A good summary here of the type of way my own faith is developing.

This article, by Bishop John Shelby Spong, is a very close outline of what I now believe about our Christian Faith. It makes sense to me, in a way that a lot of our traditional beliefs and doctrines do not stand up any more. As he says, myths turned into doctrinal statements are a thing of the past, not the future.

So, if I ever get permission to stand in a church pulpit or ambo, I will have very different things to say than what I preached about in the past!


The Five Fundamentals: A Conclusion

Essay by Bishop John Shelby Spong
November 7, 2007

If the “Five Fundamentals” articulated by traditional Christians in the early years of the 20th century represent the essence of Christianity then the time has come to acknowledge that we have come to the end of this noble faith tradition.

Those “Fundamentals” assume a supernatural, theistic deity, who manipulates the laws of the universe to do miracles. Isaac Newton put an end to that notion in the 17th century. The “Fundamentals” also assume a three-tiered universe that educated people stopped believing in after Galileo. Even the Vatican pronounced Galileo correct in 1991. These “Fundamentals” define human life as something that was created perfect at some specific date in history (Bishop Ussher suggested 4004 B.C.) only to fall into sin and thus to require an intervening act of divine rescue. That view of human origins died in the 19th century at the hands of Charles Darwin whose work was ultimately authenticated by the discovery of DNA evidence that links all life into one common origin. The “Five Fundamentals” assume that human beings can possess knowledge of God that is in fact beyond the capacity of the human mind to embrace.

Insisting that interpretive myths can be literalized, the “Fundamentals” claim to possess truth by direct revelation, not recognizing that God cannot be bound by the human limits of time and space and that human words about God can not, therefore, be literalized by anyone in any age. Indeed the “Five Fundamentals” are so bound to a worldview and to a frame of reference that no longer exists that to insist upon them as the defining convictions of a Christian is to close out the possibility that modern men and women can be committed Christians without twisting their brains into pre-modern pretzels.

Since in the common mind, however, these “Fundamentals” have become identified with traditional Christianity itself, many people, including the popular voices in the media, assume that a dismissal of these “Fundamentals” constitutes a dismissal of Christianity itself. Therefore, those of us who refuse to surrender the title Christian either to the Benedict XVI’s or to the Falwell-Robertson brands of contemporary Christianity have a responsibility to say what it is that we do believe and why we continue to call ourselves Christians. In this concluding essay on the “Five Fundamentals” I want to do just that. I no longer define God as a being who exists somewhere outside the boundaries of this world, who possesses supernatural power and who intervenes in human history periodically to answer prayers, to do a miracle or to accomplish the divine will. That is nothing more than the “theistic” definition of God, and it must be recognized today as no more than a human creation. The theistic God is portrayed as a great big human being who has escaped human limitations. So deeply has “theism” captured the definition of God that the word “atheist,” which literally means one who does not believe in a theistic God, has come to mean one who does not believe in any God at all. Nothing could be further from the truth. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchen and Sam Harris do not understand that distinction. That is certainly not my situation.

We have today finally begun to recognize that no human mind can grasp the reality of God, so human efforts to define God are as nonsensical as the efforts of horses might be if they attempted to define a human being. God is a reality that can be experienced but never defined. There is also the chance that when we think we are experiencing God, we are in fact facing only our own delusions. All religious systems are typically loathe to face or to admit that possibility..

Honesty compels me to state that I am a God-intoxicated, but not a theistic believing Christian. I experience God as that transcendent dimension of life and I use the undefined human word “other” to name. God to me is experienced as the power of life that surges through the universe and that comes to self-consciousness in human beings alone. God to me is experienced as the presence of love that enhances life and that human beings alone can name. God to me is experienced as the “Ground of Being” empowering all that is, to be what every created thing can be, but which only human life can understand or articulate. So I worship this God of life by living fully and I call this aspect of God “Holy Spirit.” I worship this source of love by loving wastefully and I see this quality uniquely in the portrait of the all loving Jesus of Nazareth. I worship this “Ground of Being” that I “the Father” by having the courage to be all that I can be. I think that the God experience met in the affirmation of life, love and being is in fact a therapeutic pathway to wholeness and that wholeness is and can be a factor in restoring one to health and healing. I do not think that this is miraculous or supernatural, I think it is rather natural and real. I do not believe that I could tolerate emotionally a chaotic world run by a miracle-working, manipulating, capricious deity rather than the universe in which I live, which is stable and ordered by the natural laws of the universe.

