Progressive Christians in Alliance with Freethinkers

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A friend and colleague of mine, the Rev. Jim Burklo, is the Dean of Religious Life at USC.  As a “Progressive Christian” he has made a strong statement in support of true “religious freedom” that includes non-believers.

Progressive Christian Allies for Atheists 

I’d like to pursue some questions with him concerning the use of the negative term “atheist” (I prefer “freethinker” or “naturalistic thinker” or something more positive and open to engagement).

I also want to address the oft-repeated challenge to non-theists that we are simply rejecting the old, childish “Man in the Sky” image of a god.  I’m curious how he engages those of us who let go of god and faith through rational personal choice, sometimes after years of questioning supernatural explanations for the universe.

I’m very interested that he says he does not believe in a supernatural.  This almost sounds like he has left the “fold of faith” as most people would define it.  What is “Christian” about that “progressive” step?

So, hurrah!  This seems to open new trails, new waters to cross, for discussion and exploration!


5 thoughts on “Progressive Christians in Alliance with Freethinkers

  1. Great to be in this conversation, Chris! It picks up where we left off back in our Marin days, years ago! How can Christians abandon the concept of a supernatural God? By going back to our Christian and Jewish mystical roots. The God of the burning bush in the book of Exodus called him/her/itself “I AM that I AM” — existence itself. Nicolas of Cusa, the German Catholic bishop of the 15th century, described God as “Posse-Est”, “Can-Is” – a concept very similar to that of 20th century post-supernatural “process theology”. Konrad of Megenburg, a German Catholic scholar in the 14th century, wrote about the full compatibility of the “book of Nature” and the “book of scripture”. This “two books” concept had a lot of play in the late medieval era, as Christian theologians emulated the classical Greek understanding of a unified, integrated cosmos. There was an unresolved debate in the Catholic Church in medieval times about whether or not the biblical miracles were unusual natural phenomena. So the current American evangelical/fundamentalists’ assertion that God is supernatural is really a modern phenomenon reflecting their anxiety about the threat posed by science to their world-view. In fact there has always been plenty of room in the faith for a non-supernatural understanding of God. If God and Nature are one, we draw closer to the divine through scientific inquiry. By reclaiming this old strand of theology for our time, Christians can avoid a lot of silly apologetics that make no sense to folks who take science and common sense seriously.

    1. Faaaaascinating to engage this here, Jim! Thanks for jumping right in.
      As you know, I have a long and deep background in the faith and there has never been a time in my believing years when the super-natural was expendable. I’ve taught classes in spirituality, mysticism, world scriptures, and no historical voice ever took the leap to a non-supernatural conclusion.
      So, this intrigues me. I’ve heard it from other “progs” and still can’t make sense of it. In fact, I think for many of us in the secular community, we would find this line of presentation a bit on the nonsense side. It seems to me, if you postulate a “God” or “divine” or “spirit” at all, you’ve already left the realm of Nature, the natural, the rational. I get it about putting a name/face/personality on Nature (intrinsically anthropomorphic). I used to do that, as I progressed out of faith through the doorway of pantheism. . .but here’s the rub: if there is a Theism, there is a beyond, behind, above and “super” view. I don’t see how to get passed that.
      Mysticism rests (uncomfortably) on a reality behind or even within Reality. I get that philosophically, but as soon as you go theological, using any god-words at all, there is nothing left, in my opinion.
      As for the divine being “I am”/existence, I guess that would lead a person to simply be an existence worshipper. This is not grounded in any historic religious tradition.
      By the way, I should say, I do not worship Nature, though I honor that as a placeholder for Universe.
      I could blabber on here. . .but what say ye?!

