For most Australians, religion is not a central part of their lives. No longer is the Christian church, Australia’s key moral arbiter or its principal source of spiritual energy. For a variety of reasons, church pews are nowadays inhabited by a steadily declining number of elderly lifetime Christians.
In this, Canberra’s centenary year, a group of 400 religious “progressives” from across Australia, Canada, USA, New Zealand and the United Kingdom met at ANU last weekend to review the evolution of “progressive” Christian thought. Progressive religious thinking is about critically reviewing religious beliefs and practices in the context of modern scholarship, understanding and human relevance.
Participants in the conference included a large sprinkling of current or former practicing clergy and theologians from across the denominational spectrum, as well as many people from the pews, who have discarded their earlier belief in God as a “being,” who presides over the world and relates personally to what we do as individuals.
It is now 50 years since Bishop John Robinson published a little book entitled “Honest to God,” which called for a revolution in Christian thinking and understanding about God. A British journal commented at the time “It is not every day that a bishop goes on public record as apparently denying almost every Christian doctrine of the church in which he holds office”.
Robinson, influenced by a group of German theologians, called for a reconfiguration of the sacred, a de-emphasis of the supernatural and a new focus on the reality of our “being” and what lies underneath it. He highlighted the irrelevance of belief in a “God-out there” who created the world and pulls our puppet strings. Robinson’s revolutionary views found fertile soil and helped to cement a new culture of spiritual rediscovery in small segments of the Christian church. But most of Christendom, including most of the church hierarchies and the fundamentalist wings of the church have persisted with traditional Christian theology, that the progressives claim, was developed long after the death of Jesus and is really, the very antithesis of what they think Jesus, the man was trying to accomplish.
Conventional theology can be summarised in shorthand by the statement “Jesus was God in the flesh and he died as the price for all our sins so that we could go on to heaven after our earthly death.”
The progressive voice would prefer to say “Jesus was a real man on a mission to transform human society into a better world. His teachings, when understood in their context, spell out the personal characteristics that we should all seek to cultivate, to help reach that end.
In recent decades, two Americans, Bishop John Spong (who has made several previous visits to Australia) and Prof. Marcus Borg (who participated in the Canberra conference), have helped to provide international leadership of the progressive Christian cause and have, as members of a large community of “Jesus scholars”, helped to unpick the mythology built up over centuries by the church, which they say has promoted implausible concepts like virgin birth, the Trinity and the bodily resurrection.
The Canberra “Common Dreams” conference, subtitled, “Midwives of Change: Progressives shaping religious communities” came at a time when many Australians are concerned at our failure as a species and as a nation, seriously to address issues like climate change, inequity and empathy for other humans and for the environment on which future human survival depends. The disestablishment of the Climate Commission, downplaying our role as a foreign aid donor, brutality to refugees and discrimination against people with sexual differences were mentioned repeatedly at the conference, as evidence of the urgent need for transformative change in the Australian polity.
What role will Christians play in promoting this essential social change? Progressive Christians are uncomfortable with the role currently played by the Australian Christian Lobby in its response to social issues. Underpinning that organisation is a conventional theology and a belief in the literal truth of the Bible as the word of God. Such a view has led to the alienation of gay people and encouragement to seek salvation in the next world rather than this one. A refreshing feature of the conference was the growing evidence of “A Progressive Christian Voice” (Australia), which is promoting public awareness of the politically progressive dimension of Christian opinion on public issues. Many feel the need for such a voice to speak publicly for a different vision from that promoted by Christian literalists.
It is easy to conclude from what has been happening to it in recent years, that the Christian church has now surpassed its “use-by” date.
Then, along comes a Pope with what appear to be increasingly progressive views on social questions and a meeting like this one, which presented a vision for different kind of church-one that goes beyond secular humanism and beyond conventional God talk, and builds upon real “Jesus wisdom,” offering real hope for a future through the limitless creativity of the universe and its human inhabitants.
Bob Douglas is a member of the ACT Centre for Progressive Religious Thought. The Common Dreams conference website is www.commondreams.org.au
First published in the Canberra Times, 24th September 2013