Progressive religious movements that are growing within the various faiths have amazing potential to nurture the kind of creative cultures which will help us to meet our global challenges.
People often think of religion only as a problem that divides and keeps people trapped in the past. Sadly this is all too often the reality but progressive religious/spiritual reform movements/communities show us a way forward for religion that will not only cure it of its own ills but could have a profoundly beneficial effect on the rest of civilisation as well.
What are Progressive Religious Reform Movements and how might they help us to meet our Global Challenges?
By Dr Anastasia Somerville-Wong
This article explores the progressive movements that have arisen out of world faiths but which have moved beyond traditional religion towards a universal ethic. At the end I provide two lists; one of progressive networks, the other of networks which include progressives.
If you have further information on any of these or other relevant networks I would be delighted to hear from you.
What are Progressive Religious Reform Movements?
There are various definitions or articles of progressive faith and practice provided by the progressive organisations themselves. However, the following definition has been drawn from my preliminary research which has highlighted the factors which are most common and most prominent across the spectrum of networks:
Progressive Spiritual Communities are those which draw from the insights of our past and continuing spiritual, religious and philosophical traditions, while welcoming knowledge gained through science and historical criticism. The hallmarks of a Progressive Spiritual Community are its willingness and humility to learn, adapt and change its beliefs and practices as new discoveries are made, and its unwillingness to stand idly by in the face of suffering and injustice.
Below is a more comprehensive list of principles or ideals which are also shared across the majority of progressive networks, though of course groups will emphasise some more than others and this will vary between networks depending largely upon the issues they are responding to within the wider world faith community they are identified with. For example, the Quilliam Foundation and Muslim Reform Movement focus on their support for a secular state, democratic institutions and gender equality in particular, to counter trends in conservative Islam and Islamic extremism.
Progressive Spirituality: The Common Themes
It is the ideals and activities common to all the progressive movements that have the potential to help us to meet our global challenges. Below is a fairly comprehensive list of these features which I have compiled from online research:
Please note that these are not para-phrases of principles published by the progressive networks themselves but my interpretation of numerous statements made by progressive thinkers and organisations regarding the below moral/spiritual subjects.
Progressive spiritual communities;
- actively strive for social justice and peace as integral to their way of life and community identity. They keenly defend human rights and principles of freedom and equality.
- have strong ecological concerns. They collaborate to protect and repair the earth and its non-human inhabitants and ecosystems.
- take religious texts seriously but not necessarily literally. They embrace historical criticism and a more interpretive and metaphorical understanding of texts.
- stress right actions over right belief. They consider that the way we behave toward others is the fullest expression of our real beliefs.
- embrace reason, as well as paradox and mystery, instead of a blind allegiance to right doctrines. They find more contentment in questioning and learning than in certainty.
- resist the temptation to claim that one religion is superior to others, or the only valid way to connect with God. They affirm the parent faith while sincerely respecting other faiths. They affirm the need for strong secular and democratic institutions so that all faith groups can live peaceably together with equal rights under law.
- emphasise the power and centrality of love, compassion and transformation in the spiritual life. They focus on bringing hope and healing to all living beings who are suffering or oppressed.
- are willing to question the morality, truth, accuracy and relevance of received traditions, teachings, dogmas and sacred texts. They seek to maintain both intellectual and moral integrity.
- encourage spiritual vitality and expressiveness, including the participation in arts-infused and lively forms of meeting/worship.
- encourage spiritual rituals, emphasising the importance of sacramental truth (physical events as vehicles for spiritual/psychological events/change) as well as contemplative practices such as meditation, while rejecting superstition and magical thinking.
- affirm human diversity and avoid the stereotyping of groups and individuals according to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion/irreligion, education, economic/class background, physical ability and mental health.
- nurture mindfulness of the human condition (e.g. our emotional vulnerabilities and cognitive biases) and the need to be cautious about judging others. They resist the temptations towards elitism and spiritual hierarchies.
