Progressive Theology

Silhouetted person in a canyon at night, holding up a lamp towards the vast night sky speckled with stars.

An Introduction to Progressive Theology

by Rev Glynn Cardy, 13 February 2022 

Sometimes a good starting point for describing what Progressive Theology is, is to say what it’s not.  What, generally speaking, it doesn’t believe, or what most who adhere to this label don’t believe.  So, here’s a starter: God does not have ‘his’ home off the planet.

God is not a ‘his’; indeed, neither a being, supernatural or not.  God is not looking down on us from afar, and planning to visit or invade the world by sending emissaries like prophets or armies of angels.  Most talk about God inmost church liturgies, and indeed in public conversation, assume this supernatural understanding of deity.  

This notion of an off-the-planet superbeing I suspect, was never meant to be taken literally but was rather a poetic expression of the ineffable (with patriarchal presumptions thrown in).  In our overly literal world such expressions have been solidified into dogmas, and as such have fallen into ridicule by the rise of science-based understandings of the cosmos.

Certainly, in the Aoteaora/NZ public discourse reference to God has largely been paused, thankfully.  Diminishing the word further by attaching our prejudices and politics to it doesn’t help.  Watch an American political campaign and despair over the use of this G word as it’s used to signal positions mostly of a conservative bent. 

I suggest in our 21st century antipodean context that, if we use the God word at all, we should use it playfully, attaching weak as well as strong metaphors to it, gender-bending it, upside-downing it, spelling it differently, all in order to declare that whatever we say about god is provisional, our best guess, our glimpse, and certainly not something to bank on, or defend to the death, or clobber another with.  And not something we would use to make a law or an ethical standard, or something to reinforce the existing powers and prejudices of patriarchy (as the Church has often done).  

As Jack Spong once said, “I cannot say who God is, but I can tell you how I believe I experience God, realizing I may be deluded.”  

Similarly, Jesus is not a God-man hybrid from outer space, who after a brief saving sojourn on our planet, is now reigning as triumphant monarch over the cosmos.  He was an itinerant rabbi/teacher, influenced by Diogenes’ cynics, who cared about and gave his life for a vision of all manner of people – poor, rich, female, male, Jew, Gentile, outsiders, downtrodden– eating together.  A subversive flat structure of giving, compared with the normative hierarchical structure of getting.   An anti-Empire vision where the little and least are honoured, where sharing is the norm, and lovingkindness is the language. 

After his death, Jesus’ movement of subversion lived on in many forms and groups, experimenting with different theology, lifestyles, and allegiances, watched suspiciously by the Empire.  Yet such diversity as time ticked on over those first few centuries slowly dwindled and a conformity arose, a felt need to narrow the breadth, a need to reassert patriarchy, a need to be credal, a need for Empire’s patronage.  It’s high likely that a story-telling Jewish drifter, who healed without permission, and upset the rich, wouldn’t have been welcomed in this new type of Church. 

What became the Christian Church by the 300s CE, needed new doctrines to keep the subversive anarchy at the heart of Jesus’ vision in line.  So along came ‘original sin’ and the mythic story of a perfect and finished creation tarnished by human want, a snake, and a woman.  It is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense. 

It is also dangerous, and has done untold harm. It created a sin, guilt, confession, and penance industry that came to define Christianity as a religion of rules, as prizing above all obedience, and making the damaged believe that the damage was their own fault.  It was all about behaviour control.  Leading to fears about what would happen after death.  ‘Original sin’ continues to work its destructiveness even today.  

As Lloyd Geering has shown, everything the old doctrines were sure about (the world, the human psyche, the way societies work) has been superseded by developments in various fields of human knowledge.  Yet the church in many places clings to the old doctrines.  Bad ideas have staying power. 

Along came the doctrine of the virgin birth. Allegedly a heavenly fertilized egg was planted in Mary’s womb, initiating the visitation of the divine Jesus to our earth.  Such mythical obstetrics was common in the ancient world – there were many notables allegedly with divine origins.  But like original sin this dogma was used to oppress women, encouraging compliance and impossible expectations. 

