In this series, we’re reviewing the book, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, by David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy. In this post, we’ll be finishing of the book by reviewing chapters 19-21.
Chapter 19: Compassion — The Heart of Jesus’s Ministry
Felten and Procter-Murphy start of this chapter by stating, “The essence of Jesus’s ministry might be distilled down into one word: compassion” (pg. 200). And I agree. However, as an aside, they then start the second paragraph with these thoughts, “To understand Jesus’s commitment to the practice of compassion, it helps to know a little about the world into which he as born” (pg. 200). And while I completely agree with this statement, my question is why’d they wait until chapter 19 to point that out? These are things that need to be brought up at the beginning of a book about Jesus. It’s called context and would’ve helped with some of the other issues they raise, I would imagine.
Anyway, after giving us some really good background information about the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and how the different factions of Judaism dealt with this, Felten and Procter-Murphy write:
Jesus stepped into this rigid, legalistic environment, flying in the face of the Pharisees’ prime directive: separation from anything unclean…[Jesus] invited his disciples to look beyond the conventional attitudes of his day and see how the way we treat one another is more important than the way we adhere to a set of rigid rules...By putting behavior ahead of belief in a hierarchy of values, Jesus’s disciples are held to a standard that transcends the rules. Followers of Jesus are duty-bound to treat their fellow human beings with kindness, respect, and mercy — no matter the circumstance. Our actions of love are more important than the expression of our beliefs or keeping of the law (pgs. 201-202).
Exactly. It seems that too many of us today forget this. We’re so eager to take up stones against what we think are sins that we look more like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day than Jesus himself, whom we are supposed to be in the world.
Felten and Procter-Murphy press this point even further when they say:
The point of the law is not the law, but people. The law is a human attempt to express an orderliness in life — without which human life in community would be impossible. If the rules get in the way of a single healing, life-healing, compassionate act, they’re not to be followed...In striving to be compassionate, in demonstrating what it means to live an authentically human life, Jesus is calling us to our divinity. To be compassionate, therefore, is to recognize our utter interdependence in God’s world and to see other people, by they stranger or outcast, as sisters or brothers (pg. 204 - 2-5; emphasis theirs).
Again, a hearty, “Amen!”
I sectioned off and highlighted the entire next section of the chapter, Changed in an Instant. It was that good! So, I’ll just end this with Felten’s and Procter-Murphy’s final thoughts, “To see another person, even a stranger, as a sister or brother, is the beginning of compassion and the embracing of what Jesus preached and practiced as the primary quality of a life centered in God (pg. 209).”
Chapter 20: Creative Transformation
Felten and Procter-Murphy start off this chapter with an astute assessment of the situation of many:
Creativity and innovation are valued and sought after qualities in virtually every human endeavor — except religion. In many faith traditions, it is the tradition itself that is worshipped...many faithful people have confused defense of their understanding of right practice and right practice with what they call faith (pg. 211).
Spot on, that. I asked a friend once what he would do if all of the church buildings were destroyed and church buildings were outlawed. He said, “I think I would build a church building.” Instead of seeing the “church” as something other than the building and all that entails, and creating something other than again, he would rather go back to what was known; what was comfortable. Now, I get that we would want to stand up to power, to not let the bully take that away. But at the same time, I agree with Felten and Procter-Murphy that:
People are simply no longer moved by the notion that they are horrible sinners from birth, redeemed only by the sacrifice of an impossibly perfect man at the hands of a bloodthirsty, tribal God...Seekers of spiritual integrity and members of the “Church Alumni/ae Association” are finding their own creative ways to fulfill the deepest longings of their souls, free from the perceived, and very often real, hypocrisy of the church (pg. 212).
And, while I can hear some people pushing back against this as “proof” of humanity’s sin, I think they’re on to something here. I know that in my own journey, I have come to a place where I no longer see humanity as “horrible sinners from birth.” And the idea of Substitutionary Atonement is repugnant to me.
On the next page, Felten and Procter-Murphy quote Thomas Merton. It’s so good, that I’ve transcribed it here in it’s entirety:
The great tragedy of our age is the fact that (if one dares to say it) there are so many godless Christians. Christians, that is, whose religion is a matter of pure conformity and expediency. Their “faith” is little more than a permanent evasion of reality; a compromise with their deepest life in order to avoid admitting the uncomfortable truth that they no longer have any real need for God or any real vital love for God. They conform to the outward conduct of others just like themselves, and they call this the Church. And these “believers” cling together offering one another an apparent justification for their lives that are essentially the same as their materialistic neighbors whose horizons are purely those of the world and its transient values (pg. 213).
Wow and ouch. But, as usual, Merton is spot on.
So, the issue is that, not only is our “core message” no longer relevant, but neither is our places of worship.
Now, I know that a lot of people would disagree. They would point to their places of worship and say things like, “Look at the growth! Look how many people are showing up!” And my response would be, “Go back and read that quote from Merton again. Then look (‘if one dares to’) at those attending your place of worship and ask yourself, ‘Why?’”
In the next section of this chapter, Metamorphosis, Felten and Procter-Murphy point out that, far from a one-time event, being born “from above” implies “a journey, a process, or a way of living” or a “lifelong relationship with the Spirit of Life” (pg. 214-215).
