This weekend I am attending a Progressive Christian seminar at Merthyr Road Uniting Church (Brisbane, Australia). The seminar titled “Christianity: 1st Century, Now, In the Future”, is examining evolving Christianity perspectives through the ages. The key speakers are Hal Taussig and Michael Morwood.
Hal Taussig has worked as a Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Union Theological Seminary (New York) for 17 years. As an expert on ancient Christian writings he is the author of A New New Testament, which combines the 27 canonical books of the New Testament with 10 newly discovered texts, also from early Christian writers.
Michael Morwood has 40 years experience in ministry, retreats and education. Today he enjoys challenging people to examine what they believe and why. Bringing together the wonders of science, the universe and the divine.
Hal and Michael alternate throughout the day. Each presenting their areas of expertise, both inviting us to consider our own perspectives and other perspectives through the ages.
With a lens of humility, they each acknowledge their traditional Christian background and the mistakes they’ve made along the way (and are likely still making!). It’s reassuring to know that we are all on a journey of discovery. Someday it is likely we will all look back on our beliefs (individually and as a society) and be amazed at how outdated we were.
This idea of an evolving Christianity resonates throughout the day’s presentations and discussions.
Evolving Christianity: the need for a new New Testament
The day begins with Hal presenting the basis for his book A New New Testament. Few Christians understand the origins of the Bible, but even fewer know there is a wealth of new, early Christian writings being discovered every day. I certainly didn’t!
Hal explains that there have been more early Christian writings discovered in the last 150 years than what we have had available for the last 1500 years. The resources we have at our fingertips has more than doubled.
And yet, the concept of an infallible, perfectly complete Bible is so ingrained in traditional Christian thinking that most Christians and Christian leaders will at best: find these new discoveries mildly interesting though not significant, and at worst: dismiss their veracity and relevance entirely.
It’s crazy to think that we have more information than ever and yet the rigidness of traditional beliefs holds us back from making new meaning.
I was struck by the thought that it had never occurred to me before that the Bible should evolve. Even as a Progressive Christian, I had not considered that we should add to it. This is however, exactly what Hal has done.
As described by his publisher, Hal brought together “a council of scholars and spiritual leaders to discuss and reconsider which books belong in the New Testament. They talked about these recently found documents, the lessons therein, and how they inform the previously bound books. They voted on which should be added, choosing ten new books to include in A New New Testament. Reading the traditional scriptures alongside these new texts—the Gospel of Luke with the Gospel of Mary, Paul’s letters with The Letter of Peter to Philip, The Revelation to John with The Secret Revelation to John—offers the exciting possibility of understanding both the new and the old better.”
I’m fascinated by these new books and excited to study them. Stay tuned for, no doubt, future posts on these writings.
Hal’s session is quite interactive and at one point an audience member asks what the new texts do for the historicity of Jesus. Hal explains that more texts referring to Jesus certainly builds evidence that this man exists. But importantly, Hal brings us back to the purpose of studying scripture (old and new). He says:
When we see a good or powerful movie, we might say “that’s really true”. Though we never really believed it happened.”
He reminds us that there is truth and wisdom to be found in the story, whether it is a ‘true story’ or not.
Evolving Christianity: Reviewing our world view and images of God
Following on from Hal’s historical Bible lesson, Michael addresses the evolution from perceiving an “up there” God to a disparate divine presence. He takes us on a journey of contemplation about our world view, asking:
- What are the images we have of God?
- Why do we have these images?
- What were the images that Jesus (as a Jew) had of God?
- Why do we pray? And to who?
Michael challenges us, asking that if we started with science today, with all our current knowledge of the universe and forgot history and everything we’ve previously been told about God, what would be our pointers to the existence of God?
It’s a great question and one that I’m sure atheists have asked and answered with “there are none”.
However, Michael refers to the wonder of the universe, the evolution of our world – the beauty of it. He proposes that even today (with no ancient traditions) these observations might point to a divine presence within the world.
Now, Michael never refers to God as ‘creator’ and so I don’t think he is making the “intelligent design” argument, which is frequently made by many Christians in response to atheism.
I am aware, even understanding, that for many non-Christians, the randomness and frequent cruelness of the world points them away from the traditional, all powerful God. Something I discuss in detail in my post: Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen to Good People.
Michael makes it clear that he does not believe in or pray to an all powerful, intervening God. His image seems to be more of a disparate, divine presence that binds to or connects with the world’s goodness, love and beauty.
For example, in response to the awesome knowledge that our atoms are all made from stars, Michael says:
I give human expression to the powers of the universe… but also human expression to the divine presence.”
Jesus is a human expression of this divine presence as well, says Michael. And he encourages us to also live lives that allow people to glimpse the divine as Jesus did.
Despite no longer believing in an ‘out there’ God, the day’s discussions have challenged me to consider what image I have of God now.
Evolving Christianity: Rethinking Prayer
Later in the afternoon, Michael reflects on how to approach prayer from this new world view.
He explains that silent prayer is not about God, but is about deepening awareness and developing mindfulness (meditation). But we need to evolve our approach to ‘out loud’ prayer. He again challenges us to consider who we think is at the other end of our prayers. Are we simply verbalising a metaphor or poetry? Or do we expect that an all powerful, interventionist God is listening?
As our world views evolve past an interventionist, ‘out there’ God, he says it is still ok for us to express our thoughts, feelings and longings out loud, but we need to stop praying “to’ God. Michael says:
Don’t ask God to intervene, but call upon the presence here among us.”
It’s a timely message as people around the world send their ‘thoughts and prayers’ to the victims of the Las Vegas shooting. In reality, we know that ‘thoughts and prayers’ did not stop this shooting and will not stop the next one.
Michael points out that Jesus responded to the needs of people with action. He didn’t wait for God to fix things. Similarly, it’s up to us to fix things.
An Invigorating Day
The afternoon concludes with Hal giving us a look at a few communities doing church differently around the U.S.
Despite being the youngest person present (as was pointed out to me frequently) I have felt entirely at home, surrounded by people who are wrestling with the same questions I am.
The day has left me feeling excited to continue my research into the fascinating world of Progressive Christian theology.
A big thank you to Merthyr Road Uniting Church for hosting and to all those who organised it. A fantastic day for all present, I’m sure.