Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.
[These thoughts have been further clarified from my post on the blog of Episcopal Divinity School around the time I began my own.]
Jesus told his disciples “a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart,” and, in his earliest known correspondence, the apostle Paul advised the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.”
The first Christian contemplatives took the notion of “praying always” to heart, and went out into the desert to pray, to preserve the “edge” of Christian faith even as church and state colluded in the fourth century. As Thomas Merton explained in The Wisdom of the Desert,
The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a [ship]wreck did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers believed prayer was not about changing God’s mind or heart, but about their own transformation. God brings justice and mercy into the world one person at a time. Thus prayer and contemplation serve as grounding for those of us who seek the transformation of the world. This passion for transformation is one dimension of progressive Christianity.
A second dimension is that we use our minds, our critical faculties, to approach our faith—texts, tradition, history, present, and future. But in the use of our minds we must not lose heart. We are not spiteful children who run around proclaiming “There is no Santa Claus!” to innocents. We are faithful people who affirm spiritual truths without literalist trappings. It is true that much progressive Christianity is about demythologizing and deconstruction. But in so doing, our hope is to recover the ancient meanings of the stories of our faith tradition, as well as their meaning for today.
One way of recovering the ancient meanings of our faith tradition is through prayer and reflection. To participate in the biblical dialogue about God, meaning, virtue, and so on with our hearts as well as our minds is to be an authentic and integral part of an ancient tradition that was diverse in its viewpoints, heterodox in its theologies, and multiple in its expressions.
A third dimension of progressive Christianity is that we plumb the depths of our faith even as we value other faiths, including agnosticism and atheism. Our multicultural world—not as different from the ancient world in its diversity as is often thought—offers opportunities for dialogue, not only across religious and cultural boundaries, but across disciplinary boundaries as well, as I recently wrote on this blog. Science, for example, is not an adversary, but an aid in understanding the world, religion, and spirituality itself. The way of art and literature is another.
Just as some Christians seem to have lost their minds, progressive Christians cannot lose our hearts. As Jesus said, “What benefit is there if, in gaining the whole world, we lose our soul?” We are not modern-day Gnostics who believe our “secret wisdom” will save us. Rather, we believe that knowledge frees us from superstition, sentimentality, and the “elemental spirits” that the apostle Paul confronted in Galatians. Our faith is not stupid, nor is it heartless. Prayer and meditation afford us the opportunity, as the Desert Mothers and Fathers taught, for words to descend from our minds to our hearts. Thus prayer and contemplation must become a fourth dimension of progressive Christianity.
We may feel overwhelmed by the diversity of texts and traditions about Jesus, about God. Biblical scholars discuss the authenticity and accuracy of these accounts. Theologians debate their authority and application. Contemplatives reflect on their inspiration for the present.