- place strong emphasis on building inclusive local communities through meetings and shared activity in addition to looser networks, since these are the true testing ground for spiritual virtues and transformation.
I make a distinction between liberal and progressive since there are a significant number of organisations that describe themselves as liberal but which do not share or promote key progressive values such as the acceptance of historical criticism of their religious texts. They often share some of these above principles, however, and may also have some members or affiliates within their membership, network or event attendance, who do share these progressive values.
The Importance of a Shared Story
Progressive thinkers and organisations understand the power of story-telling for human learning, building relationships, communicating ideas, nurturing community, establishing personal and collective identities, and enriching cultural life. They realise that though they have moved a considerable distance from traditional religion, they do not want to throw away their cultural heritage; the stories and concepts within the world faiths that still have value in modern times as purveyors of wisdom and values compatible with a modern understanding of the world.
They understand the value of stories for;
- conveying moral messages and practical wisdom with greater clarity, impact and subtlety;
- teaching us about other cultures and peoples while reminding us of how similar we all are;
- reminding us of universal human strengths and weaknesses;
- providing a fertile soil for almost unlimited artistic expression;
- breaking down barriers of distrust and suspicion, allowing us to forge relationships and collaborations out of which change can flow;
- teaching good principles to our children, and giving them an identity and a cultural heritage.
Distinctive Features of Progressive Movements
Every progressive stream has distinguishing features, particularly in terms of the stories they use to convey moral messages related to the principles listed above, and in terms of the rituals or practices they participate in in order to outwardly express (and remind themselves and their communities) of these principles and what they demand of them. These stories come of course from the faiths they are rooted in, though they are adapted and re-imagined for contemporary listeners.
For example, within Progressive Christianity – and I choose progressive Christianity as it currently has the largest and most varied progressive movement of all the world faiths – proponents emphasise on an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus, that is, the life of the historical Jesus as far as this can be known from the available biblical and extra biblical texts, and the teachings likely to be those of the historical Jesus, with in some cases the addition of other biblical teachings traditionally attributed to him which are compatible with progressive ideals. Progressive Christians may vary in which teachings they concentrate on but most recognises that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and the renunciation of privilege.
We also see an emphasis on salvation in progressive Christianity; salvation in the here and now rather than heaven and hell later. By salvation is usually meant being healed in the broadest sense of healed bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, societies and so forth or being rescued from injustice, danger, poverty and violence. The social and corporate aspects of salvation are stressed as much as the personal, so that it is recognised that entities like nations, companies, corporations, cultural norms and institutions are responsible for the good and ill of people within a society and that things such as poverty and social pressure can determine the behaviours of individuals for good or ill as much as individual will. It is important to note here the continuing debate among progressive Christians about the terms and language that should be used; about whether to reclaim the old terms for their original and forgotten meaning (or a new meaning), or whether to use new terms altogether to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.
Progressive Christians also stress divine immanence as much as, or more than, divine transcendence, which means they see God as elements of (or present in) the natural and human worlds in the form of goodness, justice, the natural world and so forth. Progressive Christians therefore lean towards panentheism and away from supernatural theism. While pantheism asserts that ‘All is God’, panentheism is the claim that God is greater than the universe, or that the universe is contained within God. There are still many varying viewpoints and points of debate on this belief within the Progressive Christian communities but most agree on the importance of experiencing or encountering God/divinity in nature, in other people, and in ourselves.
Many Progressive Christians take part in the ritual activity of sharing bread and wine in Jesus’ name. They see this as a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all peoples in which all resources are shared. They see this activity as a reminder to the community that the world’s resources belong to everyone and should be shared equally or according to need – the vision of what a fair society should look like in terms of its economics varies among progressive Christians and is a matter of lively debate. This ritual is a public statement in support of justice, a reminder to the community and a means of individual transformation/spiritual development all in one.
