Is Progressive Spirituality just another middle class comfort religion?

I attended the recent Val Webb/Peter Kennedy workshop at New Farm. Unlike the other reports from the conference I report that I was disappointed and disturbed by what I found there. I left the workshop early because I felt totally alienated and frustrated. I certainly did not share in the commonality that others have described.

I had hoped to find some free-thinking people with a new agenda for the church. However what I found was a group of white middle class people that looked, smelt, sounded and acted exactly the same as the institutional church that I have rejected.

The spirituality I found at the workshop was a middle class comfort religion. I found “true believers” with a cult-like enthusiasm about the doctrines and celebrities of the organisation but an inability to think outside of the box of their own intellectual and cultural comfort zone – just like evangelical fundamentalists.

Greta Vosper has coined the slogan “the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe”. If this slogan can be applied to the Progressive Spirituality movement we find a group of people who, while articulating a different philosophy to the church, live exactly the same as the church.

Progressives seem to congratulate themselves about the liberalism and inclusiveness of their philosophies – what they believe, but they seem blind to the exclusiveness of their culture – how they live.

There has been much talk, including at the New Farm workshop, about the unity and common humanity of different faiths at the recent World Parliament of Religions in Melbourne. I have no doubt that middle class Christians, middle class Muslims, middle class Jews, middle class Buddhists and Middle class Hindus can indeed find a common humanity relatively easily. However the indigenous contingent to the World Parliament have complained of being sidelined and not listened to. This identifies an exclusion that has nothing to do with religious philosophy but is born of class and culture – how we live.

While rejecting orthodox theology, I have much affinity with Liberation Theology that, while embracing an orthodox Christology, incarnates a radical vision of social change. I have no affinity with a Progressive Spirituality that articulates philosophical change but leaves the structures and systems of oppression, and our place in them, unexplored.

I am sure many will say that social justice is important to progressive spirituality. The institutional church also claims a commitment to social justice. Orthodox and progressive Christians alike have reduced social justice to shallow platitudes or liturgical poetry and have only embraced social justice as a matter of what we believe, a matter of opinion, rather than how we live our lives.

Even the St. Mary’s in Exile community has failed to transcend status-quo welfare paradigms in its understandings of social justice. They provide a management structure to administer government funding for government programs that conform to dysfunctional government policies that entrench poverty and disadvantage. They signed a so-called “sacred treaty” with the Noonuccal people and widely congratulated themselves in hosting a corroboree to celebrate the treaty. However Peter Kennedy himself issued media statements after the ceremony insisting that it was only symbolic. The specific terms of the treaty – to assist in the development of dry camps, cultural education programs and the digital systemisation of traditional Noonuccal knowledge, were ignored immediately the ceremony was over.

St. Mary’s had an opportunity to engage with Aboriginal people as spiritual leaders and co-workers – the agents of their own liberation as prescribed by Liberation Theology. But they have dismissed this in favour of the church welfare status-quo that sees Aboriginal people, and all other clients of their welfare program, as the powerless recipients of the charity of the church and state.

Most Progressive Spirituality people do not seem to be engaged in any kind of meaningful journey towards social justice beyond sitting under the umbrella of orthodox church social justice agendas. Progressive Spirituality, at present, is focused solely on making middle class people feel better about themselves.

If we are going to articulate a new theology we must also articulate a new paradigm of mission. John Dominic Crossan (who is coming to Australia this year) articulates a biblical anti-imperialist theology that is fully consistent with the Liberation Theology of the 60s and 70s while dismissing the theological fantasy and fabrication of the historical church. I am greatly inspired by this, not because of the intellectual rigour of Crossan’s scholarship but because it provides a spiritual platform for progressives to begin to explore and engage in social justice action. I wish the Progressive Spirituality movement would follow this path instead of maintaining its present mode of middle class self-edification.

John Tracey

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One response to “Is Progressive Spirituality just another middle class comfort religion?

  1. great article. as someone exploring and struggling with Christianity, i get frustrated seeing the “progressive spirituality” you discuss and seeing the fundamentalists, but rarely seeing people who appear to actually think about and learn about the Bible and live their lives as a means of radical social justice. this article gives me hope! this is refreshing.

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