Greetings, friends! I arrived back in the U.S. Monday evening around dinner time and have been heavily in jet-lag mode ever since. That 17 hour time difference that I was so confident I could rise above (both going and coming) really packs a punch!. That’s why this final update to the Australia blog has been so long in coming.
My last speaking engagements in Australia were in Adelaide in the south. Adelaide is about the same size as Omaha, with a similar sense of community, which made it feel like home almost immediately. That warm feeling only deepened when meeting the people of Adelaide over the course of 6 speaking engagements and a couple of dinners. Here’s greetings from Adelaide participants at one of the seminars.
My time in Adelaide was organized by three groups: The Effective Living Centre, the Progressive Network of South Australia (PCNet SA) and Pilgrim Uniting Church. Over the course of three days, I screened and led a discussion on The Asphalt Gospel film, led seminars on “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study,” a few seminars based on material from my new book (“Lightning in a Dark Wood,” “In Praise of the Crooked Path” and “Is It God Talking or Just the Pizza: Listening for the Holy Spirit in a Skeptical Age.”) I also preached the 9:30 service at Pilgrim Uniting.
In an unexpected turn of events, the “Is It God Talking …” seminar ended up being a two-hour seminar on Convergence Christianity due to numerous requests from participants to hear more about Convergence. I didn’t shift away from the stated topic so much as reframe it though the narrative of Convergence. The talk stimulated a lot of great discussion and interest. I walked away thinking the whole thing turned out far better than the presentation I had originally planned – a bit like the Spirit was “talking” through those participants who had asked for more on Convergence!
On a more whimsical note, I had some very fun gastronomic experiences while in Adelaide. One was eating kangaroo (yes, kangaroo) with some newfound friends (one of whom is the second UCC minister I met in Adelaide).
No, kangaroo doesn’t taste like chicken. It’s more like a cross between beef and venison. The Australian government is actually encouraging people to eat more kangaroo because it’s extremely lean, is native to Australia, and in some places the kangaroo population needs thinning.
I also had a chance to try three new kinds of fish with some more new friends: King George Whiting, Gar Fish, and Baramundi (which I’d tried in Darwin, along with Crocodile!). All three were good, but Baramundi stole my heart. It’s a great, moist, flavorful whitefish.
I had one other memorable experience at a restaurant called Sushi Train. I’d never seen anything like it – sushi on a continuous track running around the restaurant. When you want more, you simply grab a plate off the track. You’re billed by the number and color of your plates at the end. As someone who could probably eat sushi three meals a day, all I wanted to do was get my mouth up to the track and let ‘em all fall down the hatch! Great fun. Check it out here: sushi train
Now lest you think that all I did in Adelaide was lead seminars and eat … I did have one of the two authentic days off on the tour where I wasn’t either presenting something or flying to a new location. On that day a very nice couple, Bruce and Ann, picked me up in the morning and we toured the area.
We visited the ocean, drove to an old German arts community called Handorf and, although Bruce and Ann are teetotalers, we visited three of the famous wineries in McLarenvale (Chapel Hill, Samuel’s Gorge, and D’Arenburg). My favorite was D’Arenburg, whose wines I was already familiar with in the U.S. Every wine I tried there was a winner. When I asked about the main variety I see in the U.S. – a variety they call Stump Jump – I received an unexpected response. I’d told them that I liked all of D’Arenburg’s wines except Stump Jump. My server said, “Oh, we don’t like that one either. That’s why we export it!”
“So … after 3 weeks in Australia, what are your impressions?”
I was often asked this question (just change the number of weeks depending on location). I was never quite sure if people really wanted to know or if they simply wanted to hear how wonderful Australia is – and justifiably so! In terms of giving an answer, I always assumed the former, prefacing my remarks with an acknowledgment of how little qualified I was to make any authoritative remarks. I have seen only a thin slice of Australian life, never staying in one area long enough to get a deep feel for anyone’s particular culture, thus I have only limited impressions. Nevertheless, as those asking the question often reminded me, sometimes an outsider’s view can reveal something of the forest when residents are immersed in the trees.
So on the premise that what I’m about to say are only limited views and experience, here are a few thoughts:
I. Australia truly is a wonderful country and I’d readily return (though preferably at a less hectic time of year in the U.S.!).
