The Once and Future Faith

Scientific knowledge has stripped Christianity of the mythical matrix in which the creeds were conceived. The historical study of the Bible and the quest for the historical Jesus have raised the future of the faith to crisis level. At its Once & Future Faith conference in March 2001, four world class thinkers – Don Cupitt, Karen Armstrong, John Shelby Spong, and Lloyd Geering – joined Robert Funk and the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar to sort through the issues and attempt to form an agenda for the reinvention of Christianity. Their suggestions – on questions such as life after death, the meaning of God, apocalypticism, and the significance of Jesus’ death – fill the pages of this book.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “The Once and Future Faith

  1. Review

    Book Review: The Once and Future Faith by Karen Armstrong and others; Polebridge Press, P.O Box 6144, Santa Rosa, California, 95406; 2001; ISBN 0-944344-85-2; 187 pp.
    The above title could suggest a multi-volume History of Christianity from 1-2001 CE, with some possible future trends included as a final Appendix.

    In fact, the stress in this book is firmly on the future and on an appropriate agenda for the next 1,000 years of Christianity’s existence, now situated within the global age.
    Westar Agenda for the Future

    March 2001 was an excellent time for the discussion of aspects of Christianity during its past 2,000 years and possibilities for its future. All of the authors indicate the need for an honest analysis of possible continuities from the past, as well as required and often radical changes for its present and future survival. This meeting was organised by the Jesus Seminar, which had been founded in 1979 by Robert Funk.

    Fortunately, all of the lectures, which were presented by highly-respected, world class thinkers and scholars, are included in this book’s 187 pages, although each challenging lecture is worthy of its own individual review. This permanent record of the lectures presented at this 2001 meeting is very valuable indeed, as the following summaries indicate.

    Robert W. Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar and in 2001, the Director of the Westar Institute indicated in his Introduction that this meeting was the beginning of new phase, in which contours of a Christianity suitable for the third millennium would be explored. He explained the previous Quests for the Historical Jesus. Albert Schweitzer’s Jesus as “an apocalyptic fanatic”, turned out to be quite unsuitable for Liberal consumption. A New Quest in the 1950s sought to link Jesus the Nazarene and the Cosmic Christ of dogma but the Third Quest from the 1970s has been is search of the empirically real, flesh-and-blood, human-bodied, historical Jewish Jesus. Jesus’ parables have been viewed as Jesus’ “vision of a counter-reality” (p.6) and Jesus’ ethics as looking “beyond tribalism, ethnic privilege and nationalism” (p.7).

    In response to our present-day perceived “collapse of the credibility of the old myth” or “the mythical matrix” of Christianity’s dogmas and creeds (p.8), Funk’s proposal for a future agenda is a Christianity “that reconciles our need to know historically and scientifically with our need to create symbols and form myths”. Such an exploration at Christianity’s parameters needs to include “the biological, environmental, psychological, and social sciences” as well as “architecture and the arts, visual and aural, as well as performing” (p.13).

    The Three Axial Ages

    Karen Armstrong, listed as a teacher at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism in London, looked back at what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, from about 800 to 200 B.C.E. (p.19). This period witnessed the birth and rise of some important religious traditions in various parts of the world, including the Buddha, Lao Tze, Confucius the prophets of Israel and others, with many today still following the philosophies, ideologies and ways of Life formulated then. She then refers to the “Great Western Transformation” (p.21) in Europe from about 1500 to 1900 C.E. which moved from the medieval deductive and dogmatic thinking and developed the inductive, empirical, experimental and scientific thinking.

    When Karen looks around her, she sees both the need to overturn old sanctities but also the evidence in modern experience of “a void” (p.23). So often today, the baby goes out with the bathwater! However, when she looks into the future, she suggests that a new Axial Age or “Spiritual Reformation” may be appearing, which, in its quest for new treasures, will not throw out the baby but will “try to see what lies at the heart of these cherished doctrines and whether they contain some core insight that is worth preserving” (p.27).

    Lloyd Geering, then Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, shares Armstrong’s view that the spiritual treasures of the First Axial Age need to critically reassessed, with the discarding of the out-dated and out-moded views and practices. He sees that our spiritualty for today needs to be formulated in a secular and humanistic context, in which the previous supernatural, heavenly realm “was a creation of human imagination” and that the great First Axial religions were human creations. Today, our God-talk actually points to “the values, goals and aspirations which motivate us on the path of faith” (p.42). The traditional Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, which reflects the cosmic, earthly and spiritual realms, then needs to be changed to a secular or this-worldly trinity of [1] self-creating universe, [2] the self-evolving human species and [3] the new global consciousness” (p.48). Is this still a Holy Trinity?

    Church-religion or Kingdom-religion

    Don Cupitt, who in 2001 was Fellow of Emmanuel College at Cambridge and was the founder of the Sea of Faith network, highlights as vital contemporary issues our “knowledge explosion and the vast cultural changes that it would bring about” (p.52). In this context, critical Christians need to challenge the Church’s former supernatural and infallible dogmas by showing “the inner contradictions in its premises” (p.11) and to challenge whether our global society has an appropriate place for the previous “institutionalized salvation machine”. Positively, Church-religion can be changed to being Kingdom-religion, described as this worldly, in this life, ethical and active in the present moment or in “the Now” (p.60).

