Phillip Tolliday – Reflections on Common Dreams, Canberra 2013

Reflections on the Common Dreams Conference – Canberra 2013


‘The freedom and all excellence of human being is comprehended in human personhood. Therefore absolute freedom must also be thought as personhood. Hence…the idea of humanity elevated over all limitation is the idea of God, insofar as it is and can be revealed to humanity. Revelation cannot be other than pure anthropomorphism. God is the most human.’  And,

‘The Infinite is a component and energy of the human spirit from which religion springs eternally young.’ With such words may hungry souls be fed.


There is little doubt that many people went to the Common Dreams conference because they hoped and indeed expected that it might be food for the hungry soul. To hear many of them talk, it seemed as if they had come from experiences of church community and Christianity that verged on fundamentalism. In some cases they had left this behind and moved to another church community or perhaps even to no community. In other cases they obviously continued to struggle on, often frustrated, and keen to sip fresh water from the oases of Progressive Christianity scattered throughout the featureless desert of what passes for mainstream Christian belief.


Similarly, there is little doubt in my mind that the people who attended the conference were committed. They had to be—the cost of $400 just covered the talks at the conference. Meals, accommodation and travel costs were all extra. In short – you had to want to be there!


On the first evening we sat in a packed lecture theatre of some 400+ people to hear a keynote address from Marcus Borg. In a revealing demographic he asked the people to indicate their denomination of origin. Some 70% were Uniting Church. They were followed by about 20% who were Anglican, after which came another 10% divided between Roman Catholics and others, including some Baptists and members of the Salvation Army.


There were several things that piqued my interest at the conference. The first of these was a theme repeated by more than one speaker, about the need for the progressive Christian movement to look forward and to move forward. There was an acute awareness from many speakers that it would be all too easy to get stuck with the disgruntlement and disappointments of the past. Therefore the past needed to be acknowledged, but it seemed that it had been acknowledged, and so now it needed to be ‘put to bed.’ However nobody seemed to be quite sure of just how it might be ‘put to bed,’ or as to just where the progressive Christian Movement might go; and there was a very good reason for this. It was because, as soon became clear—and was by at least one speaker acknowledged explicitly—that it was more accurate to speak of progressive Christian Movements in the plural.


At one level a plurality of views from a range of people who have walked away from what they imagine to be creedal orthodoxy or what has been touted to them as such, is hardly surprising. Very few people at the conference were ‘just along for the ride.’ As I said before, commitment levels were high. It seems to me that when people make a fundamental choice, to in some cases, leave a community that has nurtured them and in which they have found meaning, they do so with a heavy heart and perhaps some anger, but also with a firm resolve that having made the right choice they will stick with it. Of course, others too, have made their right choice – they just happen to be different choices. Thus for some the progressive Christian Movement enables them adopt a Christology espoused by Borg and/or Crossan. For others some sort of Trinitarianism still seems possible. While for others even the word ‘god’ is ruined beyond use and the deity turns out to be something akin to nature writ large. Perhaps nowhere is this plethora of views and the latent discomfort that underwrites it more evident than in the lack of any movement toward a common liturgy. For some progressives prayer and praise would be a possibility, while for others it might not be. Equally, for some there would be something or even someone to whom one might make an address, while for others the idea of a personal or even an impersonal deity would seem to be impossible.


This leads me to a second observation. It seemed to me that attempts by some speakers were made to dig into the kernel, as it were, of the authentic Jesus tradition. History and doctrine were implicitly understood as declensions from this original authentic faith. This original and authentic core of belief around Jesus was then distorted by successive ecclesial traditions and accretions until, miracle of miracles, the progressive Christianity movement arrived with its theological and spiritual renaissance. Admittedly there were talks that I didn’t attend, but amongst those I did attend I did not hear one positive mention of the Christian tradition. And yet 90% of us belonged to Reformed churches, which never existed in anything like their current form until more than half the history of Christianity had passed. I couldn’t help wondering whether or not there was a missing chapter (or perhaps more than one) in the narrative unfolding at Common Dreams. One of the issues that raised my suspicions here was the evident search for a language by which to name the divine.


As I’ve noted earlier, some speakers were content to speak of God, but others were less happy to do so. Significantly, there didn’t seem to be a ready vocabulary to otherwise name the deity. I’m thinking, for example, of terms like ‘the unconditioned,’ ‘the abyss,’ ‘the sacred,’ ‘Spirit,’ ‘the Absolute,’ ‘the Idea,’ ‘the Infinite,’ ‘the Notion,’ or even ‘the Abgrund.’ Surely, I thought, this is the sort of language, with its accompanying ideas, that at least some of these people here are searching for. This language, while admittedly not ready-to-hand, is nevertheless to be found in the Christian tradition under the heading of German Idealism and also the Jena Romantics. Indeed the quotes with which I commenced my reflection come not from Common Dreams as you may have imagined but from Karl Hase. And who was he? Hase (1800-1890), a church historian at the Friedrich Schiller Universität at Jena, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s grandfather on his mother’s side. The words that Hase utters are representative of an entire movement of thought – though one that apart from the English Idealists such as Bradley and Green at the beginning of the Twentieth Century never really took hold upon the preoccupations Realism and Pragmatism that grasped the English-speaking mind set.


So, in conclusion, I found the conference really interesting and was glad that I’d attended. However, I couldn’t help but feel that the addition of that perspective from 18th and 19th Century German thought could have been immensely useful to many people at the conference. I also wondered it could have been revealing to have read out snippets of what the Idealists had to say about Jesus, about Spirit, about the sacred and about the world and to see how many folk at the conference realized these sentiments were more than two hundred years old. I guess my final reflection would be that it could be a good thing to see just what the tradition holds before going ahead to surrender it (often unwillingly and reluctantly) to those who are just so sure they know exactly what it is.


Phillip Tolliday is based in Adelaide at St. Barnabas’ College and is a Senior Lecturer in Theology at Charles Sturt University. He is also involved in the project of research in Peace and Reconciliation studies that is sponsored by the Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies through the Friedrich Schiller University.

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