This should be as obvious to anyone who as not been there as it is to those who have. The people are friendly, the terrain is gorgeous, the beaches are incredibly inviting (though the waters are sometimes shark, crocodile, or jelly fish infested!), the food is good, and there seems to be a bit of an adventurous spirit of some sort in almost everyone. How could there not be in a country nearly the size of the U.S. but with less than 10% of the population and with 200 different kinds of animals that can kill you? If I were to return again, I would love to spend some time in the Outback, and among some of the Aboriginal peoples. While I had little opportunity to meet people of Aboriginal origin, their presence, history, ancestry, and custodianship of the land is always just under the surface of the whole country’s awareness. In many of the church-related locations I visited, public gatherings are always prefaced by a formal recognition of these very things, as well as an acknowledgement that the meeting is being held on land that continues to be their domain.
Regarding Christianity in Australia …
II. The progressive Christian movement in Australia has helped stem the growing tide of secularism in Australia.
For many Australians, progressive Christianity has meant the difference between finding a spiritual home within Christianity and leaving it altogether. Some of these folks grew up in a much more conservative tradition than they find themselves in now. At some point in their journey they got the “hint” that if they wanted to participate fully within Christianity they would have to reject modern science, condemn homosexuals and people of other faiths, treat women as subservient to men, and read the Bible literally as the inerrant word of God. Others simply grew up in a more “moderate” congregation that may not have held such beliefs but neither did they actively do anything to counter them, often for fear of raising the ire of a more conservative minority within the congregation (The “lukewarm” kind of congregation that is spoken about in Rev 3:15-16). For these folks, Progressive Christianity has been an outlet for years of pent up frustration over their church’s silence in these matters.
Yet, while there are still plenty of people who are leaving behind their “lukewarm” moderate or fiery fundamentalist churches in Australia, younger generations are not finding refuge in the progressive movement like their parents have. In fact, the progressive movement as a whole in Australia itself is aging and losing steam. Why?
III. As a whole, the progressive movement in Australia (as in the U.S.) is not attracting younger members because it seeking to answer different questions than younger generations are asking.
As in the U.S., the progressive movement in Australia has largely been identified by what they are not – i.e., not fundamentalist. In those classic areas of faith where they perceive the fundamentalists are doing a bad job – like with Jesus, Bible, prayer, Holy Spirit, evangelism – the progressive community has responded by de-emphasizing these very areas. In other words, instead of asking, “How does a progressive Christian embrace Jesus, Bible, prayer, etc.” many have chosen to simply deconstruct the fundamentalist versions of faith without necessarily constructing any positive, distinctively progressive alternative.
This stance is not attractive to younger generations, especially those who have grown up outside the church. Their view of progressive Christianity is that its energy is mainly centered on reacting to a form of faith (fundamentalism) that younger folks already consider irrelevant. By analogy, progressive Christianity feels to these folks a bit like Cold War veterans who are still orienting their time and energy around fighting Marxism. The whole premise seems incomprehensible to them.
But the lack of interest isn’t limited only to progressive Christianity’s failure to move beyond the “not fundamentalist” label. There is a more aesthetical and (dare I suggest) spiritual piece missing in the equation. And here again, this is not a phenomenon unique to Australia.
In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book, The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zosima makes the following observation about the relationship between love and understanding:
“Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.”
According to Father Zosima, love leads to understanding, not the other way around. On the other hand, many progressive Christians reverse the equation. They cannot bring themselves to fall in love with what they do not understand.
This dynamic is true when it comes to God. Many progressives quite readily acknowledge the concept of a loving God, but they have a hard time engaging with or speaking about the reality of such a God, much less our love for God. Let’s face it: the universe is a pretty big place. It’s so big that, to many thinking people, it seems incomprehensible that God could be aware of us, much less interact with us on an everyday level. It seems even more incomprehensible when one considers all the evil in the world – holocausts, child abuse, etc.
Yet if there is no awareness or interactivity, how can we really speak of a God who loves us to begin with (or loving God ourselves)? If I were to claim that I love my family, but never visited them, listened to them, or responded to their needs in any way, you could quite rightly accuse me of being naive. The same goes for God. How can we be anything but naïve in asserting that God loves us in any but the most vague, abstract, and ineffectual of ways if there is no conscious awareness or relationship?
