(Note to readers: After about a 5 month hiatus due to various important responsibilities, I am hoping to return to consistent writing and posting. Please continue to check back.)
The 21st century world is one that is in constant flux. The advances in technology, the continuing spread of globalization, the uprisings in the Arab world, and the growing interaction between diverse cultures presents our modern world with continuous and unstoppable change. This is indeed not the world the previous generation experienced, and it is not the world many of us envisioned in our formative years. But this world has come to us, or rather has been created by us, and thus we can either try to halt such rapid change or we can invest our energy into reframing our lives to fit within this change.
While such flux does have an impact on every part of our lives, both individually and as a society, one important aspect of our lives that is feeling the weight of these significant cultural, technological, and global shifts is religion and the values which are derivatives of religion. Shifts in religious culture are never isolated from the broader cultural changes. Any significant social, economic, and political shifts in a society will result in a shift in that society’s religious understanding and practice. History is evidence of this, particularly as one considers the social and political underpinnings of the Protestant Reformation.
Author Phyllis Tickle has called what Christianity is currently experiencing “The Great Emergence”, and she likens the current shift to the Protestant Reformation. While time will tell whether we are experiencing something akin to the Reformation, the Christian faith is certainly going through noteworthy challenges and adjustments. We will have to wait and see how these changes shape the future of religion, particularly for those who grew up in a so-called Christian America.
However, at the moment, there is at least a growing grassroots Christianity that has become more open and more progressive in its understanding of belief and practice. Much of this movement may have some of its roots in the theological battles that have engrossed various Christian traditions over the last few decades. Many of these progressive Christians, like me, have become weary of these schisms, seeing them as distracting the church from its authentic mission in the world.
Moreover, many of these Christians who have embraced the progressive label are beginning to understand the importance of working with others for the common good of the world, regardless of religious affiliation or no religious affiliation. These progressives are no longer buying sectarian views of the world. Rather, they understand the world as the community of humanity, and they are embracing a much larger call for people of faith to work toward the common good of humanity. All of this has and will continue to have an effect on the way Christians live in a society undergoing constant change.
As intelligent beings who are constantly receiving messages and signals through various experiences, we process these messages through our own frames of reference. These frames of reference are formed by our own histories, our own cultures, and our own beliefs, whether religious or not. But, in terms of religious beliefs, many people use religion as their primary way to understand life. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it can present challenges to people whose religious perspectives are confronted by the flux of our world.
If the church is to do more than survive the current and inevitable changes that are occurring in order to remain relevant in the midst of these shifts, then people of faith must rethink and reframe Christian belief and practice. By stating that we should rethink Christian beliefs, I am not suggesting that all of these are outdated, although some are. Nor am I saying that some of these important theological ideas should be thrown out, although some should. Indeed, what we confess about our faith is vitally important to Christian identity; without beliefs we cease to be Christian.
But theology is always formulated in context, whether that theology is shaped as formal or personal. While the Bible and our Christian traditions have significant influence on shaping our theology, our experiences will play a major part in what we develop as our theology. This means that the theology that has been passed down from generation to generation, whether based on the Bible or tradition, or some combination of both, becomes ours only after we have reframed it to our own world and through our own experiences.
Therefore, to be progressive means that we must take seriously the texts of the Bible, the creeds and confessions of the church, and the historic theology of our Christian heritage. To ignore them or to discard them completely will result in the loss of Christian identity. But to be progressive also means that we need not transfer all of this to our own context as if the Bible, the creeds and confessions, and the historic theology of our Christian heritage are stone tablets. We have to reframe these in order that Christian theology becomes relevant for every context.
This may not be an easy process, and it is certainly not a willy-nilly method. Moreover, some Christians will hold out as long as they can before embracing such change. Indeed, those who are fundamentalists are called this because they generally do not accept these changes to their fundamental understandings about the Christian faith. Fundamentalists will refuse to reframe religious beliefs, choosing instead to hold on to what they see as revealed and unchangeable truth.
But those who do embrace this change must somehow reframe their understandings of their beliefs about God, the Bible, and the Christian faith to fit their own context. Reframing can mean minor adjustments to what we believe about our faith, or it can bring about major paradigm shifts in the way we think and believe. This is not a haphazard or insincere approach to theology and faith, for we must remain in dialogue with the scriptures and the traditions that have been passed on to us. In reframing our faith, we are not completely throwing out the old in order to make room for the new.
“The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” If I am not mistaken, that statement has been attributed to Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister in the 1960s and 1970s. Regardless of who said it, the statement is apropos to the church’s place in a world of change. The church can remain a stagnant institution leading it to a place of irrelevancy in the changing world. Or, progressives can continue to lead the charge of reframing the Christian faith in order to remain authentically relevant to a world in constant flux.