An Alternative Vision Strategy
A Discussion Paper, with Supporting Summaries of Radical Theologians’ Latest Books
by Rev Dr Alan Webster, Methodist Presbyter
An Alternative Vision Strategy
This paper was inspired by an attempt on the part of New Zealand Methodist leadership to craft a vision strategy for future development. Having seen, in 25 years in the Methodist Connexion, much earnest seeking but little evidence of any strategy that might stem its backward slide, I felt an urge to spell out the way I see it. Being a thorough maverick, a Presbyter, and originally a Baptist with more than a little radicalism in me to boot, and having studied religion’s progress in New Zealand for 20 years through the NZ Study of Values, I felt I might have a useful view. Being a university lecturer helps my independence.
Immediately on writing this paper in early 2001, I sent the first draft out to a number of Methodist leaders and others. The response was uniformly positive.A brief version appeared in Touchstone as part of a Spirit and Spice endorsement of my vision. This was linked too to a workshop with Spirit and Spice half-way through 2001. Since then I have been associated with their work. While subsequently taken up with ministry and ongoing research tasks, I have summarized and commented upon major books by seven radical theologians, for purposes of validation of my own theological stance and to supply relevant reading for readers of this statement.. Those summaries are included in the present vision write-up, which remains substantially unchanged since first writing.
Why a New Alternative Vision Statement?
A call for a new vision is both timely and necessary, as those seven theologians are far from alone in arguing. For several years now, urgent voices have called for more creative and radical interpretations of Christianity. For some, the pressure comes from the facts of declining church attendance and from survey statistics of belief and practice. Our research has contributed substantially to that assessment.
But a deeper disquiet demands attention. A recent Gallup Poll concluded that Europe was ‘the most godless place on earth.’ This of course deliberately provokes the retort "Well, perhaps, but only if you think God is confined to churches and to verbal protestations of faith". Interest in ‘what God is about’ supersedes mere church-survival concerns. But survival concerns have an immediacy that we can ill afford to ignore.
Our Values Study results for New Zealand, with world comparisons, suggest that New Zealand is at least as godless as Europe, both by church attendance rates and by percent believing in the traditional personal God. Is this enough of an indicator? Considerably more have a non-traditional view of God. Clearly, church does not contain all religion. More than twice the percentage who are regular attenders see themselves as religious persons.
Many are thought to want a spiritual dimension not tied to institutional religion. Is this a non-traditional quest for spirit? Ten years ago, in an attempt to collate several sources of data on church attendance (Webster and Perry, 1992), including consultation with several acknowledged experts on church attendance, we arrived at an optimistic figure of nearly 20% of New Zealanders attending fairly regularly. That’s over 80% not attending significantly. Recent discussion with the same experts suggests between 12% and 18%, so a round figure of 15% regularly attending might not be too generous. Only 10%-12% attend on any one normal Sunday.
What we are seeing, in the view of many, is not necessarily godlessness but possibly a groundswell of alternative thinking outside the church, as well as within. It is a transition from medieval ‘Christian’ worldviews, ie prescientific thought-forms, to a more knowledge-based perspective on truth-claims. With this goes a quest for less institutionally controlled expressions of spirituality. Such an updated spirituality often includes an integrative knowledge-base and an ecological spirituality.
The decline of traditional supernaturalistic Christian thought-forms, as reflected in the ebbing interest in institutional religion, is the negative side of what may well be a hunger for a more helpful spirituality that will quell the rising anxiety of people – an anxiety which is triggered by the uncontrollability and uncertainty of both inner and outer life. At its simplest, the God-idea among earlier humans was a response to fear and uncertainty. It is still highly evident. Many more than go to church profess to be religious. It would seem likely that modern people are of a mind to find an integrated world in preference to a world riven by divisions of supernaturalism and literalistic authoritarianism. Not to be overlooked, however, is the continuing interest in occult and spiritistic sources, indicating a fearful search for explanations and perhaps for a god who is part of life rather than the arbitrary and judgemental God of tradition.
The fact is that in New Zealand, according to our research, belief in the personal God of tradition is a minority position and also less popular than the emerging view that God is part of the life-force or spiritual dimension of all life. The fact that the latter does not necessarily lead to the committed church-going of traditional conservative religion might suggest that it reflects a determination to get the spirit dimension back but to avoid the stifling institution of tradition.
But obviously not all are averse to the traditional hierarchical guilt-focussed form of Christianity.Those who cling most to the primitive beliefs in hell and the devil are more likely to be of working class and lower classes. It follows that these guilt-provoking beliefs are much more prevalent in poor countries. The poor, both here and in poor countries, are clearly more vulnerable to all sorts of external and internal sources of threat and accordingly more susceptible to the sorts of preachments that play upon those fears. The outcome is not less but more survival anxiety in society as the fear and control component is played up. The sort of inquiry discussed in this paper is not often found among the more fundamental Christian groups.
The question of relevance arises. Two extreme church responses are expressed: the traditionalist and the radical. Evangelicalism is always ready to spell out its position; liberalism less so. Faced by these extremes, Methodism has often looked for compromise. It is the position of this brief paper that the differences within Methodism are now so pronounced that the strategy of compromise will no longer have the ability to identify the reality. The typical compromise tactic neutralises the energy of necessary conflict.
What is needed is the courage to step out on a new path. Methodism has made a profound contribution on the basis of the radicalism of John Wesley. That radicalism has long since been a tradition. If the world is to be our parish, it must be recognised that our world is as different from his as was his from that of the reformers. Were John Wesley alive today, I believe he would be right into the new physics, a naturalistic, brain-based spirituality, God in the neurons, the ecological movement, a thorough relativism of thought, a politics and economics based on the god of panentheism, a diligent use of psychological knowledge, an informed grasp of human development, and a grasp of worldviews that imparts cultural understanding. And much more from the arts.
A solution to today’s impasse between conservatism and liberalism would be not compromise but a new radicalism. I believe Wesley would welcome the spirituality of the non-churched as unhesitatingly as he responded to the hunger of those in his day who in different ways were alienated from the top-down benefits of religion. If the world is to be our parish, it must be recognised that it is a very different world from that of Wesley’s day.
As distinct from Wesley’s view, however, we are not in a position of privileged possession of an unchanging Gospel, the unquestioned effectiveness of which has only to be realised by deeper faith and fervour. To proclaim that Gospel was an altogether easier mission than that which we face today. The world has "come of age" to use Bonhoeffer’s memorable phrase, and rightly demands that the church come out of its false hiding place where it cultivates illusory claims to God’s favour, to priestly powers and to a contemporary knowledge. No modern thinker I know will allow the church, or any group, a privileged ride to authority. The call is for a due radicalism, able to match the enormous knowledge-explosion out there.The work of God has broken the boundaries of the church. Neither spirituality nor skill in human self-realization are the special property of the church.
The call today is not to claim a competing and ‘other’ knowledge-base, nor an otherworldly means, but to attain to an authentic spirituality that exists in the midst of life and consists in the way knowledge, values and a sense of the sacred are brought to bear upon the world. Such a spirituality is not another reality but is a dimension that cuts across all of experience.
The resultant spirituality comes from a distinctive vision of the world. It consists in the often-invisible work of helping the world to choose well among the critical options upon which vast possibilities of life and love hinge. The internal life of this church would consist largely of forging these understandings, personalising them and universalising them, then celebrating the progress made.
