Over Christmas I read Gordon Lynch’s (2007) The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-first Century. Despite some minor quibbles (for example, his confusion of the 2nd and 3rd waves of feminism, and his inclusion of Willow Creek and the Alpha Course alongside “other forms of experimentation with the ‘emergent church’,” - two disappointing misunderstandings, both on p.25), Lynch’s study of what he refers to as “the progressive milieu” is impressive, absorbing, and stimulating.
Through an extensive review of print and online media, Lynch argues that far from being amorphous and/or insignificant entities, both this milieu and what he terms a “progressive spirituality” are organised around and arise out of identifiable sets of values, beliefs, and practices.
Firstly, then, the progressive milieu is constituted “by individuals, groups and networks who tend to be either liberal or radical in theological terms or green and left-of-centre in political terms” (20). Those involved are sympathetic to liberal democracy’s core values (for example, tolerance, autonomy, diversity), hold green or left-wing political attitudes (for example, concerned with environmentalism, social justice, civil rights), and/or are theologically liberal or radical. Lynch includes in this latter characteristic a willingness “to revise religious tradition in the light of contemporary knowledge,” a sympathetic relationship to feminist critiques of institutionalised religion, and beliefs that “there is a truth inherent in all religious traditions” (98).
Lynch portrays progressive spirituality (which is not the only spirituality possible within this milieu – a point to which I shall return at the end of this post) as arising out of four imperatives within the progressive milieu:
- “the desire to find new ways of religious thinking and new resources for spiritual growth and well-being that truly connect with people’s beliefs, values and experience in modern, liberal societies” (23-25);
- the development of “a spirituality that is not bound up with patriarchal beliefs and structures, and which can be relevant and liberating resource for women” (25-29);
- “attempts to reconcile religion with contemporary scientific knowledge,” particularly grounding spirituality in contemporary scientific cosmologies (29-25);
- and “moves to develop a spirituality which reflects a healthy understanding of the relationship of humanity to the wider natural order and which motivates constructive action to prevent ecological catastrophe” (35-38).
After tracing the development of progressive spirituality from these four imperatives, Lynch sets about clearly defining the ideology of progressive spirituality. This ideology is “a cluster of related ideas and values that recur with striking regularity” in the various media produced by the milieu (41). However, this ideology should not be understood as a spiritual worldview that is espoused universally by all those sympathetic to the wider progressive milieu. As mentioned above, Lynch’s methodology leans heavily towards a multi-media literature review (albeit supported by an amount of interview and ethnographic data), and he uses Antonio Gramsci to characterise the producers of these various media (books, magazines, articles, pamphlets, websites, etc.) as “‘organic intellectuals’ whose life and work is embedded within the social structures and relationships of the progressive milieu, and who represent its leading intellectual edge” (41). The resources thereby produced are used in a myriad of different ways for a multitude of different purposes, the exploration of which is beyond the scope of Lynch’s current publication (72).
Lynch presents the four key elements which characterise the religious ideology of progressive spirituality thus (43-65):
- “a belief in the immanent divine unity which nurtures and sustains the unfolding cosmos;
- “the sacralisation of nature;
- “the sacralisation of the self;
- “and a belief that these spiritual truths can be discerned within and beyond different religious traditions” (98).
This latter point revolves around an understanding of religion as historically and culturally contingent attempts to “approach the mystery of the divine presence – a mystery which ultimately defies definition” (60). However, while “no single tradition can claim to be the final, authoritative revelation of the divine” and are to be “treated as metaphorical ways of conceiving the divine [rather] than direct representations of the truth” (60), Lynch’s characterisation of progressive spirituality implies that it understands truth as correspondence and as accessible (albeit only in part), through a variety of religious practices. Lynch writes, “Progressive spirituality does resemble postmodernism in its celebration of different religious styles and traditions, rather than the pursuit of a unitary style that characterized some form of modernism, but in reality, progressive spirituality is much closer to modernism. Underlying the range of religious traditions that it welcomes, progressive spirituality sees a common essence of truth… It may be less optimistic about social and cultural progress than some earlier forms of modernism – but progress it seeks, nevertheless, towards a more spiritually grounded, sustainable and just society” (68). Hence the name, perhaps?
In relation to my PhD research, Lynch’s work touches on several interesting areas, as well as sparking thoughts about how I can present the ‘emerging church’ phenomenon to readers of my thesis. I’ll detail three particular areas of commonality between spiritual progressives and those involved in emerging Christian communities, before reflecting on the methods Lynch uses to introduce The New Spirituality of his title.
Firstly, Lynch recognises the central role which opposition plays in the development of collective identity among nascent movements. Progressive spirituality “distinguishes itself very clearly from certain other forms of religion and cultural ideology,” for example authoritarian religions and secularism, and “defining these opposing religious and ideological viewpoints plays an important role in giving shape and content to the identity of religious and spiritual progressives” (63). Constructions of ‘others’ by progressives (which is, as Lynch observes, “not to say that it has no external validity”) are vital in the process of community formation on ideological and practical levels. This construction of oppositional others is clear also among emerging Christian communities. Lynch’s description of religious progressives is helping me to think about how constructions of fundamentalist and modernist evangelicalism function for the ‘emerging church.’