Progressive Christian organisations also encourage discipleship rather than membership of religious/spiritual institutions, though they of course encourage membership of the networks for the receiving of information and for donations towards the work of the communities. The meaning of discipleship is simply that people learn from those that have gone ahead in the process of understanding and practicing progressive faith rather than sign up to church creeds and dogmas many of which they might not support.
For the purposes of contrast, Liberal Judaism, which also has strong and longstanding progressive streams, emphasises an approach to God through the lives and teachings of the prophets, and in doing so affirms the dynamic and continuously developing character of the Jewish religious tradition. Liberal Jews are inspired by the Prophets, who combined a commitment to Judaism with a constant regard for the universal values that guide all ethical behaviour. Tikkun olam (repair of the world) is a fundamental mission for Liberal Jews, and they assert that Tikkun should happen on four levels: the personal/inter-personal, the communal, the Jewish and global. In the footsteps of the Prophets, Liberal Jews see themselves as constructive irritants to the mainstream, and/or influence the mainstream, taking tough and sometimes unpopular stances on issues of Jewish concern.
Notably, Liberal Jews take a particular stance on the state of Israel which might not be shared by all progressive minded Jews. They state on their website that they
“affirm a love for the Land of Israel and have a strong commitment to the State of Israel. They pray for her people and her security and wish to enact the vision of her founders of a Jewish state for all its inhabitants, at peace with its neighbours, democratic and prosperous. They promote a two-state solution, and oppose all boycotts.” (See http://www.liberaljudaism.org/about-us/what-is-liberal-judaism.html)
Though the website states this, there will be different political views within Liberal Judaism as there will be among liberal Jews who are progressives, and share in the progressive values listed above. In the case of Judaism it is not possible to separate out progressive Jews from liberal Jews who will take a range of theological positions along a right-left spectrum common to all religions. Just as within other world faiths, some Jews will be more middle of the road or undecided than progressive, which is why Liberal Judaism appears the second at the end of this article.
Assessing their Progress
As yet there has been very little research done on these progressive religious reform movements and there has also been relatively little active collaboration between progressives from different world faiths. Statistics are difficult to come by, especially given that many progressives are not named on official networks for all sorts of reason ranging from disillusionment with religious affiliations altogether, through to fear for their own safety given the potential for a backlash from the more traditional faith communities they might once have been a part of.
However, the success of these organisations and networks can perhaps be judged in the course of future research on the following criteria:
- how frequently and in what numbers the members/affiliates meet meaningfully together and hold community events
- the availability and quality of progressive liturgy, preaching, lecturing and arts
- the availability and quality of progressive educational materials for adults and children
- how well the network/organisation facilitates personal development e.g. with self-improvement materials, counselling, advice and advocacy
- how well the movement promotes its work through books, websites, social media and other opportunities
- how successful the movements efforts are in activism and making a real difference to the wider community and environment; the extent to which the movement is engaged at local, regional, national and international level in social and environmental justice campaigns or other initiatives
- the extent progressive networks participate in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, networking and co-operative endeavour; how good the networks are at sharing stories and building relationships with the right people who would support their cause
- how effective the networks are at strategy, leadership, and engagement with policy makers
- how successful these networks are at building community; attracting, welcoming, nurturing and involving people in every aspect of community life
Some people join these movements because they are searching for a moral framework and cause or a means of living a spiritual life without superstitious belief. However, many people join these movements when they have become uncomfortable with the traditional faith communities of which they have been a part. They often find that the traditional religion they once took for granted is irrelevant, outdated and harmful in the light of modern understandings of humanity and the world made possible by science, comparative religion and historical criticism. They realise that many traditional beliefs perpetuate inequality and unhelpful stereotypes and prejudices. A significant number of these people feel they have emerged from nothing less than a period of indoctrination and abuse and so are especially vulnerable and liable to avoid religious affiliation altogether. To be successful the progressive movements must provide safe space for such people to heal and make their peace with the past. They can be judged also, therefore, on how well they stick to their own professed principles of inclusivity and tolerance.