A limitless field for a new, holistic spirituality
Spirit is realised in the active process of enhancing the life of the world. Seen in this way, the ground in which the church may work is limitless. The call to go into all the world is a radical redefinition of the locus of the work of God. That pervasive reality is not defined as separate from the world; therefore to engage in the world in a spirit that expresses God in Jesus is to count everything as spirit-process. This means staking the claim of the new people of God to have something distinctive to offer right in the midst of worldly knowledge and skill, meeting the world’s real criteria and not claiming to occupy some privileged domain.The territory for spiritual life in this integrative sense is that of the enormously expanded intellectual and emotional worlds of human development, the discovery of the oneness of humanity and its religions, and the emergence of major new paradigms of humankind’s evolutionary development and our capacity to make creative leaps into new worldviews.
There is increasing new evidence of continuing evolution at the cultural level where, as a result of the interaction of seemingly discrete worldviews, transitions occur out of which new and more enlightened cultures and worldviews emerge. It is there, in the transitions that express a creative spirit, that the church is able to be present, not to advance competing knowledge or truth-claims from another world, but to help develop a more complete humanity and world organicity.
In brief, the church could affirm as its calling the often-invisible work of simply being part of a world that gains spirit by choosing well and acting well among critical options. Politics as much as poetry.
A Crisis Lies at the Root of the Call for a New Vision, for Methodism and for like churches.
The crisis in which Methodism finds itself stems from the habitual attempt to find a compromise between incompatible worldviews – essentially the pre- and post-enlightenment views. To seek to resolve these by compromise is to deny the very conflict that sparks energy and creativity. That conflict consists in the struggle between two competing pressures, the one for a spirituality and a theology for the times; the other an ecclesiastical praxis designed to preserve the institution. The first threatens division while the second seeks compromise for peace’ sake.
The spiritual pressure has expressed itself in a further conflict, that between a dogmatic-objectivist belief mode and a relativist-subjectivist thought-system which increasingly aligns itself with an holistic-ecological consciousness. In lay terms, it’s the idea that all is simple, clear and concrete, versus the view that truth is molded out of experience and has to be pragmatically chosen. The first demands conformity to a preordained plan; the second invites the risk of unknowing in a world always becoming.
Conformity in the objective mode is designed to ward off threat, but in fact it doesn’t, because the very God who plans in advance has no room for human error; the second only appears risky, because its processes, while never foreclosed, occur in concert with total life and love.
The two views are ultimately incompatible. The traditional view has the advantage of both familiarity and simplicity. It has a debt to absolute truth and unchanging worldviews. It’s like an insurance policy, calling for no personal involvement after the contract is signed. Like an insurance policy, it’s designed for the dying. The newer view is spiritual rather than concrete, as it calls for personal transformation at all points. It is designed for the living. It is the option that looks to the emerging world. It aligns itself with a life-world consciousness.
The objectivist mode assumes a separate spirit-dimension that exists prior to the individual, has priority over our individual understandings, and awaits appropriation by the individual. The stable theme of the theologies that fall within the objectivist rubric is that salvation is exclusively the work of God, who lives elsewhere but plans all things and is himself impervious to blame when the plan fails – as it almost invariably does. This thought-system is inherently authoritarian and exclusive, but entirely self-justifying despite its miserable rescue rate.
The relativist-subjectivist-ecological form of spiritual existence is quite the opposite. It assumes that there is no perfect plan or absolute out there to which our minds must conform but that spirit is realised rather than appropriated.
These two thought-systems or worldviews exist side-by-side in the church. On the one side are those whose God is ‘wholly other’, whose existence is elsewhere and otherworldly. Adherents of this dualistic belief-system appear to hear but are always listening for messages from the other side and looking forward to solutions originating in another place and time. On the other are those for whom the promise is holistic and this-worldly and whose God is in the midst of life, not as a foreign influence, not as a separate being, but as part of the whole.
Because of the existence of these incompatible codes of thought, or rather levels of integral development, the potential where they co-exist is for conflicting priorities, messages, method and mission.Much good will is devoted to the endeavour to achieve the ecclesiastical purpose noted above. Meanwhile an increasingly confusing babble of language is contrived to support the illusion that we are really all about the same thing.Afraid to spell out what we believe or don’t believe, we seem to pretend an invisible communion of heart and spirit, hiding the knowledge that a communion in any real terms has long since ceased to exist.Like spectators with different rule-books watching what claims to be the same game, we actually see a different reality. The ultimate symbol of this pretended unity might be the typical church mission statement where a common meaning of the ‘Gospel' is assumed. This assumption is allowed to cover quite fundamentally different beliefs. Only when the reality of differences is owned and transcended in a true spiritual experience will the inherent vitality be realised.
The conflict has now given way to departure from any significant degree of commonality. Looking at the larger church, the divergencies in theology used to fall within a narrower range of variation. The ‘liberals’, much as they have been maligned and feared by conservatives, have been a mild lot. The Bultmanns, the Tillichs, the Robinsons and the Bonhoeffers of 20th Century liberal theology as much as Barth overlapping them and Harnack before them, have actually been working in defence of orthodoxy. The rock of salvation was there to be debated.
Today, the underlying assumption of an orthodox foundation beneath our divergencies is barely sustainable. It is time, in other words, to spell out our vision and indeed our mission in terms that represent our honest beliefs.
Not only so, but given the fact, as noted above, that the relativist worldview is more compatible with both a trimmed-down theology and the extant movement of mind in the life-world around us, the stance of the two main Christian worldviews can be made quite distinct. To adopt a policy of defining spiritual mission in terms of personal reality is both reasonable and responsible. It is not ‘swimming with the tide’ but claiming the world as our parish, to realise spirit rather than to pose a world-rejecting pseudo-gospel. For to those of us who are radicals, the rejection of the world as the locus of salvation is to forsake Jesus’ Gospel. Better, we say, that the world be understood to be in flow. In this framework, vision is critical because intuition, language and subjective choice are the reality for all involved. No real separation exists between those sharing and those entering salvation. Relativity is the only option. To the radical, objectivity about ultimate truth and being is not an option as it contradicts the meaning of spirit.
Toward a Concept of Vision.
We live in one world, a single universe. There are no different rules anywhere than those we encounter in our little system.This has two consequences for any modern religious vision:
Mission and vision are therefore inextricably linked to the life-world and to the relativity of knowledge.
In this context, vision would seem to be composed of three things: content, method, and imagination.
Content for Vision
Religious knowledge has languished in a realm of inaccessibility. Religion and spirituality itself have been located outside of life as known in time and space. Rather than being seen as consistent with the evolutionary emergence of everything else, both macro- and micro-, religion and spirituality have been made THE GREAT EXCEPTION. While the world submitted itself to the free and critical inquiry of the Enlightenment, in which all empires not able to withstand honest test gradually crumbled, the church clung to a structure of knowledge which was impervious to such tests.
There have arisen as a result all the gibes of the modern, post-Enlightenment era. It is another example of the self-defeating strategy noted previously. Its result has been to make credal religion ridiculous in face of modern knowledge. The understandable reaction of the world of scientific thought has been to dismiss the arena of spirit as inferior to scientific rationality. Notwithstanding that the latter can answer none of the deeper questions.
A better answer is demanded. Rather than being in an inaccessible other world, the world of spirit is to be seen as part of the evolutionary emergence of all things and expresses its totality. Spirituality is not an alternative to the reality of the life-world but is a move toward a fuller humanity; it is the totality of sensible life, ie science, art, morals and ethics - not excluding politics. All of life is a gateway to spirit. Spirit is the gateway to all being and becoming.
Spirituality is not an escape from reality but is a move toward the fuller humanity intuited by poetic visionary scientists such as Teilhard de Chardin. Its content is the quantum formation of all sensible and self-conscious life upon the face of the earth, whether seen as art, science, morals or ethics.
In this view, all knowledge and all action would therefore be potentially spiritual and sacred. It also says that if we wish to see greater spirituality in the world, we do not look for it to be transported in from elsewhere, but we conceive it, bear it, labour with it, groan with its coming, give birth to it, and suckle its tender life. In other words, all of life, in its thought-forms and its sensate reality, is a gateway to spirit. And spirit is a dimension and consummation of all knowledge and all experience.
Method for Vision
It is in the use of experience and knowledge that spirituality is conveyed. The whole world of methodologies is thrown wide open to spiritual work. Spirit, attitude formation, values resolution, and action, are one total, holistic process. Spirituality as method is thus transformative; its effects are real; it is the process by which all things, all knowledge, all experience, are potentially holy. Spirituality so defined is the human mediation of potential meaning. To the spiritual intent, the methods of worldly knowledge become the processes of transformation into meaning.
When all knowledge in the world, whether called real or subjective, is of equal value, and it is in the use of the knowledge that spirituality is realised, the world of methodologies is thrown wide open. It becomes intuitively unlikely that one-way preaching will be the preferred method. Buber said that nothing is in itself unholy; nor is anything intrinsically holy in itself. There is only that which has not yet become holy. This would mean that the method of spirituality is transformative, so that anything, any knowledge, any experience, is potentially holy. The church, following Jesus, then becomes transformed from its shell to being a place where all human experience is represented, so that the universal truth of spiritual oneness can be realised.
In this sense, no boundaries may be placed around spirit. Spirit leaps from within the human communication of experience. The condition of that transformation appears to be that of acceptance of shared humanity. Spirit is best identified with shared consciousness.
Imagination for Vision
In accord with the above, the scope for imagination for a future Methodist Church has become limitless. So for any human group. The gates are unlocked. The utmost freedom from a priori constraints is now present.
The church has been the most conservative institution in society. Today, unless we are prepared to disappear from the screen, everything about vision and mission must be open for reconsideration. It might be assumed that a call for imagination is superfluous for modern people. But our research suggests that imagination is valued today for its commercial and political utility. It is often devalued in the very places where it ought to flourish, eg the family, the school, the tribe, the workplace and the church. Some sectors of society place greater value on imagination and independence. Those who do so are not easily persuaded that the church is an arena for the pursuit of imagination. Yet increasing use of creative imagination is to be seen outside of dogmatic, exclusive environments.
Clearly, the church cannot afford to be seen to lack imagination in a world where the marketplace and government itself are alert to creative process. Whole segments of the bureaucratic world now allocate major budget expenditure to visioning. In this context, visioning and spirit seem very closely allied.
For the church then, the field for creativity is limited only by our imagination. With little money, the chief asset is imagination, spirit or vision. In this sense, the gates are unlocked.The utmost freedom from a priori restraints is now present.
In the final analysis, nothing can save us from the responsibility of fashioning a vision. All I have tried to do is to show that the stable door is unbolted and the horses will not be coming back! Jesus opened that door and let the stale air out, and the church has been trying to shove him back behind the door ever since.
Wesley opened such a door and instead of revelling in the wide-open spaces he disclosed, we chose to confine ourselves to the little bit he saw in his time and place. Whereas the worldview of the quantum era demands that we be as far ahead of the times as Jesus and Wesley were.
In this context, I propose an alternative strategy for achieving a Methodist vision. Recognising the cleavage of worldviews, I propose that workshops be provided for those who want to explore a radical Methodism. Three claims are made:
The call is to a new era of Life-World Spirituality in which the stuff of spirituality is engagement and action in the totality of life in the world. Jesus did not indulge in a separated, otherworldly spirituality. For him, mission was the action needed to fulfil a vision. God was found as people joined in what Jesus was doing. That vision was about where God is and what God is doing. That was not about an institution with a hierarchy of authority, but about the fulfilment of the promise inherent in this diverse creation.
There follows a set of summary overviews of the views of seven contemporary radical theologians. They are selected for their current importance and their cogency to a church in crisis amid a world in crisis.
These overviews will also help the reader judge the validity of the vision statement already made. That statement of a vision alternative was written before the reading of the seven radical theologians. I am glad to have been able in this way to conduct my own validity check on my vision statement.
Seven Radical Contemporary Radical Theologians
I have sought to find whether there is an agreement among current radical theologians – with my views, yes, but more importantly, with each other. In the main, I have just summarised and freely commented on the most recent book, or chapter of a book, which represents each theologian’s view of the state and prospects of Christianity and/or the church. It’s been one of the more interesting and exciting tours of worldviews of those I have known in Education, Psychology and Human Development. It’s like doing future studies, but with God and the church rather than Marx and socialism as the villain.
Today’s theological turmoil reflects a world that has endured the Civil Rights Crisis, Vietnam, the Nuclear War nightmare, the horror of famine and genocide in Africa, the blaze of hope as freedom broke through in Germany, South Africa, and Ireland, yet all to assume new form as creation’s agony continues. It is in the context of new terrors and argument that one looks for answers as radical as the threats to peace and justice in the world. What does the church have to say for itself? To the world?
Don Cupitt and the Secular KingdomDon Cupitt (2001) Reforming Christianity, Polebridge Press.
Selection of representative revolutionary theological writers has to be based on a blend of objective assessment and subjective rapport. In the list of which Cupitt is first simply because he appeared on my theological horizon before the other six, the objective criterion is contemporary currency., ie major impact on the future-oriented thinking of the Christian church.The subjective criterion is that of personal impact, ie recent books that have significantly moved my thinking forward. Consequently, I find Don Cupitt, Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Richard Holloway and John Spong integrative for me and visionary for Christianity, especially in the West.
Don Cupitt, Cambridge Don, has for many years been the epitome of integrative theological thought, especially for his masterful treatment of the science, philosophy, religion conversation. I place him first in my list as a kind of milestone but select his recent book, Reforming Christianity, for its pertinence to the theme of radical theology. I think it’s radical – perhaps not in style, but in its conclusions. He’s a cool writer.
Not alone in radical re-assessment of the state of Christianity (see Spong at the end of this list), Cupitt reads history as displaying the end of Christendom in its ecclesiastical, credal form.
Cupitt sounds the revival of the kingdom of God theology as do the other theologians discussed and most new thinkers about the mission of Jesus. His eye is on the strategy whereby the early church forged a disciplinary structure by which to ensure permanence for itself when the uncertain institution began to waver as it became apparent that the promised new world order of Jesus was not going to sweep all secular authorities before it. This power grab was done by an apparatus of creeds, confessions and priestly control, all based upon an increasingly complex theology of salvation and damnation. This system became necessary for churchly discipline whilst it awaited the new Kingdom. Not willing to let that promise of terrestrial power slip away, the church extended its powers into the secular structures so that by the Middle Ages, the church was mightier than the state and barely distinguishable from it.
This structure reigned supreme until the Enlightenment. In Cupitt’s view, Christendom no longer exists and the ecclesiastical structure is now in its dying phase. In his view, the structure as such serves little useful purpose. Its claim to represent eternal truth is now superseded by an action-oriented religion whose concern is no longer primarily the guarantees of salvation, but increasingly a churchless religion trying to work out a kingdom religion.
