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:
- Spiritual vitality and expressive worship
- An insistence on Christianity with intellectual integrity
- Transgression of traditional gender boundaries
- Christian commitment without exclusive claims to religious truth
- 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.