Wednesday, February 3, 2010
I am reading this profoundly thought-provoking (albeit poorly titled) book by John Shelby Spong, titled "Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile." The book was a Christmas present to Ben from his mom, who also found it to be very thought-provoking. I've posted the "12 Theses" below as a way to possibly start a conversation.
The material he presents is honest and deconstructive - and as someone who attends a fairly liturgical church, I'm finding it more and more difficult to participate in some of the readings and especially the Nicene Creed that is so a part of our worship experience. Marcus Borg, another Jesus scholar, would say that the creed (Nicene) is a way to identify ourselves with a particular culture and story of the past - the story of how the man Jesus was understood to 'believers' at that time in history, to rule out a contending point of view (the Arius v. Athanasius debate), and to maintain the peace under Constantine. The creed for us today, he would say, is not an exercise for our intellectual approval. Well, that sounds nice - but if that is the case, why do we still recite it every Sunday, as if it were literally true? I'm pretty sure when people hear or say the words, "I believe..." they are not thinking to themselves, "I think this is a bunch of crap but I'll say it anyway..." - Most people truly believe the words - or feel as though they should - the virgin birth, the 2nd coming of Christ to judge the world, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, etc. etc. And, moreover, they think that if they are to call themselves Christian, they better believe it, because that is the truth.
Marcus Borg, in a lecture a few weeks ago that I attended, talked about reclaiming the Christian language. One of the words he focused on was the word believe. He said that the word, at it root, was more akin to belove or, "to give one's heart to" - the subject of the word believe was never a statement, it was always a person. Thus when we say "I believe..." in the creed, we are more saying, "I give my heart to...". This doesn't solve the problem of the creed for me...but it does help to some extent. In my opinion, I think we should write new creeds that are in accord with our understanding of God and the nature of the universe today - creeds that do not reflect the 3-tiered worldview that so framed the creeds of the past. I guess the question is, Why do we still use it? and, Can we speak it with honesty?
I would be interested in your thoughts - on the 12 theses below, or on the creed, or on any related matters. Here are a few points Spong makes - think of these as similar to what Martin Luther did while nailing his theses to the the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, protesting what he believed were the fallacies and malpractices of the established church of that time.
A Call for a New Reformation
1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. God can no longer be understood with credibility as a Being, supernatural in power, dwelling above the sky and prepared to invade human history periodically to enforce the divine will. So, most theological God-talk today is meaningless unless we find a new way to speak of God.
2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So, the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post--Darwinian nonsense.
4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes the divinity of Christ, as traditionally understood, impossible.
5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God that must be dismissed.
7. Resurrection is an action of God, who raised Jesus into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
8. The story of the ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in Scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior-control mentality of reward and punishment. The church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for cither rejection or discrimination.
Spong's Note: These theses posted for debate are inevitably stated in a negative manner. That is deliberate. Before one can hear what Christianity is one must create room for that bearing by clearing out the misconceptions of what Christianity is not. Why Christianity Must Change or Die is a manifesto calling the church to a new reformation. In that book I begin to sketch out a view of God beyond theism, an understanding of' the Christ as a God presence and a vision of the shape of both the church and its Liturgy for the future.