The conceptual leap that Cupitt and others – perhaps most of us engaged in systems thinking – offers is that of a reform of Christianity by rediscovery of its roots in kingdom theology. Far from being any more an exclusive claimant to spiritual and otherworldly power, the visible presence of the church is fast becoming a this-worldly, secular change-agent. As Jesus put it, this kingdom is both around you and within you – and certainly not confined to ecclesiastical controls or subject to the authority of a priesthood. It is a secular kingdom that Cupitt announces. It is immediate; its mission is the fulfilment of the dreams of a good life for all. It is the humanitarian expression of the love of God. It tackles the demons of the secular society: justice issues, equality, prejudice, and the like.
Cupitt claims that this secular realisation of the kingdom is now the preferred expression of Christian discipleship. This means, Cupitt would argue, that Christianity is now more alive outside than within the church. The kingdom is coming but it is appearing more outside than within the church. This means that it bypasses traditional church controls.
These major expressions of God’s presence are now free of church ownership – but of course, they always have been. Humanity’s progress in its entirety is to be recognised as the secular expression of the kingdom. This means that the kingdom is everywhere, all-pervasive, realised in human society – and far from being confined to the church, is largely outside of it. Hopefully at times collaborating with it, but not subservient to it. Indeed Cupitt sees little antagonism between the church and this kingdom growth. The church will help nurture its coming and its early growth.
There will be obstruction by some who despise the world and all secular action, but this is unlikely to succeed against a loosely structured movement.
In this sense, then, as Cupitt makes clear, Christianity has burst the barriers, just as Jesus began to do with the old wineskins of a tradition-dominated Judaism. Christianity is now more evident in the world than in the church. Whereas people saw religion as attending church, being preached to and prayed over by those supposed to have privileged access to God and being urged along a moral pathway, Christians can now see themselves as groups that celebrate a life-changing spirit. That spirit energises them to work for the fulfilment of the vision of the creation.
So the conceptual leap requires a conscious move from the old to the new. This means that a respect for the ecclesistical base is necessary as the new initiatives take root. The new is not a ready-made system but a realm or domain of possibilities. It is this, despite the barriers thrown up by traditionalists, that allows the unformed but evolving new religious presence to take shape. Importantly, the emerging secular spirituality seen in the ‘Baby Boomers’ and ‘Generation X’ offers a possible new platform, not for another institutional religion but perhaps for a generalised modern identity as spiritual beings. It can be assumed that the original human impulse to find a power or protection against fearful forces is still to be found in altered form. The inequalities of today’s world will not easily yield to the DIY attitude which wants not only church-free Christianity but as far as possible, Government-free exercise of social responsibility. If Cupitt is right, there will still need to be organizational structures for social cooperation, but presumably these will also be less hierarchical and more responsive to the independent spirit of the people.
Marcus Borg and the God-Presence of Jesus
Marcus J. Borg (1995), Meeting Jesus AGAIN for the First Time. New York: Harper/Collins and Marcus Borg, "Seeing God Again: What’s at Stake?" In Marcus Borg and Ross Mackenzie, Eds, (2000) God at 2000, Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse.
Borg (1995), the ‘gentle radical’, presents one of the most appealing portraits of Jesus in modern literature. The soft style disguises the rigorous scholarship. He does his portrait without divinising Jesus. Indeed he plainly was impeded in early life by the divinity of the Christ of orthodoxy. But once he began to ask "How is it that when people were with Jesus they felt themselves to be in the transforming presence of God?" his scholarly imagination came to life. Jesus was not God but the God-presence became real in a relationship with Jesus.
Marcus Borg the Professor of New Testament distinguishes two images of Jesus: the fideistic image of the divine saviour and the moralistic image of the teacher. He rejects both these as sufficient bases for a modern picture of Jesus, on grounds that they are inaccurate as images of the historical Jesus and that they lead to incomplete images of the Christian life. His major claim is that the Christian life is "about a relationship with God that involves us in a journey of transformation." (1995, p3)
Borg’s interpretative leap is captured by an heuristic: the pre-Easter Jesus, the one the disciples knew, ie Jesus before his death; and the post-Easter Jesus, ie the Jesus of Christian experience and tradition. Jesus from Easter onward was experienced as still present. Thus he became the ‘Risen Lord’, a living Christ. Borg’s contribution to this familiar position is to say that Jesus moved ‘beyond belief’ to relationship. This continuity of presence they understood as ‘a relationship to the Spirit of God’. In it the follower found transformation.
In making the pre-Easter:post-Easter distinction Borg opens up the possibility of life-changing appreciation of the historical Jesus. He was able to see Jesus as spirit-person, teacher of wisdom, social prophet, and movement founder. Jesus as spirit-person moved the focus from believing in Jesus to "being in relationship with the same spirit that Jesus knew." This relationship is above all an experience of God as compassionate. Borg goes straight to the point, saying this defines politics as seen in Jesus. It placed Jesus in the midst of the world of everyday. He enacted the politics of compassion. The Christian life is therefore an embodiment of compassion.
The pre-Easter/post-Easter concept sheds brilliant light on the manner by which Jesus communicated. He subverted conventional wisdom, presenting for those able to hear, a new Kingdom, the rules of which are those of the compassionate spirit.The kingdom was declared as real and present and known by the nobodies of the world.
Jesus is, in Borg’s view, a thorough monotheist who knows the life of the Spirit and inspires transformation. But he denies that the use of expressions like "Son of God" and "Wisdom of God" denotes divinity, seeing these as metaphors by which people referred to the transformative effect of meeting Jesus in the post-Easter testimony. ( It is one thing to say Jesus reflected the way of God; it is quite another to say this makes him God. If that were so, there would be a million Christian Gods. AW)
Jesus and his followers were rooted in Judaism. Similarly, post-Easter people are supported by the story character of Scripture. That story is of Exodus from slavery; exile and return; and being restored to righteousness – the priestly story. To the traditional credal mind, the meaning of the priestly story is that of being accepted because God’s conditions were met by sacrifice. To Borg, the priestly story is an invitation to passivity and to a preoccupation with the afterlife. Yet used metaphorically the stories can restore the images of humanity and of God and thus provide hope for a new beginning.
Finally, Borg sees the gospel as an invitation to post-Easter people to be in the same relationship to Jesus as his pre-Easter followers were. Borg thus ends with what he calls a "transformative understanding of the Christian life" (p136). This means the life of companionship with God. To believe in Jesus ought not to mean literally to make him the object of worship – a fealty reserved for God. To believe in Jesus must mean to "give one’s heart to him". In short, the outcome is the transformed Christian life. The story is not that of believing in certain credal propositions about Jesus but facing one’s deepest self toward the God-presence Jesus knew.
Seing God Again: What’s at Stake? Essay in the book of which he is co-editor, God at 2000.
We look to another publication for what Borg thinks his thesis says about God. In the above title, he paints what Jesus saw as God. The acclaimed lectures from the Chautauqua (NY) Institute featured seven well-known religious thinkers of whom Borg was one. Karen Armstrong also spoke and a summary of her essay in the God at 2000 title is also included in the present extended essay.
Although the lead question for each lecturer was the same: "How I see God", I suggest that for Borg this might translate as "How did Jesus see God?" or "Who is the Christian God now?"
The essential prologue to Borg’s esay on God is that of the posr-modern era in which the modernist/Enlightenment ideal of certainty has been replaced by a recognition of uncertainty in which metaphor and a language of unknowing is more comfortable. Borg sums up what he has learned about God under six statements in which he compares "How I saw God the first time" with "Seeing God again – how I see God now". He first states that God is known in all of the enduring religious traditions of the world.