International movements such as Progressive Christianity, and more recently, the Muslim Reform Movement, provide alternative networks for those who do not hold dogmatically to traditional/conservative religious beliefs but who nonetheless identify with the cultural heritage and values of particular world faiths. These networks are outspoken in defence of human rights and secular democracy. They have the potential to provide a vibrant alternative to fundamentalism for those seeking a moral and spiritual identity and cause, and therefore an alternative for those vulnerable to radicalisation. Therefore, there needs to be further research to critically assess the ways in which these movements address bigotry and promote human rights, and to determine whether they are effective and to what extent, and if they are effective, how they can be better supported in their efforts.
It is already evident that leaders of progressive streams within world faiths will have to consider new spaces and possibilities for the building of progressive moral and spiritual community in secular, pluralistic societies, and in the light of rapid technological change; spaces (physical and digital) and communities which will also be accessible to those living in societies that are predominantly religious and/or where a certain religion is privileged above others. If they are to have a greater impact on public life beyond the religious sphere, they will also have to think more strategically about inter-faith global networking and cultural exchange among progressive spiritual communities emerging from different world faiths. If they learn how to speak a global moral language which is deeply enriched by the stories and cultural heritage of many different regions and civilisations, they may well have the potential to move from being small independent streams within world faiths to a global revolution in thinking about religion and what it can do for us.
PCN Britain (nationwide progressive network)
Free to Believe (originally URC progressives)
Ekklesia (think tank, Christianity and public life)
Radical Faith (website exploring faith in a changing world)
Common Sense Christianity (online resource/community)
UK Spirituality Network (resource and events)
Sea of Faith (network of progressives)
Non-theist Friends Network (Quaker group)
Student Christian Movement
Foundation for Contemporary Theology
Ship of Fools (online community and resource)
SPAFER (southern progressive alliance for exploring religion)
Center for Progressive Christianity (USA based, now at progressivechristianity.org)
Progressive Christian Artist’s network (USA based)
Progressive Christian Alliance
The Canadian Center for Progressive Christianity
PC Net South Australia
Progressive Spirituality New Zealand
Charter for Compassion
The Progressive Christian Network of Victoria Australia
En*theos (Educational materials)
Common Dreams (An alliance of Australian and New Zealand kindred organizations)
Project Peace on Earth (organise international peace events)
Darkwood Brew Online TV (Renegade Exploration of Christianity’s Outer Edges)
Spirituality Practice (Resources for Spiritual Journey)
Westar Institute – Dedicated to the Advancement of Religious Literacy (and Polebridge Press)
Living the Questions (LTQ) – Learning resources
Patheos- Hosting a Conversation on Faith Progressive Christian Channel
The Salt Project- Dedicated to reclaiming and sharing the beauty of Christian life through film, photography, music, poetry, and ideas Protestants dans la Ville (Progressive French Priest and Followers)
CeTR Research on Human Quality (progressives in Spain)
St Mark’s Church (Centre for Radical Christianity)
Progressive Hindu Association & Coalition of Progressive Hindus
Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV)
The Quilliam Foundation
Muslim Reform Movement
Networks that Include Progressives
Bahá’í Faith (a monotheistic religion emphasizing the spiritual unity of all humankind)
Resurgence and other ecological/environmentalist organisations with a spiritual dimension
Secular Buddhist Association
There are liberal wings of all the broad churches (e.g. the Church of Scotland’s OneKirk) though these include only a few progressives.
There are liberal denominations such as the UCC in America, the Metropolitan Community Churches, and ecumenical communities such as Taize and the Iona Community which include a minority of progressives.
The link below will take you to my PowerPoint presentation for a Public Lecture and seminar I gave in 2014 on progressive communities and networks for PCNBritain in Exeter: