Part 1. Christianity at the Crossroads

Lloyd Geering

From The Fourth R
Volume 17-2
March–April 2004

Christian Faith at the Crossroads by Lloyd Geering

Available from Polebridge Press

This is the first in a series of four lectures delivered in Wellington, New Zealand, in the Spring of 2004 and published in The Fourth R.

Read Part 2. Excavating Jesus
Read Part 3. The Recovery of Jesus’ Teaching
Read Part 4. The Diverse Futures of Christianity.

Christianity stands today at a critical point in its long and complex history. Too few Christians realise that humankind is moving into an increasingly global and secular future. Christianity and all other religions must now come to terms with this new global context. Not only are we becoming dependent on a global economy but the many diverse cultures of the past are being drawn into a global cultural maelstrom. In the last four hundred years our view of the universe in which we find ourselves has changed out of all recognition; and so also has our understanding of culture, of religion and of the human condition itself.

For some four or five centuries the advent of the modern secular world appears to have been eroding Christianity, at least in its classical form. With the gift of hindsight we can now say that the Protestant Reformation was the first sign of this. The Reformation fragmented the ecclesiastical structure within which the Christian tradition had always lived. The church had long been held to be an article of faith, as in the words of the Creed, 'I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church'. The church saw itself as a divine institution founded by Jesus Christ, and it claimed to speak with finality on all matters of essential truth until challenged by the Protestant Reformers. The Reformation caused this 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church' to break up into an increasing number of competing churches. Christians were left in a state of bitter hostility to one another as evidenced by the religious wars of the seventeenth century. As church structures became increasingly divided, they manifested just how human they are.

To replace the channel of divine authority once thought to be seated in the church, the Protestant churches were thrown back on the words of the Bible. The Bible was believed to reveal, without error, the origin of the world, the meaning of history, the moral laws by which all should live, and the only path to salvation. But in the nineteenth century this widespread confidence in the Bible was badly shaken, as biblical scholars began to study it with the modern tools of literary and historical criticism. The Bible, far from being an infallible source of divinely revealed knowledge, proved, like the church, to be all too human in origin.

Just as the sixteenth century shattered the unity of the church, so the twentieth witnessed the progressive dissolution of traditional Christian doctrine. The recognition that the Bible was of human origin had serious consequences for the two most basic concepts in Christianity: the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the reality of God.

The traditional image of Jesus Christ began to disintegrate into a collage of history, myth and devout imagination. It came to be realised that the Jesus Christ worshipped in the Christian tradition, though initially based on the memories of the historical figure of Jesus, had long been shaped by the collective imagination and devotion of the Christian community.

At the same time, the theistic belief in God as the supreme personal being – a belief inherited from Judaism and basic to Christian orthodoxy from the beginning – was ceasing to win conviction. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were still only a few who dared to call themselves atheists. By the end of the century the traditional belief in God was declining rapidly. Even Christian theologians were beginning to abandon theism. Don Cupitt expounded what he chose to call a non-realist view of God, in which 'God' becomes a symbolic term referring to our highest values and aspirations. Similarly, Gordon Kaufman wrote: 'The symbol "God" sums up, unifies, and represents in a personification what are taken to be the highest and most indispensable human ideals and values.' Thus, belief in the reality of God, on which Christian orthodoxy has always depended, is today severely eroded. Catholic theologian Johann-Baptist Metz joined Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann in declaring 'a permanent constitutional crisis for theology'. All of this I have discussed more fully in chapter 3 of The World to Come, 'The Disintegration of Orthodoxy'.

Even by the beginning of the twentieth century some discerning Christians were already sensing that Christianity was facing a crisis. Such a person was George Tyrrell (1861-1909), the leading Catholic Modernist in Britain. In his book, Christianity at the Cross-roads (1910), he defined a Modernist as 'a churchman who believes in the possibility of a synthesis between the essential truth of his religion and the essential truth of modernity'. But the Vatican was having none of it. Modernism was condemned; Tyrrell and other Catholic Modernists were excommunicated. Yet books with similar titles to that of Tyrrell continued to appear throughout the century. These are a few of them: The Crisis of Faith by Stanley Hopper (1947); The End of Conventional Christianity by Dutch Catholic W. H. van de Pol (1967); Why Christianity Must Change or Die by Bishop Jack Spong (1998). When my own Faith's New Age (1980) was republished in USA in 2001 it was retitled Christian Faith at the Crossroads.

