Progressive Religion

Mine is a religiously liberal and non-dogmatic faith---faith meaning living with courage, confidence and conviction---drawing on the wisdom of all world religions as well as the insights of science, philosophy, art, music and literature. Mine is also a skeptical faith, for I have always affirmed that every idea is to be tested and every stone turned over. Although I take the view that that there is something of value in most, if not all, of the world’s religions---provided their teachings are interpreted and applied both rationally and humanely---we must tread carefully and question everything. As the Buddha reportedly said:

‘Believe nothing because a so-called wise person said it.
Believe nothing because a belief is generally held.
Believe nothing because it is written in ancient books.
Believe nothing because it is said to be of divine origin.
Believe nothing because someone else believes it.
Believe only what you yourself know to be true.’

As for so-called sacred books---no book, however important, is truly sacred---we must always remember that the books comprising the Bible are written in figurative, metaphorical, allegorical, symbolical and spiritual language, and must be interpreted and applied in that manner in the light of reason and contemporary knowledge. The Bible contains history, folk tales, fables, myths, legends, parables, allegories and symbols. To regard the Bible as being infallible and inerrant is both contrary to reason and unsupported by the Bible itself. However, the Bible still provides many valuable insights into the world and humankind. I love what the famous English Methodist minister Dr Leslie D Weatherhead wrote in his seminal and iconocalstic work The Christian Agnostic (1965), namely, that ‘a statement is not true because it is in the Bible.’ It is true only when it authenticates itself to the individual. The same goes for all so-called other sacred books.

Any church, fellowship or society dedicated to progressive religion must exist for people of all sorts of opinions from the far left atheistic (in the traditional ‘theistic’ sense) to the Christocentric. Childish and anthropomorphic concepts of God must be eschewed and, as the great American Baptist minister Dr Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote, it is much ‘better [to] believe in no God than to believe in a cruel God, a tribal God, a sectarian God.’ If the concept of God is to have any meaning and utility at all---and a good case can be mounted that it has no such meaning or utility---it must unite rather than divide.

Religion concerns itself with the sacred, the holy, and the divine. Now, as the great Humanist of yesteryear, Sir Julian Huxley, once pointed out that the word ‘divine’ did not originally imply the existence of gods. For me, the sacred, holy and divine is entirely naturalistic albeit ineffable. It is forever expressing itself in and as the ground of being, the very livingness and oneness of all life, and the givingness of life to itself. That which is divine is not some vast and shadowy being but rather the name behind a fairly consistent set of phenomena. The Unitarian minister David Usher had described the divine as ‘the poetic evocation of all that forever eludes our comprehension.’ It is a power-not-oneself that represents the highest good to which we can aspire. I also identify with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s view that the divine is the question put to each of us at our birth to which we live our lives as an answer. The beautiful old expression, the ‘fatherhood of God,’ reminds us that we are all one and interdependent, that there is only one order or level of reality to which we all belong. To call the divine ‘personal’ is to use a very limiting human expression. However, that which is divine works through human personalities and is thus made known in ways that can only be described as ‘personal’.

As we all have a common source (God as Father’/’Mother’ in Christian thought-forms), progressive religion affirms the supreme worth and dignity of the individual and that all people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty and justice, and equal rights free from discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, colour, nationality, religion, political opinion, social origin, marital status, impairment, or sexual orientation or preference. In other words, progressive religion affirms the innate divinity of all humankind, indeed, the divinity of all creation. ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you’ (Ps 82:6), a view affirmed by Jesus himself (see Jn 10:34). The Unitarian Universalist minister Dr William F Schulz wrote that ‘Creation itself is holy---the earth and all its creatures, the stars in all their glory … every one of us is held in Creation’s hand---a part of the interdependent cosmic web – and hence strangers need not be enemies.’ In other words, there is but one humanity, and we are all one. The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh refers to the interconnectedness of all life and all things as ‘interbeing’. I like that. Religion, at its worst, is divisive and often nationalistic and tribalistic. True, progressive religion seeks to unite. It is internationalistic and non-tribalistic in nature, manifesting itself as a form of religious humanism.

Divinity is one thing, but deity is another. Progressive religion cannot accept the notion that any human being or creature is uniquely and exclusively God, and that goes for the saints, the holy ones, the teachers and so-called saviours of the world. At best these people are way-showers who are capable of awakening us to the inherent possibilities of our own nature and to an awareness of our essential divinity that we might have life. Jesus affirmed that the divine (the ‘kingdom of God’) is within us (see Lk 17:21). I am reminded of something Bishop Lawrence Burt said many years ago in a sermon he delivered at the old St Alban’s Liberal Catholic Cathedral in Regent Street, Sydney, when he stated that the doctrine of the Deity of Jesus ‘places an unbridgeable gulf between Our Lord and ourselves, and was refuted by Christ Himself.’ Remember, Jesus never said that he himself was God. Indeed, he virtually denied that he was God, when he purportedly exclaimed, ‘Why callest thou me Good? There is none good but one, that is God’ (Mt 19:17). He is also quoted as having said, ‘I can of mine own self do nothing’ (Jn 5:30). The last words of attributed to Jesus have been terribly misunderstood by the Christian Church. As I see, Jesus attributed the source of his identity, being and power, not to some supposed ‘self’, but to the ‘Father within,’ that is, the divine and universal source, ground of being, and essence of all life perceived and experienced as an indwelling creative presence and power at the very core, centre or ‘heart’ of one’s own being---and of all being. He was not claiming some special, unique and exceptional relationship with the divine, for despite what many Christians would have you believe Jesus never claimed anything for himself that he didn’t also claim for us.

