Converging and Diverging

This is a Big Picture idea, the one on which my sabbatical is based, and I’ll be blogging about it from many angles this year.  In brief, I’m interested in how people use religion as a means of social solidarity (convergence) and differentiation (divergence) both now and in history.  Coming together is rarer, I think, than splitting apart: there are fewer tributary branches joining into rivers than tree branches schismatically spreading toward the sunlight from their parent limbs.

Moving apart is an essential process in evolutionary change, as species differentiate into more specialized or divergent niches.  Combining species probably doesn’t happen in nature, but symbiosis (two creatures benefiting from each other’s close presence) and of course sexual reproduction (two members of a species shuffling their respective DNA) come to mind as examples.

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Anyway, a month ago I met with Eric Elnes (pictured above) in Omaha.  He is the senior pastor of the Countryside Community Church and I blogged about the Tri-Faith Initiative on August 1st. Eric has been instrumental in putting new ideas into practice.  The two most famous ones are The Great Convergence (made popular by Christian thinkers like the late Phyllis Tickle and Brian McLaren)  and the Tri-Faith Initiative.

Phyllis Tickle (pictured below), who spoke at Breck about this very thing in 2009, called it the Great Emergence, theorized that “every 500 years or so, the church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale.” +/- 1500 AD: The Reformation; +/- 1000 AD: The Great Schism; +/-  500 AD Gregory The Great commissions monastics who will keep the church alive through the Dark Ages; +/- 0 AD: Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the Holy Spirit create the Church.

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So now, in +/- 2000 AD, the Church is changing all over the world (growing in the Global South, waning in the Global North, and taking sides in the culture wars) and Tickle believes some postdenominational future is beginning to emerge, at least in places like the US.  The electronic, individualistic, mobile world we now live in seems bound to produce a different kind of spirituality.  Eric Elnes and colleagues summed up a current consensus, which Tickle hailed as the clearest outline of a Progressive Christianity.  Their twelve broad strokes are called the Phoenix Affirmations (a reference not to anything rising from ashes but from the site of their drafting conference).




    1. Walking fully in the Path of Jesus without denying the legitimacy of other paths that God may provide for humanity.

    2. Listening for God’s Word, which comes through daily prayer and meditation, studying the ancient testimonies which we call Scripture, and attending to God’s present activity in the world.

    3. Celebrating the God whose Spirit pervades and whose glory is reflected in all of God’s Creation, including the earth and its ecosystems, the sacred and secular, the Christian and non-Christian, the human and non-human.

    4. Expressing our love in worship that is as sincere, vibrant, and artful as it is scriptural.


    Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 7.48.41 AM5. Engaging people authentically, as Jesus did, treating all as creations made in God’s very image, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, nationality, or economic class.

    6. Standing, as Jesus does, with the outcast and oppressed, the denigrated and afflicted, seeking peace and justice with or without the support of others.

    7. Preserving religious freedom and the church’s ability to speak prophetically to government by resisting the commingling of church and state.

    8. Walking humbly with God, acknowledging our own shortcomings while honestly seeking to understand and call forth the best in others, including those who consider us their enemies.


    IMG_34489. Basing our lives on the faith that in Christ all things are made new and that we, and all people, are loved beyond our wildest imaginations—for eternity.

    10. Claiming the sacredness of both our minds and our hearts, and recognizing that faith and science, doubt and belief serve the pursuit of truth.

    11. Caring for our bodies and insisting on taking time to enjoy the benefits of prayer, reflection, worship, and recreation in addition to work.

    12. Acting on the faith that we are born with a meaning and purpose, a vocation and ministry that serve to strengthen and extend God’s realm of love.

Twelve is a good, Biblical number.  These affirmations are not so much a Creed as they are a series of steps on a walk.  They’re actions we who call ourselves Progressive and Christian are claiming take us closer to the Heart of God, along a path that Jesus blazed for us.  Whether they represent a convergence of just liberals or whether Elnes is right, that many Evangelicals will also find these affirmations helpful and true, remains to be seen.

My own first draft of this is my slideshow with commentary, “Many Paths to God,” inspired by our work in multifaith education at Breck.


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I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

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