A Brief Introduction to Progressive Theology part 2

A Brief Introduction to Progressive Theology part 2

Glynn Cardy 20th Feb 2022

Last week I began a two-part introduction to Progressive Theology by going briefly over a number of traditional Christian doctrines and saying what most progressives don’t believe.  The term ‘progressive’ covers a broad range of thinking.  For some it is a commitment to an inclusive, queer-affirming, anti-sexist and anti-racist justice agenda.  For some it is a way of understanding Jesus as a great man without saying he’s divine.  For some it is a way of being and praying, of one-ness.  And for some it is all of these and more. 

I included in the readings for today an old parable by Anthony De Mello which he begins with “And Jesus said…”; although he didn’t.  It’s a parable about two brothers.  The older who gives his life in service, and younger who doesn’t.  Then, after death, there is a reward scene where the deity gives a big bouquet to the older brother, and then gives the same size bouquet to the younger.  The parable ends with the older brother expressing his pleasure at the seemingly unfair outcome.”

De Mello’s parable picks up some of the key aspects of a progressive theology.  Firstly, playfulness.  He pretends Jesus is saying this.  Literalists would be mortified!  Similarly, the deity is a foil, a literary device for the story.  I don’t think for a moment that De Mello thinks there is a literal after-death judgement scene presided over by a deity where people are rewarded, or not. 

Secondly, the point of the parable, is the older brother’s joy that his younger brother in the judgement scene gets what he gets.  We imagine the older might have yelled, ‘Hey!  That’s not fair!  How come he gets for so little effort what I got for so much sacrifice!’  Instead, his love for his brother banishes any sense of competitiveness. 

Unlike the scripture text today from Luke 6, where the author in v. 35 tries to encourage the believer to love his or her enemy by promising a great reward, in this parable there is none.  Reward that is.  Love is its own reward.  This sort of loving (like doing good, forgiving, being merciful) is not done for a reward, and if it is it’s not love.  For the scripture scholars among you, v 35 (like some other phrases in this text) is an insert, namely words that are highly likely not to be Jesus’s.

Thirdly, this De Mello parable is about justice.  Love shaping and defining justice.  A justice grounded not in our usual perception of fairness, but in a power of love (which I would call god) that sees each person as beloved, worthy of love, and in need of love.  Not a skewed version of justice that grades individuals on what they do, think, or have, and dishes out merit points accordingly.  Love, if its love, is not something one does to please a deity, or please anyone.

This De Mello story therefore points to a progressive theological method: the telling of stories that open up our thinking and make us question existing ideas and actions.  Indeed, stories that encourage us to ask searching questions like ‘Who benefits?’, ‘Why do they benefit?’, ‘What is good news for the poor?’  And is god on the side of the status quo, or is god rattling us, disturbing us, encouraging our suspicious questions?  Do we have a god, an energy of transformative love, that disturbs us?  I hope so.

Behind the questions of course is a vision.  What some call the Jesus path or way.  It’s a vision of eating together without religion, sexuality, class, and race being barriers or dictating the terms.  It’s what Jesus did.  It’s what greatly annoyed his detractors.  And it’s what the Jesus groups carried on doing after his death.

Again, it is usually stories that flesh out this vision.  Like the Jesus parable of the Great Banquet, where a table was laid but the invited guests were too busy to come.  So instead, everyone and anyone is invited.  Those who sleep under bridges.  Those who wear hijabs.  Politicians and protesters.  Those who never normally mix and mingle with people who look, smell, speak, and act differently from themselves. 

And in such meeting and eating, attendees are ‘contaminated’ by the presence of each other.  They don’t leave this banquet with their prior prejudices intact.  In the breaking of bread, the sharing of stories, assumptions can splinter and crack.  The other is no longer as other as we had presumed.  And suspending judgement, doing good, forgiving, being forgiven, giving, being merciful… all are needed.  Diversity and difference are not threats to be avoided but blessings in the making. 

This vision is also about progressive method.  There is something about doing rather than thinking, action not just words.  There is something about gathering together.  There is something about eating together.  There is something about letting or helping difference be realized, be heard, and be thanked.  As Hal Taussig titled his work on the early Jesus movements, “In the beginning was the meal”.  Not the word.  Not the belief.  Not the leader.  Not the book of rules.  But the meal.  A meal of grace.