Frankly, we will never fall in love with God, or accept or acknowledge God’s love for us, if we must first explain holocausts, child abuse, and why bad things happen to good people as a prerequisite. Nor will we fall in love, or accept love, if we’re waiting to explain how God could be aware of us when the universe contains billions of galaxies is billions of light years across. Acknowledging this reality does not mean that one must belittle the reality of evil any more than it means one must deny the vastness of the universe. Rather, it simply means that we’ve either got to admit that the whole notion of God is a pious mistake, or we’ve got to admit that we don’t really know that much as we’d like to think we know about how God works and what the big picture of life is all about. My bets are on the latter option.
Bottom line, the only way any of us ever become convinced of the reality of a loving God is through an experience of such a God. We’ll never be able to explain how it happens, but we can say that it happens. The God who we keep meeting in our silence and solitude, in our emptiness and failure, in our awe and wonder, is not the classical God who sits with a white robe and beard enthroned in the clouds, who breaks Natural Law every time “he” wishes to interact with us. Or experience of God is far more organic and non-dualistic than that.
I don’t mean to launch a lengthy theological treatise here, but the short of it is that a good number of us would have readily written God off as a possibility long ago in light of the presence of evil and the largeness of the universe if it wasn’t for the fact that God keeps showing up – and showing up in ways that have nothing to do with wishful thinking or easy superstition.
At some point, many of us simply have to say, “I can’t explain how God is here, or why God acts (and does not act) the way God does. The only thing I can say in light of my lived experience is that God is here. And I love this Great Love apart from my ability to understand how God works.” This isn’t an anti-intellectual stance. It is only through loving, and accepting love, that any of us come to understand anything of the mystery of God. In fact, when it comes down to it, this principle doesn’t apply only to God. I’ve been married 24 years. If I were waiting until I understood Melanie in order to love Melanie, I’d still be waiting. And I can’t understand why she loves me, either. Any understanding I can claim to have of Melanie, or she for me, has only been gained in, and through, our mutual love.
All this is to say that I really doubt that younger generations will want anything to do with progressive Christianity if (a) we’re reacting against something they’ve already determined to be irrelevant (i.e., fundamentalism), (b) we’re proclaiming a “God who loves everybody” yet has no ability to be in relationship with anybody, and (c) we’re holding up a model of Christian faith and discipleship that is based on the premise that you cannot fall in love with any of this until you first understand what it’s all about. Any logical 20-something will naturally conclude that if a progressive Christian must first understand in order to love, then there’s not much prospect of a progressive loving the 20-something either. For they are well aware that their generation is an enigma to older folks.
IV. The progressive movement needs to understand itself as a bridge, not an endpoint, on the Christian journey. We need to “progress” beyond progressivism.
I met a gentleman named Don in Adelaide whose intuition about the future encapsulates much of what I think will bring the progressive Christian movement forward – and not just forward, but to a new place entirely. Don is in his mid-seventies. Despite his advanced age, Don is starting a Ph.D. program this fall. He’s starting this rigorous course of study because he passionately believes that a new theology needs to be written – one whose center-point revolves not around logic and rationality but around beauty.
For many people, beauty is merely an aesthetical quality having to do with superficial qualities of adornment or pleasure. Cultivating beauty is assumed to be less “important” than cultivating reason, science, and intellect. But Don knows otherwise, and it is folks like Don who may become ground-breakers for the future.
Don’s intuition that a theology of beauty may help move us forward reminds me of a story that Phyllis Tickle tells of an argument that broke out during the Q&A session following one of her Great Emergence presentations. I may not get every detail of the story right, but essentially someone asked what Tickle thought of the Virgin Birth. Before she could answer, another from the audience shouted, “You’re just going after [Bishop John Shelby] Spong!” This outburst prompted a major debate within the audience that Tickle could do little more than watch in amazement.
After things simmered down and she had finished signing books, she spoke with a youth she’d noticed silently but intensively observing the debate as he cleaned dishes in the kitchen. When Tickle asked what the youth thought of the whole thing, he responded, “I just don’t get why people get so worked up over the Virgin Birth. I have no idea if it ever happened that way or not. But to me it’s such a beautiful story it must be true.”