He cannot believe that the God of the universe should make only one religion the vehicle of knowledge of ‘him’. Religious pluralism is good for every tradition. For Christian exclusivists, this is a stark challenge. He agrees with Sally McFague’s image of the universe as God’s body.
Next, like most post-modern theologians, Borg sees God or the sacred as ineffable.
This refers to the sacred as ultimate mystery, beyond all language. It contrasts with the detailed ‘knowledge’ of God assumed by concretists as the essence of the Bible, taken as the very Word of God. A hidden or incomprehensible God is worshipped as mystery or that for which no sufficient language exists. God is that which cannot be contained by language or any tangible medium.
Thirdly, our concept of God matters. Borg contrasts two forms of theism: supernatural theism – the most common form of Christian theism; and interventionism - the idea that God breaks into the universe to do what he wills. The corresponding idea of prayer is that it comprises ways of getting God to want what you ask for. People who claim to be atheists usually, in Borg’s view, mean they don’t believe in the God of supernatural theism.
Borg puts forward an alternative to these theisms: a theism, if the term must be used, that he calls the encompassing spirit. It is known also as panentheism which means everything is in God and God in everything. (It does not mean pantheism, which means everything is God, or God is just ‘all that is’). It does mean that God is not conceived as having an existence apart from the universe itself. Such a concept conveys both transcendence or the "beyondness", the utter "otherness", of God; but also immanence, God’s near presence, God right here.
Borg finds the panentheistic concept intellectually much more satisfying; more truly biblical; and experientially valid, for the self and across religions.
The fourth statement is that how we image God matters. Images are more concrete than concepts.
In this context, he refers to the metaphors of God, as king, judge, shepherd, father, mother, lover, potter warrior. They paint a picture in words.
Images or metaphors create mental pictures of the character of God. Borg mainly contrasts the traditional monarchical model who makes requirements and sets up in-group and outgroup distinctions, demands vengeance and ultimately forces us to focus upon our own safety and salvation; and the alternative model, that of the divine lover – an image he sees as deeply biblical.This image makes it essential to interpret God, whether in the biblical account or in wider life, as being lover, liberator and compassionate life-giver.
A brief but important statement: God is real.
Whilst the God of supernatural theism is unreal, ie it provokes doubt, simply because such a God is unnecessary, this cannot be argued if the realness of God is that of total Being. God is all Being. If God is part of all that is, this is not a proposition that can be argued against, since if the term God were not employed, some other term would be needed to express that integral totality: Being itself. If the concept is capable of being argued against, it is not God. To say God is is not a logical conclusion that invites argument. To say God is real is not to propose another being out there. It is rather an amazed realisation. In Borg’s view, to say "God is real" is to contemplate all that is as one totality that evokes awe, thanksgiving and praise. To know God, in Borg’s sense, would be no different from knowing the amazing, nourishing whirl of matter, time and energy and feeling in its entirety as ‘parent’.
He has learned that life with God, whether in its Christian form or some other form, is not very much about believing in God but about living in relationship with God.
Far from believing specific teachings despite their doubtful probability, the criterion of being Christian lies in "our relationship with the mystery". So adherence to a Christian tradition is not the point, but a relationship with God is, by definition, the ultimate state of personal spirituality.
John Dominic Crossan and the Examination of the Data
John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reid (2001), Excavating Jesus: Beneath the stones, behind the texts. San Francisco: Harper
The most radical question in a search for the ‘reality’ on which Christianity may be based is "What data do we have to support the Gospel story and how do these data impact on its meaning?"
The question sits at the meeting place of science and theology. Theology Professors Crossan and Reid undertake contextualization of Jesus by archaeological methods and document analysis.
In their 2001 book, Crossan and Reid dig archaeologically for Jesus "amidst the stones to reconstruct his life" and "exegetically amidst the texts to reconstruct his life" (2001, p1).They acknowledge in doing this work that interpretation is necessary for both stones and texts.
Nevertheless, they record the top ten archaeological discoveries and the top ten exegetical discoveries relevant to the book’s mission of "excavating Jesus". Here are the bare details.
The archaeological discoveries:
The importance of these ten items, as Crossan and Reid argue, lies not just in themselves but in what lay nearby, in their comparison with other artefacts, in their dating and in their total context.
The Exegetical Discoveries:
A very different world, as the two authors explain, is entered with the top ten exegetical discoveries. They record the "sobering thought" that despite the enormous enterprise involved in Jewish and Christian libraries containing the first two items in their list, it was Bedouin shepherds and Egyptian peasants who discovered them. Their choice of the remaining eight items is based on their decisive influence upon "how one excavates the textual remains for the historical Jesus."Their "conclusions" are not "discoveries" so much as necessary explanations of the texts and their interrelations.
They see the question whether this practice held beyond Egypt as important, presumably for some sort of authentication purposes.
Preliminary Indications for Radical Thought.
There are important implications for radical theology in these excavations and their further ramifications. In discussing the archaeological fact of layering of rocks and documents and their evidence, some provocative observations emerge.
Two tendencies are revealed in the time-ordering and the dependence or independence of accounts and artifacts. One tendency is to decrease the Jewishness of Jesus. The other is to increase his social status. Thus, the later the work, the more Christian it tends to become. Also, the farther removed Jesus is from his first-century Galilean context, the more elite and regal he becomes (p14). He appears then as ‘leisurely philosopher’, as ‘literate interpreter of scrolls’ and as ‘erudite partner at banquets’. This trend appears particularly in John’s gospel.
Similarly, shrines and church architecture became increasingly ‘imperial and monumental’. The evidence addresses these dating and layering effects in great detail. The reader of this brief overview is pointed to the Crossan and Reid text for more on the layering of evidence, the dating and textual analysis of the conception of Jesus, the clash of kingdom types (type 1: communal; type 2: covenantal); Jewish resistance, the radicalization of the Golden Rule, the glory of the templ, the historicity of the trials of Jesus, the burying place of Jesus, the evidence of the resurrection claim, and finally what these authors call "Ground and Gospel".
In addressing ‘ground and gospel’, the authors invite the reader to engage in an act of ‘counterfactual imagination’. Supposing no Gospels, no church, no Tacitus, no Josephus, and no Knowledge of what Roman rule meant, they ask "What would we see? Their answer:
The under-layer of this gross characterization reveals:
In that context, they observe, only religio- politics and politico-religion was possible. They conclude,
"Only the justice of the Kingdom of God could take on the power of the Kingdom of Rome." That kingdom, they point out, is not to be seen as extraordinarily cruel or exceptionally evil. It was the structure of normality. The Kingdom of Rome in its normality "cost Jesus his life". That conclusion alone would make Crossan and Reid a significant source for a radical vision.
Robert Funk and The Naked Jesus
Robert W. Funk (1996), Honest to Jesus. Rydalmere, NSW, Hodder and Stoughton.
Strip Jesus of the polite, middle-class get-up the church has played him in and what do you have? Robert Funk, Founder of the Jesus Seminar sets out in this unapologetic book to do some stripping. Or more properly, to help reveal a Jesus who has been hidden by the New Testament and by the whole credal domination of his story.
To describe Funk as a historical Jesus buff would be to do him an injustice. His chief concern is to examine how Jesus the social rebel and iconoclast, an eminently exciting person, became the sleep-inducing, non-human god-figure of the creeds, a cult figure and a super-nature.
