progressives has concluded and it left me feeling refreshed, renewed and
I write this on the flight back home after four days at the conference for the Network for Spiritual Progressives.
The conference was enormously refreshing, hopeful, intense and clarifying.
It was refreshing to hear informed, intelligent, committed resource leaders from a wide range of spiritual traditions, all of whom are seeking to create a more humane and compassionate culture, out of those same spiritual motivations. To hear people who are seeking to embody the best of their spiritual traditions is refreshing.
It was hopeful because the culture of individualistic, materialism in which we live in the U.S. creates cynicism and despair. It promises more than it can deliver. It undermines the sacredness of our humanity as creatures of a loving, creative God. It defines life in material, physical terms which are, in my reading of the Bible, antithetical to scriptural understanding. Therefore, to hear rabbis, priests, Protestant clergy and other religious leaders defining life as a sacred, transcendental experience of the Great Spirit gave me reason for great hope.
The meeting was intense. The issues we discussed were not light-weight. I sat in on a workshop about bridging science and religion. It was a heavy-duty discussion, the likes of which I’ve not heard in a seminary class, ever. The intellectual questioning and searching was challenging and unrelenting. There was no place for simplistic or superficial Bible-blessed bromides in this setting. This was about authentic, deep searching for common ground and for confronting equally authentic and deep differences.
And it was clarifying. In dialogue with those from different faith traditions one’s own tradition becomes clearer. Most often, I tend to meet with those who, in one degree or another, hold views similar to my own. This leads to shorthand language and common understandings that don’t require elongated explanation. We’re enough alike that we understand each other in general, even if we differ in the specifics.
Not so if you’re in a group that includes Sufi, Buddhists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, humanists and many of the varied Protestant traditions of Christianity. In such a setting, common language must be found and terms defined. Clarity can only be worked out with careful language and intentionality.
In the final assessment, however, the conference was a reminder to me of the value of my own tradition which was born in the 18th Century teaching of the English theologian, John Wesley. Wesley taught that faithfulness to Jesus Christ requires prayer, study of scripture, emotional commitment and intellectual rigor. This, coupled with an uncompromising commitment to meeting the needs of the poor, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the vulnerable and sharing one’s financial resources with the impoverished and neglected. That’s a tall order. But this conference crystallized an understanding of this Wesleyan view of faith in a new way for me. In this diverse community I heard the clearest expression of Christian faith that I have heard articulated in a long, long time.
In our self-help culture Wesley’s message is counter-cultural if not counter-intuitive. It is a call to individual responsibility in connection with a community of those who are dedicated to study, worship and the discipline of common responsibilit–for each other and for the social order in which they live. I left believing Wesleyan thought is especially well-suited for the times in which we live because it calls us to a task larger than narrow, feel-good, self-help culture that is so pervasive today. It calls us to view the whole world as the place where our faith is expressed. It calls us to express faith through service; to be engaged with those who are left out, poor, on the margins, sick, imprisoned and vulnerable.
I leave the conference enamored with another thought. In this culture that is often so coarse, shallow and utterly material, I believe there are those who deeply want something with greater depth and purpose than popular culture can ever offer. What they want is something worthy enough, and big enough, to believe in. Something large enough to commit one’s life to.
Here’s the big thought. As a Wesleyan Christian, this means to me making a commitment to heal the earth of our environmental harm, work for peace and end poverty because personal commitment to Jesus Christ, at the level of the heart and the depth of the soul, impels one toward this lifestyle. To know Jesus is to know the face of the poor, the war-ravaged and the forgotten.
This individual commitment further impels us to collective expression of faith; to a community of faith in which we are renewed, refreshed and in which we find hope.