‘Forget Progressive Religion, Be Progressive about Religion,’ says Jeff Severns Guntzel over at the Utne blog. There he is directing people towards a recent post at Religious Dispatches where Ivan Petrella calls for a move ‘Beyond Progressive Religion.’ Interestingly, the article in many ways calls for progressive Christianity to admit a bunch of the things Deacon Hall has recently been blogging about and I’ll let him take that up if he wants. Petrella’s main thesis is that progressive Christianity is not progressive enough, it has yet to expand its progressiveness beyond a single religious tradition. An option other than a religious progressive and atheist is needed to fully move beyond fundamentalism. He says, ‘Being progressive about religion requires rescuing the best of atheism and progressive Christianity while discarding their mistakes.’ What then do you do with progressive Christianity?
From progressive Christians, I’d rescue the commitment to progressive understandings of faith and politics. But I’d reject their reliance on the Bible and Jesus. Here they are no different from the religious right, picking and choosing what suits them while ignoring what doesn’t.
This seems only half true to me. Many progressive Christian denominations and organizations package their progressive conclusions in ways similar to conservative Christians. They will put Gal 3:28 next to a statement affirming the equality of the sexes as if that is the authoritative voice of scripture when all the theologians involved know that isn’t true and that egalitarian ideals are in fact a minority opinion in scripture. This method of communication should be rejected or progressed passed. It continues to preserve the myth of sola scriptura (an even more difficult issue when it comes sexuality). While progressive Christians may appear to use this method in public announcements, the theologians have long left sola scriptura behind. One major problem is progressive theologians assuming a sort of trickle-down theology where their enlightened students can go into congregations and trickle away. That just isn’t the case.
What is left if you ‘reject reliance on the Bible and Jesus?’ I actually think that it is the progressive theologians’ commitment to Jesus and wrestling with scripture that needs to shared. These are not the only sources of theological reflection and so in a sense they do not have a monopoly. Nonetheless, I don’t see them exiting the imagination of the church (or the Koran for Muslims or the Torah for Jews) any time soon. I guess we do pick and choose and are forced to either make decisions or live with ambiguities, but not arbitrarily. There are very sophisticated theological hermeneutics that are part of the process, and even with a hermeneutic, we are forced to wrestle with texts that challenge and press our understanding. Petrella knows that because he studies Liberation theology, so I’ll move on to what really interests me. What makes a progressive Christian hermeneutic as inadequate as a fundamentalist one? Why do we think we would have better citizens if they had more options? Does expanding the breadth of religious ideas and practices really create more depth? If so, when in one’s faith development is that a possibility? It seems to me that learning and even practicing other religious traditions occurs and is beneficial for those who have drank from the depth of their own tradition.
He also says that, ‘from atheists, I’d rescue the commitment to reason. Like them, I’m unwilling to abdicate the use of my rational capacity in the name of faith.’ As both a progressive theologian in training and being friends with a bunch of them, I would agree and, then say I am not sure what progressive theologians wouldn’t agree, opening up th question of who exactly that statement is directed toward. I would also point out that a commitment to reason is not even something limited to progressive theology. Thomas Aquinas was perhaps way too reasonable. What is meant by reason here? Scientific naturalism? A disenchanted world? Any way, he goes on to say, ‘Unlike atheists, however, I don’t believe religions are false. Billions of people practice religions; in that sense they’re true. Billions of people believe in God, in that sense God does exist. Religions are true, but they’re not sacred. We need to be as self-reflective and critical of religion as we are of any other part of life.’ The bold part makes perfect sense but his reading of religious practices and religious belief seems to affirm the social function of religion and God while being ambivalent about there being any correspondence. I imagine most religious practitioners would hold that that divine mystery toward which the practices and beliefs point is sacred, and not the religion itself, and that the reality, ultimate, truth, God, or whatever word you want to use is neither dependent on, created by, or circumscribable to any particular religious expression.
These two quibbles are not, however, the center piece of his post. Against fundamentalism and beyond progressive religion and atheism, Petrella articulates a desire for multi-religiousity.
The United States is currently a multi-religious nation; a nation within which individuals of a variety of religions peacefully co-exist. But we’re rarely multi-religious individuals; individuals who belong to more than one religion. We still think of religions as closed worlds, sovereign states zealously guarding their territorial boundaries. People aren’t allowed to belong to more than one religion or to borrow the ideas and practices of another without feeling like they’re traitors to their faith.
He goes on to say that since Christians (and people of any religion) pick the parts they want, why not pick to practice more than one faith? If we do fundamentalism would make even less sense. We are a religiously curious people, but we need to have better knowledge of the live religious options. Plus, he goes on to point out, if we were successful in creating a ‘multi-faith’ culture there would be great political outcomes.
The article is real interesting and thought provoking, so read it. Do religions really prohibit multi-faith people? Monica Coleman has argued that the idea of purist religion and the then traditional notion of pluralism is really a discourse of liberal white dudes (like me) and that other ethnic groups have always practiced multiple religious traditions. I have a video of her talking with Phyllis Tickle on this topic to share later. In the end, I guess I am with James on this.