This post was inspired by the recent ABC Compass program on the Uniting Church in Australia, “The Uniting Church” highlighting a divergence of opinion within the church between conservative Christian traditionalists and a new movement emerging called “progressive spirituality” (P.S.). P.S. is challenging traditional Christianity at its core by questioning key doctrinal concepts such as the virgin birth, the physical resurrection of Jesus and the church’s rejection of homosexuality.
I don’t believe the Compass program did justice to the ideas of either faction in this schism and seemed more interested in highlighting the existence of conflict within a church that calls itself “uniting”.
The Compass program did touch on what I consider to be a major issue which did not appear to be aimed at either side of the debate, and then dissapointingly did not return to it. The Uniting Church’s modus operandi in its mission to the poor, oppressed and marginalised is a bureaucratic/welfare mode by way of welfare institutions. “But this work has become more professionalised, congregations have become less directly involved” according to Compass. I shall return to this issue.
The P.S. Movement is not confined to the Uniting Church. it has members and curious followers from all Christian denominations, it struggles with the word “Christian” as it excludes other faiths. However despite welcoming invitations to members of other faiths the movement is dominated by Christians or ex-Christians. The P.S. Movement is infinitely diverse, it cannot be pigeonholed as a particular tradition, philosophy or theology. It actively challenges preconceptions of religion and spirituality and as such is incapable of articulating a party line. It is indeed a post-modernist movement that sees respect for difference as part of the essence of their movement.
The P.S. Movement seems to have defined itself by way of adherence to the writings of radical theologians such as Bishop John Shelby Spong who recently visited Australia and invigorated this movement.
The movement holds scholarship in very high regard and its main spokespeople have been academic theologians which has its blessings and its curses.
Amongst the blessings of a theologian lead movement is a direct connection to the tradition and knowledge of ancient scriptures such as the bible and gnostic gospels. The cultural illusions that have been the substance of modern Christendom are stripped away with great authority and scholastic accuracy. This deconstruction of traditional Christianity has opened the gates to authentic spiritual experience without the constraints of artificial and outdated modes enshrined as holy and eternal. The scholars have assisted in liberating the captive Christian mind.
However the curse of scholastic spiritual leadership is the same as of academia in general in that the root or base experience of all (or most) knowledge is the written word.
I wonder if literacy itself is an obstacle to spiritual reality?
I am no anti-intellectulaist. However I am concerned that spiritual experience and knowledge is contained when it is a product of a book (or website). This would perhaps be my major criticism of traditional Christianity, in that it has demanded that the book, the bible, be the only source of knowledge of god.
Very few of the main characters of the bible got their wisdom through books, that was predominantly the domain of the often despised religious authorities. The new testament church taught spirituality by way of active engagement and participation in the Jesus community, through the oral tradition of story telling and through engagement in ritual such as baptism – bathing in the waters of a healing sacred site. Spirituality was a historical reality that people – all of them, body and all, participated in, not an idea or a thought or anything contained in text including holy scripture..
Western industrialised society, not just the church has made literature the basis of our entire educational system from preschool to PhD. However literacy – the monotonous, one dimensional experience of shape recognition on a piece of paper or computer screen that triggers memory of pre-existing concepts in our mind by way of chemical and electrical impulses does not get to the truth of the matter.
Learning through literacy is a secondary, represented reality instead of a direct engagement with the subject being studied.
Spirituality is not an ideology but a lifestyle and the consciousness that grows from that, a holistic connection of physical and mental and of ourselves to everything else. Spiritual wisdom is the experience of living a holistic lifestyle, not a rational justification or idea that has been read in a book.
The greatest spiritual tradition this continent has ever known is Aboriginal culture. This is of course relevant to this P.S. Movement and indeed all Australians. However knowledge of this tradition cannot be gained through reading books but only by direct engagement with Aboriginal people, culture and sociology.
I believe that spirituality is a non-rational, subconscious reality on a dimension different from literacy and the experience of reading. Spirituality is multi dimensional and holistic but literacy is not holistic and just a simple exercise of our visual senses impacting on our intellectual capacity.
We all learn of spirituality and the depth of human experience when we encounter death. Our understandings of life that flow from the grieving process can barely be articulated in text and cannot be taught to another through text, yet the spirituality of life and death is the most profound of all. The funeral of a loved one is an intensely spiritual experience, whatever religion or ideology. It is this reality without language, from grief to joy to dialogue with the devil in the desert, that we find and share and teach spirit. Life, death and spirituality are all “lived” experiences not book-learned ones.
And this is where I return to bureaucratic/welfare modes of mission or engagement in the world. Can the P.S. movement incorporate service to the poor within a spiritual framework? Can this mission itself be a generator of spiritual experience for them?
The poor and marginalised’s direct experience of the church, by way of welfare agencies is of an empty structure while the congregations are having their own spiritual experiences and journeys somewhere else, in church on Sunday, social groups or theological colleges.
I do not believed detached welfarism is the model of engagement with the community that occurred in the historical church of the bible.
I have seen nothing (yet) in my searchings to suggest that the P.S. Movement has a vision for any other modes of engagement with the poor other than managing, or in other ways engaging bureaucratically with, welfare or social justice agencies – the traditional church model.
This I believe is the challenge of the P.S. Movement, to explore a spirituality, lived experience and social engagement that is not so much outside the theology of the traditional church but actively and intentionally outside of the culture of the traditional church.
I believe that the P.S. Movement could develop, on the one hand as a distillation of mainstream, secular consciousness and morality and engage with society on that level. On the other hand it could embrace a spirituality similar to the radical Christian community movement of the 1970’s which emphasised an alternative communal lifestyle (of different sorts) and real and active connection to the poor. This movement existed within traditional theology but lived a holistic spirit that had little to do with the institutional church and its Sunday services.
Can a new, liberated spirituality of the Progressive Spirituality movement get beyond a theological/academic tradition and evolve into a lived, daily experience and social reality that is accessible and relevant to those in need as well as church members?
The emerging awareness that we have to relate to the Earth differently, for theological or ecological reasons, provides another reason to re-engineer the culture and lifestyle of the church, for its own sake and to have some positive relevance to the wider society.
More info -
http://www.progressivereligion.org.au/ Centre for Progressive Religious Thought
http://commondreams.org.au/ “Common Dreams”
http://www.progressivespirituality.net/index.htm Progressive Spirituality Network – Brisbane