They go on to say:
Both being “born again” and being “saved” suggest one-time, static, achievements. But the first disciples were called the people on “the Way,” suggesting just the opposite: transformation, transition, and change — a dynamic way of life. By understanding the broader definitions of what these concepts mean, we open ourselves to deeper understandings of life and the possibility of metamorphosis (pg. 215).
We can see how that idea builds off of the previous chapter (something they don’t seem to do often). To see a stranger as our sister or brother doesn’t happen overnight. And it’s usually not a pain free experience. To which Felten and Procter-Murphy affirm on page 216, “For most people, it’s only when they’ve been ‘undone’ that there is an opportunity for the mystery of grace to work its magic.” I know that in my life, I was a mess. My whole world was laying in rubble at my feet. Someone pointed me to Brian McLaren’s book, Finding Faith. “It’ll change your life,” he said. “I hope so,” I said through tears, “because I can’t go on like this.”
This being “undone” — this metamorphosis — often comes in creative ways. In the gospels, that creativity takes the shape of the story or “parable.” Quoting Megan McKenna, Felten and Procter-Murphy note that, “A story is...interested in shifting your perception of reality, your view of the world, what’s really going on” (pg. 216). So where are the stories in our world today? Where are the parables, the reality-shifting stories, found? They’re often found in film. “As modern-day parables,” they say, “movies help us delve deeply into the most stirring, disturbing, and inspiring aspects of life” (pg. 217).
As Felten and Procter-Murphy finish off this chapter, they note that:
The path toward transformation is different for every traveler, but the need for transformation is an integral part of the human experience. In the words of that great theologian, Bob Dylan, “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying”...Creativity and transformation are principles that stave off our tendency to become hard and brittle, and open us instead to the transformative power of God’s unconditional love and grace (pg. 218).
Chapter 21: Embracing Mystery
In this chapter, Felten and Procter-Murphy make the case that, at best, our words and images are limited in our understanding of G‑d. “The truly holy,” they say, “is not something grasped in the intellectual realm, but firmly rooted in the experiential” (pg. 221). By contrast, “right belief and certainty have been emphasized instead” (pg. 221). “People,” they claim, “have been programmed to be suspicious of ambiguity” (pg. 221).
I know this is certainly true for some people, perhaps even most people. I have close friends that don’t like vague responses to questions. Heck, some don’t like the use of “responses” when they’re accustomed to “answers!” And I’ve had to let go of things, too. Things that, in my mind, were convictions and, therefore, non-negotiable. But, as the Understandings of the Lindisfarne Community points out:
15. We see through a glass only darkly and know our understandings to be merely provisional. We hold our convictions (which are few) without wavering, but hold our opinions (which are many) lightly. Therefore, there must be a great willingness to change — being slow to judge, never condemning, quick to acknowledge mistakes and move on. There is yet more light and truth for us to become aware of, to assimilate and so to be transformed (emphasis added).
There are now just a couple of items that aren’t “on the table” of debate for me. But everything else, let’s talk about it (and even those “non-negotiables” can be discussed). Because, for me, following The Way of Jesus is not a series of beliefs that one can check off a list, it’s about a daily practice; a way of living; a way of being. And that’s just what Felten and Procter-Murphy state on page 222,
Whatever comes next for Christianity, it will have to teach people how to believe and live and not dwell simply on what to believe...In the same way music, art, drama, and poetry defy any one interpretation, those who embrace mystery are free to interpret the Divine in new and fresh ways, bringing to the table a variety of understandings.
I think this is already happening in place like the Lindisfarne Community. For us, and several other neo-monastic communities, the ancient ways found in Celtic Christianity speaks to us at a deep level. And because of these ancient paths, many of us embrace the reality of mystery — of being okay with not knowing. Felten and Procter-Murphy quote Saint Hildegard (1098 - 1179), the German abbess and mystic, as saying, “Creation reveals the hidden God just as clothes hint at the shape of a person’s body” (pg. 225). They go on to write:
There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the “thin places” the distance becomes even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates the sacred from the pedestrian is so transparent that one is able to catch a glimpse of the mystery beyond. A thin place is anywhere our hearts are receptive to “the More,” anywhere the distance we put between us and the Divine begins to evaporate (pg. 225).
Yes, and a thousand times yes! That’s what many of us sense. There’s Something deep within all creation that connects us, links us, to each other and the earth. And sometimes, in some places, that connection is tangible, maybe even in a physical way. But make no mistake about it — if this is true, as I and millions of others believe it to be so — there really isn’t a separation of these things into different, human-made, categories of “sacred” and “secular.”
“The Quakers and Franciscans,” Felten and Procter-Murphy write, “are just two examples of worldviews striving to see all of life as sacred. Whether it is described as a spark of the Divine within each of us or a commitment to living all of life as a sacrament, their practices express the belief that all of life can be used by God” (pg. 226).
And I would add the Lindisfarne Community to that list as well. As we say in our sixth Understanding:
In this we are seeking to be authentic people, so that there is nothing false about us. We refuse to wear masks, seeing our lives whole and entire, being utterly honest with ourselves. Integrity toward others flows out of fearless personal honesty. There is a need to break down the difference between the sacred and the secular; to be the same on Monday as Sunday; to be the same at work as at home; to be the same with our family as with our friends and colleagues (emphasis added).
Well, that concludes my review of the chapters of this book. I’ll post my final thoughts in another post.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.