Common Dreams 4 Conference – a personal reflection

Common Dreams 4 Conference – a personal reflection

David McNabb & Pam Elgar
Sun 25 Sep

Common Dreams 4 gathered last weekend in Brisbane – bringing together people from across the Australian states and New Zealand, and representatives from the Progressive Networks in England and the USA.

The progressive momentum is a broad movement and spans people of various faiths – denominations and religions, or no faith or religion.  There are those who are atheist, non-theist, and ‘soft’ theist.  There are those for whom ‘progressive’ is primarily about intellectual understanding, those for whom it is primarily about worship, and those for whom ‘progressive’ is primarily about social justice actions.  It’s a big tent movement.  A tent with rolled up sides making it easy to come and go, visit or stay.

There are some things progressives have in common.  It might be best to talk about this in the form of a story.  David Felton opened the conference.  David is the minister ‘The Fountains’ a Uniting Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, a middle-class suburb on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona.  David is well-known to many of us through his work with Jeff Proctor-Murphy in creating the Living the Questions DVD educational series.

Earlier this year David arrived at church one morning to be greeted by his secretary saying, “I’m just going out to take photos of the banners”.  ‘Banners?’ thought David, ‘what banners?’   He was to discover that outside the other eight churches in Fountain Hills was a black banner with the lettering: “Progressive Christianity: fact or fiction?”  It was advertising that in each of these eight denominational churches for the next six weeks would be sermons attacking the theology of Fountains and its leader.

As the weeks went by the Fountains congregation, and indeed the wider community, underwent a change.  It wasn’t that the media had arrived and told Fountains’ story, and that story went around the world.  And it wasn’t David’s calm and non-inflammatory response to his neighbours’ denunciations.  It was that a church that valued questions, doubt, and listening was under attack.  And it was their church.  Or it was a church in their community.

One elderly woman told David that as she sat in her Lutheran Church each Sunday listening to the preacher denigrate progressive Christianity she realised that the preacher was denigrating her.  She was a questioner, a doubter, and a listener who was on a journey.

One Sunday at the Fountains was very different.  The wider community decided to turn up to show their support.  So there was the Iman and a number of Islamic folk who Fountains had met through their interfaith programme.  And there sitting along the backrow was a line of men in suits and ties.  It was the bishop and elders of the LDS congregation – the Mormons.  Sure, the Mormons didn’t approach faith and belief like the Fountains did, but they sure did understand what it was like to be misunderstood, ostracized, and vilified by the dominant religious culture.  Like with those from the mosque, the Fountains had met the LDS through their interfaith programme.

This Fountains story highlights some of the threads that hold the progressive momentum together.  Firstly, it publically offers an alternative to the dominant paradigm of a we-are-in-and-you-are-out Christianity.  This is very important especially for people who have had a strict fundamentalist excluding upbringing, and yet still want to engage with belief and spirituality.  Secondly, as part of that alternative paradigm, the progressive momentum values questions and doubts, meeting and listening across differences.  Thirdly, it values doing things with others for the benefit of the whole community (imagine a shared LDS, Islamic, and Progressive community project!), in order to make justice, and to listen to the earth and be so led.

While at the conference in Brisbane we had the world premiere of the documentary called “Let Me Be Frank?” by Frank Schaeffer.  Frank is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, evangelical ‘royalty’ back in the 1970s.  Frank was a part of that evangelical world, but left it.  The documentary details some of the thinking that makes sharp distinctions between truth and error in theology, and how that way of thinking was imported into the political sphere with the Moral Majority in the Reagan/Bush years.  This truth/error dichotomy is still alive and well in the US political sphere, and is still fed from Christian churches.  It is a crusading mentality which does not sit well with democratic political systems which require politicians to advocate for the rights of all citizens [not just the ones that are Christian], and require politicians to negotiate and compromise in order to do that.  For advocates of the right/wrong, truth/error dichotomy think of words like ‘negotiate’ and ‘compromise’ as dirty words, and indicators of who is ‘liberal’ [another dirty word].

I met Frank in Newport, Massachusetts, and read his book called ‘Why I’m a Christian Atheist’.  Don’t mistake him for a Gretta Vosper though.  He would say on some days he knows there is a God, and some days he doesn’t – and can’t find God anywhere.  Anna, my daughter, came with me to see Frank and he was much more interested in talking to her than me [I listened].   Frank is quite a character – an artist, author, grandfather, and he worships at a Greek Orthodox Church.  Go figure.

One of the more interesting talks at the conference was from Saara Sabbagh, a Syrian-Australian Muslim scholar, speaking on the revival of Sufism in the contemporary world.

Islam is going through a ‘dark age’ with the tragedy and terror of fundamentalism.  The traditional Sufi learning centres have been destroyed – in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen.  These centres had roots right back to the time of the Prophet.  In addition many Muslims are taught that Sufism is heretical and outside Islam.  Too many Muslim leaders, said Saara, are ignorant and arrogant.  Many jihadists and extremists display gross ignorance of the faith.  For example one recruit, before he left Australia to join ISIS, downloaded ‘Islam for dummies’.

The problems in the Islamic world today, says Saara, are because Islam has moved away from its core.  The desire of many Muslims is to go back into their tradition, their spiritual tradition. 

Sufism is a spiritual mystical tradition that concerns the development of the heart, the development of God consciousness.  Critical to this development is the taming of the ego.   Religion without spirituality is dominated by ego.   So, say Sufis, discipline the ego.  Some did this by depriving themselves of food or sleep, or by practising charity.  Others disciplined the ego by practices such as looking at the one before you and sincerely believing they are better than you – whether that one is Muslim or not, educated or not, rich or not, female or not.  The Sufi teachers said: ‘Don’t believe you are better than anyone else.  God does not look at appearance or wealth, but looks at your heart and actions[i] [note, the difference with I Samuel 16:7 which doesn’t include ‘actions’].’  Another way Sufis talk about this is by saying “We don’t know who is a friend of God.  Only God knows.”  The inference is that we are to treat everyone with the respect and dignity we would have if we were meeting God.

The Sufi tradition grew out of the concern that wealth and power was adversely affecting spirituality.  The issue, then as now, is how to live with wealth but not allow wealth to dominate your thinking and actions.  The issue, then as now, is how to live with power but not allow the desire for power to dominate you.

It is interesting that within the progressive momentum there is a division between those who value the word ‘spirituality’ and those who don’t.  Among the former are those who are striving for and encouraging us into a new consciousness of ourselves as a part of [rather than distinct from] the earth and the universe.  In Thomas Berry’s words: “[Where] human beings would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.”  This consciousness will usher in what Berry calls the Ecozoic Era.  Instead of the discontinuity between the human and non-human there would be a commitment to building continuity.  We are a communion, not a collection of objects.  We are not apart from the universe, but a part of it.  We are the universe reflecting on itself.  This thinking has strong resonance with Indigenous cultures and theology.

As progressive people who are immersed in religious communities we have traditions – some hidden beneath the dead crust of top-down theology – traditions of communion and wellbeing with the universe.  We value self-actualisation (discovery and acceptance of self).  We value connectedness (we are part of a great whole).  And we value consonance (a sense of ‘fit’ between external and internal experience of life).  The best of our religious wellsprings value a deeper psychic/spiritual power that is not bound by the rational, value a desire to engage with the disciplines of science, art, theology and music and the storylines between them, and value a faith that is open to mystery, paradox, and the outsider.

And in this, as in Common Dreams, there is hope.

[i] “Verily, Allah does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather he looks at your hearts and actions.”  Sahih Muslim 2564