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Calls to Reform
Christianity

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"

Bishop John Spong is an Anglican Bishop, formerly bishop of Newark, New Jersey, who in retirement, tours and lectures. He has written several books. Especially relevant in this context is Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Following in the footsteps of Martin Luther but using the Internet in place of a cathedral door, Bishop Spong posted his 12 theses:

  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.
  2. 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.
  3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
  4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
  10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
  11. 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.
  12. 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

Robert Funk is Director of the Westar Institute in Santa Rosa, California, and founder of the Jesus Seminar. He is a distinguished teacher, writer, translator and publisher in the field of religion. His most accessible book is Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium.

Theology

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Christology

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The virgin birth of Jesus is an insult to modern intelligence and should be abandoned. In addition, it is a pernicious doctrine that denigrates women.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 agenda.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 banquet.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. In the kingdom, forgiveness is reciprocal: individuals can have it only if they sponsor it.
  13. 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 Canon

  1. 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.
  2. 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

  1. In rearticulating the vision of Jesus, we should take care to express ourselves in the same register as he employed in his parables and aphorisms — 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

Don Cupitt is a Life Fellow and former Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. As well as being an Anglican priest and a former lecturer, Don Cupitt is also a widely published writer and a broadcaster and is also active touring and lecturing in retirement. His book that is nearest to the present context is Radicals and The Future of The Church. The following was published in 2003.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Letting identities go. As every large nation has become highly multi-ethnic, so religious people are becoming more multi-faith in outlook. 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 religion.

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 religious tradition.

  • 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 super-natural cause.
  • 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 metaphors.

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 it on.

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 concern.

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