Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Church of Both Roots and Branches

Yesterday I shared on Facebook a link to an article by "former fundie" Benjamin L. Corey on "Five Reasons Why Many American Christians Wouldn't Like the First Ones."

These reasons include the fact that the first Christians rejected personal ownership of property and engaged in a redistribution of wealth; that they didn’t like big, show-y church stuff; didn’t warn anyone about hell; weren’t patriotic; and were universally pacifists.

My friend James responded and asked: "Interesting article. I found it helpful. I'm interested, though, in how this works with your progressive Christian views. As in, who decides what areas the church should change with the times and which things should remain the same?"

Here (with added links) is my response to James:

Great question! I think the church is a community of both seekers and believers. In other words, it needs to be both conservative (in the best sense of the word) and progressive. Accordingly, I think of it as being like a tree, one which in order to be alive and healthy needs both roots and branches; needs to be both grounded and capable of reaching out and growing. Which brings us, of course, to your crucial question: who gets to decide the issues and areas that are part of the roots and those that are part of the branches.

I think the answer is connected to human flourishing – individual and communal. I think we are better off when we honor those ways of thinking and behaving that the author of this article identifies as being foundational to the early church. Yet in other areas, such as those around gender and sexuality, I think people have and continue to flourish (i.e., live more happily and productively) when we, as both a church and society, question, dialogue, and take into consideration the insights of science and people's lived experiences. In other words, I think issues around gender and sexuality are among those issues that are part of the "branches," and thus in relation to them, it's okay to live in ways that are open to change and development as such change and development have been shown to help people flourish. I think there's less need – or even no need – for change when it comes to issues like living simply, sharing resources, welcoming all, and striving to be non-violent. I think it's pretty clear that when we, as individuals and as a community, embody these ways of being then we are all better off and we flourish. They are issues that are part of our "roots," things that are foundational. I hope this makes sense and, again, I appreciate your question.

In reply to the above, James wrote:

Thanks for your response. A lot of your answer is tied up in "human flourishing" as being key or a goal. Whilst I think that's good, and I agree totally with the premise of sharing and caring and being non-violent, I wonder if Jesus was all about human flourishing? I think he (and Peter and Paul) don't focus on this. This earth is not our home. There is an eternal focus rather than an earthly. I think that was more important to them than human flourishing. But I love challenging my thinking in this area.

I then responded with the following:

I think Jesus was very much about human flourishing, i.e., people experiencing, as he said, "life to the full" in the here and now. And I base this, in part, on his emphasis on the "corporal works of mercy" (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those imprisoned, etc.) and on his comparing of God's love to that of a parent. I'm not a parent, but if I was, I would want my child/children to flourish in this life in every way possible – physically, emotionally, spiritually, relationally. It seems to me that Jesus' life and teaching on compassion and justice was very much all about calling each of us to embody a way of life (the Reign or Kingdom of God) in the here and now so that all may flourish as sons and daughters of God. I don't emphasize a distinct separation between the earthly and the eternal. For me they're intimately connected. ("The Kingdom of God is within you.") I think losing sight of this connection and an overt focus on "the earth is not our home" has brought about much of the environmental problems we and future generations are now facing. Again, I look to the historical Jesus as a guide in this. He clearly loved and felt connected to people and the earth. I mean, look at all his beautiful nature parables and the ways he reached out and connected with all different types of people. Paul, on the other hand, definitely shifted things and did bring more of an earth vs. heaven, matter vs. spirit division. And then, of course, some later church theologians and doctrines really went overboard with it. But I question if such a division was a major component of Jesus' life and teaching. Of course, there are passages and sayings that can be lifted up to counter what I'm saying, but they seem at odds with his overall message, and some biblical scholars even believe that these passages could well be later additions to the gospels, inserted to support later ways of thinking.

Finally, my good friend Paula chimed in with, as usual, words of wisdom:

I'm thinking that evolutionary change takes place just the way you two are doing it here – discourse in the public sphere. Divine power driving the whole project through you. Somehow the good ideas get sorted out and inspire communities moving forward. Lifting up ideas from the early Christians, struggling with the dualisms of heaven/earth, country/globe, and also valuing the institutional forms our ancestors have created for human flourishing – all good. I guess being as intentional and caring as we can be in every moment is the best we can do. It's those darn dualisms that give us most trouble.

Related Upcoming Event:
"Many Places at the Table: The Contemporary Roman Catholic Church in the USA" with Fr. Michael Joncas (Tuesday, February 24, 2015).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Church That Can and Cannot Change
Paul Lakeland on the Church as a Model of Divine Mutuality
Message to a Young Man if Integrity
Answer to a Troubled Liberal Catholic
The Roots of My Progressive Catholicism
Quote of the Day – December 1, 2014
What It Means to Be Catholic
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 1)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 2)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 3)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 4)
James Carroll on Catholic Understandings of Truth (Part 5)
Truth About “Spirit of Vatican II” Finally Revealed!
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 1)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 2)
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 3)
Good News on the Road to Emmaus
The Living Tree

Related Off-site Links:
Could Pope Francis Be Any Clearer About His Vision for the Church? – Robert Mickens (National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2015).
At Mardi Gras, God Dwells Among the Motley Crowds – Alex Mikulich (National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2015).
Take the Catholic Church to Mardi Gras! – Francis DeBernardo (Bondings 2.0, February 17, 2015).
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 1) – Rosemary Radford Ruether (The Progressive Catholic Voice, July 15, 2010).
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 2) – Rosemary Radford Ruether (The Progressive Catholic Voice, July 19, 2010).
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 3) – Rosemary Radford Ruether (The Progressive Catholic Voice, July 28, 2010).

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