This summary does not deal in detail with all of the chapters. It sketches the road Funk took and spells out his 21 theses from the epilogue, entitled "Jesus for a New Age". It is the epilogue of a breathtaking ride along the road from Nazareth to Nicea, with heritage notices all along the route.
It might be useful to note Funk’s list of six classes of readers for Honest to Jesus. They are, as he sees it:
A field of possible questers for a radical theology may be suggested by Funk’s list of six classes of reader. A kind of evangelistic mission is implied, in which radical theology is simply a new package for an old need: truth about God and wholeness.
Now we turn to the road. The chief concern has been to examine how Jesus the social rebel and sage, driven by the imperative of the Kingdom of God, became the Divine Saviour and Sin-bearer, eternal King and Judge of all the earth. And how that has led to an unbearable bind for the Christian faith. In this respect, Funk’s fundamental assumption is like that of Borg and Crossan, namely that to get free of the smothering miasma wrapped around Jesus by centuries of church politics there must be a new honesty about what Jesus said, did and thought. Can it be assumed any longer that Jesus came as divine Son of God from the glory of eternity, that he was sent by God to fulfill an eternal plan to have him die in our place to pay the price for sin demanded by God and to defeat death by rising from the dead and returning to his place at God’s right hand?And that, being eternal from the beginning, he knew all that was to take place so that his death which would not in the long run be a real death, would nevertheless effect the required redemption? God looks the other way and pretends he’s not his son, yet accepts the sacrifice and lets us all get home free. In place of this incomprehensible metaphysics, the historical Jesus must be recovered.
Funk then, like the others, is on a no-holds-barred quest for truth. In his quest, he resolved to observe strictly a set of rules for the quest for the historical Jesus. So he spells out a straightforward set of rules for an honest search, then sets to work.
From Nazareth to Nicea is the path from iconoclast to icon. Funk sketches that movement in familiar terms of Peter’s ascendancy, Peter and Paul arguing about apostleship, and the gospel of Jesus as being a celebration of man’s equality under God.
Funk concludes that Jesus made none of the claims for himself that are inserted into the story, did not practice baptism, and did not initiate what we know as the Eucharist.
He observes that the Nicene Creed itself makes the astonishing omission of everything between the virgin birth and the passion and resurrection. Jesus, in other words, has been lifted out of history.
And Jesus played a passive role. Imagine that! The Lord of all creation was scripted into a wooden passivity under a predestined plan.
He could only do this because he was not really human. He only seemed to be human.
The outcome of this fairy tale is a childish passivity parading as mature belief. Funk illustrates this by what he calls the childhood package of popular piety in America today. It runs:
From this childishness, the way back to the real Jesus cannot be easy.Funk lists seven barriers blocking the way back to Nazareth:
He lists the factors that have precipitated the renewed quest for the historical Jesus. They include:
These factors and many others lead to a much greater ability than 100 years ago to recover reliable information about Jesus.
Further into the book, Funk delves into translation and text, the gospels and their sources, the rhetorical Jesus, humour and the contours of God’s domain, the parable, the kingdom, the death of Jesus, domesticating and marketing the Messiah, resurrection and return, and the divine child.
Out of all this, Funk derives an epilogue, "Jesus for a New Age," culminating in his 21 theses;
Each of these 21 conclusions is fully explained in the text and the reader is pointed to that. Our interest for purposes of this essay is to signal the congruity of the selected theologians’ writings by looking across them
Funk’s contribution is unique, as they all are. He combines scholarly knowledge, courage and imagination. The book is also an expose of the plots and barriers by which religious people block honest inqury. Funk models the kind of identification of key points needed in the quest to recover what credal religion has smothered and distorted in its interest in privilege.
Karen Armstrong and the Recovery from Radical Atheism
Karen Armstrong, "The God of all faiths". In Marcus Borg and Ross Mackenzie (2000), Eds: God at 2000. Harrisburg, PA, Morehouse Publishing.
As will be recognised, the titles I have given to these reviews are my attempt to characterise in each case what the author is about. So my words "The recovery from radical theism" try to recapture Armstrong’s personal struggle – a struggle appears to have have a resonance for many today. It will be recognised that she did not know until well into adulthood just what to make of her unhappiness. Perhaps most poignant is her self-disclosure about the difficulty – if not impossibility even at this stage - of prayer as defined by Catholic practice. That kind of prayer discipline pushed her into a practical atheism from which a tentative solution was found which is really the theme of this chapter of hers. The key to it, I suggest, is that the credal formula for prayer had, for her, failed to bring her to any authentic knowledge of God beyond the occasional awareness of having most honestly carried through an admirable spiritual exercise. A recovery from the radical theism of tradition demanded an equally radical, even if temporary, solution.
The writer, lecturer, television broadcaster, columnist, former nun and author of many books, including the famous A History of God, states in her answer to the question "How I see God",
"I am not at the moment able to pray. I have such bad memories of all those years when I tried and failed. I feel exhausted and tired at the thought of speaking to God".
Armstrong found a path that she calls "The God of all faiths" and writes of "Ways of approaching the sacred," including theology as a necessity for thought, but remembering that theologians in all three great monotheisms, deny that God is a separate being, and above all, compassion. Like Holloway, and indeed in one way or another, all of the theologians discussed here, she sees the ‘solution’ as The Divine enshrined in every human being". This appears to mean not elevating our ego within a "ghetto of righteousness" but recognizing that the very strangeness of the stranger is the pointer to the way of God. Because only by "dethroning the ego and placing the the other in the center of our lives" do we shake of our complacency and begin to experience how we are with the sacred.
In her "slough of despond", Armstrong has lost community and liturgy, yet "is always seeking, always changing, always moving on". She asks, concerning prayer, if God "really needs reminding "that we are miserable sinners and that he created the world." She laments that "we have got into the habit of telling God things all the time".
In this Chautauqua Institute lecture, Karen Armstrong gifts us with her story, her reflection on God. God has been a problem to her from her school days. The God of supernatural theism, the term used by Borg, Spong, and others, as we have seen, was first cause, perfect, supreme and powerful but for this child of the church, remote and abstract. Her entry to a religious order of nuns was an honest and thorough attempt to get to know this aweful being and to give her whole life to him.
Her problems at that young age were the fore-runner of her many years of search. She asked whether science had dismissed the possibility of God, how a God all-powerful ans all-loving could allow atrocities like the Holocaust, and why a God of love should reveal himself to a tiny people, leaving the millions outside his plan. She suspected that "there might after all be nothing out there".When in desperation she tried Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises as a method for prayer, she found only "a vacuum, an emptiness, a stultifying boredom" and that in such efforts she "couldn’t keep my mind on God for five minutes." When she did "experience some devotion", she realised that she had usually "engineered it" for herself.
She didn’t blame anybody . She writes "I was simply engaged in a spirituality that was wrong for me".
But it was a much deeper issue than simply finding spirituality a struggle. Her further reflection suggests that throughout, she almost fiercely demanded to know what it was that she had failed to know. She had to re-think God for herself. What or who was this being if indeed being is what it is?
She discovered that her approach was wrong., ie to discover God in a new way, she first had to approach the quest differently. The "logical, discursive reflection" by which she tackled secular studies had to give way to a "more intuitive, imaginative process, similar to that which opens up the truths of art" (p100). Rational analysis, she continues, though "indispensable for science, mathematics, or medicine" is of no help in appreciating a Beethoven last quartet.
