Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas for the Progressive Christian

Depending on which study one reads, anywhere from 1/3 to almost 1/2 of Americans are conservative, evangelical, or fundamentalist Christians. Add to the mix the more conservative elements of the Jewish and Muslim communities and that comes to a lot of illiberal occupants of this country.

I'm concerned about fundamentalism. I cringe to hear people rejoice at the thought that God condemns people of religions not their own. I shudder when I hear and see people dehumanize their gay and lesbian neighbors because they think that is what God would have them do. I tighten up when I hear apocalyptic doom and gloom preachers, and then I feel even worse when I see that they are speaking to packed houses who seem to enjoy what they are saying.

Of my friends from college and graduate school (before seminary), and among the acquaintances I made during my days in theatre communities, I am almost alone as a religious person. Even among my seminary pals, I am pretty unique in that I am not part of a denomination that is almost exclusively "liberal." Almost every Unitarian Universalist friend from seminary beckoned me to come over to their side. I would be lying if I denied having seriously considered it.

I think of myself as a public intellectual, an artist-theologian, a free-thinker. Words like "pluralist," "Humanist," "progressive," "liberal," and "post-Christian" feel comfortable to me. And yet, I remain active in a Christian denomination, a clergy person in a thriving parish, celebrating the liturgical feasts (including Christmas which is upon us). Why do I do what I do?

I believe fundamentalism is a danger to world peace.
I believe anti-intellectualism and dogmatic prejudices keep our country divided and hinder justice and equality for all people.
I believe that religion has damaged families, individuals, politics, and even society at large.
And though the US doesn't have a state religion, we seem for less progressive, enlightened, and reasonable than developed countries that are historically Anglican, Lutheran, or in some cases, even Catholic. This is a problematic situation with which we must deal if liberty, justice, peace, and forward movement are to be realized in our world.

Many of my friends respond to the crisis by retreating behind the walls of the Academy, or simply dismissing religion as laughable and trying to form secular pockets of safety within our "Christian" nation. Others find a liberal tradition (Reform Judaism, Zen Buddhism, Religious Science, Unitarian Universalism, etc.) or a liberal parish within their moderate to conservative denominations, again trying to find safe and like-minded people with whom they can build community. All of these responses are legitimate and attractive, and I sometimes wonder why my path didn't follow theirs' more closely.

But the people who need to hear truly "Good News," a gospel witness that challenges fears and prejudices and dogmatic beliefs are in churches. And so, the parish remains my mission field. It is to the pew that I continue to direct my alternative message of life's possibilities and human potential and the innate dignity of all people. It is from altar and pulpit that I continue to cry out that mind and heart, thinking and feeling, religion and science, reason and tradition can dance together and be holistically applied to life.

So, this Christmas Eve I will be singing carols and worshipping with my fellow Christians, many of whom are more traditional that I. I will remember stories filled with myth and magic and miracle and hope and imagination and courage and beauty. I will recall angels and shepherds and the notion that a baby born in a barn somehow symbolizes Good News for all kinds of people. I will enjoy the experience, and feel renewed commitment to my spiritual path. The mythic Christ will once again be born in my imagination this Christmas.

The best hope for the world isn't that all people become Christian, but that more Christians become tolerant, reasonable, inclusive citizens of our ever shrinking but always diverse global village. If I am to play a part in that mission, I must meet my fellow Christians where they are. And so, its off to church I go.

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