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Christ and the Body of Christ: Is There A Future for the Christian Church?

ISSUE:  Spring 2000

Recently I published a book entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile.Simultaneously with that publication, in Luther-like fashion, I posted on the Internet Twelve Theses drawn from this book that I believe must be engaged and debated by Christians if we want Christianity to continue to live (see End Notes). In both the book and the theses I was seeking to raise to consciousness the fact that the primary myth around which traditional Christianity has organized itself has become inoperative. The supernatural, external deity who lives somewhere beyond the sky, watching over this planet, keeping a record book on the basis of which the final judgment will occur and periodically invading the world to accomplish the divine will, has become, quite frankly, unbelievable. This theistic God is today the victim of an expanded human knowledge which has emerged in the Western world over the last 400 years.

That, I hope you recognize, is not a minor statement for a bishop of the church to make, for this theistic God is the deity most clearly described in the sacred scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and this is the deity most often worshipped and prayed to by Christian people. For a bishop to suggest that this deity has become an unbelievable God is to say something that to many Christians is both radical and fearful, perhaps even scandalous. In the Biblical story it is obviously a theistic deity who walks with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, who banishes the primeval couple after they broke the divine prohibition and ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and who places an angel with a drawn sword at the entrance to this garden so that they could never return. People argue that these divine acts are not history, but part of a Hebrew myth. That is true enough. But as the Biblical story continues and legend, mythology, and history are woven together, the God concept that informs each new episode remains that of a supernatural human being—a theistic God.

We see this invasive, personal, theistic God in the call of Abraham, in the choice of Isaac’s wife, in the election of Jacob over Esau and in the favor bestowed on Joseph beyond that which was accorded to his brothers. It is a theistic God who calls Moses to deliver the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt, who equips Moses with magical powers, who visits plague after plague upon the Egyptian people, and who finally murders the firstborn of every Egyptian household in an act of divine yet immoral fury.

It is the theistic God who splits the Red Sea, rains heavenly bread called “manna” upon the chosen people in the wilderness, fights the enemies of Israel, and dictates the divine rules to govern human behavior on Mt. Sinai. If this theistic definition of God is no longer believable, as I am suggesting, then we need to face the fact that the God most frequently portrayed in our own Biblical story has become inoperative. Hence we are dealing with a significant crisis of faith.

Many forces have conspired to destroy this theistic deity. Theism was wounded when human beings began to embrace the vastness of the universe. Theism became all but irrelevant when the laws of cause and effect that seem to govern the natural order were discovered. Theism’s mortality became apparent when such things as the weather and the causes of sicknesses were secularized and when that secular mentality then created such curative agents as antibiotics, surgery, and chemotherapy all of which were morally neutral, working as effectively on sinners as they did on saints. When the weather was understood not as the result of God’s wrath, but as the result of such things as El Nino winds and low pressure systems, or when the victory or defeat of a nation in military conflict was explained not on the basis of divine intervention, but rather on which nation had the larger army and the greater military capability, the theistic God was clearly fading from view. So many of the things that we once attributed to this theistic deity we now explain with no mention of supernatural power at all. Indeed, one English theologian, Michael D.Goulder, a New Testament professor at the University of Birmingham, explaining his withdrawal from the Christian church, said that the theistic God of traditional Christianity no longer had any real work to do. He was unwilling to worship what he called an “unemployed deity.”

To draw the potential trauma of the demise of theism even more tightly, we Christians need to face the fact that the heart of our faith story rests on the assumption that it is this theistic God who has been met incarnate in Jesus the Christ. The interpretive framework which Christians have traditionally wrapped around this Jesus is based upon the assumption that in the Christ figure the theistic God from beyond the sky has entered human history and has been encountered in human form. The first generation of Christians dealt with the logical problems of relating the external God to the human Jesus by providing this theistic deity with a landing field, a point of entry into human life. We call it the Virgin Birth. Next they described this divinely conceived one as capable of wrestling with and defeating the demonic forces that tempted him, produced mental illnesses, and bound human lives in various states of ill health. They attributed to this Jesus the power they believed resided in the theistic God. Like God, Jesus was said to be able to command the natural forces of the universe. He could still the storm, calming both wind and wave, he could walk on water, he could expand the food supply so dramatically that five loaves of bread could feed 5000 people. He was also capable of performing other miracles. He could give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. Like God, Jesus could forgive sins and promise paradise. Even death faded before him. He could raise the four-days-dead Lazarus and walk physically out of his own tomb, aided by angelic beings who came from heaven to roll away the stone. Finally, when his work was complete, he was said to return to the place the theistic God was thought to live. He needed a round-trip ticket and thus a proper exit from this world. So in a gravity-defying act, it was said that Jesus ascended into the sky to be reunited with the theistic supernatural deity. Contemporary Biblical theologians today seek to explain these stories in a wide variety of ways, but the fact remains that all of them reflect a definition of God that is theistic. God is a Being supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and periodically invading history in miraculous ways.

