Since Easter is coming up and is an occasion where the supernatural traditionally plays a role, I thought I should do a top five list of superstitions that I don’t, as a Progressive Christian, have to believe in.
Coming back to church after an absence of 18 years, I wasn’t sure how I would handle the Christian beliefs that I considered rather supernatural. It was a bit like asking an adult to believe in Santa Claus.
I had the fortune of happening upon Irvine United Congregational Church, which subscribes to (very) Progressive Christianity. It’s a non-dogmatic, non-creedal church that is deeply involved in social justice issues. We are against war, support gay marriage, and are in favor of health care reform. In our area, we have a reputation for being “That Church.” Over the last few years I discovered that Progressive Christianity does not require me to give up the rational side of my mind. Here are the top five beliefs that I no longer need from my days attending a conservative Baptist church.
1. The Bible as the inerrant word of God.
The Bible should be read as literature, the same way that we do with Shakespeare. We need to understand the cultural context at the time that it was written to make sense of central, essential message in the text. Human beings wrote the Bible for their own purposes. I find it very hard to believe in a God who manipulates people like puppets and makes spelling mistakes.
2. Virgin birth
The notion that Jesus was born to a woman who had not previously had sexual intercourse is due to a translation error. The Hebrew word used to describe Mary was almah, meaning “young woman.” But in the 3rd Century CE, the Bible was translated into Greek and the word became parthenos, which means “virgin.” It’s good news to me that I don’t have to believe in something biologically improbably and likely supernatural, in order to accept that Jesus of Nazareth walked the Earth at some point.
3. Jesus arising from the dead.
The Easter story where the formerly dead Jesus leaves a tomb is a parable. The underlying message is that love and hope go on, even in the darkest hour. Easter is about resurrection, not reanimation. It’s about restoring something that that was lost, not making a former corpse walk the Earth again. It was such a relief to me that I didn’t have to believe someone came back to life (zombie, anyone?) in order to call myself a Christian.
4. Sin is breaking God’s law.
Sin is not violation of some arcane rule in the Bible or some inference from a passage in the Bible. In PXnty, sin is any action that increases emotional and spiritual distance between a person and loving Creator. This model is beautiful to me, because it’s so personal, subjective, and immediate. It also a definition that works through the ages. I like believing in a God who isn’t a rules lawyer, who makes decrees about corner cases, such as whether a white lie is a real lie. A God who doesn’t micromanage our lives makes so much more sense to me, as does the emphasis on how I live my life and my relationship with God.
5. Hell is where sinners are sent after we die.
If sin is an action that increases distance between a person and God, then heaven and hell are not where people go in the afterlife, but consequences of how we live in this life. Someone who commits a lot of sins will have a uncomfortable consequences to deal with, such as damaged relationships, guilt, sadness, etc. All these negative emotions are hell in and of themselves. They don’t require further condemnation from others. By the same token, heaven on Earth is not just an abstract concept, but a specific state. In the absence of sin, we can be perfectly loving, perfectly compassionate, perfectly courageous, and perfectly just.
A God who would create a place where people are sent to be tortured forever after they die is a monster, in my book. Eternity is a long time. It’s an even longer time to be boiling, freezing, whipping, or starving someone who was alive for at most a little over a hundred years. I refuse to believe in a God who uses more advanced interrogation techniques than the CIA.