Surveying Progressive Religious Thought

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Surveying Progressive Religious Thought [SPRT] is a short course aimed at providing interested seekers with basic information on the findings of research on religion, particularly within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Participants in the course will be helped to develop critical skills to draw on their own and other religious traditions to see how religion can achieve the best outcomes for humanity while avoiding some of the toxic consequences of conventional and fundamentalist traditions.

Over the past 50 years or more, research in the sciences and social sciences has made considerable progress in providing us with a deeper understanding of religion and religions -- their origin, nature, history and effect. At the same time, the world has seen powerful regressive movements towards fundamentalism in all established religions, while large numbers of so-called "New Age" movements or New Religious Movements [NRMs] have also emerged.

People interested in progressive religious perspectives sometimes experience difficulty in keeping abreast of developments in the field. For some, this difficulty may be attributed to the reluctance shown by Christian clergy and other religious professionals to pass on their knowledge of Biblical scholarship. For those who try to "go it alone", the plethora of relevant internet sites and books (Spong, Funk, Borg, Crossan, Armstrong et al) may prove very daunting.

The SPRT Course will focus on what mainstream critical religion scholars have been saying about:

  • God [May 4 & 11]
  • The Bible [May 18 & 25]
  • Jesus [June 1 & 8]
  • The Church [June 15 & 22]


Program Information

The venue for this series will be the St Thomas Anglican Centre, adjacent to St Thomas' Anglican Church, High Street, Toowong (Brisbane, AU). Parking is available in Jephson Street (behind the church) and at a nearby shopping centre. Each session starts at 7.00pm and will conclude by 9.30pm.

  • An online version of this series will be available through the FaithFutures Moodle site. For information about how to participate in the online course, please check the Moodle pages.


Costs for the series at Toowong are as follows:

Series of eight sessions: $100
Any four sessions: $60
Single sessions: $20

  • Four or eight session series should be paid in advance at registration.
  • If taking just 4 sessions, please indicate the chosen sessions when registering.
  • Single sessions can be paid at the door.


Registration

Please complete a Registration Form [1] and send it together with your cheque (payable to CPRT Brisbane) to:

CPRT Brisbane

c/- PO Box 822

KENMORE Qld 4069


Further Information and Other Questions may be directed to:

Scott McKenzie (07) 3335 6604 (w) 0418 742 301 [2]


Presenter

The presenter for this series will be Greg Jenks. Greg has a PhD from the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Queensland, awarded for his research into the origins and early development of the Antichrist myth. He is a biblical scholar who has taught and lectured in Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth and Sydney, as well as Canada, Jerusalem and the United States. He is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar and was Associate Director of the Westar Institute from 1999 to 2001. Greg is Executive Trustee of the FaithFutures Foundation in Kansas, and Director of Academic Development for the SnowStar Institute of Religion in Canada. As coordinator of the Jesus Database project, Greg publishes a weekly commentary on the next Sunday's lectionary texts that is available to subscribers around the world.


Introduction

Welcome to this series of workshop as we explore what contemporary critical scholars of religion are saying about some major themes in progressive religious thought.

Before we can engage with the first theme (God), we should perhaps address some preliminary matters briefly.


Defining Progressive Religious Thought

It is probably essential to say something about Progressive Religious Thought, since that is the focus of our series and the phrase itself is a carefully constructed term.

If we take the words in reverse order, we get the following constellation of ideas:

  • Thought — we are engaged in an intellectual exercise to understand and interpret the subjects that we shall be addressing in this series
  • Religious — we shall focus on selected issues from the Christian religious tradition, although there is an implicit openness to interfaith religious discourse conveyed in the choice of adjectives
  • Progressive —our engagement with the Christian theological tradition will be critical in character and focused on the quest for fresh ways to understand and practice faith (to express it negatively, this is not a course to propagate traditional religious ideas, to defend Christianity from critical scrutiny or to proselytise).

This series stands in conscious continuity with the historical-critical approach to theology which has characterised the Western intellectual tradition since the Enlightenment.

The intention is to be non-confessional (i.e., neither presuming nor promoting a particular formulation of faith), non-dogmatic (i.e., making no claim to final truth and avoiding the tendency to develop and impose particular ideas as essential for acceptance by the majority) and pluralistic (i.e., allowing multiple ideas and interpretations to co-exist without any attempt to draw people from one faith position to another).

