Calls to Reform
Some liberal and radical theologian have taken note of the
significant and rapid decline in influence of Christianity and
have offered suggestions for ways in which it might more readily
commend itself to people living in the 21st century.
John Spong's "Call for a New Reformation"
- 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-Darwian mythology and post-Darwinian
- 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
- 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
- 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, ethilicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be
used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.
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.
Robert Funk's Coming Radical Reformation
- The God of the metaphysical age is dead. There is not a
personal god out there external to human beings and the material
world. We must reckon with a deep crisis in god talk and face
it with talk about whether the universe has meaning and whether
human life has purpose
- The doctrine of special creation of the species died with the advent
of Darwinism and the new understanding of the age of the earth and
magnitude of the physical universe. Special creation goes together with
the notion that the earth and human beings are at the center of the galaxy
(the galaxy is anthropocentric). The demise of a geocentric universe
took the doctrine of special creation with it.
- The deliteralization of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis brought
an end to the dogma of original sin as something inherited from the first
human being. Death is not punishment for sin, but is entirely natural.
And sin is not transmitted from generation to generation by means of male
sperm, as suggested by Augustine.
- The notion that God interferes with the order of nature from time to
time in order to aid or punish is no longer credible, in spite of the
fact that most people still believe it. Miracles are an affront to the
justice and integrity of God, however understood. Miracles are
conceivable only as the inexplicable; otherwise they contradict the
regularity of the order of the physical universe.
- Prayer is meaningless when understood as requests addressed to an
external God for favor or forgiveness and meaningless if God does not
interfere with the laws of nature. Prayer as praise is a remnant of the
age of kingship in the ancient Near East and is beneath the dignity of
deity. Prayer should be understood principally as meditation: as
listening rather than talking and as attention to the needs of neighbor.
- We should give Jesus a demotion. It is no longer credible to
think of Jesus as divine. Jesus' divinity goes together with the
old theistic way of thinking about God.
- The plot early Christians invented for a divine redeemer figure is
as archaic as the mythology in which it is framed. A Jesus who drops down
out of heaven, performs some magical act that frees human beings from the
power of sin, rises from the dead and returns to heaven is simply no
longer credible. The notion that he will return at the end of time and
sit in cosmic judgment is equally incredible. We must find a new plot for
a more credible Jesus.
- The virgin birth of Jesus is an insult to modern intelligence and
should be abandoned. In addition, it is a pernicious doctrine that
- The doctrine of the atonement
the claim that God killed his own son
in order to satisfy his thirst for satisfaction
is subrational and
subethical. This monstrous docrine is the stepchild of a primitive
sacrificial system in which the gods had to be appeased by offering them
some special gift, such as a child or an animal.
- The resurrection of Jesus did not involve the resuscitation of a
corpse. Jesus did not rise from the dead, except perhaps in some
metaphorical sense. The meaning of the resurrection is that a few of his
followers, probably no more than two or three, came to understand what he
was all about. When the significance of his words and deeds dawned on
them, they knew of no other terms in which to express their amazement
than to claim that they had seen him alive.
- The expectation that Jesus will return and sit in cosmic judgment is
part and parcel of the mythological worldview that is now defunct.
Furthermore, it undergirds human lust for the punishment of enemies and
evildoers and the corresponding hope for rewards for the pious and
righteous. All apocalyptic elements should be expunged from the Christian
- Jesus advocates and practices a trust ethic. The kingdom of God,
for Jesus, is characterized by trust in the order of creation and the
essential goodness of neighbor.
- Jesus urges his followers to celebrate life as though they had just
discovered a cache of coins in a field or been invited to a state
- For Jesus, God's domain is a realm without social boundaries. In
that realm there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor
free, homosexual nor heterosexual, friend nor enemy.
- For Jesus, God's domain has no brokers, no mediators between human
beings and divinity. The church has insisted on the necessity of
mediators in order to protect its brokerage system.
- For Jesus, the kingdom does not require cultic rituals to mark the
rites of passage from outsider to insider, from sinner to righteous, from
child to adult, from client to broker.
- In the kingdom, forgiveness is reciprocal: individuals can have it
only if they sponsor it.
- The kingdom is a journey without end: One arrives only by departing.
It is therefore a perpetual odyssey. Exile and exodus are the true
conditions of authentic existence.
- The New Testament is a highly uneven and biased record of orthodox
attempts to invent Christianity. The canon of scripture adopted by
traditional Christianity should be contracted and expanded simultaneously
to reflect respect for the old tradition and openness to the new. Only
the works of strong poets those who startle us, amaze us with a
glimpse of what lies beyond the rim' of present sight should be
considered for inclusion. The canon should be a collection of scriptures
without a fixed text and without either inside or outside limits, like
the myth of King Arthur and the knights of the roundtable or the myth of
the American West.
- The Bible does not contain fixed, objective standards of behavior
that should govern hurnan behavior for all time. This includes the ten
commandments as well as the admonitions of Jesus.
The Language of Faith
- In rearticulating the vision of Jesus, we should take care to express
ourselves in the same register as he employed in his parables and
paradox, hyperbole, exaggeration, and metaphor. Further, our
reconstructions of his vision should be provisional, always subject to
modification and correction.