Sadly, most of the Christian Church has not followed Jesus. Conventional Christianity---an unhappy mixture of Judaism, Mithraism and Greco-Roman mystery religion which was largely the creation of the apostle Paul rather than Jesus---has made a rather sycophantic religion out of Jesus rather than espouse the simple naturalistic religion of Jesus. I am also reminded of something the Presbyterian Samuel Angus wrote in his Jesus in the Lives of Men (1933):

‘Jesus is not accredited to us today by his miracles, or by a virgin birth, or by a resurrection from an underworld, or by a reanimation of his body from the grave, or by fulfillment of prophecies; he is accredited by his long train of conquests over the loyalties of men, and chiefly by the immediate, intimate and inevitable appeal made by him to everything that is best and God-like in each of us, and by his ability to “make men fall in love with him’, and ‘to win the world to his fair sanctities”.’

Progressive religion has a realistic view about human nature, affirming that human beings are neither evil beyond measure nor good beyond credibility. Any notion that Jesus, or anyone else for that matter, died to save us from our sins cannot be accepted. The doctrine of vicarious atonement was not part of Jesus’ original, as opposed to interpolated, teachings and more properly belongs to Mithraism and other pagan mystery religions. As Bishop Burt pointed out, the doctrine was unknown to first century Christianity. The Buddha was right to affirm that we must be lamps unto ourselves. We must be our own teacher and our own pupil.

Progressive religion refuses to divide the world into the saved and the unsaved, the chosen and the unchosen, believers and infidels. Salvation or enlightenment (‘waking up’) comes from the same Latin root as the word salve and refers to a healthy kind of wholeness as a result of the development of character and healthy-mindedness. Sin is the bondage of self---a veritable prison. Salvation is being relieved of the bondage of self. Further, because we are all one family, progressive religion affirms that no one is saved until we are all saved. Goodness is that which makes for unity, oneness, and wholeness. Evil is that which makes for separateness.

The importance of salvation by character, and not by other means, cannot be overstated. In his book Christianity and Dogma (1933) Samuel Angus wrote: ‘The world realizes that character is the supreme possession of man and believes that religion should steady man in his purposes and guide him in the arduous task of character-building; whereas this controversy has given the impression that the Church exists not primarily to promote Christian character but to produce and conserve dogmas.’ Insofar as the development of character is concerned, there are three great calls for each one of us, namely, to think truly, act justly, and speak bravely.

There can be no religion without worship. Worship means showing reverence for life, which is the basis of morality. For the religious progressive prayer usually takes the form of meditation but, in the words of an old hymn, ‘Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed.’ It is a matter of concentrating one’s entire intellect, emotions and will on that which is seen to be of ultimate importance and value. In meditation, particularly in the time of quiet known as ‘the silence,’ we focus on a power-not-ourselves that leads us to righteousness (right thinking and right action), lifting our consciousness to the level of the answer (which, in many cases, is a calm acceptance of, and surrender to, that which is).

Progressive religion also affirms the power of forgiveness, affirming, as did Jesus, that our claim to forgiveness is conditional upon our having forgiven others.

John Baillie, onetime professor of theology at the University of Edinburgh, said, ‘What makes a man a Christian is neither his intellectual acceptance of certain ideas, nor his conformity to a certain rule, but his possession of a certain Spirit, and his participation in a certain Life.’ That is true irrespective of whether one chooses to identify as a Christian.

Progressive religion is fairly but realistically optimistic about the potential of human beings to improve themselves and our world. Human problems are of our own making and can only be solved by human beings, working collaboratively, and digging deep within themselves for the answers to our problems. We are all, individually and collectively, responsible for our planet and its future, and life should be as satisfying as possible for every individual. There exist in each of us enormous powers which can revitalize our lives and recharge our spirits. Sadly, we tend never to fully realize our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual capabilities and all too often we wander from the path that leads to righteousness.

Progressive religion affirms that this life, rather than some supposed future life, ought to be our main concern. To quote Dr William F Schulz again, ‘the paradox of life is to love it all the more even though we ultimately lose it.’ Some religious progressives believe in life after death but many do not. A few may embrace reincarnation or some form of rebirth, usually conceived in entirely naturalistic terms. Most religious progressives affirm that, although we may ultimately vanish from view, the effect of our lives can be felt long after we have died. Additionally, although life may change forms, it remains basically indestructible. Forms of life come and go but life itself forever is.

Our reverence as religious progressives is for the spirit of life. If anything is sacred, that certainly is. Our task is to bring the divine right down into the here-and-now where it truly belongs and subsists. In the words of William Channing Gannett, ‘We believe that we ought to join hands and work to make the good things better and the worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all.’

There is much to be done, so let us carry on.

Note. This article is based on an address delivered by the author at the Sydney Unitarian Church, Sydney NSW, Australia, on 8 May 2005, as well as an article entitled ‘Progressive Christianity from Liberal Catholic and Unitarian Perspectives’ that was published in Communion [Magazine of the Liberal Catholic Church in Australia], Michaelmas 2006.