In particular, throughout this series we shall treat religious texts (Scriptures, creeds, confessions, liturgies, prayers, songs and other theological writings) as human literature originating from particular people in specific circumstances, and as literary objects to be studied with the same assumptions and processes as would apply to similar texts in any other domain.

Religion itself will be treated as a human activity, rather than as a unique phenomenon deriving from some supernatural source.

Typical activities throughout this series will include:

  • critiquing traditional religious beliefs and practices,
  • addressing new questions posed by our context in the twenty-first century,
  • developing new models for religious thought in the present times, and
  • imagining new forms of religious practice in our time.

One of our goals is therefore to develop our religious literacy.


Religious Literacy

In recent years there has been a concern to develop alternative forms of literacy so that our citizens are better prepared for the challenges of the future. In addition to the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic - the traditional "3 Rs" - schools are recognizing the need to develop computer literacy and various other life skills.

There is another life skill essential to the well-being of our society—religious literacy. So what is religious literacy? And why is it important for the health of religious communities as well as the wider society?

Religious literacy is not about being correct. It does not ensure that we will always draw the right conclusions. But it is about being well informed: including a capacity to locate relevant information and employ it appropriately.

In one sense, religious literacy is a shorthand way to describe our aspirations to be well informed in matters of religion. However, it goes beyond "information" to include "competence" in forming our religious values and acting upon them.

This gets us close to the heart of the matter. Many members of our society—including many active church members - are functionally illiterate in religion.

Such people are unaware of a great body of scholarship that is relevant to their faith. And those who consider themselves non-religious - the fastest growing religious option in many western societies - are often unaware that many popular stereotypes are not well grounded in the religious traditions they no longer find persuasive.

As we move through a period of profound transition in our society, religion can be a focus for negativity as well as a catalyst for meaning and hope. That is why it matters that so many people remain functionally illiterate in matters of religion. We all need some basic capacity to weigh the claims of those who invoke religion in support of their social and political agendas. At a time when the polarities of the Cold War are being replaced by tensions along ancient religious boundaries, it is all the more important that the knowledge developed by scholars in religion be accessible to as many people as possible.

The Church could (should?) be a voice for religious literacy in public life. We all have much to learn - and much to gain - as we pursue the goal of a society whose citizens have the capacity to access and critique the religious traditions that we have inherited. It begins in our homes, our parish communities and our schools.

It is my hope that SPRT will be one further avenue for pursuing that quest.


Moodle — the Online Learning Environment

This is my first time using Moodle, so I expect we shall learn a lot about the software as the course proceeds. I will appreciate your patience with me as I learn how to make the best use of the software, and I certainly encourage any participants with more knowledge of Moodle than me to share that wisdom with us as appropriate.

The Moodle web site [3] has support documentation for teachers and system administrators, but not for students!

Perhaps the most important things is simply to ask (by email direct to me) any time you feel in need of assistance. As we go along I shall get better at avoiding the bear traps and we shall all learn the basic skills of this amazing software.


Terminology

This will most likely be familiar information to most people, but let me remind us all of some basic terms which it is helpful for us to use consistently.

  • BCE/CE – Before the Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE) are now widely used in place of the traditional BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domino).

Names for the Jewish people at various times are best kept distinct rather than confused indiscriminately:

  • Hebrew – used for the ancestors of ancient Israel and Judah before the historical period
  • Israel/Israelite – the northern tribes with their capital at Samaria prior to 722 BCE (after which they are known as Samarians and later still Samaritans) and only revived the name of the present modern nation state in 1948
  • Judah/Judeans/Jews – the southern tribes with their capital at Jerusalem and subsequently Jew has come to be the name of those people who religious identity derives from Judaism irrespective of their ethnicity and nationality.

In the first two sessions, at least, we shall frequently have occasion to use the following terms with some precision:

  • theism (belief in god), polytheism (belief in many gods), henotheism (worship of one god while accepting the existence of other gods), monotheism (belief that there is only one god), pantheism (belief that god is to be equated with all that exists), panentheism (belief that god is in all things but also greater than and beyond the natural world), deism (belief in a god who created everything but does not intervene in the world now) and atheism (denial of the existence of any god/s).

The list of Abbreviations used throughout this site may also be helpful as you participate in this series.