Second, progressives’ views about social boundaries are also akin to positions taken by emerging Christian communities, particularly as these positions are articulated by the “organic intellectuals” of the ‘emerging church.’ Lynch writes, “By and large, progressive religious groups and networks are not interested in boundary issues of who does and does not properly belong to these groups or who does or does not fall within acceptable boundaries of ‘orthodoxy’ in progressive faith. Indeed the strong emphasis on tolerance and valuing of diversity amongst progressive groups, means that concerns with tightly maintained boundaries and group orthodoxy tend to be seen as the regressive and unhealthy obsessions of more traditional forms of religion” (42). The ideology which Lynch identifies with progressive spirituality is not, therefore, a ‘statement of faith’ which must be subscribed to by all progressives. Rather, the ideology is understood as a “potential basis for mutual identification, communication, and collaboration” (42). In much the same way, subscribing to more bullet points of ‘emerging church-ness’ does not make one more emerging, but rather enables broader and deeper levels of respect, dialogue, and support.
A third interesting point of comparison concerns another aspect of progressive identity. Lynch acknowledges that “collective identity within such movements is socially constructed, focused around overlapping and sometimes contradictory accounts of both the movement’s goals and methods, and the social and cultural environment in which it operates. This process of ongoing negotiation occurs not simply through explicit conversations about the movement’s identity, activities and context, but also takes place through the movements’ developing practices and rituals, and the way in which it produces and uses cultural artefacts. It is also a process that is embedded in a range of social relationships” (89-90). Crucially, then, identity formation is conducted within a range of contexts which produce both underlying cohesions and localised divergences. Lynch’s approach is thus able to take note of both these instrumental aspects of identity, and I am interested in what the “field of beliefs and aspirations” (90) might be within which individuals and groups negotiate what it means to be ‘emerging.’
A final point to be made about Lynch’s study of progressive belief relates to the method through which he introduces his readers to his subject. This “new spirituality” is first grounded within a particular religious milieu, the “progressive milieu,” and Lynch identifies the criteria through which individuals and communities can be confidently placed within this milieu. While allowing that this milieu might enable other types of religious ideology, progressive spirituality is then presented as the most prevalent spirituality within the progressive milieu, and its key characteristics are explored. The roles and practices of religious organisations and networks situated in the milieu are then likewise examined.
My attempts to accurately describe the ‘emerging church’ phenomenon to lay and academic readers, both familiar and unfamiliar to it, led me away from the language of ‘emerging church’ towards the more inclusive and plural phrase ‘emerging Christian communities.’ The realities of my fieldwork methodology then led me further to describe participants as ‘members and friends of emerging Christian communities.’ However, even this phrase is not entirely suitable. Firstly, the use of the word ‘members’ suggests an (over-)emphasis on boundaries which is not always present, and a differentiation between types of relationship (members and friends) could introduce social structures which may or may not be already apparent. Further, not all the individuals participating or communities represented understand themselves as ‘Christian.’ But over the last few days, Lynch’s approach to the progressive milieu and progressive spirituality has sparked further ideas about how to present my research subjects to readers.
Due to the similar nature of the two phenomena, Lynch’s approach can be mapped on to a study of emerging Christian communities without much modification. A relationship to the term ‘emerging church,’ however complicated, suggests that individuals and communities can be assigned to what I shall call the emerging church milieu. Inhabitancy of the emerging church milieu can accommodate a number of different understandings and usages of the phrase ‘emerging church,’ whilst simultaneously allowing me to dispense with speech marks!
I will then attempt to identify the defining features of the emerging church milieu, which will enable individuals, organisations, and networks to be placed within it without excluding the possibility of real differences amongst them. I will also examine the roots of the emerging church milieu, as well as the roles and practices of organisations, etc., within it. Through my exploration of the concept of truth among those involved in the emerging church milieu, I will then explore two potential (though not exhaustive) spiritualities within this milieu. Though I have yet to fix on names for them, you can guess from my thesis structure that I might call them Emergent Spirituality and A/theistic Spirituality.
This leads me to a criticism of Lynch’s approach, which lies solely with his choice of terminology. What Lynch describes in this book is one spiritual possibility for those in the progressive milieu, yet his assigning of the appellation ‘progressive’ to both the spirituality and the milieu implies a value judgement which is refused elsewhere in the book. It’s designation as a progressive spirituality suggests not only it’s prevalence in the milieu of the same name, but also it’s superiority and suitability over and above any other spiritual possibilities. The possible spiritualities which arise from the milieu should therefore be given different names from it, in order to avoid this confusion in an otherwise useful map for looking at contemporary spirituality.