Copernicus and Darwin

Why is Christianity facing this crisis? The first part of the answer lies in the way Copernicus and Galileo opened the door to what became our current view of the world as a space-time universe. The new Copernican cosmology led to more subtle and radical changes than even the church authorities who condemned Galileo were able to recognise at the time. Galileo brought the sun, moon and stars into the same physical universe as the earth. In other words the heavens (or dwelling place of God) and the earth (or dwelling place of humans) have become parts of one and same physical reality. This was to have serious consequences for the traditional dichotomy of heavenly/earthly, supernatural/natural, and spiritual/material. The Copernican revolution was the first step in the emergence of the modern secular world, in which we see the universe operating according to its own internal laws. These laws operate even within living organisms, from the simple cell to the complex human organism. What our forbears took to be signs of supernatural forces turn out to be only the products of primitive interpretation and human imagination.

Since all educated persons throughout the earth, including even fundamentalist Christians, now share the space-age view of the universe, that does not in itself explain the crisis in Christianity. A second reason lies in the impact of Charles Darwin and the evolutionary account of the origin of all living species on this planet. As the Copernican revolution displaced the earth from being the centre of the physical universe, the Darwinian revolution displaced the human species from being at its unique place among all species as that made in the image of god. So fundamentalist Christians strongly reject Darwinism to this day. During the twentieth century, however, most thinking Christians have largely absorbed the notion of biological evolution.

New Awareness of Human Culture

The real threat to Christianity has been something more subtle and more devastating than Darwinism. It has been the modern knowledge explosion. The cosmological revolution introduced by Copernicus was simply the first sign. The biological revolution advanced by Darwin was simply the second sign. What followed was the somewhat slower recognition that human culture itself has evolved. By 'culture' I mean 'a complex whole which, grounded in a common language, includes the knowledge and beliefs which constitute a particular world-view, along with a set of customs, morals, skills, and arts, with which to respond to that world'. Culture is essential to our human condition. Only by being born into a culture and shaped by it do we become human. It is not our DNA alone which makes us human, for some 98% of that we share with the gorilla; it is also our culture that makes us human. Not only were we humans not created in our present form on the sixth day (as the Genesis account has it) but it took aeons of time for the human condition to evolve and it did so in tandem with the evolution of human culture. Now culture, unlike DNA, is something that the human species itself has collectively created.

From time immemorial our ancestors took human culture for granted, and most people still do. Being immersed from birth in culture, however primitive, people have been unaware of their dependence upon it. Language, the very basis of culture, we have taken for granted, much as we long took for granted the very air we breathe. People never used to think of language as something humanly created. Language was assumed to have existed before the beginning of time; indeed, in the biblical myth of origins, it was the very instrument by which the world was created. God had only to say, 'Let there be light!' and there was light. What made human culture possible was the evolution of human language.

What made human language possible was the natural human ability to create symbols; the basis of language is the symbolization of sounds. Once we humans came to realise that human languages and cultures have slowly evolved out of the primitive social life of our pre-human ancestors, it meant that we humans have, collectively, created language and culture. This has the effect of turning our previous assumptions upside down. Human culture is the man-made environment of thought and meaning in which we live and move and have our being. We become human as we are shaped by the culture into which we are born. But we in turn help to shape the culture we pass on to the next generation.

From the Big Bang to God by Lloyd Geering

Available from Polebridge Press

Whether there ever was a proto-language and a proto-culture we do not know. What we do know is that, as the human species spread around the globe, it created thousands of languages, cultures and subcultures. Each culture is an ever evolving and developing continuum of words, stories, ideas, codes of behaviour and social practices. It flows through time like an invisible ever-changing stream. In the past the many cultural streams flowed on in relative independence from one another but today they are converging to form one global cultural sea. Indigenous peoples are not the only ones who face the prospect of losing their cultural identity. All cultures are today competing with one another; and at the same time they are contributing to the formation of a possible, and as yet incipient, global culture. The coming global culture will be humanly created just as all past and present cultures have been.

