Why I . . . Am a Progressive Christian” – July 18, 2021

As most of you know, I grew up in a very fundamentalist church.  Even from a young age, there were things said from the pulpit which did not fit with how I viewed God.  I remember hearing sermons which spoke against interracial dating, sermons which attacked the LGBTQ community, sermons which basically said everyone who didn’t believe as we did was bound for hell.  And I knew in hearing those things that the manner in which these sermons degraded people who were simply different was inconsistent with the ministry of Jesus.  That the love which was central to the way I understood what Jesus taught was being obscured.

But there was something I loved about attending church too.  Despite the things which caused me anxiety in life, the chaos which seemed to swirl around me, being in church brought a sense of peace.  It was a constant amongst all of the variables of life.  No matter what was happening at school, what was happening at home, I knew where I would be three times each week.  And being there provided a rhythm to my week.  I began even from the time I was a young child to engage in spiritual practices which gave me a sense of calm.  While it may have been because I was told I had to, I read my Bible each day, prayed each day.  And while there were certainly times these things felt like a chore, there were also times in which they were a safe place.

My father being a deacon in the church, there was no way I could set off on my own to find a church which aligned with my beliefs.  For me to not attend the church would mean that my father did not control his household and would be a basis for removal from his deacon position.  But beyond that, there was also an element of fear.  To rebel against what I had been taught or to think differently was to put myself at risk of God’s judgment, both in this life and in the next.

Even though I continued to attend church through college, I never was able to reach an alignment between what I truly believed and what was taught by the churches I attended.  By the time I attended law school, this incongruence led to me stop attending church completely.  It was not until I was married that I began attending church again.  Kathy had also grown up in a conservative church, so we attended what we knew.  But at the same time I began to read authors like Brian McLaren, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Sponge, authors which gave voice to the theology I had long believed but never heard from another voice.  And while that same incongruence continued at church, being back in a community of faith renewed my inner sense of call to ministry which began as a child.  When this sense did not go away after several years, I made the decision to begin seminary and started working as a youth minister at that church.

It was then that this incongruence could no longer be ignored.  While I could dismiss the doctrines I disagreed with sitting in a pew, it was a far different thing to be told I had to teach those things to others.  And the struggle I experienced at seminary served to further alienate me from the faith of my youth.  With authors and thinkers I admired being designated heretics, I questioned whether I could believe anything at all, whether there was a place in Christianity for someone who thought like me.

I remember sitting in my car in the seminary parking lot waiting to go into class, unsure whether I could make myself go in.  At the time, I was reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  Faith was always presented to me in black and white ways.  Either I believed what I had been taught or I didn’t.  I felt I only had one choice, to abandon faith completely or to bury those doubts as I had been taught for so much of my life.

But I began to realize that decision was not one that needed to be made, but was one that was forced on me by the theology of my seminary and the theology of my youth.  That I could embrace my doubts without losing my Christian identity.  That for me, living in a manner in keeping with my understanding of the ministry of Jesus required an authenticity which I had long avoided.

And while I have a deep appreciation for other faith traditions, I am not willing to let go of my Christian identity.  I remember a conversation I had with a good friend who is a Unitarian Universalist minister.  As we got to know each other, she indicated to me that she experienced me as being very similar to her theologically, even though she did not identify as Christian.  And as I thought about this, I recognized the connection I still felt to Christianity.

I think of this in terms of learning a language to speak of the Divine, a framework within which to shape my views of the Sacred.  The language in which the Divine has been explained to me, the language in which I have always expressed my understanding, is Christianity.  Similar to how English is my primary language.  While I spent years studying Spanish, I am still not as comfortable speaking it as I am my native language.  Growing up in a household that spoke English, reading and writing in it for the vast majority of my life, I have a knowledge and familiarity with it that I would likely never achieve with another language.

It is similar for me with faith traditions.  They are alternative ways of expressing the Divine.  And while I gain much from learning them, I will never have the comfort or depth of connection, history, and understanding that I do with Christianity.  I am connected to the stories of Scripture, have an emotional attachment to Christian hymns.

I also find a deep meaning in the rituals of the Christian church.  There is a comfort which comes from experiencing these things which have so long been expressions of my own faith.  They help me to feel grounded in something, connected to something larger than myself.  Following the rhythms of the Christian year, engaging in the liturgy, sharing in communion, all of these things have been present with me as long as I can remember.  My baptism remains a significant event for me.  And although the meaning I attach to those things has shifted, I still attach meaning to them.  And to not have them would feel like a loss.

When I began my own journey to find a sense of identification, I ran across the website for progressive Christianity.  While all of the eight points resonate with me, there are two that are foundational for me.  This first is to “know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe.”  This statement encapsulates for me much of what I have come to see as the expression of my Christian faith.  Continuing the work of Jesus in our day is for me exemplifying the inherent worth of all people.

The other is to “seek community which is inclusive of all people.”  This type of community is so elusive – a community which fully incorporates both liberals and conservatives, people of all races, sexual orientations, and gender identities, people who have a sense of confidence in what they believe and people who are searching.  And this was missing in my Christian experience.  In the churches I attended, most everyone looked the same.  Some groups were intentionally excluded and others were excluded tacitly.  Progressive Christianity emphasized the inclusiveness which was so often lacking from my church experience.

One of the topics we will be exploring as a community is whether this label of progressive Christianity still fits for NCC.  In speaking with many of you, I have heard of your connections to many faith traditions – to Buddhism, to Native American spirituality, to the Unitarian Universalist tradition.  There is certainly nothing that prevents one from identifying with multiple traditions and finding meaning in them all.  No need to fit within one label.

However, it is essential that a community be clear about who it is.  And it is important as this community takes its next steps that it is clear in its identity.  Next week we have our discussion groups about the future of NCC.  The central feature of this discussion relates to the goals of NCC.  While we have not yet spoken about goals as a full community, the one goal that I have consistently heard from you individually is the desire for growth.  I do not view growth in a church as a goal.  I see it as an outgrowth of other goals.  And one of those goals is a clear identity, a true sense of who a community is.  As NCC decides its next steps, there needs to be an alignment between who we are and who we project ourselves to be.

Someone who identities as agnostic, atheist, humanist, or simply spiritual may not be drawn to a community which identifies as Christian no matter how progressive it is.  At the same time, someone who identifies as Christian may not feel at home in a community which in many respects does not function as or incorporate many significant elements of the Christian tradition.  If NCC wants to continue into the future, there must be an honest examination of how it wants to identify itself.  Is NCC a progressive Christian community?  Or is NCC a progressive multi-faith community?  A Unitarian Universalist community?  Or something else entirely?

May each of us not only claim who we are but may we claim who we are together and in doing so, bring others who seek what we have.