A faith worth sharing

During the past week some friends on Facebook were discussing the advertisements that St Francis Theological College in Brisbane has been running on a local radio station. I guess that means the advertisements worked, although I am yet to see if this will translate into new enrolments.

There were two strands to the discussion.

First of all, there was the surprise of recent SFC graduates in hearing that radio advertising was being used to promote the academic programs that we offer. This is not a marketing strategy we have used in the past, and people were genuinely surprised at the development.

The other strand in the discussion expressed negativity towards St Francis College in particular, and to critical religion scholarship more generally, as not having anything life-giving to offer to people who are seeking for meaning in the lives and a greater depth to their own faith. Such criticism is neither new nor surprising in an age of resurgent conservatism.

But it got me thinking.

Yes, it was atypical for SFC to advertise on local community radio, and something of an experiment. At the same time, we were very conscious of the need to describe ourselves accurately so that people looking for a more traditional Bible College program did not mistake SFC as offering that kind of experience.

The briefing of the advertising consultant took some extra time as we worked to find the right words to capture what we wished to say. In the end, the text of our very brief advertisement was as follows:

Is it your dream to make a POSITIVE change in our rapidly changing world? St Francis Theological College could be your next step to make that change… and push your faith to the next level. St Francis Theological College offers a wide range of courses to equip you for ministry—Biblical Studies, Theology, Ministry Studies and more …  from Certificate to Masters degrees. For course and campus details see StFrancisCollege.com.au 

Whether or not we succeeded in getting the description right, and irrespective of the enrolment enquiries generated by the advertisement, I want to reflect a little further on the assumption that liberal and progressive expressions of Christianity have no good news to share with people.

For the purposes of this reflection, I shall use the five hallmarks of progressive Christianity identified by Hal Taussig in his 2006 study of 1,000 progressive faith communities in North America:

  1. Spiritual vitality and expressive worship
  2. An insistence on Christianity with intellectual integrity
  3. Transgression of traditional gender boundaries
  4. Christian commitment without exclusive claims to religious truth
  5. Strong ecological and social justice commitments

In my view, those five characteristics  constitute an attractive and transformative expression of Christianity. They cut across the traditional boundaries of catholic, evangelical, pentecostal, and liberal Christianity. Ideally, people of faith whose primary identity is Catholic or Evangelical or Pentecostal would find much here that they can endorse as well.

It is not the individual points but rather their combination into a coherent pattern of discipleship that makes progressive Christianity a distinctive expression of Christian faith in today’s world. This is good news, and it is good news that many parts of the Christian Church need; not to mention the wider community.

One only has to voice the alternatives to glimpse why this way of being Christian is profoundly good news. Too many expressions of Christianity are characterised by liturgies that no longer speak to and from the human situation, uncritical acceptance of traditional beliefs and practices, deep fear of sexual difference, ugly religious competition, and a failure to care deeply for justice and the environment.

Progressive Christianity seeks to escape religious naiveté while valuing our own spiritual tradition with its rituals, scriptures, and core values; to engage deeply and passionately with the quest for truth and the search for meaning; to value people for who they are rather than their gender or sexuality; and to participate in the mission of God in shaping a world that is just and sustainable.

If pushed to reduce Hal Taussig’s five-part description to even simpler terms, I would argue that the heart of Christianity is compassionate generosity. If a single term is needed, then compassion does it for me.

Jesus is supposed to have said that the health of a tree can be judged by the fruits that it bears. On that test, SFC scores well as a healthy local expression of progressive Christianity. We respect and value the Catholic Anglican tradition that we have received as a legacy from the past, and we welcome Anglicans of other traditions as well as people of any faith and no faith.

Our goal is that anyone who studies with us grows in their own faith, and increases their capacity to think critically. I rejoice to see among our graduates confident and articulate Evangelicals, confident and articulate Catholics, confident and articulate Progressives, confident and articulate Pentecostals. Our alumni are a diverse lot, and I am proud of them all.

We have good news to share with anyone who chooses us as a place to pursue their theological studies. We will not tell them what to believe or how to behave. But we shall certainly join them in the adventure of keeping alive the dangerous memory of Jesus and learning from each other how best to shape lives that are compassionate and generous.

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  1. A colleague from interstate has emailed me as follows:

    That is very helpful.
    This morning in a regular adult group of 20 – 25 people exploring progressive perspectives on Christianity that question was raised again as it has been on a number of occasions.
    The line in your response that needs most explication is “spiritual vitality”. And perhaps the same question in different format: “What” is expressed in worship?

    SPIRITUAL VITALITY – what I am seeking to describe here, and I think what Hal was reporting in his study, is a commitment to each person’s spiritual journey rather than adherence to denominational formularies or creedal statements. As individuals and as communities of practice, are we engaged with a set of spiritual disciplines that sustain and critique our life journeys?

    EXPRESSIVE LITURGIES – this is not so much a “what” statement as a “how” statement. In progressive liturgies we preference neither the traditional nor the contemporary, but seek an appropriate mix of ritual, art, symbolism that gives dynamic expression to the vital spirituality of the participants, rather than offering entertainment to church-goers or flattery to the Deity. If asked to comment on the “what” dimension, I would suggest it is the Spirit of the All among, between and within each of the participants that is being expressed.

    I am sure there is more to be said, and even what I had written could have been better expressed, but I hope this is at least a helpful start.

  2. Interestingly I have just been reading Hal Taussig’s contribution. I have also just listened to Peter Jensen’s ‘last words’ to the Sydney Synod.

    Jensen’s critique of postmodernism lies in the image of ‘I’ve done it my way’, forgetting it seems, he is advocating for doing things ‘his way’.

    And herein lies the real issue – the fear that not to fly with the flock, or run with the pack, will result in spiritual poverty if not destitution.

    My own pursuit has led me to side with Point 2 – an insistence that Christianity is intellectually integral – that the sum of the parts must complete the whole. The alternative is that mob rule more often masquerades as community which threatens spiritual affection and compassion.

    Taussig quotes Elaine Pagels; ‘Most of us, sooner or later, find that, at critical points in out lives, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists’. For me that path open up at St Francis College.

  3. Any initiative by SFC that brings the Historical Jesus into focus to balance the Christ of Faith is to be welcomed and would lead to a more dynamic Christianity.

  4. Thanks Greg for the succinct description of progressive christianity and the approach we must use to introduce/return people to the historical Jesus. I am hoping to incorporate the 5 hallmarks by Hal Taussig into our Pax overview. We will discuss it next Tueday at our shared meal. Pax Denis

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