The progressive Christianity movement arose in response to the fundamentalist movement that has in the last 30 or 40 years knitted itself closely to conservative politics. Seemingly debunking anything academic and scientific, the conservative Christian movement has caused many to separate, to run.
And as is naturally the case in running from something, sometimes we humans can run so far that we leave behind some of what was important. In the case of Progressive Christianity, while re-embracing education and science (which itself is surely of God, as science is the study of nature, and nature is God’s creation), is it possible we might have also left behind that whole spiritual realm which cannot be experienced with the five senses? If it can’t be seen, heard, or proven, have we dismissed it? In the process of rejecting what the fundamentalist Christians have gotten wrong, have the progressives also abandoned a most central part of the Christian faith?
Ironically this focus on the senses is not so different from what got the fundamentalists off track: reading the Bible only literally and interpreting it as a rule book for 21st century American life. If one sentence says something in black and white, these literalist Christians take it as proof for some applicable-to-every-situation life rule, straight from God’s mouth, because, while God is invisible and shrouded in mystery, the words on the page are clearly visible with physical eyes. Unwilling to move beyond the literal words on the page, they get stuck on the words and miss the big picture. They miss a whole world of spiritual depth that lives between the black and white. The five senses have prevailed.
But before we become too judgmental about what the literalists are missing, let’s look at what we progressives might have lost reactively. Seeing that the literalists’ interpretation of the Bible has blinded them to what can actually be observed or reasoned scientifically (the creation of earth, sexual orientation, women in ministry, etc.), have progressive Christians also left behind all that cannot be proven, reasoned, seen, or intellectually embraced?
Both groups are seeking God and hanging onto the Christian faith, albeit from mutually reactionary angles, and both stumble when it comes to leaving the realm of our five senses. Both groups, from very different angles, have gotten away from that part of the Christian experience that our spiritual predecessors embraced as mystery. What if while both groups are making their arguments, God is somewhere else?
Spiritual mystery is beyond what we can experience with our senses and beyond what we can read on any page (although many Christians throughout history have written about it). Mystery lives in another realm, a realm that surrounds us all, but a realm in which we don’t seem to allow ourselves to explore or repose for any length of time, returning quickly to the comforts of our five senses. We busy ourselves, filling our lives with noise, sometimes even “churchy” noise, that drowns out that invisible realm.
When life is falling apart though, that’s where we go. At those times in life when everything has shattered, our soul yearns deeply for the God beyond the senses. It is often during our most difficult human moments that we are able to most intimately dwell in that outside-the-senses realm.
There are also those rare breakthrough moments, like the birth of a baby with its tiny little fingers and toes, or watching a sunrise over the ocean with no other sound but that of the crashing waves. In those very special moments, we can become intimately enveloped in the God realm, and, with practice and discipline, we can go there anytime, in our own solitude, quietly alone without the distractions of tv, radio, internet or phone, maybe outdoors surrounded by God’s creation, a quiet walk through the woods, or a rest beside a babbling mountain stream.
The realm is there, surrounding us, but maybe we have become too intelligent or perhaps too religious to seek and embrace it. In our quest for being the right kind of Christian, or sometimes for just not being the wrong kind, is it possible that most of us, conservatives and progressives alike, have become Christian extremists, losing the center of what our faith is really about: not right belief, not right words, not right denomination or politics, but an intimate connection with the God who created us, an inner peace unlike any our five senses can provide? It’s scientifically inexplicable. It’s mystery beyond any words. Yet there is where we most clearly experience and encounter God.