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July 21, 2013: “Progressive Theology Week II”

This is the second of a three week series on Progressive Theology. In a way, that is a misnomer, because it is really only one, specific version of Progressive Theology, namely my own. As I mentioned last week, some of you had pressed me a bit to come out with my own beliefs. You observed that I had spoken at some length about several other religions, and you noted that since my ordination is through a Christian denomination, you assume I must claim some version of Christianity, and so you invited me to be more disclosing about that. So, this month is an attempt to do that, but rather than make it ONLY about me, I am trying to use it as something of a teaching tool as well, to talk about how progressive Christian theology, in general, changes the paradigm from what we think of as orthodox, or at least more traditional Christianity.

Last week I talked about my belief in a God who is NOT all powerful. I do not believe God rules by power, because I do not believe God is even about power, or at least not the kind that traditional theology usually wants to talk about, as in able to intervene on the laws of nature. Ascribing that kind of power to God was an understandable function of tribal religion, when having more of it than the other tribes’ God meant survival, so you better hope your God was the most powerful, and would use it on your tribe’s behalf. Process theology, as one manifestation of progressive theology, says that to the extent that God is about power at all, it is a kind of inner persuasiveness that lures us from within to greater love and wholeness. God is the life force, that forward pressing flow of the life-impulse who or which is ever luring us forward to something better, maybe the next stage of evolution, or at least the next level of our own ethical and spiritual wholeness, and toward a wider and stronger ethic of love and justice in the world.

After that, I talked about my own understanding of Jesus, which is basically that he was one who fully embodied that kind of love and wholeness. I believe he was intimately rooted in his spiritual source (the vertical dimension, where the point of connection can be visualized as down, because God is imminent in the world, not above, distant or beyond it.) I believe Jesus’ roots went down like a tree rooted in the water table, and then, from that enlivening connection, he reached out horizontally with love, compassion, and radical inclusion especially to the excluded and disenfranchised of his world, hence, the cross. He did this with unalloyed consistency and integrity and even when it defied the dominant empire of the day, which is of course, what ultimately got him killed. I believe he came not to proclaim himself or the efficacy of his coming death, but to embody and teach life from this vertical and horizontal orientation. Progressive theology would say that Jesus’ death was not some atoning “buy off” of a God who demanded his pound of flesh, it was the inevitable result of being a rabble rousing threat to the empire. To the extent that God was expressly involved, it would be to show that God suffers with us whenever and wherever suffering occurs. Further, Easter is a metaphor for the fact that love and life are always, eventually more powerful than death and hate.

Having reviewed then, I’d like to continue today with my own version of progressive theology on two more Christian doctrines, namely the Bible and sin. (Who would’ve ever thought THIS church would be hearing a sermon on the Bible and sin, right? But I hope you have come to know me enough through this year to trust that I will not abuse you or this pulpit with a version that may have caused many of you, as it did me, great pain in the past.)

First, and quickly then, about the Bible: Progressive theology (and I) believe it to be NOT an inerrant divine revelation delivered from God to Dictaphone like transcribers. Instead, it is a collection of many writings of numerous genres, across thousands of years, written by people who were trying to make sense of their beliefs from within their own, various world views. I think of it as more like a box of photographs, taken over generations, each snap shot revealing something of what the family was like when that particular photo was taken. As such, the Bible becomes a part of the tradition, like a family photo album, but can better be understood as descriptive of the various times and the lenses that captured it, as opposed to prescriptive from the unmediated mind of God. However, even at points where greater knowledge from later eras has proven it, at one level, wrong, it still retains metaphorical value. For example, we know that the sun neither rises nor sets, but we still use the terminology sunrise and sunset as metaphor for birth and death, and we still appreciate the exquisite beauty of sunrises and sunsets.

That said, taken from the long view, the Bible as a whole also tell a universal story, and this is where I get to the sin part, but again, sin, for me and for progressive theology, is defined differently. I understand sin not as a matter of personal, moral failure, of anybody or anything being innately shameful or bad. Rather I like the Bible’s metaphorical theme of being variously at home or in exile. In the creation myth, humans began in a beautiful, balanced, nurturing, peaceful garden; the peaceable kingdom, the metaphor for personal, relational and environmental wholeness! From there, they get lost, and for the rest of the sixty six books, we hear variations on a theme of exile and return, being lost in a foreign land, at war within and without, confused about what is of central importance in life, and then seeing clearly again, and eventually finding the way home, back to center. That is a universal human story. The language of that era was that of sin and redemption. We might describe it as feeling lost and then finding our way again; seeing through blurry lenses, but then dialing them in and seeing clearly; moving from fear to love. However we describe it, there is an innate, human longing for something more. Tom Robbins called it “looking for the mystery in the next pair of eyes.” We have an inarticulate longing for something more, for something to fill the existential emptiness when all you’ve ever wanted isn’t enough, when you just can’t climb over some personal brokenness, even though it seems like that which you seek is just outside your grasp…

Well, the Garden of Eden at the beginning of the Bible, and the restored garden at the end, both represent the fulfillment of a universal human longing for at-one-ness with our own deepest selves and each other. They represent righted, healed relationships individually and collectively, love and justice and cleared vision.

It was Jesus’ passion, he called it “the kingdom of God” and even though there was an afterlife dimension to it, He said the important thing was, as much as possible, to live our way into it NOW, to build glimpses of it in each situation wherein we find ourselves by remaining connected to that spiritual source, and relating to the world always in love.

(Sarah Groves)

And while living from it NOW is more than enough to occupy me, I will acknowledge that I also believe in a future component to it. I personally believe in a kind of immortality of the soul after this life as we know it is through, and in some kind of ultimate, cosmic restoration of all things. Not all of progressive theology believes or even cares about such things, and it wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me if I found out that it absolutely is not the case. In any case, I will admit that I have indeed come to believe in it, and next week I will share some thoughts about that with you. In the meantime, I leave you with the words of a song by Sara Groves, entitled “Kingdom Come” which express her belief in the building of a realm of cosmic restoration (she uses the Christian language of “Kingdom”) right now:

When anger fills your heart
When in your pain and hurt
You find the strength to stop
to bless instead of curse

When doubting floods your soul
and all things feel unjust
You open up your heart
You find a way to trust

When fear engulfs your mind
Says you protect your own
You still extend your hand
You open up your home

When sorrow fills your life
When in your grief and pain
You choose again to rise
You choose to bless the name

That’s a little stone that’s a little mortar
That’s a little seed that’s a little water
In the hearts of the sons and the daughters
The kingdom’s coming