Grace is a word that carries with it the sense of unexpected gift, of blessedness, of invitation.  It doesn’t come with strings attached, with obligation, or compulsion.  It’s a free gift.  It feels undeserved.  It surprises us, and sometimes discombobulates us.  It opens our eyes to wonder and the beauty that has been all along all around. 

Sometimes grace comes in a piece of music, a piece of art, sometimes in a smile, sometimes in a kind deed, sometimes in the silence of the early dawn.  Sometimes it comes in being together, eating together, working together.  Being touched by grace is hard to describe, and therefore free of prescription.

Prayer, in a progressive framing, is putting yourself in a physical place or mental space where you can be in grace, a channel of grace to others, and others to you.  This is the Paul’s mystical ideal of ‘praying without ceasing’.  That phrase is a nonsense if you think praying is solely about words.  Similarly, if you think praying is solely thinking about others, or thinking about God.  But letting go and letting yourself blend with others in a flow of grace – of gift, of love, of gentleness – that doesn’t submerge identity or need or failings…  This can be working with others, creating something, baking, gardening, talking, listening, or wandering alone.  This is a prayer that encompasses the whole of life.

Mystery and grace are woven together in progressive thinking.  We don’t know why wonder and beauty and kindness touch our lives, but they do; or why they make change within us, but they do.  When it comes to the human heart, and the hearts that form a community, not everything good that comes into existence has a reason, but it comes anyway, making good anyway.  This is grace.  Grace seeks us out.  Grace can transform us.

There are many ways progressives think about and experience god.  My experience resonates with the work of the philosopher John Caputo who talks about being haunted by a whisper.  This whisper insists rather than exists.  Using Derrida’s example of justice, he makes a distinction between the call, the insistence of justice (which asks probing, disturbing questions about the injustices in society), and the existence of justice (the tangible institutions and people who put our best attempts to make justice into practice, knowing those best attempts will need reforming again and again).  Similarly says Caputo with god.  God is an insistence (asking probing, disturbing questions), and the existence of religions/faiths are our best attempts to try to make god, make transformative love, real (knowing those best attempts will need reforming again and again).

To frame god solely as a haunting whisper though does not do justice to my experience of grace.  But grace likewise is an insistence (that we give birth to beauty, and gentleness, and loving community) rather than an existence.  What exists are attempts to make our world more beautiful, gentle and loving, and those attempts repeatedly fall short and need reforming.

Similarly, thankfulness is an insistence, a deep call within to give praise and thanks for the blessedness of life, even when we don’t feel thankful or blessed.  And we give substance, or existence, to thankfulness when we care for endangered species, or give to the work of our church, or help our family and neighbours.

I am what could be called a ‘non-theist’.  By that term I’m saying that the theistic being who is allegedly all-powerful and all-knowing, does not resonate with my experience.  But does for some progressives.  However, saying that a theistic being does not resonate with me does not mean that I discard the notion of god altogether.  Similarly, I do not resonate with Lloyd Geering’s understanding of G-o-d as a unitary symbol for the best of humanity’s values (an a-theistic view); though some progressives do.  Though always with a degree of sceptical self-critique, I want to claim that my experiences of sacredness – in the whisper, in the grace, in the thankfulness –transcend the boundaries of my mind, and probably the boundaries of our collective mind, knowledge and science. 

I want to claim that there is some form of sacred presence, which I experience most profoundly as mutual love, which the early followers experienced in Jesus and in their communities after his death, which can be called god.  And I experience this form of sacred mutual relation in all sorts of places and among all sorts of people.

I’m also attracted to the mystical notion that we exist in god.  Rather than god being beside or above us, or a love-energy all around us, or a transformative insistence, this mystical notion – a little like how I was talking about grace – is something we exist within, and can flow through us.  Using a De Mello metaphor, if we are a fish, then god is the water.

And expanding the metaphor, the water, the ocean, is not without an agenda.  Its agenda is sustaining life, for which an aquatic understanding of peace and justice is necessary.

As with last week I close with a corrective to all that I’ve said above.  This comes from the 13th century Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart:

“God is a nothingness beyond being.  The most beautiful thing which a person can say about God would be for that person to remain silent from the wisdom of an inner wealth.  So, be silent and quit flapping your gums about God.”