An Early Progressive Christian
With the recent rise of ‘Progressive Christianity’ and the Common Dreams conferences held in Sydney (2007) and Melbourne (2010), it might be assumed that such a movement is relatively recent in Australia. One might well argue, however, that the voice of Charles Strong at the end of the 19th century anticipates much of the current thinking. The Australian Church based on Strong’s approach may have closed in 1955, but the radical thinking of Charles Strong has been said by some to pre-date the voice of Bishop Spong toward the end of the twentieth century. As Strong says:
Thus Christianity re-interpreted escapes from “carnal” theologies, traditions, questions about dogmas, infallible books, infallible churches, and presents itself as a Spiritual Life which is its own witness, and to which perhaps such things are felt to be a hindrance often rather than a help. (1984, 16)
The Australian Church
Charles Strong was born in 1844 in Scotland, began university at 15, was ordained in 1868 and became a minister of Scots Presbyterian in Melbourne in 1875. Due to an anonymous pamphlet suspecting him of heresy relating to the doctrine of atonement, he was removed from his church in 1883 and returned to Scotland.
Upon his return to Victoria in October 1884, Strong was approached by a group of friends and supporters who asked him to preach for them during the next twelve months in a hall which they would hire. In November 1885 a new church was constituted and Strong was asked to be its first minister. Although involved in the formulation of its aims and objectives, Strong made it clear that he was not the founder of the “Australian Church”.
The Australian Church in Melbourne defined itself as ‘a comprehensive church whose bond of union is the spiritual and the practical rather than creeds or ecclesiastical forms.’
Strong had a disdain for religion that focussed on preparation for life after death, salvation and damnation, services and sacraments, the Bible and vestments. The task of the church, he claimed, is to preach ‘freedom, justice, peace, compassion and reconciliation’.
Membership of the church required “sympathy with the general spirit and aims of the society, the honest effort to carry into modern life and thought the religion of Reason and Love and contribution to the funds of the society according to ability”. The notion of a church that was non-dogmatic, inclusive and tolerant was, however, not new. It was one of the important ideas of the liberal religious movement of nineteenth century Scotland and England.
The hermeneutical task, according to Strong, is to
Re-interpret Christianity in the light of modern knowledge, the principles of development, and the spirit of religion as distinguished from the letter; to re-interpret Christianity just as Copernicus and Galileo re-interpreted astronomy.(1894, 9)
In the light of his writings, this re-interpretation of Christianity might well be understood as follows:
- Embracing modern knowledge—science, cosmology, psychology and nature. (Nature is not an alien power—it enters us, we enter it—it draws out our secret mental forces and we draw into it. We are nature.)
- Following the Spirit not the letter—Jesus did not ask the woman who anointed his feet whether she believed in a creed, but if she had faith in him.
- Knowing the Spirit—as the ‘universal all-animating Spirit’, an eternal and deep dimension of reality. The Trinity is re-interpreted in terms of this deep Spirit in the universe.
- Reading via the Spirit—with a clear mind that is part of the eternal Mind led by the universal Spirit/Word to follow the Gospel of trust in God as Light and Love.
- Reading Nature—imbedded within deep mysteries of life.
- Understanding the Gospel—as the message that God is Spirit, that God is love and that God so loved the world as to send his Son to draw us into sonship and make us partakers in a divine life.
For Strong, The Gospel of John was the canon within the canon. The themes of John, such as life, light and word, were central to his reinterpretation of the Gospels. In his own words, ‘Salvation is no longer accepting an offer of deliverance from hell, but being saved from ourselves and lifted into Christ’s life and God’s life.’
Strong also speaks of a ‘spiritual Christianity’, a movement that links us with the spirit deep in all things and the spirit deep in each human. Spiritual Christianity ought to be an expression of who we are, expressing the spirit/divine within. When we discern the Spirit of Christ in the text, rather than search for doctrine or theology, we facilitate this process.
