[PFBC] Roundtable: What Is Progressive Religion?
July 15, 2006
The evening roundtable featured three fabulous bloggers, teachers, spiritual leaders and mentsches: Rabbi Arthur Waskow from The Shalom Center, Pastor Dan Schultz from Street Prophets, and Reverend Bruce Prescott from Mainstream Baptist. (This is a long post; I didn't manage to transcribe everything but I got as much as I could while still listening intently; their remarks were really powerful, so this is worth a read.)
Reb Arthur offered an opening benediction, and began by explaining first that the word "Torah" comes from the language of archery; it means the process of aiming at wisdom. So we're all aiming toward wisdom, we're all learning and speaking and breathing Torah here. He explained too the metaphor "Breath of Life" which some of us find more truthful or more useful than "Lord." He taught us about how the Tetragrammaton can be "said" simply through breathing; how the trees breathe in what we breathe out and vice versa. And then he offered the bracha, the blessing for Torah study: "Blessed are You, the Breath of Life, who breathes into us the wisdom to know that we become holy by breathing together with You and with all of life; and by shaping our breathing into words; and by shaping our words into words that aim toward wisdom." Amen!
Pastor Dan offered the question we'd given to the roundtable speakers: what is progressive religion? Which he acknowledged is a terrifying question! So here are a few possibilities. One: faithful people who believe in the separation of church and state. Another is: heterodox beliefs. But that doesn't work for all of us. Speaking for himself, he points out that he's a (small-O) orthodox Christian.
[He spoke briefly about criticism you often hear lobbed at progressive religion:] that we're a bunch of tree-hugging Pagans. And some of us may say, "hey, that's me!" [laughter] But others, maybe not. Another criticism is that we're ostensibly just dying out, or we're just marginal.
Another way of describing progressive religion is as a counterweight or mirror image of the religious right. But is that what we want to be? I have no interest in enforcing my orthodoxy on someone else's beliefs...
The definition I have come to like, and am trying to explore, is progressive religion as (in John Dewey's words) "a social experiment." It is a shared experience, one in which tolerance becomes incredibly important because the experiment works better the more people who are involved.
Reverend Bruce says he sees religion as prophetic, as a moral force for good. So what does that look like? It's not specific to any one faith; it's general across all faiths.
Progressive faith is conscientious, chastened, hopeful, strong, humble, growing, questioning, dialogical, active, and interdependent. Conscientious: it produces self-consciousness, we step outside ourselves (whatever self is)... Progressive faith practices the golden rule, and that's a teaching that exists in all of our traditions...
Chastened faith means we recognize our own shortcomings, especially in our relations to other faiths. Christians need to look at themselves through the eyes of Jews, especially those who were herded intp boxcars. Jews need to look at themselves through the eyes of Muslims, especially the Palestinians. Muslims, through the eyes of Baha'is. And all of us need to look at ourselves through the eyes of the hungry and the poor, those who have been injured or ignored by us! And then we can begin to view things from the perspective that God views things.
Progressive faith is a hopeful faith, which exercises a sympathetic and hopeful imagination to transcend the limitations of the past and the present to envision a world with a more benevolent and hopeful future... If life is an endless cycle of violence and conflict then there is not much hope, or reason for hope.
Progressive faith is a strong faith, strong enough to demand both equal rights in civil life and genuine respect in social life for those who have other convictions and worldviews while remaining committed to its own convictions.
Progressive faith is a humble faith, which recognizes the fallibility of humanity. Different faiths privilege different expressions of faith as conveyed by different texts and practices and rituals... Progressive faith is a growing faith, incomplete and unfinished, one that never arrives. Progressive faith is a questioning faith, a faith that is undaunted by critical thought. It's not a blind faith that expects adherents to sacrifice their intellect, but practices a "hermeneutics of suspicion (Ricoeur) because it desires to be more than a projection of our desires...
Progressive faith is a dialogical faith. It extends itself by random acts of kindness, by deliberate acts of compassion and mercy. It refuses to extend itself by force of law or arms...
And progressive faith is an interdependent faith, which recognizes the value and the interdependence of all life on this planet... It responsibly stewards the resources that make life possible on this planet.
(Pastor Dan adds that progressive faith is anyone who can get something out of Martin Buber!)
[Edited to add: The full text of Reverend Bruce's remarks is online here.]
Reb Arthur Waskow begins by saying that he prefers the term prophetic rather than progressive. Prophetic is rooted in all three Abrahamic traditions, rather than in a modern version of political analysis. And this echoes for us the issue of the relationship of religious community to power.
This goes back to the very nature of God. I see God as a dance between control and community. I-Thou is an aspect of the divine, in Buber's teaching, but I-It is also an aspect of God; the point is to be able to dance a two-step with both of them...
[He talked about the paradigm shifts from Biblical to post-Biblical Judaism, and how we are now in another paradigm shift.] All of us are struggling to know whether we should go back -- and I feel compassion for that even though I don't follow it! because we know what it looked like three centuries ago...
And another response is what I call renewal, prophetic renewal. So what is there in modernity that is God working? Many of us would say the equality of women and men; many of us would say the openness to an understanding of sexuality in which lesbian and gay sexuality is permissible; many of us would say a new relationship with the earth; many of us would say that there is real truth value in all of the traditions! Our being here affirms that, and that's new, it comes through modernity.
[The story of His Holiness the Dalai Lama meeting with the group of
rabbis and Jewish teachers in Dharamsala -- a meeting that would
have seemed like idolatry in another generation. Chronicled, of course, in Rodger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus.]
Pastor Dan adds a word of caution about the use of the word "prophetic;" in Christianity that word may attach itself to the millennial and apocalyptic branches of the tradition. (Reb Arthur counters that Martin Buber wrote about this a while back!) So maybe it's a term that needs to be reclaimed before it can be used appropriately.
And then the room opened up to questions and conversation.