A Question for Spiritual Progressives
By Eric Stetson — November 12, 2020
Many people today are attracted to the philosophy of Jesus but are disappointed, even disgusted, with the “Christian” religion. As a result, church membership is down, and growing numbers of people, when asked about their religious affiliation, say “none” or that they are “spiritual but not religious.”
I can sympathize with this point of view. In fact, for much of the 2010s, I moved away from a Christian identity and considered myself a Unitarian Universalist. I was still somewhat Christ-centered in my spirituality, but I was uncomfortable with the label of “Christian,” with all that it seemed to imply.
For one thing, I worried that if I called myself a Christian, people might assume that I am narrow-minded, bigoted, or politically conservative. During the presidency of Donald Trump, especially, I was concerned that in many people’s minds, “Christianity” meant something very different than loving Jesus and his teachings — that instead, it meant accepting hate, greed, dishonesty, and other forms of moral corruption in exchange for political power. Jesus never preached against same-sex marriage and abortion, but he did condemn many of the attitudes and behaviors of religious conservatives and rich and powerful men like Trump.
Did Christians make a deal with the devil? Is the “Christian” brand tarnished beyond repair? Many liberals, who in a bygone era would likely have thought of themselves as Christians, now shudder when the word is mentioned, associating it with a nasty politician and the cultlike devotion of so many of his Evangelical followers. It is hard to know how long this negative association will take to wear off, but there is no doubt that significant damage has been done to the reputation of the Christian religion.
Beyond politics, there is another reason that fewer spiritual progressives are identifying as Christian nowadays: They do not want to restrict their search for truth and wisdom to only one religious tradition. They do not believe that adherents of other religions are going to hell, and they do not believe the Bible is the only book in which truths about God and spiritual reality may be found. So they worry that to be a “Christian” is to place an artificial limit on their spiritual journey, because fellow Christians might insist that they are not true believers if they open their minds to ideas from “non-Christian” faiths.
This is a deeper issue than the question of political affiliation, and I have wrestled with it as well. It is one thing to feel uneasy about Christianity because of hypocrisy and moral failings of its adherents. It is another thing, and a more serious thing, to wonder whether the new wine of truth in a modern and global age can be legitimately contained within an old “Christian” wineskin. Are old religious labels simply too limiting for anyone who wants to explore the full spectrum of spirituality in the 21st century? Is truth too vast, too transcendent, to be pigeonholed into one religion?
A few years ago, I felt that I had arrived at something of a “post-Christian” spiritual worldview. After all, I reasoned, no philosophy or ideology is ever a perfect or complete picture of reality. But even as I found truth and wisdom in all the world’s religions, I increasingly came to realize that there is something special about the Christian Gospel — something that keeps calling me back to a Christ-centered faith.
That something could perhaps be best summarized as the fact that Jesus was willing to die a martyr’s death of torture for the bold claim that people are not mere creatures but are children of God. He taught his disciples to pray to “our Father in heaven” (Mat. 6:9), and when the soldiers pounded nails into his hands, he cried out to his God, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). When we do right or wrong to our fellow human beings — even to the least significant person among us — it is as though we are doing it to God, because spiritually we are all brothers and sisters in God’s family (Mat. 25:40,45).
A modern Christianity must respect the contributions of all people and be open to all truth. It must accept the realities of modern science, and the fact that human beings all over the world, in many different cultures and traditions, have strived throughout history to gain an understanding of moral and metaphysical principles. Various religions contain important pieces of truth — some of which are overlapping, reinforcing a conviction that no single religion has a monopoly on divine revelation. All religions also contain errors, misunderstandings, and cultural limitations — and that includes the religion that has been called “Christian.”
Yet if we closely examine the different faiths, we find that there is good reason to believe that the full picture of truth, to the degree that we have discovered it, can most reasonably be fitted into the framework of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of which I speak is not necessarily what most people today would recognize as “standard” Christianity in all of its aspects, but it is authentically Christian and can be robustly defended with reference to the Bible. It is also the version of Christianity which is the most universal or comprehensive in respecting and including the truths that overlap with other religions.
The core idea of the Gospel — the idea that sets it apart as the foundational religious framework upon which a universally true spiritual worldview should be built — is the insight that God is not static and distant, but reproductive and intimately involved with human beings, who are God’s beloved children. “God is love,” says the Apostle John (1 John 4:8,16). From love comes creation and birth, and therefore God said, “Let Us make mankind in Our image, in Our likeness,” both “male and female” (Gen. 1:26,27).
God’s Son, the man Jesus Christ, explains to the Jews that his claim of divine sonship is grounded in the reality that all people are the children of God and participate in divinity: “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If He called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came … Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? (John 10:34-36). Jesus was quoting Psalm 82:6, where God says to humans, “You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.”
The Apostle Paul confirms this idea in a sermon to the Greeks: “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’” (Acts 17:28). Paul further explains in one of his letters to the churches that human beings are supposed to “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). In other words, Jesus provides a pattern that we should follow; he is our Elder Brother.
Christianity is the only religion that defines God and humans in this way — as a family. Judaism contains a foreshadowing of this idea, which was more fully developed in the teachings of Christ and the early church. In contrast, Islam defines humans as creatures and rejects the notion that Jesus, or anyone else, is a divine offspring; in the Islamic view, we are only servants of God. This is despite the many similarities between Islam and Christianity, such as the reverence for Jesus as a prophet.
The Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism do not distinguish between the spiritual essence of humans and that of God or gods; instead they see divinity in all beings on a spectrum of spiritual evolution. In that sense, those religions are closer to the interpretation of Christianity presented here. However, they do not teach that there is a purposeful creation of human souls as a reproductive act of Deity. In this idea, Christianity is unique.
It must be noted that many Christians would disagree with my interpretation of the Gospel. As I see it, the main point of Christianity is the family relationship of God and human beings, and Jesus’s role as our greatest educator and exemplar to help human beings reach our full divine potential. This is an expansive view of the concept of Trinity, in which the entire human species is one with God in Christ, in both our innate spiritual essence and the destiny we are called to manifest. Unfortunately, in much the same way that Christianity has been distorted by politics, it has also been misinterpreted by conservative religious leaders who prefer to downplay or reject the idea of human divinity and instead teach a version of the relationship between God and humanity that is closer to the Islamic view, but with Jesus as divine mediator to save us from hell.
Both versions of the Christian faith can be justified using the Bible, because the Bible is a compilation of different points of view that do not always agree. However, I believe it is important to embrace an inclusive and uplifting view of the Gospel. Christianity is the largest religion in the world and is tremendously influential. It contains within itself an amazingly beautiful and inspiring vision of what human beings are and can aspire to be. No other religion offers this vision of a universe created by a God who is love, who purposefully reproduces Him and Herself in us, and seeks to assist us to rise to become what the heroic spiritual master Jesus showed us is possible for a human soul to achieve.
Although every religion contains truth and wisdom, I believe the Christian Gospel as I have presented it is a message uniquely well-suited to maximize the spiritual progress of individuals and of society as a whole. I believe this is especially true in the modern age, when advances in science and technology give humanity the power to create heaven or hell on earth — even to cause our own extinction or the destruction of life on our planet, as was never before possible. In the material sense, we are becoming like gods. This needs to be balanced with understanding our divine spiritual nature and the high moral responsibilities that come with it. Increasingly, humans are co-creators with God rather than passive inhabitants of God’s world. The coming of age of the human race is at hand. We can either rise to that potential or destroy ourselves.
If spiritual progressives wish to have the greatest possible influence on the future direction of humanity, there may be no better way to accomplish that crucial task than to embrace a progressive vision of Christianity. Over 2.3 billion people, or 31% of the world’s population, identify as Christian, and are therefore greatly influenced by whatever they believe the Christian Gospel to be. This largest world religion will be the most responsible for either inspiring the world to grow up into spiritual maturity or failing to rise to the challenges of our time.
I see tremendous potential for a transformational Christianity for the new millennium — a Christian faith that is built upon core teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, while respecting and affirming truth wherever it is found, and emphasizing the calling to live the Gospel rather than merely believing in it. It is a faith that teaches us we are created by Love, to love one another, and that there is no limit to what we can become. We should embrace this religion and identify with it, evangelize for it, and stand up for it wholeheartedly in the face of those who would make Christianity into something corrupt and divisive. In so doing, we become co-workers with Christ, helping to save the world.
In conclusion, I would like to return to the discomfort that many feel about the hijacking of Christianity. There is a historical precedent for this — and an example for us to follow in how to deal with it — in the Gospel of Jesus Christ himself. When Jesus came into this world, his primary audience was fellow Jews, whom he challenged to take a closer look at the teachings of their faith. Jesus argued vehemently against the dominant sect called the Pharisees, whose conservative interpretations of Judaism were similar to the narrow-minded “fundamentalist” Christians of our time. Jesus inaugurated a mission to reform and restore the Jewish religion, and the movement he inspired ultimately became hundreds of times larger than the remaining non-Christian forms of Judaism are today.
Christianity is an outgrowth of the Jewish faith. The Jewish scriptures comprise the majority of the Christian Bible. Christians have not rejected their Jewish spiritual roots just because the Pharisees of Jesus’s time had a harsh and dogmatic creed — instead, as Jesus did, Christians have built upon a Jewish foundation and created something more universal. As Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28).
Today, some of the followers of Christ are growing toward even greater understandings of God’s plan and seeking to distill Christianity into its deepest and most relevant meanings for our own time, much like the early Christians did with Judaism. And in much the same way that early Christians borrowed ideas from the Greeks and Romans and synthesized them with their Jewish heritage, progressive Christians today can include the truths we find in cultures, philosophies and religions around the world — and also new ideas that are revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, who Jesus promises will “guide us into all truth” (John 16:13).
We do not yet know whether popular perception of the “Christian” label will evolve to match this evolution of understanding, but it is important to fight for it. It will be easier to create moral and spiritual progress if the power of familiar language and tradition can be harnessed in its service.
I believe this is what Christ would want us to do. As we pursue the battle to save the soul of Christianity — a fight that will not always be pleasant — we should remember that Jesus was willing to go to the cross to die for his progressive interpretation of Judaism.
God doesn’t care about labels; what matters is the underlying substance of our faith and the way we live our lives. There are different “brands” of Christianity, such as Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, and Universalist. The differences are vast, and some would say they are different religions despite their common roots in Jesus Christ. In the end, what matters is whether we are trying to follow Christ, to live according to his wisdom and example — the path of compassion and sacrifice for our brothers and sisters in God’s family that he so radically taught and embodied. If so, then we are truly Christian — as we should be.