Monday, April 16, 2012

A New Reformation

John Shelby Spong is a retired Episcopal bishop who believes that a literal interpretation of the Christian faith no longer speaks to the lives of modern believers. The following is an excerpt from his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile (Harper Collins / May 1998).

The Catholic Church had it's beginnings in the 4th century and for more than 1,000 years was the source of much of the stability of the western world. In the 16th century it entered a period of internal upheaval that came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. The institution that called itself the Body of Christ broke first into debate, then acrimony, then violence and counter-violence and finally into open warfare between Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians. It produced the Thirty Years War and the conflict between England and Spain which led to the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Yet, when looking at the conflict from the vantage point of the 21st century, it is surprising to see how insignificant the theological issues were that divided them. Neither side was debating the core teachings of Christianity such as the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus as the only son of God, the reality of heaven and hell or the cross in the plan of salvation. These were faith assertions held by both sides. Instead Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians disagreed about whether salvation was achieved by faith alone, as Luther contended, or whether faith without works was dead as the Vatican argued. There was also debate over the proper use of scripture and the role of ordination. Despite being confrontational, with hostile accusations of “heretic” hurled at Protestants and “anti-Christ” hurled at Catholics, it was nonetheless a fight that pitted Christian believers against Christian believers. The Reformation was not an attempt to reformulate the Christian faith for a new era. The time had not yet arrived in which Christians would be required to rethink the basic and identifying marks of Christianity itself.

The need for that kind of change was first hinted at when Copernicus and Galileo removed the earth from its supposed location at the center of the universe, where human life had basked under the constant attention of a humanly defined parental deity, and cast it adrift into an ever-expanding universe. That understanding produced an angle of vision radically different from the one in which the Bible was written and through which the primary theological tenets of the Christian faith had been formed.

When Sir Isaac Newton charted the fixed physical laws of the universe the Church suddenly found that the concepts of miracle, supernatural, and divine intervention as explanations of everything, no longer held as much intellectual integrity. Once more believers were forced to embrace a reality vastly different from their faith tradition.

Next came Charles Darwin who related human life to the world of biology, an awareness which diametrically opposed the traditional understanding of the Creation event. The Bible began with the assumption that God had created a finished and perfect world from which human beings had fallen away. As a result, sin was the reality in which all life was presumed to live. Darwin instead postulated an unfinished and imperfect creation out of which human life was evolving.into higher levels of consciousness. In such a vision the belief that Jesus came to earth to rescue mankind becomes inoperative. So does the interpretation of the cross as the moment of sacrifice when the ransom for sin was paid. The Church clearly wobbled under the impact of evolutionary insights, and Christian leaders ever since have pretended that if Darwin couldn’t be defeated, he could at least be ignored.

Darwin was followed by Sigmund Freud, who analyzed the symbols of Christianity and found that a God who is understood as a father figure, who guides personal decisions, answers prayers, and promises rewards and punishment based upon our behavior is not designed to call anyone into spiritual maturity. Instead this view of God produces a passive dependency on end-time fulfillment in another world.

Finally in the last 75 years there have been landmark discoveries in the field of science that may be the final blow to any remaining supernatural or mythological aspects of our spirituality. The Church tells us we were made in the image and likeness of God who always was and always will be. Quantum Physics is now telling us the same thing in modern terminology. We are not solid objects of matter as we appear. We, and everything else that exists in the universe are made of pure energy which, according to the law of thermodynamics, can neither be created or destroyed. This field of energy connects all of creation and is holographic. That means everything is one with the Source and each piece mirrors the whole on a smaller scale. If one considers this field of energy which is the source of everything to be God, then there is really nothing that separates us - only a stubborn and persistent belief that we have held onto long past it's usefulness.

In defense of this onslaught of intellectual reasoning it has not been surprising to see Christianity degenerate into an increasingly shrill biblical fundamentalism where genuine questions are not encouraged, and if allowed, are met with preconceived and pious answers. Today such churches are declining numerically, seem intolerant theologically, are concerned more about preservation of doctrine than truth, and wondering why boredom is what people experience inside church walls. Surely the renewal of Christianity will not come from this kind of fundamentalism. If there is nothing more than this on the horizon then I see no future for the enterprise we call the Christian faith. It is my conviction that the need for a re-formation of Christian theology is facing the Church today. The pre-modern concepts upon which it was based cannot speak to the post-modern world we now inhabit. The New Reformation will be far more radical and will dwarf in intensity the changes of the 16th century, for it will not be concerned about authority, ecclesiastical nuance, ordinations or sacraments. Rather it will be an examination and rethinking of the very nature of the Christian doctrine itself. It is the only way this ancient religious system can be re-focused and re-articulated so as to become relevant in an increasingly non-religious world.

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