Both these doctrines coalesce in atonement theology, especially in its most bizarre “substitutionary” form which presents us with a God who is barbaric, and a Jesus who is a victim, hanging there on the cross on our behalf.  Supposedly our sin, and Jesus’ divine sinlessness, would lead to a death pact where Jesus would be our substitute and ‘die for our sins’.  As Spong said, “What kind of God needs his son to die on a cross before (that God) will think about forgiving people?” 

Atonement theology undercuts ethics and morality.  How we live is not nearly as important, according to this atonement thinking, as how Jesus died.  But this theology is also dangerous in weakening the foundations of human responsibility for right living.  Human responsibility, rather than abdicating in favour of ancient moral codes or Church dogma, is central to progressive thinking, whether the issue be the future of the planet or justicefor queer communities. 

As with Jesus’ death so too his resurrection was reimagined by a Church increasing in step with the values of Empire.  Mythic stories were literalized.  Resurrection as something the believer experiences (an inner transformation with community consequences) became something that happened literally to Jesus’ dead body.  And instead of it being a myth of empowerment for all in the ongoing Jesus movement, Jesus’ ongoing power was shared with a group of elite men, and then removed with him off the planet (in what’s called the Ascension) where it would be dispensed selectively. 

The biblical story of Jesus’ ascension of course assumes a three-tiered universe, which was debunked some five hundred years ago.  We don’t believe that God resides in the top tier, or that there is a hell at the bottom, or that Earth is a floppy disk between.  It’s just ancient mythology that hopefully fewer and fewer people take literally. 

So, these doctrines about sin, and Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, were worked and reworked over the first millennia and through the great councils of the Church.  Belief, and assent to beliefs (obedience), became more important than compassionate behaviour.  Creeds and dogma, and those who created and maintained them, became more important than the story-tellers and those who sat non-judgmentally alongside the poor. Justice became something that the Empire and its descendants determined, and the Church largely supported, rather than something that shook the foundations of Empire and all its hierarchies in the name of a drifter’s egalitarian vision.

Progressive Theology looks at these old doctrines, asks questions about where they are from and who profits from their ideas, and then tries to playfully reimagine what god, morality, and us-in-community might look like in the reflection of that drifter’s vision.  Old ideas, like an inerrant Bible, to be obeyed rather than discussed, are put on the shelf as we together work out how to live and practice that vision today. 

Progressive Theology also is open to the wisdom from other religious and spiritual traditions.  The idea that Christianity has a monopoly on the truth about God not only denies our Jewish roots but feeds the discrimination and racism that religion can foster.  Yet at the same time when Progressives enter into an interfaith dialogue, they not only bring the essentials of hospitality, deep listening, and a compassionate heart, but also a healthy skepticism about myths and doctrines, about who profits from them, and what the least might begetting out of it if anything. 

Prayer too is reimagined in the light of all this. Gone is the notion of praying in order to get the deity on side.  That deity has died.  Instead, prayer is about community, solidarity, and commitment to being alongside each other, to make justice, to make compassion, to make change.  We hold each other psychically, and together we work. It is in the making, holding, and working together that a new way of knowing god is experienced. 

Then, with all that I’ve said there is a proviso. Love trumps it all.  Compassion beats beliefs.  So, reimagine for a minute the story of the Good Samaritan where the beaten man in the ditch is a drag queen, the Levite who walks by is a well-known social justice lawyer, and the priest who does likewise is the minister of St Luke’s Remuera.  And reimagine the Samaritan as a leader in a Bible-believing, hands-in-the-air, conservative evangelical denomination.  On that day he’s the one who stops and helps.  On that day when actions count the social justice lawyer and the St Luke’s minister are too busy, or think someone else needs to stop, or whatever. On that day when Jesus is describing what a neighbour is it is this man with the whacky and frankly terrible beliefs who fits the bill.  Not because of what he believes but because of what he does. 

Likewise, in the end on that day of another’s need it’s what we do that counts.