John Shelby Spong
The Fourth R
In the 16th century the Christian Church, which had been the source of much of the stability of the western world, entered a period of internal and violent upheaval. In time this upheaval came to be called the Protestant reformation, but during the violence itself, it was referred to by many less attractive adjectives. 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 Hundred Years War and the conflict between England and Spain that came to a climax in the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588. That destruction was widely interpreted as a defeat for the Catholic God of Spain at the hands of the Protestant God of England.
Yet, when looking at that ecclesiastical conflict from the vantage point of more than four hundred years, there is surprise at how insignificant were the theological issues dividing the two sides. Neither side was debating such core teachings of Christianity as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, Jesus as the incarnate son of God, the reality of heaven and hell, the place of the cross in the plan of salvation or the role of such sacraments as Baptism and Communion. These rather were faith assertions held in common. Of course this conflict was not without theological issues, though they seem quite trivial in retrospect. Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians disagreed, for example, about whether salvation was achieved by faith alone, as Luther contended, or whether faith without works was dead as the Vatican, quoting the Epistle of James, argued. There was also debate over the proper use of scripture and the role of ordination. Despite the hostile appellations of “heretic” hurled at Protestants and “anti-Christ” hurled at Catholics, anyone viewing this debate from the vantage point of this century would see that, while an acrimonious and unpleasant fight, 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. It was rather a battle over issues of Church order. The time had not arrived in which Christians would be required to rethink the basic and identifying marks of Christianity itself.
It is my conviction that such a moment is facing the Christian world today. The very heart and soul of Christianity will be the content of this reformation. The debate which has been building for centuries has now erupted into public view. All the past ecclesiastical efforts to keep it at bay or deny its reality have surely failed and will continue to do so. The need for a new theological reformation began when Copernicus and Galileo removed this planet from its previous supposed location at the center of the universe, where human life was thought to bask under the constant attention of a humanly defined parental deity. That revolution in thought 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 were formed.
Before that opening salvo of revolution had been absorbed, Sir Isaac Newton, who charted the mathematically fixed physical laws of the universe, weighed into the debate. After Newton the Church found itself in a world in which the concepts of magic, miracle, and divine intervention as explanations of anything, could no longer be offered with intellectual integrity. Once more people were forced to enter into and to embrace a reality vastly different from the one employed in the traditional language of their faith tradition. Next came Charles Darwin who related human life to the world of biology more significantly than anyone had heretofore imagined. He also confronted the human consciousness with concepts diametrically opposed to the traditional Christian world view. The Bible began with the assumption that God had created a finished and perfect world from which human beings had fallen away in an act of cosmic rebellion. Original sin was the reality in which all life was presumed to live. Darwin postulated instead an unfinished and thus imperfect creation out of which human life was still evolving.
Human beings did not fall from perfection into sin as the Church had taught for centuries; we were evolving, and indeed are still evolving, into higher levels of consciousness. Thus the basic myth of Christianity that interpreted Jesus as a divine emissary who came to rescue the victims of the fall from the results of their original sin became inoperative. So did the interpretation of the cross of Calvary as the moment of divine sacrifice when the ransom for sin was paid. Established Christianity clearly wobbled under the impact of Darwin’s insights, but Christian leaders pretended that if Darwin could not be defeated, he could at least be ignored. It was a vain hope. Darwin was followed by Sigmund Freud who analyzed the symbols of Christianity and found in them manifestations of a deep-seated infantile neurosis. The God understood as a father figure, who guided ultimate personal decisions, answered our prayers, and promised rewards and punishment based upon our behavior was not designed to call anyone into maturity. This view of God issued rather into either a religious mentality of passive dependency or an aggressive secular rejection of all things religious. After Freud, it was not surprising to see Christianity degenerate into an increasingly shrill biblical fundamentalism where thinking was not encouraged and preconceived pious answers were readily given, but where neither genuine questions nor maturity were allowed or encouraged. As Christianity moved more and more in this direction, contemporary people, who think with modern minds, began to be repelled and to drop out of their faith commitments into the Church Alumni Association. Between these two poles of mindless fundamentalism and empty secularism are found the mainline churches of Christendom, both Catholic and Protestant. They are declining numerically, seem lost theologically, are concerned more about unity than truth, and are wondering why boredom is what people experience inside church walls. The renewal of Christianity will not come from fundamentalism, secularism or the irrelevant mainline tradition. If there is nothing more than this on the horizon then I see no future for the enterprise we call the Christian faith.
My sense is that history has come to a point where only one thing will save this venerable faith tradition at this critical time in Christian history, and that is a new Reformation far more radical than Christianity has ever before known and that this Reformation must deal with the very substance of that faith. This Reformation will recognize that the pre-modern concepts in which Christianity has traditionally been carried will never again speak to the post-modern world we now inhabit. This Reformation will be about the very life and death of Christianity. Because it goes to the heart of how Christianity is to be understood, it will dwarf in intensity the Reformation of the 16th century. It will not be concerned about authority, ecclesiastical polity, valid ordinations and valid sacraments. It will be rather a Reformation that will examine the very nature of the Christian faith itself. It will ask whether or not this ancient religious system can be refocused and re-articulated so as to continue living in this increasingly non-religious world.
Martin Luther ignited the Reformation of the 16th century by nailing to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 the 95 Theses that he wished to debate. I will publish this challenge to Christianity in The Voice. I will post my theses on the Internet and send copies with invitations to debate them to the recognized Christian leaders of the world. My theses are far smaller in number than were those of Martin Luther, but they are far more threatening theologically. The issues to which I now call the Christians of the world to debate are these:
- 1. Theism, as a way of defining God is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
- 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.
- The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
- The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
- 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.
- The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
- Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
- 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.
- There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
- Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
- 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.
- 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 either rejection or discrimination.
So I set these theses today before the Christian world and I stand ready to debate each of them as we prepare to enter the third millennium.
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