I define myself as a Christian, by which I mean I am a disciple of Jesus, who is for me the human icon through which I embrace the reality of God. When I look at Jesus’ life, as I have received it through both tradition and scripture, I see one who was so fully alive that I perceive the Source of Life in him. I see one who so totally loved that I perceive the Source of Love in him. I see one who was free to be all that he was meant to be so I perceive the Ground of Being in him. Since my God experience convinces me that God comes to me as life, love and being, I have no problem joining with St. Paul and saying of this Jesus that “God was in Christ.” It is that undoubted experience that underlies all the doctrine about the divinity of Christ. To meet this Jesus is for me to meet the reality of God through a human medium. That does not find me literalizing the ancient symbols through which my ancestors sought to explain the God presence they believed they met in him. I am not much attracted to primal myths like virgin births, miraculous acts, the resuscitation of deceased bodies or the cosmic ascension of a deity returning to the divine abode above the sky. I do believe with all my being, however, that the reality of God transcends all human barriers including the ultimate boundary of death. Jesus is vital to me in understanding that God presence. My hope for eternity also resides in that conviction.

I do not believe in something called original sin or what classical theology called the “fall of man.” The sooner Christianity can part with that antiquated idea, the better. I am a post-Darwinian not a pre-Darwinian. Human life was never made in a state of perfection so it could not possibly have fallen from that original perfection into the trough of “original sin.” If we are not fallen, it is nonsensical to suggest, as classical Christianity does, that only the intervening, rescuing God could save us. Rather, human life has evolved over 4 ½ -5 billion years until it arrived at our present self-conscious stage. The evil that marks human life does not rise, therefore, out of some mythical, pre-historic fall into sin but in the reality of the continued incompleteness of our humanity as we evolve into what we were created to be.

So we do not need a savior or one who will rescue us from our sin. What we need rather is to be empowered to become more deeply and completely human, to live creatively with the chronic anxiety that is the unique mark of self-conscious creatures who know their limits. Thus the story of the Christ must be totally rethought in light of this new understanding of human origins. The old way cannot be restored to credibility even by artificial respiration.

These facts alone render the current mythology about Jesus as the divine visitor to earth to be both dated and inadequate. They reveal Pope Benedict XVI’s book about Jesus to be completely irrelevant to the current Christological debate. This new perception of our origins will quickly and totally take the Church out of the business of providing certainty and security and will cast us finally into a deep and radically different search for truth. The context in which all religious questions are discussed will be changed. “The Five Fundamentals” will be seen as little more than fading images in a rear mirror reflecting a world that no longer exists. These realities raise powerful and provocative questions. Does the Christian Institution, in any of its forms, have the ability, strength or willingness to undergo this radical new process? There is little evidence to encourage one to think so. Pope Benedict XVI still lives in a fantasy world in which he regards ultimate truth as something that has been captured in the creeds, doctrines and dogmas of his Church. He assumes that a first century Bible, a fourth century creed and thirteenth century dogmas can escape the limits of their time and place in history. He continues to play superiority games, asserting that his Roman Catholic Church alone possesses ultimate truth, thus rendering all others as “defective,” an argument too absurd to elicit defensiveness. The Archbishop of Canterbury has, at the same time, sacrificed truth for unity, as if a church united in homophobia or any other prejudice is worth fighting to save. Mainline Protestantism is in such a statistical freefall that with a few notable exceptions in each tradition, it has lost the nerve needed to stand for much of anything. These forms of Christianity will die of boredom long before they die of controversy. Evangelicals and fundamentalist offer the snake oil cure of religious certainty, surrounding their 2000-3000 year old sacred scriptures with the irrational claim of inerrancy. The Christian Church of tomorrow can live without any of the “Five Fundamentals,” but it can no longer live with them. It is time to say so loudly, persistently and bluntly.

A new Christianity for a new world is struggling to be born. It will not be a majority movement, but like the ancient biblical images it will accept its vocation to be leaven in the lump, light in the darkness and salt in the soup of this world. I am confident that such a day is dawning in the Christian world. I await its arrival with what Charles Dickens called, “Great Expectations.”

~  John Shelby Spong