If one wonders why large numbers of 20- and 30-somethings are not beating down the doors of progressive churches and demanding entrance, it’s not because they have rejected science or the rational skepticism embraced by progressives. It’s because they have moved beyond it. Frankly, so has science.
Science moved earlier generations from a state of pre-critical naiveté into the Age of Reason where they discovered that not everything written in the Bible, or believed by faith, is necessarily what it appears. Thus, for instance, many of us now understand that the Red Sea may never have parted like the Book of Exodus describes it. Yet younger generations did not grow up in a pre-critical era. They grew up in a fully critical era, informed by reason, logic, and scientific ways of knowing. So they never had to “get over” a pre-critical mindset.
Instead of investing their energies in denying pre-critical understandings of scripture, they have turned to new, and frankly more interesting questions. For instance, we may acknowledge that the Red Sea never parted like it does in Exodus 15, but rather than stopping there, we might ask, “Then why was the story written in the first place? What the author just lying, or was the author trying to tell us something important, constructing something of beauty and majesty to convey truth that exceeds the limits of science or strict historical narrative to describe?” Modern scholarship has led many into reading the scriptures with “post-critical naiveté.” That is, they accept that the story “never may have happened that way,” but are aware that there’s more to a story than science or reason can describe. Rather than trying to ferret out “what (really) happened long ago,” they turn their attention instead to how the story reveals “what keeps happening” on up to our day.
Looking at the Red Sea account from the standpoint of its mythological imagination, one senses deep truths contained in it: such as that, in our lived experience of faith, God seems to “make a way where there appears to be no way,” and that God’s activity may be seen in places where people are being liberated from bondage – in everything from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to social justice marches to a child sitting on his mother’s lap seeking solace after an experience of bullying at school.
V. There is great and authentic reason for hope – in Australia and beyond.
All in all, my time spent in Australia was inspirational and uplifting. In every location I found people who are facing significant challenges, but who are facing them with courage, humility, generosity of spirit, and even joy. There are many who do, in fact, sense that there is more to progressive Christianity than simply serving as a way of “not being fundamentalist.” These folks are eager not simply to deconstruct the past, but to construct a new future. They are aware that there is more to life than can be explained or understood and are captivated by truths that may be accessed through such things as beauty and lived experience. They are also aware that many Christians on the other side of the “theological swimming pool” have been in motion like they have been themselves. While there is not as much evidence in Australia to show that post-evangelicals and post-liberal progressives are starting to find and enjoy community with one another as there is in the United States (viz., Wild Goose Festival, Darkwood Brew, and the experience of many churches like Countryside Community Church who are gaining members from both sides of old theological divide), a great many sense the possibilities – and long for such a Convergence. In fact, a great many folks I met throughout Australia not only resonated with, but embodied, the very characteristics of Convergence Christianity that people like myself and Brian McLaren have been writing about lately.
Perhaps the biggest “take home” I received from my journey, in fact, is that Convergence is not simply a U.S. phenomenon. It has not only started to happen in Australia among various individuals who are living their faith already in Convergence mode, but it exists as a strong, latent possibility across a large spectrum of progressive Christians who see their progressivism not as an end of itself but a bridge to a new tomorrow – a tomorrow where faith and science hold hands, where old and young hold hands, and where Christians who have formerly been at odds with one another both move to a new place and begin holding hands as well.
Thanks to all of you at Countryside who have been so gracious as to let me share a piece of our vision and ministry with the Christian leaders of Australia during our busy fall season. You were ever in my heart, and my mind, as I made my way around the country. In every place, I was quite cognizant of the fact that I was not simply representing myself, but also a part of you and your spirit. You continue to be a source of rich inspiration to me and I am delighted to be back home with you.
Thanks, too, to those of you in Australia who helped make this trip possible, especially Adrian Pyle of the Uniting Church of Australia, who was the tour’s initiator and primary organizer, and Elyse Le Cerf who assisted him. To all of you with whom I shared time, please know that you have a friend here in Omaha. You were gracious hosts, engaging conversation partners, and a generous audience. You are the reason I would be happy to return to Australia again some day. And please know that if you are ever in the Omaha area, I would love to see you and show you some Nebraskan hospitality!
Finally, thanks to my wife, Melanie, for graciously agreeing to be “left behind” for three weeks with no one at home but our pets. You know how much you were missed, and how much I am glad to be home with you again!