Progressive Evangelicalism: Being an embodied question mark

I’ve been asked to speak at a day on Progressive Evangelicalism at Spurgeon’s College. I am a bit ambivalent about being either progressive or an Evangelical, so thought I’d post up my thoughts and ask my on-line friends to give their thoughts and help make this better. I’m not in any way attempting to provide a comprehensive overview on ‘what progressive evangelicalism might look like/need to do’; instead I was struck recently by a statement that I read in a book by Kenneson and Street (Selling Out the Church: the dangers of mass marketing) that the Church should be ‘an embodied question mark in society’, and thought that makes an interesting challenge to consider.

There are many questions that those of us who call ourselves Christians – both individually and in our Church communities – should be asking of our society. Here are the three that I’m thinking about most at the moment:

1. Who and what is forming us?

‘I like your jacket, is it new?’ I asked a good friend of mine at our church meeting the other Sunday. ‘Oh yes’, she said, ‘you know what it’s like: it’s one of those silly things that you pick up from the shops when you’re waiting for someone in town and you’ve got there a bit early’.

We’ve been created to consume, but modern-day consumerism is something quite different and not necessarily a natural way to live, which is why it has to teach us to be consumers. Hence we live in a society that is utterly geared towards making us buy things. It is formational, training us from an early age how we are expected to live and behave if we are to do well and be accepted in this society.

As Christians, however, our goal – as Paul tells the Corinthian church – is to be in a process of being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:17-18). Consumer formation and Christ-like formation would thus seem to be tugging us in opposite directions. Jamie Smith writes about this brilliantly in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation and reminds us to be aware that we are being formed in the likeness of consumer culture constantly throughout our days. If we think that an hour and a half or so on a Sunday will be enough to counteract that then we’d better think again! So there is a call to us as Church to question the messages of consumerism and show that there is a better way into which to be formed.

2. Where can we find true satisfaction?

As it was in Antiquity, so today, our search is for happiness. There’s no criticism in that – who doesn’t want to be happy?! But our problem is where we look for it. Following on from the point above, we are led to believe that the key to happiness lies in having an abundance of money. Now there is truth in that, of course. We all need a certain amount of money in order not only to survive, but to thrive (although check out Mark Boyle for something that challenges that statement), but our understanding of how much that ‘certain amount’ is, is fascinating.

Research shows that, overall, we aren’t particularly greedy and are not looking to become super-rich. When asked how much money we would need in order to be content – whatever our current income – we generally cite a figure about 10% higher. Would you relate to that I wonder? Actually, recent figures suggest that up to about £26k, levels of happiness match levels of income, but that after £26k we don’t get proportionately happy as our income level rises. And yet we spend so much of our energy trying to earn more money!

As Christians we’ve got something to say into this situation – after all, Jesus said that he came to give us ‘life, and life to the full’ (John 10:10). But what does that fullness of life consist of? The answer is in a life that ‘seeks first God’s Kingdom’ and that ‘loses life in order to find it’. In other words, true satisfaction – paradoxically – lies in following God’s Kingdom agenda with all our might, whatever it may cost us. (BTW I’m speaking to myself here!)

My concern though is that we can’t ask this question of the society around us because we haven’t yet asked it of ourselves. I sometimes think that Church is an exercise of learning how we can serve both God and Money…

3. What future are we preparing for?

As McKibben has written about so forcefully in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, we live in a world that is facing immense problems. Arctic sea ice is now 40% less than in 1968 when Apollo first took that iconic photo of earth. The earth’s temperature is rising and the atmosphere has way more CO2 in it than is deemed safe, despite all the attention given to the need to be reducing emissions. Our seas are more acidic now than at anytime in the last 800,000 years and erratic weather patterns are increasingly becoming the norm. It is predicted that there will be 700 million climate change refugees by the mid-Century and that half the world’s population will live with water shortages. And we live facing a future of severely reduced oil supplies.

And yet, as a society we are doing precious little either to prepare for that future or to work to reduce its horrors. As churches we should be raising a question mark about this by focussing not only on our ultimate future, but on our proximate future (see my previous post for more on that), and I would like to encourage these sorts of issues to be an integral part of what we talk and pray about and act on together as churches.

I need to stop although I’ve got so much more to say. Is this going to work at Spurgeons College, do you think? Am I off-beam here? Your thoughts are really welcomed.

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21 thoughts on “Progressive Evangelicalism: Being an embodied question mark

  1. I like this a lot, Ruth. I would personally want to strengthen the second section – there is a pressing need for economic justice as well as environmental justice… This isn’t just about personal happiness or fulfillment: At many points throughout the Bible God’s people are judged by their treatment of the poor, the marginalised and the outsider. Ultimately, my well-being is tied up with the well-being of others.. In a world of increasing economic inequality and instability this too is a major challenge to how we live and act as Christians…

    • Yes, and everything we do has an effect on others, even things we do in private, since they change us and hence relationships with others

  2. Excellent Ruth. These questions are key.Have Spurgeons College given you any indication as to the direction they are expecting you to take? If not, then my advice would be go with what is in your remarkable mind and on your beautiful heart (poetic dualism!).

  3. A comment on your point 2 above. I was visiting a church on Sunday where the preacher was talking a bit about this, making a distinction between ‘surface idols’ and ‘deep idols’. An apparent (surface) love of money may actually be masking something deeper: a craving, for eg, for security, or comfort, or status…. even a fear of standing out as different. (Look how much ribbing Nick got on The Apprentice for not having a TV!!) Love of money is a norm in our society: to try and walk a different path involves willingness and courage to be thought of as odd. It’s easier to do that when you’re doing it with other people, rather than just on your own. Those deeper cravings can only be satisfied/dealt with in Christ; and pursuing the journey as a whole church or Christian community will help us.

