Notes on Belief

Progressive Christianity recaptures an important understanding of Christian belief. The word belief has come to mean agreement with a set of propositions.  Do you believe Carlton will beat the Crows? The issue is whether Carlton will, or will not, win the football match, and regretfully it seems they will.

Christian belief has more to do with action than mere assent (or otherwise) to propositions.  There will be much in the material that follows which proposes ideas with which the reader can agree or disagree.  But properly understood Christian belief has to do with also living out the implications of those propositions. Hence Gretta Vosper can subtitle her book With or Without God with these words: Why the Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe

There is nothing untoward in these words. They reflect an ancient understanding which can be found in the second chapter of The Letter of James, one of the Christian scriptures

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters,* if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder….

26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

Modern western Christians tend to equate faith with belief. Christianity in its origins saw faith and belief as a profound trust in the reality of God which enabled them to live differently.

Understand then, that Progressive Christianity is not a theoretical belief system. It is about revising and rediscovering a way to live in the world. It is a manifesto and platform whose aspirants will pay it more attention than the modern political parties of Australia where The Party Platform tends to be window dressing ignored whenever convenient.

This necessitates living a developing theology. That is, progressive Christians are finding their way into a new understanding of the Divine, and consequently, how to live according to that understanding. To wait until one understands, and has it all sorted out, is to be paralysed. A progressive faith has to begin with what it already understands, and live accordingly. Any theology worth talking has always done this; those who think it should be static or unchanging are simply ignorant of what has always been.

This developing nature of progressive theology highlights another aspect of progressive Christianity. It is highly, and consciously, inductive. It comes to conclusions about the Divine from its experience. This is in contrast to the theological traditions that predominately sought to define belief and behavior on the basis of written texts and traditions. (Deductive. See also Casuistry.)

Much modern Christianity in the west is secretly inductive.  By this I mean that it claims a deductive base, stating a variety of creeds, confessions and the bible as inviolable standards from which actions are developed. But these standards are subject to local needs: induction.  The best concise example I can give of this concerns a friend from North Carolina who met and married, an Australian on the mission field. She said to me one day, “I can’t help but wonder how in my church at home, it’s a sin to drink but OK to smoke. But in the Barossa it’s a sin to smoke, and OK to drink.”

Progressive Christianity also seeks to be what I would call humbly inductive.  Encarta says of induction that it is

logic generalizing to produce a universal claim or principle from observed instances

Progressive Christianity is often marked by a humility that does not pretend to have universal wisdom, which is in marked contrast to the Christianity many of us experience, with its claims to exclusive truth. This is not a collapse into relativism. In her book Vosper says of relativism

…faced with the possibilities of living in such a relativist world, we have reason to be scared. If we embed in our socie­ties the individual's right to pursue any spiritual path, we must be prepared for whatever direction that path takes, and I'm not sure we are ready for that. Upholding freedom of choice alone, we'd have to embrace suicide-bombing, wife-burning, ritualized sex, and self-mutilation. pp30

She claims a foundation based in our common humanity with counteracts relativism

I am deeply aware that, should we lose even one of these things, the world would be a very different place: hope, peace, joy, innocence, delight, forgiveness, caring, love, respect, wisdom, honour, crea­tivity, tranquility, beauty, imagination, humour, awe, truth, purity, justice, courage, fun, compassion, challenge, knowledge, daring, artistry, wonder, strength, and trustworthiness.

Not one of these values could be called dogma, doctrine, or a theological term. All are common not only to most religions but also to all who embrace humanitarian ideals. When we look closely, we see that while a belief in a supernatural deity would not diminish the list, neither is such a belief necessary in order to embrace any or all of them. Some people may call them religious words, some spiritual, others human. They are, I believe, simply words that unite rather than divide. pp32

I think the last sentence I have quoted is an accurate assessment of Progressive Christianity. It seeks to find commonality despite the varied traditions from which its members come. It seeks to find commonality with those who do not call themselves “progressive” or even “Christian.”

These attributes lead to unlikely alliances. Jim Wallis is an evangelical Christian. He does not subscribe to much of the theology of progressives. At the Common Dreams conference Fred Plumer noted that Jim calls himself progressive. Fred wondered how far the term progressive stretches. Both he and Jim Wallis would find aspects of each other’s way of talking about God unhelpful, to say the least. Yet the humility of their faith, and the emphasis on acting upon their faiths, are have much in common. Plumer was clear that he finds much to admire in Wallis’ living out of the faith.

There is also much which divides Progressive Christianity from other expressions of Christianity. We will turn to some of them in the following articles.

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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