Secular Challenges to Progressive Christians
Fr. Charles Allen
These challenges from secular friends are genuine. While my answers to them convince me that the way I am following has as much integrity as any way of living, their challenges are still challenges. They're good for me to revisit as I keep living my life. They keep me honest, I hope.
Q: Don't you "progressive" Christians believe whatever you believe for the same bad reasons (lack of evidence) that fundamentalists use? Maybe you believe in a nicer God, but where's the evidence?
A: We think our reasons are better. "Nicer" or not, for us God is not just another being we might stumble across, or not. God is sheer being (or "Being," capitalized), the inescapable reality uniquely in, among and beyond us all. In that case, what more evidence do we need for God's reality beyond how we experience being? If we repeatedly experience sheer being as sacred, mysterious, and intimately compelling, evoking our utmost trust and devotion, what more evidence do we need than that? If others don't experience this, there's not much we can do about that. People either experience being this way, or they don't. We admit that if we thought God were just another guy, except for being invisible and having amazing powers, we would need much more evidence than how we experience being. But remember, part of our mission in life is to wean people away from such simplistic notions of God. We experience sheer being as sacred, mysterious, and intimately compelling, evoking our utmost trust and devotion. The more we notice this, the more evident the experience becomes. That's all the evidence we can supply, but we believe it's all the evidence we and anybody else might need.
Q: But doesn't physics show us that what you call "sheer being" is just a collection of fundamental particles (or strings or branes) following fixed patterns?
A: We're okay, even deeply awed, with whatever physics currently shows us, no matter how often its fundamental concepts get drastically revised. But physics confines itself to abstract generalizations about nameless bits of reality. We do not believe that it exhaustively describes reality in all its concrete richness. Some "bits" of reality, like Einstein, Heisenberg and Hawking, are not nameless, and we hold that they are just as real as the nameless bits they describe. Reality as such, "sheer being," is immeasurably more than any system of generalizations (immeasurably more than theological generalizations too!). Physics, chemistry, biology, etc., can actually deepen our realization of how inexhaustible reality is in all its concrete richness. What's our evidence for this? You, me, and every overflowing moment of experience.
Q: Isn't it dishonest to call "sheer being" God?
A: It's dishonest if we don't explain what the word means to us and why we think it's faithful to how, say, Isaiah and Jesus and St. Paul and St. Augustine used the word. But we do explain ourselves all the time. I'm doing that right now. The question is, will critics ever pay attention? Some do. Most don't. We're not changing the meaning of the word, just highlighting a central ancient meaning. Many writers of the Bible, and most later readers who preserved these writings as sacred scripture, had already come to identify God with sheer existence or being, the ultimately real, the beginning, way and end of all things (Romans 11:36). They had already come to realize that God can't be just another person with some amazing abilities. They did believe that sheer being was intimately responsive to us all and ultimately good for all. So they kept personal language, but they always qualified it, admitting they didn't know exactly how it could fit in this unique case. We progressive theists stand in that ancient tradition. We believe that it is part of our mission in life to wean people away from magical looking pictures of God as an invisible guy like you and me with amazing abilities. But we don't think dropping or condemning the word "God" is a wise way to do this, because we believe that there is something sacred, mysterious, and intimately compelling about the ultimately real that evokes our utmost trust and devotion. To us it would be dishonest to call this anything but God.
Q: If you admit that the Bible is written by fallible people with conflicting agendas, why do you quote it? Isn't that dishonest?
A: We see ourselves as transmitters of a living tradition that began with ancient writings like those we came to call the Bible. We quote the Bible to show that we are still transmitting the same living tradition. When we speak of communion with God or of dying and rising with Christ, we want to show how in present terms we are experiencing what our ancient ancestors experienced in ancient terms. We don't quote the Bible to settle arguments but to awaken ourselves to sheer being as sacred, mysterious, and compelling, evoking our utmost trust and devotion. It's that awakening that carries authority for us, not merely the fact that somebody long ago said something a certain way. We view the Bible as the unfolding story of fallible and often violent people gradually and intermittently learning to love God through loving others—even enemies. That story is still unfolding, and we are still learning. (We see something like this story unfolding in the sacred writings of other religions too, but it's the truths we glimpse in our story that open us to truths in theirs.)
Q: Why do you pray? Do you really believe that somebody out there will do special favors for you? If not, what's the point?
A: Again, with our ancestors, we believe that sheer being is intimately responsive to us all and ultimately good for all. When we pray, we believe that we are actively participating in this intimately responsive ultimate goodness. Prayer deepens our communion with God, which is already happening, and opens ways for God's goodness to be newly present. Of course, how God's goodness is newly present for each of us depends on what is good for all of us creatures together, with our often conflicting desires. So there is no promise that we or they will get exactly what is desired. All that is promised is that God's goodness will be newly present for each of us, no matter how devastating events turn out to be. Prayer strengthens our trust that God's goodness cannot be eradicated by anything, not even death.
Q: Don't you know that Jesus is mostly (maybe totally) a made-up character? Doesn't that disprove Christianity?
A: We do recognize that many early stories about Jesus mix fact with fiction. Scholars often disagree about which is which. In the first century world this mixture was an accepted way of making the past come alive in the present. (Google "midrash.") Can we prove that Jesus existed? No. Historically speaking, all we can show (I wouldn't say "prove") is that, starting in the first century, people's lives were utterly transformed by stories of this amazingly embracing person who embraced them even more amazingly after his execution. Again, we recognize that this impact of Jesus on his first followers inspired a whole variety of creative ("made-up") storytelling. For them, as for us today, he was not just a figure of the past but a living presence animating the very stories they wrote. So it's no surprise if many stories about him were embellished to convey how radical his impact was and is. We're not troubled by polemical, mostly self-published writers who argue that he never existed, since they are not taken seriously by the majority of secular historians. (Google "peer review.") If secular historians start taking them seriously, we'll pay more attention, but right now they have about as much credibility as people who deny Obama's U.S. citizenship. We have no reason to doubt that Jesus' all-embracing life among his followers awakened them to the all-embracing life they called God, that his faithfulness to that life got him executed, and that afterwords his followers were surprised to experience him as even more all-embracingly alive. That's the basic storyline that his earliest followers, like St. Paul, preached, and that we still preach today. That's the storyline you'd have to discredit in order to discredit Christianity as we practice it.
Q: Aren't you progressive Christians like "mafia wives"? Doesn't your support of any version of Christianity simply make it easier for hateful people to keep using "God" and "Jesus" as clubs to clobber people? Could you tolerant, well-meaning, progressive Christians even exist without depending on Christian communities that are hopelessly intolerant, hateful and conservative?
A: I don't take this accusation lightly. I'm part of a 2,000 year old tradition that keeps coming up with ingenious ways to turn a message of all-embracing love into an excuse for hatefulness. And excuses for hatefulness seem depressingly popular. Why not abandon it? The thing is, though, I'm part of other centuries-old traditions ("Western Civilization," the United States) that seem equally adept at turning messages of enlightenment and liberation into excuses for hatefulness. Should I abandon them too? Is that even possible? Could a "culture-free" life even count as human? Could I find a culture that doesn't betray itself, often as not? Show me an empowering tradition, with its inescapable institutions populated with conflicting egos, that does not continually betray its own best insights. I have yet to find one. But some traditions make a regular practice of admitting their betrayals in order to open themselves to renewal. One of those is the Anglican spiritual tradition that I continue to practice. It's flawed but renewable. Is that more than just a way to enable bad behavior? I can't prove that it is. But I haven't found a credible alternative.