If this theistic, supernatural understanding of God has in our time ceased to be a believable concept as I have suggested, then we Christians must also face the fact that so has this traditional interpretation of Jesus as the incarnation of this theistic deity. Yet that definition remains the primary understanding of Jesus upon which the Christian Church is still organized and that is the primary basis upon which the Church continues to claim its power at this moment. Significant portions of that church assert, for example, that only through the official sacraments can the grace of this theistic God be mediated to human life. The authority of the church’s clergy is still primarily located in their ability to preside over those sacraments. Clergy power is still vested in the claim, made in both Protestant and Catholic traditions, that in some sense the ordained one stands between the supernatural deity and the frightened and insecure human beings, who are defined as fallen, fragile sinners unable to save themselves. The Church, the sacraments, the clergy are the mediators of a salvation that comes from above.

Almost all of our physical church structures reflect this theistic understanding of God. Flying buttresses, Gothic arches, massive steeples, and pointed windows, are designed to direct the worshippers to the God who dwells above the sky. When one adds to those structures the stained-glass windows which seek to capture the Biblical scenes in a kind of eternal timelessness, one understands that churches were traditionally built to proclaim in stone and wood that the ultimate meaning of human life is found beyond life where the theistic God reigns. This theistic understanding was a compact, a snug and comfortable statement of who God is, what the universe is, and what our place within it is. But it is this very world view that has now been obliterated.

Galileo, building on the work of Copernicus and Kepler, has made us aware that the three-tiered view of the universe, assumed in our theistic definition of God, no longer exists. Our tiny planet Earth circles around a mid-sized star called the sun, which is part of a galaxy of one billion stars in a universe that contains at least 125 billion other galaxies. The theistic God above our sky is no more. Before that realization had been absorbed Isaac Newton began to squeeze the presence of miracle and magic out of life, reducing dramatically the arenas in which the theistic God was believed to be able to operate.

Next, Charles Darwin challenged the myth of our special creation in God’s image. He also raised questions about the human self-definition gleaned from the Biblical story that we are those who, though created perfect, had fallen into sin so total and so complete that only the theistic God could rescue us. Darwin provided us with a countering image. Human beings, he suggested, like all other forms of life, have emerged out of the evolutionary struggle to survive. They were never created perfect so they could not have fallen. If this Darwinian view is correct, as I think it is, then it immediately invalidates the traditional understanding of the saving work of Christ as the one who was the theistic God’s emissary to rescue the fallen sinner, the one who accomplished atonement by means of his sacrificial death, which somehow paid the necessary price required for our restitution. That understanding of the saving work of the Christ still undergirds traditional Christian liturgies and still provides the content of many of our familiar hymns. But those images have become inoperative in a post-Darwinian world. For if we are not fallen, sinful, helpless creatures as the Bible has proclaimed, but are rather unfinished, still evolving, emerging creatures as Darwin has suggested, it is not rescue but empowerment to take the next step into an ever-deepening humanity that we require.

Next, Sigmund Freud forced us to look at the infantile and oedipal aspects present in our traditional faith story. Then Albert Einstein confronted us with the reality of relativity, not just in the world of time and space, but in the religious claims we make for both God and Christ, as well as in the authoritative claims with which we have surrounded our creeds and doctrines. The security found in the Christian assertion that we are in possession of Divine truth revealed directly by this theistic God in either scripture or tradition has been obliterated. In turn, this has rendered such Christian assertions as papal infallibility and Biblical inerrancy to be no more than an ecclesiastical version of the Maginot line behind which deluded people hid with false expectations.

That, ’ in thumbnail brevity, is why I have asserted that Christianity must change or die. This faith tradition can no longer rest on the fading theistic claims of yesterday. The presuppositions upon which Christianity was built are not today sustainable. If Christianity is to survive, it will require a radical, new reformation that will recast every aspect of this ancient faith story. That is also why I have suggested that the reformation that is now upon the Christian Church will make the reformation of the 16th century seem, by comparison, to be something like a Sunday school tea party.

