Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – Part Two

by edtaylor2013

Spiritual Pablum

Pablum, in case you are too young to remember, is a processed infant cereal that was first introduced in the early 1930s. Spiritual pablum, therefore, is infantile spiritual food.

When adolescents become members of their particular church or denomination, they seem to think they have graduated into spiritual adulthood. Many of them stop attending church and/or Sunday school, which means their spiritual concepts are frozen in time – they grow into adults who are spiritual adolescents or even worse. In many cases, they were fed spiritual pablum in Sunday school, when they were present or when they actually paid attention, from early childhood until they decided to stop attending. And they have never been challenged to reexamine those adolescent or infantile spiritual concepts.

Most of these adults either have pre-modern or modern concepts of the world, the church, society, and religion. They certainly have not allowed their spiritual minds to enter the postmodern world.

Modern vs. Postmodern Thought

I am not fond of the term postmodern. I have always considered modern to mean current, of the present, now, the most up-to-date, so when “post” is added, which means “after in time, later (than),” it seems to refer to sometime in the future. How can something be after current and still be the present? However, scholars tell us that we are on the cusp of or now in a period called postmodernism. Modernism is, according to these authorities, everything in history since 1500 CE when the age of reason and science ruled. According to Brian McLaren, the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Washington-Baltimore area, the modern world was an era of conquest and control, the age of the machination, of analysis and secular science, it aspired to be absolutely objective, it was a critical age, an era of nation-states and organization, it championed individualism, it thrived on consumerism and it was the age of Protestantism and institutional religion. The problem may be that our theologies and Christian institutions are modern, while the rest of the world is evolving or has already evolved into postmodernism.

Imagine living in the pre-modern era of pre-1500 CE. If you did not believe in the infallibility of the pope, the divine rule of kings, and that the earth revolved around the sun, you would have been labeled a heretic and most likely would have been burned at the stake.

Thankfully, ideas gradually and sometimes painfully changed, even in the church. Now, over 500 years later, we are entering a new age that will demand a reexamination of our most sacred ideas and beliefs just as those of the pre-modern era evolved into those of the modern age. So Christians need to re-examine the modern version of Christianity to make certain that it is viable in the postmodern age that is dawning.

We must ask some tough questions: Does the Christian church have anything to say to postmodern people? Or does the church simply offer the same often trite formulas that it has espoused for the past several hundred years? Can the “good news” remain relevant if it is presented in the same-old way? Is the modern version of Christianity doomed to failure in a postmodern culture?

According to ABCNEWS.com, eighty-three percent of the adults in the United States claim to be Christians, but only thirty-eight percent claim to attend religious services at least once a week. Religion-online.org found that actual church attendance was about half that rate. ABC also found that sixty percent of those sixty-five or older attend services regularly, but only twenty-eight percent of those eighteen to thirty years old do so. After the post-war exodus from organized Christianity in Europe, nationmaster.com claims that only twenty-seven percent of the population of England attends church regularly, but in her The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong noted that only six percent attended a church service on a regular basis. In Scandinavian countries, the figure is five percent or less. In the European countries where Catholicism is dominant the average for church attendance is approximately thirty percent. According to Operation World, eighty percent of the German population consider themselves unchurched.

Something is obviously missing if people don’t consider church pertinent, relevant, or necessary. When church attendance drops, churches tend to react by becoming more conservative and return to the fundamentals.

The Five Fundamentals

In the early 1900s a group of conservative Christians published a series of pamphlets titled “The Fundamentals,”[1] which presented what they called “the primary Christian themes.” The five fundamentals were:

The inspiration of scripture as the literal, revealed word of God.
The virgin birth as the miraculous and literal means by which the divine nature of Christ has been guaranteed.

The substitutionary view of the atonement that was accomplished in the death of Jesus. The affirmation of the saving power of his blood and the gift of salvation that was accomplished by his death.
The certainty of the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The accuracy of both the empty-tomb and the appearance stories in the gospel tradition.

The truth of the second coming of Jesus, the reality of the Day of Judgment, which would be based on the record of one’s life, and the certainty of heaven and hell as eternal places of reward and punishment.