Armstrong argues that this reliance upon reason alone has been a mainstay of both the theology and the spirituality of the West since the 16th and 17th century revolution in science. The resulting domination of truth by empirical reason was accompanied by a denigration of mythology and mysticism. This objectivism, as I have termed it in my vision statement, has been the source of current religious problems. She had to try to love this God. (The "God of propositional Christianity", as I came to call it when I came back under conservative, evangelical expositiory preaching after my American sojourn. AW). This relationship to God was so unsatisfactory to Armstrong that she left the religious life and in the low period that followed, found she "didn't know how to live". She gradually recovered, learned to make friends and as this happened, found her belief in God slip quietly away.
Taking up the writing of religious programmes for television, she found herself grappling with the more mystical approach to the divine found in Judaism, Islam, and Greek and Russian Orthodox Christianity.
This was a compelling challenge to the rationality that underlay the supernatural theism of the West.
Her main discovery, as already mentioned, was of the "eminent theologians and contemplatives" of all three monotheisms dismissing any talk of God as another being and indeed denying the language that says "God exists". God, she found, is not accessible by logical thought alone. God is discernable, if at all, by the intuitive disciplines of prayer, liturgy, contemplation and ethical practice".(p102)
The similarity of approach of the great religions to the Ultimate drove Armstrong to the concept of "the God of all faiths". From the different religious traditions, she says she has learned certain things:
Armstrong addresses a final, trembling question: Is there anything we can do while we are waiting?
She answers that along with theology as listening and attentiveness, her second way of approaching the reality of God is by the exercise of practical compassion.
For her, the practice of compassion is actually creative of a sense of God. She reminds us that the Buddha used to urge monks and layfolk
"to sit quietly and radiate feelings of benevolence, sympathy, and compassion to all four corners of the world"
By this means, the hard shell of selfishness that obstructs both our best selves and the experience of the Sacred is broken down. Others can then take the place of our ego on the throne.
She also finds that trying to live by the Golden Rule brings some of the release of the mind that the Buddha insisted upon. We are "in the place where God is" when we "learn to honour the Sacred in others and to give ourselves away".
In this sense, and as has been suggested in my initial vision statement, there is all that in the world which is not yet holy but which waits to become holy. It is already holy as part of the whole, but its Sacredness is realised by both our mindful reflection and by our action.We create the sense and the reality of the Sacred through the practice of compassion. This is particularly so when it is in the stranger that we respect and create the Sacred. Our religious tradition should, if Armstrong’s search has truth, lead us to honour the stranger and love her/him as ourselves. That is where God is experienced.
Finally then, God is real insofar as "we place the other in the centre of our lives".
Richard Holloway and the Demythologization of Christianity
Richard Holloway (2001), Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity. Edinburgh: Canongate
Richard Holloway, retired Bishop and former leader of the Church of Scotland, sets out to find what is left of Christianity. He could be seen to be driven by three motives: pity, which he sees as the central ethic of a true Christian spirit; shame, which he confesses as he looks out at the dereliction of love and truth right within holy places and sacred conferences; and anger, as he considers the insulting impact of an exclusive spirit upon human, natural diversity.
But Holloway does more than lament the sins of the Church; he propounds in a gracious, scholarly and literate manner a Christianity built upon the very principles and ethic which, as they appeared in radical form in Jesus, represent the only hope of a credible Church.
He demythologises and rehabilitates over a dozen complex and inter-related matters of tradition that he considers to misrepresent and distort Christianity as claimed by the institutional church. (The headings are mine. AW)
John Spong and the New Reformation
John Shelby Spong (2001), A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying & How a New Faith is Being Born. SanFrancisco: Harper
In this proclamaton of a new Reformation, John Spong has followed a logical sequence: where we are with the Church, where we need to be, and how we’ll get there.
We’ll do it the other way around: start with the what and the how of a newly reformed Church and go back to the why. After all, when Spong started writing this book, he already knew where he would finish up. So it makes sense if we too first see the dream, or vision, or conclusion, or perhaps inevitability, that he proceeded to build up to.
Spong is, as always, sure that what he has written matters profoundly, not only to Christianity but to the world. Well, I guess we all feel that sometimes, about our visions. Never noted for modesty, John Spong feels that by defining God for the 3rd Millennium he has shown how to overcome the pitfalls of the past and to blaze a path for a new humanity.
In this brave pursuit, he remains a deeply religious man: he maintains his career practice of two hours prayer each morning – though he prefers now to call it his preparation, in which he reflects on everything, down to his own being, and what this day has in store. The prayer is what follows in his engagement with the world, a concept he shares with Richard Holloway (above). Prayer separated from action belongs, in his and Holloway’s view, to the era of a theistic God who sits outside and either of his own volition or in response to heartfelt cries, comes in to change things.By contrast, for Spong, God is part of the living, loving and being that make up ‘active praying’. Without that holism, God is dead.
It matters, in Spong’s view, because the Church must, if it is to survive, become a relevant, inclusive, pluralistic, forgiving body, corporate in its action-focus and effectively bringing into the real world the realm of God which is living, loving and being.
Spong and Holloway agree in their final analysis: Spong says "Christianity becomes not something to be believed but a faith which we must live, a vision that stands before us, inviting us to enter." (p244)
His favourite term, almost his mantra, is "the Ground of Being." The expression comes from Paul Tillich, whose existential theology, while having swept liberal theology in mid-20th Century, remains highly pertinent to a quest for an inclusive religious world-view. For myself, I cannot help recalling that John Spong and myself were both studying such theology in the mid-sixties, in New York State, he in New York City, myself in Rochester, NY. Tillich was a profound influence at that time. No-one could address the themes of authentic personhood in Christian consciousness at the time without coming to terms with Tillich and with such powerful terms as that of faith as "ultimate concern" and human self-consciousness as the recognition of finitude.
I myself took the radical path at that time and have ever since had much the same vision as Spong has now written up. Why have he and Holloway taken 30-40 years to spell out their liberation? It may be that there is something about the Anglican context that slows the revolutionary impulse. Perhaps the Anglican communion is too accommodating. Certainly in empirical research on clergy attitudes in New Zealand back in the late 60s, we found that the Anglicans had borders of compatibility with more denominations than any other group. My own background, as a free-spirited Baptist may explain why I reached a radical conclusion without waiting 30 years to announce it to the world! It may also have been that my moving straight into 30 years of academic teaching in social science, made the step into a complete, self-consistent habit of one reality and consequential thinking or rational causality more natural. So Geering in the late 60s, Spong, Holloway, Cupitt et al were no surprise to me. Indeed, I wondered why people were so disturbed. This was, of course, the ‘death of God’ era. These writers have now shown that it was indeed the death of theism. They have announced it more effectively than some of us were able to do.
All of this says much to the processes of power and the mythologies of salvation which make up the structure of sacramental liturgy.It cannot escape notice that both Spong and Holloway had to be shocked out of their Anglican habit by the homophobia, the cultured cruelty, the literalism, the anti-world emotions, the other-worldliness, the sexism and the racism of their priestly colleagues. Their struggle before (metaphorically) dropping their vestments was simple slowness in reaching obvious conclusions. A possible benefit of having been brought up to have no automatic respect for the clergy of the mainsteam churches – nor indeed for the people – was that I was not at all shocked by radical critique, especially of sacramentalism. It was confirmatory of what I had been taught as a young Baptist. But I am prepared to concede that some of the most theistic habits of mind exscoriated by Spong and Holloway are especially pertinent to the thorough-going conservative evangelicals of today’s defensive reaction. We were taught to be radical, but it was a radical theism.
John Spong is still able to claim Jesus as ‘Son of God and Lord.’ Still a Bishop! Still a Christian! But determined to show that it is nothing to do with supernaturalism.