I have no joy, no glee, and no sense of triumph in stating these things to my Christian brothers and sisters. I do it because I regard these things as the difficult but unavoidable realities that I as a Christian must face. I am not an enemy of Christianity in its essence. I am rather a deeply committed Christian believer. With all my being, I still acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth is for me the meeting place between God and human life. I call this Jesus the Christ. I acknowledge him as Lord of my life. I am not a peripheral Christian. I have served the Christian Church as one baptized in infancy, confirmed in puberty, and married before its altar. I have accompanied my father, my mother, my wife and many of my friends into that church to hear the words of the burial of the dead read over them. I intend to die as a loyal member of this worshipping tradition.

Nor do I do these things, as my secular friends charge, because I simply cannot escape the habits of a lifetime. I act out of a compelling and living faith. This church has ordained me deacon and priest and it was willing to accept my service in these roles for 21 years. This church then elected and consecrated me to be one of its bishops and I have fulfilled that responsibility for 24 years. I deeply love this church. I treasure its faith story. But I am also convinced that the heart will never worship what the mind rejects. Today the theistic understanding of God as a supernatural Being, external to life who invades the world in miraculous ways is no longer a God that the mind can accept and therefore no longer a God that the heart can worship. Since this definition of God lies at the heart of our understanding of Christ, and the way in which the life of the Christian Church is organized, then to that degree the whole Christian enterprise is tottering. If we cannot change those presuppositions, if there is no other way to portray God, to understand the work of Christ, and to organize the church, then Christianity will surely die.

If we Christians would only open our eyes to see, that death is becoming apparent everywhere we look. The Christian churches across Europe are all but extinct as places of worship. In France churches are most frequently used as museums or settings for weddings. In England churches cover the land but attract more tourists than they do members. Of England’s 70,000,000 citizens only about 1,000,000 attend church with any regularity. Polls in Australia and New Zealand reveal that less than 20 percent of the population of those two countries even claim a relationship, however tenuous, with an organized religious tradition. There was a burst of renewed religious interest in Poland, Russia, and Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, but it was short lived and the real winner there was not Christianity, but secularism as time has demonstrated. Eastern Orthodoxy is treated in those lands where it remains the dominant Christian tradition as but a benign irrelevance from another age. Only in Africa and in other parts of the Third World is there numerical Christian growth, but a careful analysis of that growth in those places reveals that it is largely of a Christianity marked by a pre-modern superstitious literalism. It is not a Christianity that will ever engage the post-modern world. The attempt to solve complex ethical issues by quoting the words of Scripture found in these Third World churches is not a sign of new life. The failure of this Third World fundamentalism to engage their people’s ancient prejudices about women, or homosexuals or even to illumine the bitterness of some of their tribal struggles relegates it to a pre-modern yesterday, not a post-modern tomorrow. This kind of Christianity will never survive the Internet related and e-mail connected world into which even Africa is now awakening.

In the United States mainline churches are in a statistical free fall. That is frequently masked in parts of the South and Midwest where religion is still big business, but the fact remains that Christianity loses what business leaders refer to as “market share” every year, both in the United States and in the world. Among Roman Catholics there is an enormous and growing clergy shortage and, according to many studies, the people who do pursue the priesthood in that church today are in large measure extremely conservative security seekers who will not engage modern learning except to condemn it in the name of the True Church. That is hardly a stance that will be successful.

When one listens to the guardians of the various ecclesiastical establishments as they seek to explain these statistical realities, one is amazed at the capacity for self-deception.

The current drastic decline in the power of institutional Christianity is occurring not because of liberal compromises with the ancient verities, but because the traditional basis upon which this faith system has been erected can no longer be sustained. The heart will never worship what the mind rejects. It is only when that reality is faced honestly by institutional leaders that we will finally stop tinkering around the edges of church life, as if minor adjustments here and there will restore our ship of faith to smooth sailing. That is of no more value than doing a facelift on a corpse and pretending that the corpse is still alive. When these realities are finally recognized by Church leaders, then perhaps the need for a total new reformation will become both imperative and unavoidable. The real issue before the church today is not whether Christianity in its traditional form is dying. That appears to be obvious. The real issue is whether a reformation this radical, one that raises questions about the very basis of our faith is something that the Christian Church in its present form is strong enough to tolerate, much less to embrace. Can we as a church, for example, dismiss theism as an adequate definition of God, without slipping into an atheism which even our language suggests is the only alternative? If we can no longer explain the Christ in any terms other than as the incarnation of the theistic God, is there any way we can still affirm that basic Christian principle that God was in this Christ? If we surrender the sense of an external, supernatural deity, can we continue to pray? If there is no revealed will of this theistic deity in such things as the Ten Commandments or the Holy Scriptures, is there still a way we can talk about Christian ethics? If there is no judge keeping record books in the sky and thus no ultimate behavior-controlling sense of heaven as a place of reward or hell as a place of punishment, is there still a way in which eternal life can be affirmed? When those who were once called liberal Christians take leave of the church to join the secular city, I fear they answer these questions with a sad, but resolute, no. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, will not even raise these questions. The time has come for those of us, the ones I call believers in exile, those who can neither be fundamentalists nor can they abandon the faith of their fathers and mothers to ask whether or not these are our only two alternatives.