  2. Great to be in this conversation, Chris!

    I’m mystified that you somehow missed the Christian mystical tradition that understood God as the essence of existence – that understood God as the awareness of the true Self at one with the cosmos. It is very much grounded in historic Christian religious tradition. The “supernatural” as we think of it today is a concept shaped very much by the reaction of fundamentalist Protestantism against the advances of science in the 18th and 19th centuries. Supernaturalism in America is completely woven into evangelical theology, which dominates the public’s perception of the Christian faith, so it is no wonder that you knew no differently back in your “believer” days. Before the “modern” era, nature and supernature often blended together in Christian theology. Relatively little threat to dogma was perceived in the quest to understand and apprehend nature. As I said, the medieval theologians debated whether or not the biblical miracles were natural or not. So we have to understand supernaturalism in historical context.

    There is great value in using God language to talk about Nature. It reclaims religious tradition into a new and positive relationship with science. It grounds science in awe, wonder, and a deep sense of the sacred suffusing all things and beings. Christianity is a profound poetic, artistic language to express the ineffable experiences we have in our relationship to Nature. It is of course not the only language available to us, but it is a really good one, deeply intertwined as it is with Western culture. Why lose it, when we can use it creatively to good effect?

    What we used to call the supernatural is really a manifestation of nature. It consists of cosmic-level emergent properties that arise from the unfolding of natural processes. Religion itself is an emergent property of the mind, which is an emergent property arising from the human nervous system that itself resulted from natural selection and random mutation. Religion is natural, and so is the object of its worship.

    1. Whew, Jim, I thought perhaps I had offended with my comments about nonsense. So, surely glad to have this friendly dialogue continue!

      After that exchange, I posted my little diagram of the Big Green Box:

      Yes, this is mystifying stuff!

      I think I’m understanding your perspective a bit more. It could be that the God language indeed continues to trip up my mind. Certainly I grasp that many mystics (in a variety of traditions) to some degree felt an awareness of an identity of Creator and Creation. The biblical record has glimpses, but I wouldn’t say this is an historically Jewish or Christian viewpoint. What you describe is much more integral to Hindu theology.

      As I know you know, Jim, mystics were always on the edges, indeed the heretics never quite accepted by the mainstream. Of course, if your lens for understanding Christian history is primarily mysticism, I suppose that can work, though it means denying pretty much the entire historical record of the Church, biblical interpretation, creeds, etc. I would simply wonder why a person would hold to any of that (titles, terms, texts, etc) if we’re all just absorbed into God and vice versa.

      I’m intrigued by this dictionary definition of mysticism: “Belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.”

      The sense of awe, wonder, delight I feel in Nature is not “mystical” in any way. There is no deity, spiritual apprehension or something inaccessible to the intellect. There is no self-surrender into some greater Self. It seems to me, as soon as we name Nature/Universe/All a God-name, all kinds of trouble begins. Divisions start. I fully appreciate the “poetic, artistic language” and the desire to “use it creatively,” but seems to me we still needlessly perpetuate the old anthropomorphism.

      That’s why I ask: Why call the All “God” at all? I just don’t see why the need to name Nature “God,” except to “have a relationship” with “Someone.”

      I get it, religion is, to some extent, “natural” but I think your next phrase causes a mental facepalm: “object of worship.” This appears to be the main rub. . .where mysticism leaves Science and on-the-ground reason behind. No one I know worships, prays to or devotes their life to “existence” or “universe.” (well, maybe a few in a Marin hottub!). Can one be a Minister of Existence? If so, why, and what’s that even mean?

      Btw, teaching courses about Walt Whitman has really helped me get a better grip on this. His concern for “absorption” without religion is fascinating. I’m teaching a class on his friend, John Burroughs, this fall. He addresses some of these issues.

      Ok, not sure I want to drag or drone on any more right now.

      Rather hear what you have to say!

      1. We are sure raising big questions here, Jim. Stimulating!
        I just came across this line from Robert Ingersoll that seems pertinent:
        “Beyond nature man cannot go even in thought—above nature he cannot rise—below nature he cannot fall.” (The Gods). I get the impression you would agree.

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