Spong sets out to show the escape route from "the pseudo-security that traditional Christianity has pretended to provide." (pxxi) We are made immature, he believes, by the God who rescues us. He wants to realize another vision – which also we shared in Divinity School at that time – that of Bonhoeffer’s time of the ‘coming of age of humanity’. Our professor of theology was William Hamilton, a major ‘Death of God ‘ writer, who also taught an in-depth course on Bonhoeffer with special concentration on the culture that can harbour Nazism, anti-semitism and a self-assured traditional church. Hamilton was au fait with Tillich, still teaching at Harvard at the time, but was fairly cool, as I recall, to some of the easy adoption in pastoral theology studies of the American version of European existential psychology. Hamilton himself had done his PhD at Edinburgh – an act of independence – and Holloway’s stamping ground.
The concept of a brave new world at the time of Spong’s writing of this book might suffer some heavy weather in 2002 under terrorism. But his book is an invitation to listen, to explore and to see whether a new road lies ahead. It must be noted that Spong does not put forward any superficial note of optimism. He contrasts the false comfort offered by the theistic Church with a deeprooted anxiety, emerging as hysteria. Of which more below.
Spong’s vision of the ecclesia completes this brief introduction. The ecclesia of tomorrow will free itself from the domination by theism, the ‘external other’ of traditional liturgy.
Also, the sense of universal evil and of passivity before arbitrary power will be transcended in a human process of gradual change.
Worship in a post-theistic future will be that of those who feel ‘called out’ from their limits, prejudices and self-centeredness into a celebration of who they are, of their human-ness and their ability to be the agents of life – a significant reversal of the client-parishioner role.
The ecclesia at worship will recollect and rehearse our sacred stories – stories that go beyond the standard Abraham, Moses, Promised Land, Calvary, the Church sequence. The new liturgy will celebrate the long journey of humanity from its single-cell origins to "our modern, fearful, human self-consciousness."(p207) It will honour our gift of self-consciousness. We will worship as those who are committed to putting our tribalisms and our ecological destructiveness behind us.
Clearing the Ground
God is not a being, therefore Jesus cannot be the earthly incarnation. Accordingly, Jesus did not have supernatural powers to still storms, walk on water, make 5 loaves feed 5000..
Nor, Spong goes on, did Jesus found a church. Humans are not born in sin from which they must be redeemed by a blood sacrifice. Likewise, condemnation of natural preferences, whether sexual or other, along with denigration by skin-colour or gender, and indeed the whole myth that the Bible is exclusive and literally the Word of God – none of these can be held by grown-up people possessed of modern knowledge.
Spong devotes much thought to the powerful prejudices expressed in ant-homosexuality and anti-abortion, and indeed the entire right-wing moral majority enterprise. He puts his finger on theism as the source of the related cruelty and bigotry.In the final analysis, his is the brave task of stripping away – single-handedly it would seem – "every attempt to literalize the interpretive myths and explanatory legends of the past"" (p19)
Why is Theism Dying?
With the Death of God theologians, it was not a matter of ‘putting God to death’ – obviously an oxymoron. It was a recognition that the traditional construct of a traditional, living God, active and explanatory in all that occurred in people’s lives and their world had ceased to exist. What remained was a culture from which that God had departed.
So for Spong, the same theistic God, defined as "a being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will" is dying or is already dead. The evidence, as he says, and as we said in the 60s, is apparent: the shrinking of the area available for such a God; the absence of God in people’s consciousness, but most significantly the failure of today’s God to control or allay human anxiety. We have a culture which lives from one anxiety reaction to another: smoking, caffeine addiction, alcohol abuse, the whole stress-treatment industry and finally the epidemic of random violence and terror; all call for an accounting by religion. The 20th Century invention of the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing show how hysterical anxiety has reached every level, shaping our very methods of ensuring ‘civil society’. It can no longer be pretended that religion as we have known it can be made to be a solution.
The Evolution of Self-Consciousness Gave Rise to Theism
Spong’s belief is that theism was itself born historically of the need to deal with the evolution of human self-consciousness. The failure of theism leads to rampant hysteria. The whole traditional Christian culture is in the grip of fear – an existential fear, reflecting loss of and meaning. The ancient theistic solution is bankrupt and it s purveyors are covering up.
It was this theistic God who, in our Judeo-Christian culture, first controlled our fears. Belief in his existence made dependency on him an effective protection against the unknown. Under the civilizing control of the Western God, with related laws and institutions, including individualistic prowess, civilization advanced. But with increased human powers and knowledge, and human means of coping with needs, that old God, whose necessity was a function of our ignorance and our susceptibility to control by God’s priestly agents, disappeared. That God serves now only a symbolic function. Fundamentalist literalism is one form of the general hysterical reaction, but it is "the last gasp of the past."
What is needed is a new way to affirm self-consciousness as an asset. We still look for the ‘timeless, eternal, real and true’ but we now must find them at the human level as fruits of a new consciousness of humanity.
A New God, a New Christ and a New Humanity
On the argument given, no less than a new cast of players is demanded. Spong’s developed vision will culminate in a new ecclesia. His logic is powerful.
Jesus traversed the barriers to a full humanity. These included prejudice based on such natural attributes as gender, illness, deformity, and sexual preference; social barriers such as gender, sexual preference, poverty, and tribal affiliation; and religious barriers of every kind. In each case, he manifested his intimate knowledge of a different way that he called the Reign of God.
He had a quality of love not seen before, a love that enhanced lives and made them whole. Those who saw this were in awe of him. He was human in a way that made them feel they were in the presence of God.
The life and love of Jesus manifest Being. Thus in Jesus, life, love and being are made present.
Those who find God through knowing Jesus as life, love and being enter into a God-endowment – a new and deeper self-hood.
All holy persons do this for us. Jesus epitomises full human-ness – a humanity without boundaries.
This is what becomes possible to humans "in Christ."
The God-presence that is available to all is an experience of the holy, found by us in Jesus.
Jesus becomes for us "our way to God."
Logically, Spong now dismisses the myth of original sin, which has been the most powerful instrument of priestly control. Evil is real in the world and represents the stark danger that confronts those who set forth on the path of their human possibility, their human being. The new way takes evil utterly seriously, by not mystifying it, but rather seeking the healing power of full loving, living and Being – a ‘replacement therapy’ or rather a wholeness therapy.
Spong’s vision for the ecclesia now rests on a fully explanatory base. It is found at the beginning of this Spong section.
I venture to say that the seven theologians sumarised are a highly congenial lot, whose visions are deeply complementary. I hope my own Alternative Vision is compatible with those of ‘the Seven.’
If a church group were to work through this material in search of a new vision, I doubt they would ever be the same again.
But what I do know is that this sort of thinking has been the most invigorating in my life – I mean the last 40 years especially. It is inclusive, so it’s truly integrative. You will find yourself constantly energised by the work of putting the knowledge, the experiencing, and the action that it all demands into effect.
Has the claim made by these theologians, and the vision I put forward, proved credible? Have we reached a turning point? Clearly I think so: it was reached a good many years ago. But only now has the point been reached where perverse refusal to look at the reality has become unsupportable. There is a gathering of reforming minds at every level within and without the Church. Untold numbers of ‘lay’ people are way ahead of the average clergy-person and of the most fervent conservatives. Like all reformations, it leaves many walking wounded in its wake. That is a cost that we might seek to share in our common humanity with Jesus. It is his radicalism, reflecting his being, that started it all.