An extraordinary feature of Strong’s spirituality is its distinctive incarnational base. This base is read in line with the approach of Clement of Alexandria. So ‘the Word of God became man, so that thou mayest become God’ (1894, 116). In other words, the incarnation is not an ephhapaz (once and for all) event, but an expression of an eternal present reality. The word or spirit becomes/is incarnate in every human. Every human is an expression of the incarnation of God’s presence. As Strong writes:
The essential idea of Christianity in such writers as Justin, Clement and Athenagoras, is the revelation of God in man, that man may be drawn into God through the Logos or Word. God in man and man in God, is indeed the very keynote of spiritual Christianity in the early church, the Middles Ages and modern times (1894, 116).
According to Strong, Christianity must be reborn. It must change with the times, knowledge and the evolution of humanity in society. Christianity must reflect the kingdom/spirit of God within each of us and ultimately be connected with the cosmic spirit. Christianity must shed the book and letter worship of the past and adopt a new cosmology – no more heaven and hell! And finally, Christianity must be part of the moral force for social change.
For Strong, what is true of the way people live life is also true of the way interpreters have read the text. The task is to explore the depths and discover that a Spirit/spiritual connection with Christ means a profound connection with the Centre, with the Divine, with Life itself. Christ is the ‘way’ to that Life. The Gospel for Strong is therefore essentially Life with all its deep divine dimensions! Or in the words of Strong,
…the gospel is that God is Spirit, that God is Love, and that ‘God so loved the world’ as to send his Son to draw us into sonship and make us partakers in a divine life; glimpses of a world at length inspired with a ‘spirit of life in Christ Jesus.’ (1894, 17)
Social justice was central to Strong’s re-interpreting of Christianity. He saw this dimension associated with both evolution and Scripture. He believed there has been and continues to be an evolution of human knowledge. Christians need to take this reality into account when reading the Bible, re-reading theology, re-interpreting Christianity and living social justice.
Spiritual Christianity has a crucial moral and social dimension.
God is not the God of the individual only or of the physical universe, but also the God of the Social Order. God’s nature cannot be interpreted apart from the laws of that Order manifested in social nature. The fundamental principle of social justice is: Live by the law of Love!
Strong organized the social work of the Australian Church. It included aid for children, a creche for the children of working mothers (led by Mrs Strong) and a Working Men’s Club. He set up societies for the discussion of literature and music, and the Religious Science Club. He strongly supported women’s right to vote and was heavily involved in prison reform. He also maintained a strong interest in the value and significance of religions other than Christianity.
Strong was vehemently opposed to any wars. ‘I cannot reconcile war and democracy, war and the Christianity of Christ’. He preached fiercely against the Boer War, declaring it to be rampant militarism and morally wrong. As a result, many of his followers no longer attended his church.
Strong’s interest in world peace and his views on peaceful means of settling international problems made him unpopular during the 1914-1918 War and resulted in the resignation of many members of his congregation. His opposition to war and to a proposal by the Australian Government in 1917 to conscript Australians for service in overseas countries aroused the disapproval of friends and supporters. The press in Melbourne also attacked him for the first time in his career.
The Kingdom of God
Strong interpreted the Kingdom of God in line with this re-reading of the Gospel. According to strong the Kingdom includes:
- the rational ethical divine meaning that permeates the universe,
- the evolutionary unfolding of that divine purpose in human experience,
- the justice of God expressed in goodwill, love and brotherhood to all,
- a willingness to suffer until this great ‘law of our being’ is realised in society.
Strong rarely functioned as a modern preacher, taking a particular text and doing a detailed exegesis as the basis for his sermons. Rather he functioned with a progressive theology which may be summarised as spiritual, evolutionary and moral. Yet, these three are all expressions of a divine unity. There is an underlying interconnectedness of the physical, the spiritual and the ethical. And that unity is not in some distant realm, but within each of us. Nor is it a distant concept; rather it is an energising force—that divine Love with moves all things to live, to love and to realise the Kingdom of God in creation. Our task is to discern that Love in the text and be agents of that Love in society.
1971 The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church. Melbourne: Abacada Press
1984 Christianity Re-interpreted and Other Sermons. Melbourne: George Robertson and Company.
See also the lectures from the Charles Strong Symposium on the Strong Trust website: www.charlesstrongtrust.org,au
Chair, Charles Strong Trust