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."
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 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.
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?