    Prolific author John Shelby Spong, a former Bishop of Newark, New Jersey and writer of challenging books relating to Christianity, has pointed his book-readers and lecture-listeners to his proposed radical reforms required for Christianity. His vision or “passion” involves “a church radically reformed, theologically literate, courageously confronting those dark places in life where humanity is diminished” (p.68). He is therefore critical of churches which are preoccupied with their own “institutional survival needs” and he sees the fundamentalistic urge to preserve their dogmas in an infallible and unchanging form as being “irrational expressions of a radical insecurity” about their own fragility (p.66).

    Positively, Spong distinguishes carefully between the experience of an event or phenomenon and the explanation or interpretations given to it (p.68). He is happy to accept the actual sensual or psychological experience as legitimate and available for the present generation as well but he sees that the supernatural and miraculous explanations of them given are now obsolete, are bankrupt for today and need modern explanations. Hence he is sceptical of the exit stories of Jesus’ “gravity defying ascension beyond the sky” (p.74) and of the many God explanations. However, he values the God-experience, which enables exploration at the depth dimension of human being and of humanity (p.68). This qualified God-talk is in my view an important third alternative to the frequent militant atheism or its polar opposite, the strident fundamentalistic theism which tends to fill our airwaves.

    The Collapse of the House of Authority

    Roy Hoover, the Weyerhaeuser Professor of Biblical Literature, Whitman College, notes that many churches are clinging to its old traditional language of faith in the context of what Edward Farley has called “the collapse of the house of authority” (p.81). However, he stresses the need for honest higher-critical evaluation of the Bible and the Creed in the quest for a credible creed. He also desires to place humans within the wider cosmic and cultural context, so he prefers to label humans as “bio-historical beings” (p.89).

    Robert Miller has been associated with the Westar Institute and he has raised issues relating to the Apocalyptic Jesus. He notes that Jesus was wrong in his apocalyptic predictions (p.104) and that this eschatological vision involved divine violence and the deaths of the unsaved (p.109).
    Bernard Brandon Scott was at the Phillips Theological Seminary and he has sought to formulate a Christian ethic from the parables, especially the parable of the leaven which entails the “unclean”. He also explores the problem of the Kingdom of God, when no king is involved and any comparison with the Roman Empire is very difficult.

    Is Mark’s Gospel a Fictional Novel?

    Arthur J. Dewey, in 2001 the Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, investigates the death of Jesus. He presents various sources, including passages or prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures which are used in the Gospels as “prophecy historicised” (p.144) and the Gospel of Peter, which presented the literary form of the “Tale of the Innocent Sufferer” (p.148). This same pattern of tale appears to have been used by Mark. A recent scholarly and well documented book, which explores the influence of both the Hebrew prophetic and the Hellenistic novelistic literary forms on Jesus’ death and resurrection accounts in Mark’s Gospel is Paul M. Fullmer’s “Resurrection in Mark’s Literary-Historical Perspective (T&T Clark, London 2007; ISBN 0-567-04553-6). Fullmer deals with general novelistic motifs, including the display of intense emotion, crowds, trials, and gruesome tortures. He presents the series of typical Resurrection-related topics as the presence of a crowd, confusion, either qualified or absolute death, resurrection (revival? resuscitation? revivification?) and finally enlightenment. He then applies these topics to the three death and resurrection events in chapters 5, 9 and 15 in the Gospel of Mark. This raises the interesting question: Is Mark’s Gospel a fictional novel in the style of the Hellenistic novelistic genre?

    The Glory of Martyrdom

    Stephen J. Patterson, then Professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary St Louis, explores the martyr literature, which was common in the context of the severe pre-Christian, Jewish persecution and torture by foreign rulers in the context of their defence of Palestine and of the Jewish Yahwistic religion by the Maccabees. This then extended into Roman rule. George Nickelsburg in his book Resurrection, Immortality and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism (Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1972) provided the label “The Story of the Persecution and Exaltation of the Righteous Man” and the story usually ended with the vindication of the hero (p.162). The theme of the “Noble Death” as an ideal was also popular within the Hellenistic culture and obedience to the demands of an ideology or a cause was also an important theme (p.171). Finally, at the end was the climactic Glory in a restored life or eventual resurrection (p.180). Even the young martyr Perpetua guided the sword of the gladiatorial executioner to her throat during her martyr’s death, to make sure that her death was successful (p.181).

    Each chapter includes a useful list of Works Consulted and each author was provided with sufficient time at the Meeting and space in this book to present a well developed and academically well-supported topic or issue.

    This review with its brief summaries has aimed to promote this valuable exploration of Christianity’s useful continuities and its required and often radical changes. It also highlights the 10th anniversary in 2011 of this challenging work and provides a chance to survey the state of play in Christianity ten years later. If you can locate this book and if you study it closely and with an open mind, you will not be disappointed.

    John Noack, January 2012

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