Monday, November 03, 2008

Defining Progressive Faith

I think progressive faith has at least ten characteristics. It is conscientious, chastened, hopeful, strong, humble, growing, questioning, dialogical, active and interdependent.

1. First, and foremost, a progressive faith is a conscientious faith.

I understand conscience to be an exercise of human understanding or imagination that involves three steps.

The first step is an act of intellectual (mental) distantiation that produces self-consciousness -- it is the ability to step outside yourself (whatever "self" is) and look back at yourself (as though you were looking at yourself in a mirror).

The second step is an act of sympathetic imagination by which you look at the world from the perspective of another.

We often hear this described by the phrase, "Walk a mile in my shoes." My good friend Foy Valentine, now deceased, once told me jokingly that doing this had proven highly profitable for him. He said that, whenever he did it he got a new pair of shoes and was a mile away before the poor guy he took them from knew what was happening. That's one of the reasons why I think conscience formation requires a third step.

It requires an act of reflexive self-consciousness. In simplest terms, this is the ability to put yourself in the place of others and to look at yourself through the eyes of others.

Essentially, this defines progressive faith as a faith that practices the Golden Rule.

Jesus of Nazareth gave the rule a positive formulation when he said "Do to others as you would have them do to you," (Luke 6:31 (NIV)) but the Golden Rule is not unique to Christianity.

Judaism teaches, "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man." (Hillel, Shabbath 31a.)

Islam teaches, "No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself." (Hidith)

Even Buddhists, some whom deny the existence of any God, teach, "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udana-Varga)

Some formulation of the Golden Rule or some principle of respect for other persons seems common to all religions and philosophies.

2. Second, a progressive faith is a chastened faith.  It is a faith that sorrowfully acknowledges the pain, suffering and injustice that its own community has inflicted on others.

Chastening occurs when persons of faith look at themselves and their faith through the eyes of people of different faiths.

Christians need to look at themselves through the eyes of Jews -- particularly, through the eyes of those who were herded into boxcars and slaughtered like cattle in the holocaust.

Jews need to look at themselves through the eyes of Muslims -- particularly, through the eyes of those who were displaced from their homes in Palestine.

Muslims need to look at themselves through the eyes of Bahai's.

We all need to look at ourselves through the eyes of the hungry and the homeless, the impoverished and the imprisoned.

All of us need to summon the courage to honestly look at ourselves through the eyes of others who are strange and foreign to us and/or who have been injured and ignored by us.

If we do that, I believe that we will begin to view things the way that God views them.

3. Third, a progressive faith is a hopeful faith.

It is a faith that exercises a sympathetic and creative imagination to transcend the past and present realities of self, family, community, and nation to envision a world with a more benevolent, loving and hopeful future.

Guilt, shame and sorrow all summon us to search for forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, regeneration, renewal, recreation, transformation, a new birth, -- i.e., some better way of living.

If life is just an endless cycle of violence, conflict and strife, then there is not much reason for a hopeful future.

4. Fourth, a progressive faith is a strong faith.

It is a faith that is strong enough to demand both equal rights in civil life and genuine respect in social life for those who have other convictions and different worldviews -- while remaining firmly committed to its own convictions and worldview.

Fundamentalist faiths can achieve power, but they can never be strong. All fundamentalisms are weak faiths that compensate for their inadequacies by scapegoating those who differ from them.

Fundamentalists fear differences and social change and the "other." They react to their fears by fight or by flight. Whenever they fight, they demonize and destroy whatever makes them afraid and insecure.

Faith can never become strong until it overcomes its fears and insecurities and begins to respect the integrity of conscientious difference.

5. Fifth, a progressive faith is a humble faith.

It is a faith that acknowledges the finitude and fallibility of all humanity. It recognizes that all forms of interpersonal communication and understanding fall short of perfect comprehensibility.

Different faiths privilege different expressions of faith as conveyed by different texts, practices, and rituals. Some make absolute claims for the authority of their competing texts, practices, and rituals.

Generally, it is not necessary to directly challenge the authority of these differing truth claims. It should be enough for all to acknowledge that no matter how sacred, perfect and privileged these texts, practices and rituals are believed to be, all historical faiths are subject to differing interpretations and understandings by adherents within their own faith tradition. Humility, therefore, is proper for people of all faiths.

No system of communication is adequate to fully express the meaning of the Divine. No language is perfectly transparent.

While some interpreters of religious traditions may be considered authoritative, infallibility is an attribute that is best reserved for the Divine.

6. Sixth, a progressive faith is a growing faith.

It is a faith that is growing, expanding, striving for depth and never satisfied with its progress. It is a faith that is incomplete, unfinished, and has never arrived.

Progressive faith does not lay claim to human perfectibility in this life.

7. Seventh, a progressive is a questioning faith.

It is a faith that is undaunted by critical thought. It is not a blind faith that expects adherents to surrender their intellect.

Instead, it practices what Paul Ricouer calls the "hermeneutics of suspicion" because it desires to be more than a projection of human wishes and desires, more than an opiate for the masses, and more than merely a slave revolt by which the weak seek to gain power over the strong.

Progressive faith welcomes doubt and raises questions because it knows they are necessary for the extension of understanding, for spurts of growth and for the testing and strengthening of genuine faith.

8. Eighth, a progressive faith is a dialogical faith.

It extends itself both by random acts of kindness and by deliberate acts of compassion and mercy.

It refuses to extend itself by force of law or arms.

Whenever it seeks to convert others, it seeks to do so by persuasion and example shared in moments of genuine dialogue.

9. Ninth, a progressive faith is an active faith.

It gives more than lip service to love.

It puts love in action by waging peace and working for justice.

It is faith with the courage to put itself at risk by publicly opposing injustice and by actively resisting it by non-violent means.

10. Finally, a progressive faith is an interdependent faith.

It recognizes both the value and the interdependence of all life on this planet.

It is a faith that affirms and honors the claim that future generations have on the present by responsibly stewarding the resources that make life possible on this planet.

(This is reposted from a July 15, 2006 blog from the Progressive Faith Blog Conference.)

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