Because I believe there is another possibility beyond these two sterile choices, I am now compelled to suggest that a sweeping total, radical reformation is the only option the Christian Church has if it wishes to avoid institutional death. Contrary to the reformation of the 16th century which was primarily about authority, valid ministry, and who had the power on this earth to represent God, this new reformation must be radically theological for it must address the assumptions at the heart of the Christian claim.

There will be many other differences between this reformation that stands before the Christian world today and the movement that coined that word at the time of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Cranmer. This reformation will not come from within a powerful ecclesiastical institution that is abusing its privileged position. It must come out of a weakened and dying institution that society has already marginalized. It will occur in a world where theology is thought of as esoteric and in which politicians will yawn before they will go to war over theological issues. It will come at a time when for countless numbers of people the word “God” no longer stands for a power to be feared or a reality to be courted. It will come at a time when the meaning of human life is being reassessed under the challenges of modern science. It will come at a time when the literalness of the theological framework with which we have surrounded the Christ figure is being challenged by our own Christian scholarship. It will come at a time when the words we have traditionally used to describe the atoning death and saving work of Jesus have become in quick succession, first strange, then bizarre, and finally repelling. Our world will never be drawn to a religion which suggests that salvation comes through a human sacrifice of one who was crucified to appease an offended theistic deity. Neither will it be attracted to the idea that in the shedding of Jesus’ blood somehow the price of sin was paid. These threadbare concepts are not worthy today of eliciting worship. Indeed, they have actually become grotesque. The next reformation will have to be born inside a Christianity that is visibly staggering and deeply divided.

Some Christians, I fear, will continue their efforts to meet this crisis by shouting their ancient creeds and quoting their ancient scriptures with increasing fervor, as if these words had actually captured God and God’s unchanging truth. These will, of course, be the conservative evangelicals or the neo-fundamentalists. As the expansion of knowledge moves inexorably forward, their approach will look increasingly neurotic, and it will appeal primarily to the spiritually uninformed and the immature. It will also succeed only in building a religious ghetto mentality.

There will also be other Christians who, rejecting that fundamentalist alternative, will express a willingness to surrender their literalized faith story bit by bit as new knowledge seems to require, hoping that by sacrificing peripheral things they can protect essential things. These people are, of course, the moderates or the liberals. But their approach will succeed only in slowing down the death process. They will not alter the eventual outcome. The fundamentalists will finally go down in flames while the liberals will expire with a pitiful whimper. Either way, the result will be the same. Death appears to be Christianity’s destiny unless something radically different invades this tradition.

When both of these alternatives are seen to be dead-ends, then the final alternative will emerge as a distinct choice that just might enable Christianity to have a new birth in this new millennium. That choice begins with the recognition of the theological fact that the experience of God is never to be identified with those explanations of that experience, no matter how sacred a part of our tradition the explanations have become. The Gospels, for example, are 1st century, predominantly Jewish, explanations trying to make sense out of the experience that somehow in Jesus of Nazareth the holy God was believed to have been met in a new way. But when these 1st century Jewish people sought to explain that experience, they did so in terms of the theistic God of the Exodus, Mt. Sinai, the Promised Land, and the Exile. The Gospels point to the God experience that was in Christ. The interpretive explanations found in the Gospels cannot be identified with the God experience itself. The Gospels are not magic. The Gospels are not inerrant. No human explanation can finally claim that. The Gospels, along with the rest of the Bible, are not in any literal sense “the words of God.”

The historic creeds of the church are also explanations. They were shaped by the Mediterranean Greek thinking minds of the 4th and 5th centuries of the Christian era. Inside this frame of reference they sought to make sense of how God was experienced in the created world, in Jesus and in the spirit-filled life of the Church. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was their attempt to explain their experience. The creeds do not capture that God experience. No explanation can do that. The creeds only try to make sense out of it. Creeds are not themselves sacred, infallible, or unchanging. The best creeds can do is to point to truth. They cannot be identified with truth. So creeds, like all explanations, will not endure forever.

