The point of progressive faith


I recently ran across a comment in John Shuck's blog that objected to any form of progressive Christianity that did not take literally some of the traditional mythologies about Jesus. The commenter wrote, "If being involved in church is just to bring happiness and social change there are simpler ways of doing so." In other words, the claim was that if the church doesn't promote a certain set of theological dogmas then there just isn't any point to attending such a church.

I run across this same objection from time to time. First and foremost, it misses the point. Progressive faith isn't just about happiness and social change, and it is a mischaracterization to suggest that it is. It is, like all religions, about meaning, transcendence, and purpose; goals like happiness and social change are secondarily derived from the ways that progressive faith offers insights into these matters. Orthodox Christianity approaches meaning, transcendence, and purpose by identifying what it sees are a set of problems that revolve around questions of sin, grace, and eternal life. When some conservative Christians look at other forms of Christianity that don't look at sin, grace, and eternal life the same way that they do--perhaps not even identifying them as "problems" to be solved by their respective theologies--they seem befuddled by the situation, and suggest that there isn't any real point to such faiths, since they don't seek to solve the same theological "problems". The fallacy here is an inability to look outside the box for a moment and consider that others may see value in religion because they look to the deeper issues that all religions seek to address, even if the specific paradigm of that faith is different. It is just as wrong for conservative Christians to say that there is no point to progressive Christianity as it is to say that there is no point to Judaism, Buddhism, or Hinduism--all of which are faiths which also address meaning, transcendence, and purpose, but which do so by attempting to solve different sorts of theological "problems" than what orthodox Christianity tries to solve.

There is another problem with the above statement. It makes a problematic leap from "such a church would not work for me" to "such a church is useless for anyone and everyone else." This generalization from personal experience is an unfortunate mistake, and it also shows an unwillingness to really apply the spirit of inquiry. Instead of saying, "I don't get what value you see in church given that you don't accept tenets A, B, and C. Can you explain that to me?" we instead hear, "I don't get what you see in in this kind of church, so therefore you are all wrong to want be a part of it."

If you are already convinced that your religion is the only true one, then of course, you aren't really interested in inquiring of others what value they find in their own faiths. You can simply dismiss their experiences as invalid and assert that they belong to the wrong religions. Such an approach makes for an easy, comfortable religion, secure in its own dogmas and untroubled by anything that doesn't fit into its own paradigm. But ultimately, it is an expression of arrogant tribalism, one that asserts the superiority of one's own tribe (religion) over all others.


Harry said...

Somehow, though, you didn't say what the point of Progressive Christianity is.

The point of Christianity is salvation.

The point of Buddhism is escape from suffering.

What is the point of Progressive Christianity?

Mystical Seeker said...

What is the point of Progressive Christianity?

As I suggested in my posting, I believe that the point of progressive faith is the same as the point of all faiths--to seek meaning, transcendence, and purpose through a connection with something greater than themselves. "Salvation" and "escape from suffering" are not, in my view, the "points" of those faiths so much as simply a means towards satisfying the greater purpose of meaning, transcendence, and purpose, through myths and practices. They are meta-narratives that serve that end. Followers who take those meta-narratives literally often don't understand that others can have different meta-narratives and still get value from their own respective faiths.

What's the point of Judaism? Is it about salvation? Not really. It is a faith that is rooted in a life that is grounded in connection with God. It has a lot of mythologies that surround it, like all religions do, but I don't see that it has a direct analogy with "salvation" or "escape from suffering". Maybe someone who is Jewish, or more familiar with Judaism, can clarify this point. And Jodo Shinshu Buddhism doesn't really approach the whole "escape from suffering" angle the same way that other Buddhist sects do; in a way, it is also about salvation, much like orthodox Christianity is.

A faith doesn't have to be about the literal acceptance of a mythology. Stripping the mythologies from their literalism is a way of getting back to the core of faith's transcendent meaning. That is where progressive faith differs from orthodox Christianity. Anyway, I'm not sure that there is a single way that progressive religion approaches things. My version of progressive faith may not match someone else's.

Chris said...

Hi mystical seeker,

I wholeheartedly agree. As I have moved from being evangelical to being progressive, my understanding of what faith means and what its purpose is has changed dramatically. Yet while my faith now has very little theological content and very little to say about things like personal salvation, I don't value it any less. The mere fact of being part of a community that believes there's something bigger out there and that we have a responsibility to make the world better is really the core of what faith has always meant to me, anyway. I may not have the mythology I grew up with anymore. But I still have that.

Mystical Seeker said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for visiting my blog!

Matthew said...

So here's a meta-question I've been batting around: should we aspire to find religion that is true, or religion that is useful?

Mystical Seeker said...

should we aspire to find religion that is true, or religion that is useful?

Interesting question. I am not sure that it is possible to find any religion that is completely true, but I am also not one for just accepting religious dogma that clearly has no truth value either. Maybe religion is involved with a little of both pursuits?