The Missing Institution

Envisioning a Zealous Progressive Church

By Eric Stetson — April 10, 2020

The world today is filled with a diversity of religious options. In free and entrepreneurial societies such as the United States, this is especially evident. There are conservative and liberal churches of all kinds, all professing to follow Jesus Christ. There are Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, and Buddhist and Hindu temples, with multiple denominations of each of these religions as well. There are humanist and interfaith congregations such as the Unitarian Universalists, and numerous alternative spiritual groups which might be called metaphysical, New Thought, or New Age.

Despite all the options, there is something missing: a widespread religious community with progressive spiritual beliefs and the zeal and commitment found typically in conservative faith traditions. Imagine, for example, a church that teaches a broad-minded and inclusive message of God’s love for all people, but which also practices tithing, vigorous evangelism, and adherence to a rigorous code of ethics in all aspects of life. You’ll have to imagine, because it doesn’t exist — or if it does, such a religious institution has not yet grown to the size and stature where it would be noticeable to the average person.

Let’s envision something even more specific:

  • A confidently liberal Christian denomination which, in the Pentecostal spirit, affirms the continuing revelation of God’s will for us today, but which, as a result of this belief, rejects narrow-minded doctrines of the past and embraces an openness to interfaith and modern spiritual wisdom such as found in Unitarian Universalism and the New Age movement — deriving from this open-mindedness not a vague pluralism and reduction of intensity of commitment, but rather a confirmation of higher holistic truth and the courage to teach it.
  • A denomination which, in the spirit of the kosher laws of Orthodox Judaism, the sharia and halal code of Islam, the Word of Wisdom of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the moral regulations of Evangelicals and conservative Catholics, strongly encourages its members to adhere to an ethical culture regarding food, health, and personal behavior, but which moves beyond outdated rules and traditions such as banning cheeseburgers, coffee, beer, and sex outside of heterosexual marriage, and instead puts the focus on the 21st century need for environmental sustainability and respect for the dignity of human workers and other living beings, in all our business and consumer decisions.
  • A denomination that sees itself as much more than just a regular worship service (whether it has a kickass rock band or not), but as more like an extended family, whose members help to care for and support each other, including with robust financial support for the organization, which will use this money to develop businesses and social welfare programs for the membership — principles which have found expression, in various ways and degrees, in some of the most successful and rapidly growing Christian communities in history, such as the apostolic church in the 1st century, the Amish and other radical communitarian denominations, and in a more moderate and realistic form for widespread adoption, the LDS Church.
  • A denomination that sees itself as having a mission to change people’s hearts, minds, and actions, and thus to change the world — and whose progressive values do not in any way dampen its zeal to make disciples, as is often the case among liberal religious groups today, but which instead pursues its mission with a relentless and systematic evangelistic focus such as is found among Evangelicals and Mormons.

Although I cannot be 100% certain, I am reasonably sure, after lots of searching, that a religious denomination like this does not yet exist. But it seems to me like something that should exist, for reasons that I think should be obvious: Churches that want to grow and gain influence in society need to make strong truth claims, define a way of life, work hard to attract members, and provide sufficient benefits and sense of community for the members. If progressive spiritual people and congregations do not do those things, progressive spirituality will remain a small and weak feature of the organized religious landscape, which would be a shame — and maybe even suicidal for the human species.

Churches that want to grow and gain influence in society need to make strong truth claims, define a way of life, work hard to attract members, and provide sufficient benefits and sense of community.

So why doesn’t a hypothetical zealous progressive denomination such as what I have described already exist as the spiritual home for millions of people? I think the main reason is that people who come to believe in a sophisticated and broad-minded view of religion tend to be at least somewhat uncomfortable with strong truth claims, specific rules for living, sacrifice of absolute individual freedom to the demands and culture of a collective group, and proselytizing for a church or religious cause. There is a feeling — somewhat correct, but also I believe somewhat incorrect — that such things are examples of a more “primitive” or “conservative” mindset, which the religious liberal has transcended into the realm of pure and individualistic spiritual freedom.

The reality is that the world tends to become what the most ardent and prolific people make it to be. Being open-minded and reluctant to push one’s beliefs and ways of life upon others may be a sign of spiritual maturity, but such reticence and respect for diversity, if taken too far, may only ensure that the prevailing culture of society will be less wise and less progressive than it needs to be to ensure the continued development of humanity and even the survival of advanced civilization on our fragile planet.

Future generations might not enjoy the opportunities for social and intellectual freedom that liberal Americans and citizens of other highly developed countries of the present generation take for granted, if progressive ideas and ethical practices do not become embodied in highly visible, influential, and self-replicating institutions. Adherents of conservative ideologies are not going to stop working to propagate and perpetuate their ideas and practices — and in the early 21st century we see them gaining greater influence and power in many countries, including the United States — even though increasing numbers of people are turning to progressive ideas. This is because religious conservatives have been much more zealous than progressives.

It may indeed be easier for people to be zealously committed to an organized religion when their worldview is less mature, less rational, and less open to ideas that transcend their own orthodox faith-based tradition. But that is no excuse for people with a more advanced, holistic, post-fundamentalist and post-skeptical worldview to reject zealous devotion, commitment, and dedication to a religious cause as a mere relic of an immature phase of human development. Skepticism and pluralism are themselves phases that have value but are not the final destination of an advanced soul or spiritual organization.

I believe there is something of a “second conversion” that the open-minded pluralist must experience in order to take their spiritual journey to the next level. This is the transition from the worthy focus on individual freedom of thought as the preeminent concern — a phase that is a typical and necessary reaction to conservative orthodox religion — to an even higher, integral view in which one transcends what I would call the “valley of doubt” or the “valley of search,” the phases of skeptical agnosticism and pluralistic open-mindedness that are generally characterized today as progressive attitudes toward religion.

Beyond the second conversion, there is another version of progressive spirituality yet to be embodied in a major religious denomination: the integral or holistic view, in which the “one truth” is rediscovered, in a higher and wider sense, with the benefit of a less dogmatic spirit and a more inclusive mentality, which seemingly paradoxically, can give it an even more awesome potency than more limited versions of the truth such as envisioned in traditional religious worldviews. As we climb out of the valley that lies between the more primitive orthodoxy of the past and the more sublime and elevated vista of an all-encompassing, transcendently progressive worldview of the future, we are called to shed our reluctance to stand boldly, to live devotedly, to share the truth zealously.

This is the missing institution: the church or religious denomination that preaches not from the first mountaintop of orthodoxy, nor from within the valley of diverse and individualistic seeking, but from the trail ascending the heights of the second mountaintop of the Spirit — the trail whose magnificent vistas survey the entire panorama of the human religious experience throughout history, and our developmental process as spiritual beings and as societies on the one planet we share. It is a church that looks to the future, unafraid of new revelation. It is a church that demands a serious and committed attitude among its members, who see themselves as saints in training — aspiring towards Christ, choosing the path of the bodhisattva — whose every action has ramifications for the salvation, or conversely the tragic destruction, of the world.

It is an institution that is much needed today. It has only been missing because not enough people were ready for it yet. Now, let it come into being and develop and grow, so that the zeal of religious conservatives can finally be matched by progressives with a concerted zeal for what God has planned for us human beings in the millennium ahead — so that by learning from the things of the past, we may create a better future. Amen.

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