical and One, what can we know specifically of God except what He's chosen to reveal concerning Himself?**

But this revelation ultimately came through people's interpretation of the event, which then brings us to the experiences and predjudices. That's why we can have the Gospel of John paint the Jews in a very unflattering light, whereas Paul sees no problem with them, and feels that Israel must be saved before the final judgement. It's why we can have Paul and the early gospels mentioning the second coming occuring within their lifetime, while later letters and later Gospels fall away from that. It's why there's two different concepts of hell -- the Tanakh concept of "Sheol," which was not a place of eternal torment but just a shadowy underworld, and then the descriptions seen in the NT. It's also why we see questionable verses in the NT in terms of a woman's place and slavery, because the writers were dealing with the world in their own time.

Everyone puts limits on how God will or will not act. From what I've seen, Christians often supplement the above with saying they know it's from God, because of an internal feeling, or the Holy Spirit -- but both of those are highly subjective, with no way of verifying.

Even if we take the idea of God is loving. If we wanted to make an hypothesis as to the nature of God, we could assert that God was loving without any sort of revelation, because we can use our own experience. Those who aren't loving are destructive, both to themselves and others. It would be a very real possiblility that such a creator who hates like that would have either self-destructed or not created in the first place.

Grace said...

If God is a God of love and truth, wouldn't He reveal Himself truly so that we could know Him, come into relationship with Him.

Everyone's contradictory ideas can't be equally true and valid, can they?

I certainly agree that Christians should not worship the Bible. You won't get any argument in that from me. I don't feel that Scripture was given to be a science textbook written in modern day technical language. Sometimes Scripture does speak phenomonologically, and can be culturally bound. Not all Scripture equally applies to us today as Christians. And, I agree that God's revelation is progressive.

The center of Christian faith is really the person and work of Christ. We consider Him to be the Word of God to us. And, of course, Scripture does bear witness to this.

It's the "good news," God's work in Christ, that brings all Christians across the denominations, as well as social and political divides together.

Mystical Seeker said...

Well, Grace, it was you who said that humans' ideas of God are prejudiced by experience and other factors and that we should not make an idol of them. I was just agreeing with you. Of course, the implications of what you said are quite clear, as I pointed out--it naturally leads to a philosophy of pluralism. So now you are backing off from what you said earlier and insisting that God somehow insures that some segment of the human race is able to correctly identify God's nature, irrespective of their prejudices and experiences. Well, which is it? Those people of other religions who don't see God the way you do must just be stupid or something not to grasp this blindingly obvious truth about God that you adhere to, and which was revealed to perfectly.

I think it makes much more sense to stick with your earlier assertion. We humans are only able to make sense of the infinite nature of God's transcendent reality through our limited and finite means, and what we conceive of is colored by our experiences, our prejudices, and our culture. It is really time for people of a mature spirituality to get over this tribal arrogance that lies behind the assertion that others do not exist in a relationship with God simply because they don't view God like "we" do.

And, as has been pointed out before, as the metaphor of the blind men and the elephant illustrate, everyone's seemingly contradictory ideas can actually complement one other because each captures some aspect or component of a greater reality. It really is not a difficult concept once you realize that no one religion paints a complete picture of the Sacred.

OneSmallStep said...

**If God is a God of love and truth, wouldn't He reveal Himself truly so that we could know Him, come into relationship with Him. **

In a way, I think this is assuming that God operates like we do. That God can completely reveal something to our finite understanding, in this lifetime. And that the relationship with God is only defined a certain way. If we look at complex ideas that we deal with, like calculus, that's not something that one can "dumb down" to teach others. Anyone who wants to learn calculus must go "up" to that level. Given how God is described, it's equally likely that a revelation would require us to go up to a certain level.

Also, simply because God is one of love and truth does not mean that God would require a relationship with Himself. He could simply be pleased to watch both through human interaction with each other, leaving Himself out of it. Or that God even defines "relationship" the way we do.

And even if we take a clear revelation, much of Christianity seems to fall back on "God's ways are mysterious." The idea of the Trinity violates mathematical principles, almost, with the 1+1+1=3. Or how blood can be potent enough to cleanse sin, or how some of the behavior of God in the Tanakh can match the concept of love or justice. I'm pretty such other religions have mysteries the way Christianity does.

I don't think every single idea of God is valid. If someone finds their God to be vengeful, or one that demands its adherents act out of hatred, that wouldn't be a valid path.

Grace said...


If only there was mental telepathy, and we could bypass words. :)

I'm even getting confused. (laughing)

Definitely, I feel that we see through a glass darkly. There's no doubt that our finite human minds can't know everything about an infinite God. And, it's true our prejudices can influence understanding.

But, yes, I think that if the Christian faith is true, and I believe that it is, I have to say that God loves us enough to reach out, and make Himself known in Christ because He wants a relationship with us. We can know God truly, but not completely.

Well, guys, maybe I should quit this discussion before I'm completely tied in knots. What do you think? I'll give you both the last word.

Seriously, please don't take offense. But, I praying for both of you to come to Christ. I want you in the church, (((Mystical))) and (((One))).

Thanks for your patience in listening and sharing with me, too.

God bless!