My Response to Those “Primary Christian” Fundamentals

I do not believe…
…that God dictated the Bible or even necessarily inspired it, therefore, the Bible is not “the literal, revealed word of God;”

…in the virgin birth or that being miraculously born made Jesus the earthly incarnation of a supernatural, theistic deity;

…in the idea of substitutionary atonement; that the gift of salvation is only possible through “the saving power of Jesus’ blood” and his death upon the cross;

…that Jesus was resuscitated from his grave; that he was physically resurrected from the dead or that the empty-tomb and the appearance stories after his death are factual;

…in the likelihood of Jesus’ second coming after two thousand years of predicting its eminence; I do believe that on Judgment Day, if there is one, God will judge, not Jesus;[2] we will not be judged by a set of beliefs, but by how we lived our lives; heaven means being in God’s presence, while hell is the absence of God; heaven is not above the earth or hell below – they are not specific places.

The above statements sufficiently illustrate my disagreement with the “fundamentals.” So, can I claim to be a Christian if I dismiss what has traditionally been defined as the essentials of the Christian faith? I certainly have a problem with the literal way that the church articulates the faith, but I would rather not give up on Christianity or the church.

Please read John Shelby Spong’s “Twelve Theses” in his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die. I would have liked to include them here, but copyright prohibits it.

The Fallible Creeds

When I first considered writing my credo, I started with a widely accepted affirmation of faith, the Apostles’ Creed, but after working on the various parts, I found I did not agree with several parts. After more investigation, I found that I had difficulty totally agreeing with any specific creed. I’m not even sure we should say them in our worship services. We seem to be saying that people must believe this particular faith statement or they cannot be a member of this church. Catholic priests wrote the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds in 325 and approximately 390 C.E. respectively, but those clerics had a very limited knowledge of the universe as we know it today.

Marcus Borg contends that had the creeds been formulated in a different culture or time, its language would have been vastly different. For instance, in South Africa an only son is socially isolated while the “oldest brother” is given a much higher status. Therefore in that culture Jesus would have been portrayed as the “oldest brother.” If we attempted to write a creed today, we would not use the language of the priests who wrote the Apostles’ and the Nicene creeds – it would be in our language.

In P.D. James’ fiction book Death in Holy Orders, one of the characters, while talking about the creeds, says, “Why doesn’t the Church bring it up to date? We don’t look to the fourth century for our understanding of medicine or science or the nature of the universe. I don’t look to the fourth century when I run my companies. Why look to 325 for our understanding of God?” Then, speaking of the Council of Nicaea, the same character says, “It was a council of men, wasn’t it? Powerful men! They brought to it their private agendas, their prejudices, their rivalries. Essentially it was about power, who gets it, who yields it.”

Concerning the Apostles’ Creed, James M. Robinson says it presents Jesus as a third of the Trinity which is in heaven, rather than as a first century person from Galilee. The creed only tells us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, and suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, but there is nothing in the creed about his life between birth and death. There is nothing about what he said or did. Even the title – the Apostles’ Creed – is a misnomer; it was not composed by the apostles, but developed out of the baptismal confession of the Gentile church of Rome around the second century.

Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong correctly asserts, “God does not inhabit creeds or theological doctrines shaped with human words.” And he also observes that Jesus did not compose the creeds or set rules to determine the true believers. He did suggest how people could recognize his disciples: “that you love one another.”[3]

Spong also commended Katie Ford, one of his former theological students, who noted that in the creeds there is no mention of love, of the teachings of Jesus, of the kingdom of God being present within us, or of God as the ground of life.

The first creed of the Church was only three words “Jesus is Messiah.” When Christianity moved into a Greek-speaking Gentile world it was changed to “Jesus is Lord” because Gentiles did not understand the Jewish concept of messiah. From that change our creeds have become longer and more convoluted as each generation attempted to formulate its beliefs. No one seems to realize that it is impossible to define God or translate the Christ experience into human words.

 

[1] A.C. Dixon and R.A. Torrey, eds., The Fundamentals

[2] John seems confused as to who judges. John 5:22 says God “ judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son;” John 8:16 indicates that both God and Jesus judge: “…if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me;” John 12:47 says Jesus did not come to judge: “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.”

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