The Cumulative Tradition

That which provides each culture with motivation, cohesion and a vision of where it is going is what we may call its religion. Religion has been usefully defined as 'a total mode of the interpreting and living of life'. To be religious is to be deeply concerned with whatever matters most to us in life. It involves our highest goals and values. As the theologian Paul Tillich said, religion is the dimension of depth both in personal experience and in culture. The coming global culture will also have its religious dimension but it will be experienced in secular terms. By 'secular' I do not mean non-religious but 'this-worldly and natural' as opposed to 'other-worldly and supernatural'.

Unfortunately, in popular usage, the word 'religion' is too often identified with the division of the universe into the dichotomous realms of earthly/heavenly, natural/supernatural, and material/spiritual, so that one is thought to be religious only if one still believes in a supernatural, heavenly, spiritual world. That division has now become obsolete. What Copernicus did was to bring the heavenly bodies into the same physical realm as the planet earth. What Darwin did was to bring the human species into the ever-evolving cluster of earthly species. What our new knowledge of the evolution of human culture has done is to teach us that the religious dimension of human culture is as humanly created as the culture itself. For some time we have been ready to concede that religions other than our own are of human origin. We have found it more difficult to accept that even Christianity has been human created.

In a seminal book, The Meaning and End of Religion (1963), the distinguished scholar of world religions, W. Cantwell Smith, proposed that we should stop using the word 'religion' because it has now become ambiguous and misleading. He suggested we should replace it with two other terms - the 'cumulative tradition' and 'faith'.

The term 'faith' refers to the internal attitude of trust in relation to life. Christians have no monopoly of it, even though it has been one of their basic terms. Faith of some kind is essential to human existence. We humans cannot live well or long without faith. The absence of faith leads to depression, lack of motivation and despair. When Jesus said to the woman, 'Your faith has made you whole', he was not referring to her beliefs but to her trust and attitude to life. As a result of Smith's insight, the many and various religious traditions are today often referred to as 'paths of faith'.

Smith's term 'cumulative tradition' refers to all the objective products of faith that have come to give character and identity to each path of faith. Such products are myths and stories, Holy Scriptures, creeds, dogmas, temples, social institutions and sacred practices. The cumulative tradition marks out the path of faith being trodden in a particular culture. It is called cumulative because it keeps growing. It is the product of faith and not to be confused with faith. Although knowledge of the cumulative tradition serves to nurture the faith of later generations it should never become the object of faith for that would be idolatry. In a vibrant culture the inner experience of faith is continually manifesting itself in new creations as it responds to the circumstances of its time. As Smith said, 'One's beliefs belong to the century one lives in, but what endures from generation to generation is the inner experience of faith'.

It is in the context of the evolution of human culture that we must seek to understand the current crisis in the Christian path of faith. The expression of faith is undergoing radical change today because of the new way we look at the world in which we live. It is analogous to the way to the way in which we no longer see the earth as the centre and major part of the universe, but rather as a tiny planet in an almost infinite space-time universe of stars and nebulae. In the same way we find that the Christian path of faith is only one within a complex history of many diverse paths trodden by humans. From within the Christian cumulative tradition it did appear to consist of fixed and unchangeable truths revealed by God. But within the much wider context in which we must now study it, we find it to consist of products created by humans as they walked the Christian path of faith.

Furthermore, the Christian cumulative tradition has been evolving since the days of the patriarchs, nearly four thousand years ago and has been known by different names at different times in its history. The term 'Christianity' by which it is known by most today did not come into use until the sixteenth century. Before that it was long known just as 'the faith', 'Christian faith', or 'Christian religion', which meant 'the Christian mode of devotion'. The very earliest name for it was simply 'The Way'. Perhaps that is still one of the best, being so like 'path of faith'.

