Many Australians are feeling desperation at the incapacity of the Australian political system to deal with the enormous challenges which now confront human societies everywhere - issues which received almost no mention during the recent election campaign. This includes issues such as unsustainable national and world population growth, the likelihood of imminent world famine, growing inequality of access to wealth, an utterly inadequate response to the climate threat, peak oil, growing depletion of a range of natural resources and the destructive effects of an economic system that depends on endless consumption of resource intensive "stuff" for its survival.
Social activism by Christians has a long and proud history. Australia needs such activism now as never before. The progressive view of Jesus is that he was a radical social reformer and a wise prophet. Placing the events of 2000 years ago in the modern context and in the framework of current understanding of what now lies ahead, could perhaps breathe new life and energy into parts of the church in Australia which appear to be in their death throes.
The Christian church in Australia is in serious trouble. Church attendance is declining across the Western world. Church leaders have been ignoring sexual abuse by their clergy for decades. Rigid church hierarchies have resisted equality of the sexes and the legitimacy of different sexual identification. Issues of creedal belief like the virgin birth, the Trinity, the resurrection of the body and the redemption of human sin through the crucifixion of Jesus, no longer make sense to many scientifically trained Westerners. The idea of a personal God "out there in the stratosphere" pulling our puppet strings and taking a particular interest in our individual transgressions, now seems nonsensical to many of us who were brought up in the tradition of the church.
None of this is to underplay the mystery of the universe, nor the awesomeness of being a living and integral part of the natural world and of the evolved human species. But for many of those who have been described as "church alumni" the conventional Christian package no longer rings bells for their spirituality and they nowadays nurture their spirit in different ways than through the offices of the church. Progressive Christianity of the kind that has emerged in parts of the Western world in recent decades provides a new approach to spirituality and social reform.
It is exactly 50 years since the publication of a seminal book by the Bishop of Woolwich entitled "Honest to God" The author, John Robinson built upon the work of a group of German theologians and described his sense of "God" as the very essence and "ground of our being" rather than a separate being, responsible for creation. A British Journal commented at the time: "it is not every day that a bishop goes on public record as apparently denying almost every Christian doctrine of the Church in which he holds office."
Since then groups of progressive Christian scholars have been trying better to understand what Jesus actually said and did. Separating the historical Jesus from the myths, legends and interpretations that were built up by the early church and cemented in place by the early adoption of Christianity as the state religion of Rome, is a task that has been comprehensively tackled by an international group called The Jesus Seminar. Prominent among these scholars have been Bishop John Spong and Professor Marcus Borg ..
A recent conference in Canberra brought together Prof Borg and 400 "progressive" Christian theologians, practitioners, church alumni and current church attenders from across Australia, with speakers from New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States and Canada. This "Common Dreams" conference has become a triennial Australian event.
Bishop Spong has recently drawn attention to a very different kind of church community that has developed in Springfield Missouri. The Community Christian Church of Springfield says on its website "We are believers in Jesus Christ who accepts all people without judgment and who desire to work and worship as a community, striving for social justice". The church believes that the way they treat one another and other people is the fullest expression of their beliefs.
This vigorous new church began as an initiative of a group of church alumni who were dissatisfied with the framework, beliefs and practices of the existing church and struck out on their own as a new group of Jesus followers who are trying to change their world for the better, while at the same time sharing meaning and purpose through their community of commitment to Jesus wisdom.
Breaking out of the straitjacket imposed by church hierarchies and restrictive creeds, while accepting the wisdom of the revolutionary nature of Jesus' teaching, could be a positive way forward for those in Australian Christendom who are dissatisfied with what is currently on offer in the institution in which they were nurtured, and are seeking a collaborative path through the anticipated difficult decade ahead.
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