    JJohn, in his book TEN, points out that the whole of our society is based on covetousness: what is the role of advertising, if not to persuade you that you must have what you don’t need! Even a few years ago I think generally we would convince ourselves that it was ok to buy something because we needed it: we’ve gone beyond that now, and it’s ok to buy things just because we want them, ie no justification needed.

    On another note: I think this would be a great subject for our church weekend

  4. Love the idea of embodied question mark. Implies to me that our very being should be raising questions to which in simplistic terms Jesus is the answer. When I was a student in Edinburgh in 60s mission to university was called ‘answer week’ – student newspaper cartoon asked – what is the question? Was intrigued to realise tha Dr Who is not a name but an embodied question . His name is ‘the docor’ not Dr Who? By all means let us ask the questions you list, but more so let us generate questions by who we are, what we do, and why we do it? John

    • ‘Answer week’ – that says it all!! Tom Wright says that our aim isn’t to learn the right answers but to discover the right questions. And so true about ‘The Doctor’, I’d never thought of that.

  5. Thanks for all your comments. What I’m concerned of is being too critical. Can you think of ways in which (Evangelical) Christians are or have (whether presently or historically) been embodied question marks in society? I’d like to be positive too!

  6. Only time for a brief word or four…but I was struck by your title, simply because of a statement made by a friend today. She expressed an almost lifelong frustration with ‘evangelicals’ because of their insistence on having all the answers, even more arrogant, she believes, ‘ all the right answers’ .( So, would disagree to a certain extent with the ‘ Jesus is the answer-find the question’ stance.) Like so many of us, she is fearful of absolutes and certainties and finds truth in open-ness and questioning-and perhaps more importantly, listening. (Answers are all too often accompanied by an inability to listen, or offer real relational intimacy.)
    Jesus calls ALL of us to a life with him, not just those of us who think they have the ‘ right answers'; surely she said, a call to faith should be inclusive. She said she is attracted to the man-but not his PR company or packaging! (Much as my kids would probably say what they always say-that evangelicals sell Jesus short in terms of the life they offer to those who follow him!)
    I suggested that I saw faith as very much a stumbling journey , which must be done together so that we can help one another when we inevitably tumble into potholes. She was happier with that. But we both suspect that evangelicals would still grasp the map book or be in control of the SatNavs! Sorry Ruth. not exactly what you’re asking, I know..and a very simple, instinctive reply to your title just because it seemed to link in a little with today’s conversation..
    (Also agree wholeheartedly with Niall’s comment about economic justice…there’s a BIG question that we have an opportunity to debate ( rather than answer!) in the light of the mission of Jesus.)

    • I never said thank you for writing this! Good comments, we’ve got so much to keep thinking about… and yes we’ve got to move away from thinking we always have to provide the answers.

  7. Late to the party here. I like the overall gist. A couple of details on your 3rd point for future reference.

    1. “Arctic sea ice is now 40% less than in 1968 when Apollo first took that iconic photo of earth.”
    It pays to be precise because you’ll get push-back from those who read certain blogs. Arctic summer sea ice extent is down roughly 40% from four decades ago. These additions are important. Winter sea ice extent is only down something like 10% and is more variable in its decline. And we’re talking about extent (which, slightly confusingly, is not the same as area). But an even more jaw-dropping stat is to look at winter Arctic sea ice volume, which is down something like 70% over the same time period (though with larger margins of error, because it is much harder to measure). Happy to provide links on any of this, though trust you’re able to find it yourself too.

    2. “Our seas are more acidic now than at anytime in the last 800,000 years”
    What matters even more (from a ecological point of view) is the rate of change. And here, again, there is a considerably more impressive stat. It is likely that the current rate of change in oceanic pH is faster than at any point in the last 300 million years.

    3. “And we live facing a future of severely reduced oil supplies.”
    I would rephrase this. The key issue is not running out of oil supplies, but increasingly poor ERoEI, making the production of oil more expensive. There is still (unfortunately from a climate perspective) plenty of fossil carbon in the ground to do ourselves immense damage and a large fraction of this is oil (both conventional and non-conventional). What we face being severely reduced is our access to cheap and easy high quality conventional crude oil, the kind that gushes from the ground when you dig a hole in the right place. Most of that is gone, but we’ll still be able to dig up hydrocarbons that can serve as liquid fuel if we are stupid enough to want to burn them all. I don’t think Monbiot gets the balance right here (esp since he fails to talk about ERoEI and so the economic implications of peak conventional liquid oil), but it gives a taste of what I mean.

    • Thanks for this Byron, helpful. Those first two figures came from McKibben’s ‘Eaarth’ book and the extra info is sobering indeed. The third point I think was a shorthand for what you’ve written in that I’m aware of what you’re saying (I’ve just read the manuscript for an interesting Christian book coming out on peak oil over the Summer). I’m also aware though that my posts should be shorter than they are and I didn’t want to write too much… Monbiot’s article was interesting and awful at the same time. Sadly I think we will be stupid enough to want to burn it all – at least I don’t see much sign that we’re changing direction. ‘Big Sigh’.

  8. Hi Bryron, yes, Andy Mellen and Neil Hollow. I guess you know one or other of them from Scotland do you? I feel a little bad because they asked me to write a commendation and sent me the manuscript. I said no, simply because I didn’t think I had the time to read the book (I’m trying to focus on some of my doctoral writing at the moment), but then found myself on a long train journey so ended up reading through it. I feel like I’ve cheated a bit!

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