During its four thousand year history, there have been innumerable additions and omissions taking place in the evolving Judeo-Christian cumulative tradition. But there has also been continuity. Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, down to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King were all part of this evolving tradition. They all walked within this path of faith, yet their beliefs were considerably different from each other since these reflected the different times in which they lived.

Two Axial Periods

During this long cultural evolution, however, there have been two major periods of quite radical cultural change. The first of these is now often called the Axial Period. Our new awareness of this makes it necessary for us to re-think our division of earthly time. Christians have long used the supposed birth year of Jesus Christ with which to order our calendar. That event was thought to cut history into two - BC or AD. But this practice simply illustrates how Christians, somewhat chauvinistically, put their own stamp on the calendar.

Once we look at the totality of human cultures we find that the year 500 BC marks the approximate centre of a time of radical cultural change now labelled the Axial Period, or, to distinguish it from a later one, the First Axial Period. The term Axial was chosen, when it first coined, because it seemed as if the evolution of human cultures was taking a giant turn on its axis and moving in another direction. This turn occurred in a number of places in Asia, more or less simultaneously, relative to the hundred thousand years of evolving cultures that had preceded it.

For the first time in known human history, many great cultural traditions came under critical examination by insightful and courageous thinkers. These are known today as the prophets of Israel, in Iran the prophet Zoroaster, in India the Buddha, Mahavira, and Hindu seers, in China the teachers Confucius and Lao Tzu, and in Greece the philosophers. As a result of their critical and creative reflections there emerged a new order of cultural traditions, different from the purely ethnic traditions which had preceded them. In the Far East the chief ones were Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Taoism. In the Middle East they were Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Platonism and Stoicism. Within a few centuries Christianity and Islam evolved out of Judaism and all three monotheistic traditions were strongly influenced by the Greek philosophers. These new post-Axial traditions replaced or absorbed the primal traditions that had preceded them – traditions based both on ethnic ties and the veneration of the forces of nature. We have a very good example of these primal cultures in indigenous cultures not touched by the First Axial Period until modern times. Thus it was in the First Axial Period that the Judeo-Christian tradition came to birth.

The term 'Second Axial Age' refers to the cultural and religious change by which the Christian West gave birth to the modern global, secular and humanistic world, which is now spreading round the globe. This secular emerged out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, just as the First Axial Age arose out of the ethnic and nature cultures that had preceded it. It is not Christian in the way Christendom was. But neither is it anti-Christian. It is best described as post-Christian, for it still reflects the values and customs of the tradition that gave it birth. Just what these values are we shall discuss in the last lecture.

Continuity and Discontinuity

At this point I wish to show that at each of the two Axial Periods there has been both continuity and discontinuity. The old and the new exist in tension alongside of each other for quite some time, giving rise often to bitter antagonism. During the transition, the discontinuity can be felt so sharply that only when viewed from a distance does the continuity become apparent. That is why, living as close as we do to the Second Axial Period, we are so aware of the conflict between traditional Christendom and the secular world that we easily fail to see the continuity. On the other hand, we often fail to see the discontinuity that occurred at the First Axial Period because the Bible, by starting with creation, appears to be affirming the continuity.

Prior to the First Axial Period all human cultures explained the phenomena of nature as acts performed by a plethora of gods and spirits. In the early evolution of these cultures the gods were created by the symbol-making capacity of the human imagination. Each god had his or her own proper name and was allotted a particular function to perform. The word 'god' was a generic term referring to a class of spiritual beings.

Then came the First Axial Period. In the sixth century BCE the Greek philosopher Xenophanes subjected the gods to critical examination. He condemned them for their immorality and poked fun at their anthropomorphic character. In India the Buddha took a different approach. He judged the gods to be irrelevant to the religious quest for human fulfilment; the gods were marginalized, and eventually faded from Buddhist terminology.

The Israelite prophets, who pioneered the Judeo-Christian tradition, first of all openly attacked the gods of the other nations, warning their people not 'to go after other gods to their own hurt'. In the sixth century BCE they went much further, and, like Xenophanes, they also poked fun at the gods, scornfully dismissing them as having no reality; the gods were simply the creations of human imagination. Here was radical discontinuity with the past.