There are no words, no traditions, and no theological formulas that are not explanations, and every explanation is time-limited, and its “truth” is time-bound. Theism, we need to understand, is but another explanation of a God experience. The death of an explanation does not require the denial of the experience. So all of these symbols of our faith story—our Bible, our creeds, our doctrines, our sacred traditions—can be and must be debated, compromised, changed and even surrendered if necessary. Only the experience of God is eternal and that experience ultimately has no words. The words we apply to that experience must be broken open in every generation, because when words are added to experience, the eternal quality of the experience is immediately distorted. The experience of God cannot, therefore, finally be reduced to either scripture or creeds. Not understanding that, the church has attempted to make idols of both. Today those idols are dying and those are the idols that must be transcended if we are to find a pathway into a living future.

So the reformation which the church must inaugurate today must be allowed to raise even life and death questions about every Christian claim. It must be allowed to challenge every Christian formulation. It must explore the experience of God beyond the definition of theism. It must look at the meaning of Jesus apart from the theological doctrines of Incarnation and Atonement. It must examine human life as an emerging, evolutionary being, not as a fallen, once perfect creature. It must sacrifice the pre-modern claims of miracle and magic, surrender the concept of a supernatural, invasive deity, and abandon the mythological framework that portrayed Jesus as a visiting, saving, divine figure.

Can these questions be raised by those of us who are still believers? Will those who argue for a God understood as something other than the supernatural supreme being of classical theism; or for a Jesus whose full humanity becomes the means through which the Ground of All Being was revealed; or for a concept of spirit that issues not in piety, but in human wholeness, still be seen as the descendants of classical Christianity? Can a church that makes no claim to mediate an external God to an earth-bound population through its scriptures, creeds, and sacramental acts ever see itself as the next step in the evolution of Christianity?

I stand before the world today as one who believes that the answer to each of these queries is yes. That is why I continue to be a Christian. God is real for me, a mystical, undefinable presence that I can experience but never explain. I experience God as the source of life in the act of living fully. I experience God as the source of love in the act of loving wastefully. I experience God as the Ground of Being in the act of having the courage to be. Jesus is the revelation of this God for me, not because of miracle stories or excessive pre-modern claims, but because he is portrayed as one who is fully alive with the life of God, totally loving with the love of God, and as one who possesses the capacity to be all that he could be revealing the very Ground of Being that I call God. I serve the God that I meet in Jesus, not by trying to convert others to my way of believing, but by seeking to transform the world so that every person might have that God-like capacity to live fully, to love wastefully, and to be all that each person can be.

Finally, I yearn to be part of a newly understood Christian Church, one that is not dedicated to the maintenance of its institutional power, but rather one that will both assist people into life and one that will lobby in word and deed for the removal of any barriers that impede anyone’s humanity. I want to be part of a Christian fellowship that will not only help me to appropriate the religious heritage of my own tradition but will also allow me to receive the spiritual insights emerging out of faith traditions different from my own. I want to sit in a worship setting where I will hear sermons that will assist me to find meaning in my life, engage in liturgies that will open me to all that is, and allow me to explore even the dimensions of life hidden in my unconscious self. I want to be part of a Church whose clergy are well trained, but whose authority will be in their ability to teach and to explore the nature of truth, not in the status of their presumed ordained role as the mediators of the divine. I want to be part of a community that can make me aware of the reality in which I live and move and have my being. I want to call that reality God without having that word distort the meaning I seek to express by relating that word to all of the God concepts of antiquity.

I already see the signs of this reformation appearing ever so tentatively in the life of the Christian Church. It is present in the inclusion of women, in the new and growing consciousness about sexual orientation, in the experimentation taking place in liturgy, in the altars that have been moved from the back walls of the churches so the priest can now face not the God out there, but the God present in the midst of the people they serve, and in the radical and increasingly popular stances of frontier Christian thinkers who call us beyond yesterday’s boundaries. Those younger than I will live to see the growing power of this radical reformation. It is a reformation that must not be stopped, for to stop it is to watch Christianity die the death of irrelevance. I am also convinced it cannot be stopped, for it seeks to explore something that is both real and compelling. So let the reformation begin!

I will rejoice if I am remembered as one who, in some small way, encouraged its birth.

(See End Notes next page)


Twelve Theses

Drawn from the book Why Christianity Must Change or Die by the Rt. Rev. John S.Spong.

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 is today 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 barbaric 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 oe used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.


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