Today I move on to the third essay in Four Views on Christian Spirituality. Following upon essays on Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic spirituality, this one focuses on progressive Protestant spirituality.
Its author is Joseph Driskill, a member of my own denomination. He is dean of the Disciples Seminary Foundation in Berkeley, California. So, although we belong to the same church, I have to point out that there is just a huge cultural difference between his setting in Berkeley and my setting in small-town Missouri. He describes himself as progressive. Many in his own church would choose a different way of describing themselves.
He starts by dealing with the decline of mainline Protestant churches. All of them together (United Methodists, Evangelical Lutheran, American Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, etc.) now constitute only about 9% of religious people in the U.S. He blames spirituality for the part of the vulnerability of mainline churches.
Driskill sees spirituality as “lived experience of faith.” This has been evolving in the mainline churches.
Until recently their activism has not been backed up by a sense of the presence of God. Their approach to the Bible has been academic rather than devotional. Their God did not intervene in daily life, so they did not pray for that. Jesus was an example of a loving life more than a personal savior.
This made God distant and spirituality overly rational. But a new breeze is blowing because of a progressive and postmodern correction to the staleness of this older spirituality. Now we can conceive of God in a new way.
In our time, we can no longer think of God as out there, transcendent and all powerful. A panentheistic view of God, though, makes a new, warmer spirituality possible.
“Pan means “all” or “everything”; en means “in”; theism comes from theos, “God.” . . . This understanding of God provides for the immanence of God’s love and closeness while maintaining the transcendent otherness of God’s mystery. It offers an understanding of God that progressives have increasingly embraced as the modern worldview has faded,” (Four Views on Christian Spirituality (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Kindle Locations 2234-2240). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)
Pantheism would mean that everything is God. But there is supposed to be a difference with Panentheism. Panentheism means that we can conceive of everything as in God so that God is no longer far away, but present in social and natural processes.
This has enabled a new spiritual vitality in mainline churches where spirituality often takes the form of fellowship and social life. But increasingly there is a new interest in spiritual practices often drawn from other traditions. There is more and more an attempt to cultivate a sense of mystery.
But mainline spirituality integrates spiritual devotion with rational understanding and action for compassion, peace and justice.
This is the essay I mentioned a few weeks ago. Scot McKnight said that there is no gospel in it. Let’s see how the responders to Driskill in Four Views on Christian Spirituality saw his essay.
Bradley Nassif, the Eastern Orthodox writer, appreciates that many mainline churches are good at loving and accepting people as they are. He also appreciates the emphasis on social justice. But he says there are vast differences, which lie not so much in the lived experience of spirituality but in its background , its source and content. So he reiterates Orthodox doctrine over against Driskill.
Scott Hahn speaks for the Roman Catholic view, but also as a former mainline pastor. As such, he has the most negative view of Driskill’s essay. He sees progressive Christianity as domesticated by secular American culture to which it accommodates itself.
“The mainline turns from the divine and otherworldly to the contemporary and this-worldly. It identifies with certain social concerns, and again these seem to match rather exactly the concerns of a very specific segment of American society — and even a specific political party.” (Four Views on Christian Spirituality (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Kindle Locations 2701-2704). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)
For all its emphasis on diversity and inclusiveness, the mainline remains mostly white and elite and so reflects a pretty narrow cultural view.
Evan Howard responds for the Evangelical view. He agrees with Driskill’s assessment that for much of the twentieth century mainline churches were hamstrung by a distant and academic spirituality. He says their view of God was “semi-deism,” He joins Driskill in applauding the new “Spirit-consciousness” of progressive Protestants. He notes that both mainline and evangelical Protestants are in the process of exploring new things. Both have views on biblical interpretation and spiritual practices that are emerging.
None of the responders took on the idea of panentheism. Driskill presented it as in agreement with scriptural ideas such as the Holy Spirit’s presence in the world. But professors committed to Process Theology usually promote panentheism in our seminaries.
It has an effect on doctrine that is important. For instance, if you have a worldview that God is inherently in everything, then the Incarnation was not an event. It is just a story illustrating what has always been the case. The Word has always been flesh. God has always been incarnate in the world.
The same with the resurrection. It is not something that happened in history. It is a story illustrating the renewal and new life that is always coming about in the natural and personal world.
If Process Theology prevails, then to the extent that the other three views remain committed to the historic doctrines of the incarnation and the resurrection as events rather than illustrative stories, the mainline hope for inclusion in a broader Christian unity may lead to a dead-end.
It is in this that Scot McKnight’s claim that there is no gospel here has a point. But Process Theology is not the view of the majority of mainline members.