But, unlike the Buddhists, the Israelites retained the Hebrew word for 'the gods' – elohim (plural in form). Here was continuity. Yet the word received a new meaning. The word elohim, which once denoted a class of beings, now came to be used as a singular word and soon came to be treated as a personal name, and a replacement for the name of their earlier tribal God, Yahweh. For the Jews, henceforth, all divine power was believed to be concentrated in one unseeable spiritual force. Thus was born monotheism.

There was further discontinuity, which has often been overlooked. Before the Babylonian Exile the people of Israel, like all other peoples, had a land of their own, and their gods had their own earthly dwelling-places, called temples. It was during and after the Exile that the Jewish people ceased to be united by a dynasty and the possession of their own land. They became a community held together only by their faith in their cultural tradition. Soon they had to learn to do without a Temple and they replaced it with an entirely new kind of religious institution – the synagogue. Compared with the priestly-controlled temple, the synagogue can be called a lay institute; it existed for fellowship, prayer and the celebration of their tradition. It was in the Exile, during the First Axial Period, that there came to birth what we today call Judaism – the Jewish path of faith. In the process of this birth, a radical religious transition took place, to be summarised this way.

1. The pre-Axial gods were rejected and replaced by one God, conceived as an unseeable spiritual force which created the universe and still controls human history.

2. The temple and its priesthood began to be replaced by the synagogue, Holy Scriptures and lay-leadership, even though this process was not completed until the final destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

These same radical reforms continued into the two derivative paths of faith – Christian and Islamic. All three were monotheistic, all three had their respective Holy Scriptures, and the non-priestly institution of the synagogue became the prototype of both church and mosque. Unfortunately, as the three separate cumulative traditions subsequently developed their own elaborate complexities, Jew, Christian and Muslim often lost sight of what all three had in common, including the radical nature of the religious transition that had taken place in the Axial Period.

The Secular Universe

Let us now compare these radical changes at the First Axial Period with those taking place at the Second Axial Period. During the last five hundred years our understanding of origins has been turned upside down. Instead of believing ourselves to have been made in the image of a divine being, we find we are earthly organisms who have evolved biologically on this planet and then proceeded to create our cultures. And, like all other planetary organisms, we live a finite existence between conception and death. Compared with the time span of the earth, and even with the life of any particular species, the life of us individual persons seems infinitesimally short. All this and more is what we mean when we speak of the modern world-view as secular or this worldly.

In this secular view of the universe, God, along with his heavenly dwelling-place, has lost objective reality. There is no need to postulate a supernatural creator to explain natural phenomena.Neither do we now expect divine providence to deliver us from our misfortunes. That is why, as theologian John Macquarrie observed, 'among educated people throughout the world, the traditional kind of God-talk has virtually ceased'. Here lies the discontinuity. We humans used to see ourselves as the creation of a supernatural deity; now we find it is we who, by creating language, also created such important concepts as God. We can even write a history of God, that is, a history of what was meant by the term, as Karen Armstrong has done so brilliantly.

At the First Axial Period the gods were declared to be unreal, being the products of human imagination. In the Second Axial Period the God of classical monotheism has lost reality as a divine personal being and has come to be seen as a humanly created symbol, referring to a cluster of supreme values. The Second Axial Period has introduced such major discontinuity with the Christian past that the majority of Christians and non-Christians alike fail to see any real connexion between the modern secular world and the Christian world out of which it emerged.

The Once and Future Scriptures, edited by Gregory C. Jenks

Available from Polebridge Press

That is why the Judeo-Christian tradition is at the crossroads. Western culture has become polarized. At one extreme there are the Christian fundamentalists who flatly reject all modern thinking which conflicts with the Christian fundamentals which they loyally but somewhat blindly defend. Fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim, treat the coming of the humanistic and secular world as the spread of the domain of Satan and hence an enemy to fought. Even the main line churches, now struggling to retain their identity, too often fall into the same superficial judgment about the origin and nature of the secular world.