Don Cupitt's Call for Renewal
For the sake of the future of religion, I urge religious bodies,
religious leaders and people of good will everywhere to give religion a
chance to renew itself by urgently:
- Overcoming traditionalism by undertaking a thorough critical
examination of all the written traditions and doctrines of religion, and
both diseminating and acting upon its results. Within Chrisianity the
scholarly side of this project has made some progress, but the Churches
have not acted upon the results.
- Raising intellectual standards, especially by abolishing the
requirement to subscribe to creeds and doctrinal formularies, and
teaching people that the only religious convictions that are of any value
to them are the convictions that they themselves have formulated, and
have tested both in debate with others and in their own lives.
- Forgetting the old cosmology. Everywhere religious worship, ritual
and art reek of the old sacred, pre-scientific world-view. It must be
abolished, and people's thinking must be purged of it, if they are ever
to create a living faith for themselves, for today.
- Renewing the religious imagination. For several centuries religion
everywhere has clung to old, decaying symbols and has often been
intellectually and morally repressive. There has been a fear of freedom,
and very often a demand for censorship. But for there to be religious
renewal we need to take the risk of encouraging new experiments in
religious thinking and living.
- Letting identities go. As every large nation has become highly
multi-ethnic, so religious people are becoming more multi-faith in
We should be willing to repudiate and break with the neo-conservative
attempt to get back to a purified, supposedly original religious
identity. There is no value any more in exclusive brand-loyalty in
Summary and Reflection
We should acknowledge that there is another option to be included
alongside those set out above. Conservative and evangelical
Christians, in one way or another, insist that the people of the
21st century should "return" to the practices and faith
formulations of the church. The Christian tradition, they say,
is "right" and it is we Moderns and post-Moderns who are
marching out of step.
Whether the reader finds any or all of what Spong, Funk or
Cupitt wrote to be useful will obviously depend to a large extent
on whether they believe in an objective "God out there". As the
would-be reformers point out, to dismiss a personal God is to
remove the bases for petitionary prayer, divine intervention,
cosmic judgement and the entire atonement and divine-redeemer
construct. These reformers point to what they see as reasons why
we can no longer simpy "go along" with the Bible and with
- They point to the very different cosmology that people of 20
centuries ago believed in. The "threedecker" universe of heaven above,
hell below and us on this flat earth in between. From this it is obvious
that, if you still want to talk in those terms, you must concede that they
are metaphors and not referring to actual places. Once the
acknowledgement of metaphors sets in, the literal inerrancy of the Bible
is in jeopardy.
- Because of the work done by Freud and Jung and many others, we know
significantly more about the working of the human mind than was known by
biblical authors, especially those aspects that are not readily
accessible, the so-called "unconscious".
Like the hull of an iceberg, it is
out of sight and like the engine-room of an ocean liner it is abuzz with
activity. Many religious experiences, especially mystical encounters, can
reliably be demonstrated to have had their origin in some atypical brain
behaviour. That is not to say that they are not significant to the
subject, but it leaves out of the explanation the need to look for a
- Since Charles Darwin we know that the earth is far older than earlier
people could have imagined. We can be confident too that animal species
have changed over time as inter-species rivallry and climate made
extinct those members that could not cope.
- With the growth in knowledge of distinctive literary forms such as
parable, metaphor, myth, saga and many more ... and with the knowledge
that the science of linguistics brings to the task, we can re-visit sacred
texts with an enquiring mind and retrieve that which is truly useful while
setting to one side that which is irretrievably rooted in, and coloured
by, the circumstances in which it was written.
Those who think of God in the old theistic "traditional way"
will find the theses flawed to their very foundations because
they all have, implicit in them, the notion that human religious
expression is just that. It is human in its origins and the
terms used from "God" on downwards, as it were are human
But they are hugely important metaphors because they express the
human yearning to grow spiritually. At the end of the fourth
BBC Reith Lecture for 2003 (under the title The Emerging Mind)
the lecturer made this observation:
"We are not angels, we are merely sophisticated apes. Yet we
feel like angels trapped inside the bodies of beasts, craving
transcendence and all the time trying to spread our wings and
fly off, and it's really a very odd predicament to be in, if you
think about it."
The authors quoted above and those who agree with them would
endorse that. Our humanity is not something that came down from
heaven and was implanted in us, but is something that grows
out of our very nature. Our capacity to be religious is built
into our very genes, as is our capacity for language. Like
language we can grow that talent or we can let it slumber. The
religious sages and prophets and wise and holy women and men
have caught glimpses of how that might be done and have handed
Sometimes the prevailing political power structures moved in and
conscripted a religious movement to its own agenda as happened
with Christianity under Constantine in the fourth century and as
is happening to some parts of Islam in the present.
But the craving for transcendence which some, including the
present author, can happily call "God" as naming the values that
make up that transcendence the craving for transcendence is
what makes us human. Animal certainly, but religious animals.
The reformers quoted in this document have all turned their
backs on the notion of Christianity as an exclusive club. That
individual churches sometimes act that way is matter of pain and
Jesus did not intend to set up another "ism". That that happened
is a two-edged sword. Had it not happened then the teachings of
Jesus might have been lost. That it did happen meant that his
teachings, though margimalised in the tradition, have survived
and are seen to be recoverable.
They may be summarised as a call to "mercy, pity, peace and love".
Noel Cheer, September 2003