While I want to talk about this issue in terms of traditionalists, progressives, and humanists, they are not totally distinct categories. They represent a continuum along which our folks populate many different points. And while these categories may apply to the differences in our convictions at the heart of our faith, we all share many common characteristics, an important one being a unanimous desire for justice to be realized in our society and beyond. Just as important is our willingness to hear and to consider different perspectives on matters of faith; that is critical to our continued life as a covenant community.
The primary matter that separates these three loosely defined groups which we find at Emmanuel has to do with how we perceive the Bible. Traditionalists tend to hold to the classic belief that the Bible is the Word of God, either directly communicated or at least divinely inspired by God. Progressives tend to see the Bible as a human product of people who were moved to share their best understandings of God and of God's desires for God's people. Humanists tend to see the Bible as a human product full of fairy tales and cultural biases.
Traditionalists value the Bible because they see it as divine revelation and may resist any attempt to question the Bible for fear that, once you begin to question whether any part of the Bible is actually true, it might lead to a questioning of the Bible's worth as a whole. Progressives value the Bible because it was written by people of faith who were earnestly attempting to live their lives according to their faith. But progressives also believe that we need to continue the conversation beyond where the biblical authors have taken it, particularly in those areas that have been heavily influenced by an ancient world-view and by cultural biases. Humanists tend to see little value in the Bible because of its antiquity and cultural bias.
Just about everyone who embraces a progressive faith once held a much more traditional faith. The movement from traditional to progressive can be very slow and rather disquieting because, deep inside, we know that there is the danger of losing our faith altogether if we begin to question any part of it. But in the same way that science moved beyond the earth-centered view of Ptolemy to the sun-centered view of Copernicus and Galileo and Kepler, progressives have moved beyond the three story universe which underlies biblical assumptions toward a more scientific view of the universe in which we live.
The implications of that for the Christmas story are significant. Whereas traditionalists see the birth of Jesus as the literal entry of God into the world in human flesh, progressives focus more on the meaning of the story as metaphor and take it to mean that we no longer need to look up to the skies or heavens to locate God, but that God is to be found among and even within us.
As with almost any theology we can dream up, there are scriptures that support this view. Jesus himself told his disciples that they would do what he did and more. And the second letter to the Corinthians (3:18) says “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Or, as The Message puts it, “And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”
So, while traditionalists tend to see Jesus as someone who is unlike us and so far above us that we cannot begin to attain his holiness or divinity (which keeps God located “out there” somewhere), progressives tend to see Jesus as one who came to show us what a God-filled life is like so that we can, like him, attain it to some degree at least.
Finally, it comes down to how much meaning or truth we are convinced we can find in writings that may or may not be “factual.” Ironically, traditionalists and humanists are more alike than different in this respect. They both want to be as certain as they can be that they are living by a truth that is supported by indisputable facts. The difference is the source of those facts. Traditionalists find the facts from which they glean the truth in the writings of the Bible. Humanists look to science to provide them with the facts that explain for them the truths about life in this universe. The other primary difference is that traditionalists have identified facts that they believe never change, while humanists assume the facts may well change as science progresses.
Progressives are typically less concerned about facts (which are rarely static, anyway) and are more interested in discovering universal meaning and values. We find those in the Bible and many other places – in literature, in art, in music. Of course, progressives are not always consistent in how they approach such things. I have always struggled, for instance, to find the meaning in abstract art – I tend to like art that represents what I recognize as “reality” (the facts!). I have the same tendency in music, especially jazz – I love jazz, but I struggle when I think the musicians may have forgotten or lost the melody they started with, particularly if it is a melody with which I am very familiar.
My favorite progressive author is Marcus Borg (I highly recommend his The Heart of Christianity). He says, basically, believe what you will about whether or not the events reported in the Bible actually happened the way they are reported, but don't miss the deeper meaning of those stories. And my favorite quote on these matters is from the Native American storyteller who says, as he begins to tell his tribe's story of creation, “Now I don't know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.”
As we continue our journey together, it will be important to remember how different our perspectives are in some ways, yet how similar they are in others. We want to converse in ways that help us all to continually grow in our faith and our understanding.