Yet between about 1880 and 1950 Christian thinkers made a valiant attempt to accommodate the traditional Christian path to the challenges of the modern secular world. They were known as the Catholic Modernists and the Protestant Liberals. While Catholic Modernism was quickly crushed Protestant Liberalism flourished for a time. It is now declining within the mainline churches with the result that they are tending to become more conservative and traditional.

At the other extreme of the polarized Western world is the growing number who conclude that Christianity is now a spent force, a superstitious survival from the past. (I define superstition as any belief or practice that has outlived the now obsolete cultural context in which it was appropriate.) Secularists are those who abandon all association with the Christian past.

Yet the modern secular world originated in the Christian West. That is an undeniable fact. For this reason the secular world stands in a unique relation with the Judeo-Christian tradition, even though it is increasingly in conflict with much of the content of the Christian cumulative tradition. Certainly the secular world is far from perfect. But neither was the receding Christendom perfect, marked as it was by such things as the Inquisition, the burning of witches and its patriarchal power structure, to name but a few of its deficiencies. So the modern world does not have to be perfect before we can acknowledge it to be a product of the Christendom. But is it an unfortunate, blind path in to which we have carelessly and foolishly stumbled or is it a genuine new stage in the evolution of the Judeo-Christian tradition? Too little attention has been given to this question by Christian and non-Christian alike.

By rejecting the modern secular world, fundamentalist, conservative and traditionalist Christians may be impeding the legitimate evolution of the very tradition they wish so desperately to defend. On the other hand, secularists who reject Christianity entirely and refuse to acknowledge indebtedness to the cultural matrix out of which the modern world has emerged are cutting themselves off from their cultural and spiritual roots. As plants without roots wither and die, so cultures which forget their past do the same.

Facing the Dilemma

This is the dilemma we face at the crossroads that Christianity has reached. That is why there have been arising in the last two decades an increasing number of as yet small groups of concerned people around the world. They wish to acknowledge the legitimacy of the modern secular world but at the same time stress the values it has inherited from the past and may be in danger of losing. Such Groups are the Sea of Faith Network, now operating in UK, New Zealand and Australia, the Snowstar Institute of Canada, the Centre for Progressive Christianity in USA, to name but a few.

One of these is the Westar Institute. It is a unique kind of academic institution founded in 1985 by an American New Testament scholar, Dr Robert Funk. He came to realise that scholars of religion were not wholly free in their pursuit of truth; those in seminaries were constrained by church pressure and those in universities by issues of academic advancement. So he invited all qualified scholars interested in the unimpeded study of Christian origins to join with him in the activities of the Westar Institute, based in Santa Rosa. Some 200 scholars have participated in the project, though not more than about 75 at any one time. They meet twice a year for three days to discuss the papers they have prepared on the topics assigned to them.

Known as the Fellows of the Institute, these scholars do not confine themselves to the Bible but to all relevant extant material from the past. They study it objectively as open–minded historians, rather than as people seeking to confirm already-held religious convictions. In addition to the scholars there are some three thousand ordinary members who support the work financially and who are free to attend the scholarly meetings and listen to the debates. This is the first academic institution in which biblical study has been carried out by a community of scholars, in an atmosphere of complete freedom and within the hearing of the public. Guided solely by the criteria of honesty and integrity, they use a simple method of voting to arrive at a consensus of scholarly opinion after vigorously debating the issues.

The Institute believes the churches can best respond positively to the crisis Christianity now faces by helping their lay-people to become biblically and theologically literate. In March of this year the Westar Institute held their spring meeting in New York discussing 'The Future of the Judeo-Christian Tradition in the Second Axial Period'. I was privileged to be among the four speakers from UK and the six from USA who were invited to deliver lectures. Some sections of these lectures were first delivered at that Conference.

In the next lecture I shall discuss what the Westar Institute has found out about the original Jesus of Nazareth. What has long been hidden from view behind the church portrait of the Christ figure throws considerable light on where the Christian path of faith is now going.

Lloyd Geering is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Honored as Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for 2001, he is a renowned and respected commentator on religion and the author of several books, including The World to Come (1999) and Christianity without God (2003).

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