Question authority (absolutely)

A developing story in mainline Protestantism reminds me of the oft-repeated joke about what you get if you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah's Witness: Somebody who knocks at your door for no apparent reason. This is the developing story: Liberal Protestants are developing programs to compete with the Alpha Course, a curriculum from the Church of England parish called Holy Trinity Brompton that has found a home among churches ranging from Roman Catholic to The Salvation Army.

Like Alpha, these alternatives begin with a community meal, offer a teaching on videotape or DVD and then turn to roundtable discussion in small groups. Like Alpha, they say all questions are welcome. Unlike Alpha, they prefer questions over answers.

I wrote a feature about one such curriculum, Via Media, for the July/August 2004 Episcopal Life. More recently I wrote a critique of it for Kendall Harmon's weblog, Titus One Nine.

Lawn Griffiths of the East Valley Tribune in Arizona has written about a United Methodist curriculum called Living the Questions. Unlike Via Media, Living the Questions has chosen some pugnacious representatives of Jesus Seminar theology, including retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong and Methodist theologian John B. Cobb Jr.

Griffiths mentions that the curriculum's two creators, the Rev. Jeff Procter-Murphy of Phoenix and the Rev. David Felten of Scottsdale, believe Living the Questions presents "a deeper understanding that challenges their intellect and goes beyond historic doctrines and teachings."

Spong states the contrast more bluntly:

During a recent celebration to launch the program, held at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Bishop Spong said he doubted the Christian church would die from controversy. "I think it will die of boredom," he says in touting the Living the Questions program. Boredom comes when "no one is engaged when it speaks a language that doesn't translate into your world," he said.

Religious fundamentalists -- be they in Judaism, Islam or Christianity -- reject the modern world. "They are people who cannot embrace the reality of the world in which they live, so they build a defense against modernity. They sing their hymns and close their minds" and proclaim, "We have the truth. The Bible is inerrant, the pope is infallible, there is only one way to God, and we possess it," Spong says. Such statements, he said, "become the language of their security."

Whether Living the Questions represents a second Reformation, as the two pastors believe, will be a story worth watching for many years to come. That may depend on whether the program spends less time on the phantom threat of fundamentalism and more time on what its adherents can affirm -- other than more questions, of course.

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