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Reading the Handwriting

No one doubts that we are living in a time of major transformation. With the environmental crisis, the populist crisis, rampant individualism, a consumer economy, racism, sexism, ageism, a pandemic, and whatever else, the handwriting is on the wall. We are in the midst of a critical time. What we do, or fail to do, as a human species will dictate our future.

The question we all must deal with is, “How do you read the handwriting on the wall?” We need to know where we are before we can move forward.

The Handwriting on the Wall
In this paper I am concerned with religion in general and Christianity in particular. In the religious realm we see a continuing decline in worship attendance, increasing agnosticism, but a surging interest in spirituality. “I am spiritual, not religious”, is the cliché of the day. How do we read the religious/Christian handwriting on the wall in response?

Mary Jean Irion gave us an answer over fifty years ago. She opens her From the Ashes of Christianity (1968) with the blunt and unwavering words, “Christianity was a great religion. It has been over for a hundred years.” One hundred years earlier (1867) Matthew Arnold had published Dover Beach. …“The sea of faith was once, too, at the full… But now I only hear its melancholy long withdrawing roar, Retreating to the breath
of the night wind, Down the vast edges drear, And naked shingles of the world.”

I maintain that this insight is the handwriting on the wall that Christianity and all religion faces. It is the elephant in the religious room, which few notice or dare to look at, and still fewer see clearly and face it. This is my attempt to deal with it. I believe this to be a time of hope. The Phoenix for which Irion longed is rising from the ashes.

The Context
We could go back to the 13.7 billion years of evolution that got us here. However, for a more immediate understanding, with limited time, I go back to the 1500 era. Copernicus and Galileo gazing into the heavens and concluding that the earth goes around the sun is a symbol of the revolution in thinking that was then underway. Reason was taking over and the scientific method was becoming the standard of thinking and knowing.

Sir Isaac Newton, one of the great minds of the ages, figured out the basic laws of physics which dictate the movement of the stars and how fast you can take a corner when driving. Reason became so dominant that in the time of Napoleon, around 1800, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was named the Cathedral of Reason. It didn’t last long, but it indicated the tenor of the time.

The spiritual did not lie down and die, but was on notice ever after.

Darwin, in 1859, published The Origin of Species. He concluded that life has evolved from the earth and that the being which is best suited to reproduce will survive. It confronted the church’s belief that humanity was instantly created as a species apart.

Evolution was anathema to their fundamental beliefs. It spooked the church. In response the Catholic church came up with the idea of an infallible Pope and the Protestants with the idea of an infallible Book. Neither make any sense to the modern mind, but still carry weight in much of the church.

However, a very different response was emerging. To go back to Matthew Arnold. Although not published until 1867, Dover Beach began to take form in this mind in 1851, while on his honeymoon at Dover. At about the same time he was also writing Grande Chartreuse, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, The other powerless to be born.” One hundred and seventy years ago he knew that Christianity was on the way out.

Friedrich Nietzsche, not one to say things subtly, in the 1880’a stated, “God is dead, and we have killed him.” He knew this in the depths of his being but had no thought forms or systems to deal with it, and it drove him over the edge mentally.

There was a great liberal optimism at the turn of the century that produced The Christian Century, a magazine that is still going. But the Titanic sank and the course of history carried on.

Karl Barth thought liberalism was getting carried away and to right the ship he wrote Epistle to the Romans in 1916, and a revised version in 1921. He spent the rest of his life – he died in 1968 – writing a twelve volume Summa outlining a Neo-orthodoxy. We can see it as the last great effort to bring theology back to “normal”.

The very year Barth published his revised edition of Romans, William Butler Yeats was penning The Second Coming. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer… And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches
toward Bethlehem to be born.”

Seventy years after Arnold was aware that Christianity was fading, Yeats knew that something new was stirring. Leave it to the poets to tell us what is happening.

The Awakening

April 30th, 1944 can be marked as the awakening moment to a whole new theological agenda. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from the loneliness and darkness of Tegel prison in Berlin, wrote a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. In it he started asking the questions with which we still wrestle. “You would be surprised and perhaps disturbed if you knew how my ideas on theology are taking shape.

The thing that keeps coming back to me is, what is Christianity, and indeed what is Christ, for us to-day? We are proceeding toward a time of no religion at all. Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old preaching and theology rests upon the ‘religious premise’.

But if one day it becomes apparent that this a priori ‘premise’ simply does not exist …what does that mean for Christianity It means that the linchpin is removed from the whole structure of our Christianity to date.” Challenging words.

Bonhoeffer was already a well renowned theologian, teacher, Nazi resistor; to the point of being involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler – for which he was put to death a year and a few days later, April 8th, 1945. He had earlier written, “When God calls a man he bids him come and die.” He literally answered that call. However, on this singular April day he ventured out in a whole new direction.

I was blissfully unaware of this until years later. I received my education in the early/mid 1950s. That was a quiet time when the world was happily getting back to “normal” after the war.

However, that proved to be the calm before the storm. In the 1960s a cultural, social and every other kind of transformation burst forth. “Woodstock”, August 15 – 18 1968, when 4000,000 people gathered in Bethel, New York, stands as a primary symbol of the transformation of the century and beyond. In the scheme of astrological ages we can see the 1960s upheaval as the introduction to the age of Aquarius.

Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changing expressed it well.

Come mothers and fathers Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a changin.

All aspects of society were affected. In the religious realm the death-of-God movement reared its head for a brief time. It reached a pinnacle of public notoriety when, on April 8th, 1966, “Is God Dead?” appeared in bold red letters on the black cover of Time magazine. It did not last long. It was quickly swept under the rug by a church that did not know what to do with it.

One of the early books, 1961, of the death-of-God movement was William Hamilton’s The New Essence of Christianity. It would be a year or two before I got hold of it. I vividly remember reading, “The unrest of the modern world has come to rest in us.” That phrase haunted me for months. It was a step in my own transformation.

My conversion had been sudden and dramatic a short time before. I believe it was the second Sunday in Advent, 1962. I had preached a sermon on “The God Behind the Child”. In my youthful innocence I thought, “That should convince them”. Then, when I was walking down the isle for the usual door handshake, it suddenly hit me, “The one who doesn’t believe is me.” I have spent the rest of my life dealing with that one.

A few years later Mary Jean Irion’s book appeared. I return to it yet again to honour how her words have sustained me over the years. It is the most beautiful and informative book on the decline and fall of traditional Christianity that I have seen. In it she covers the various aspects of culture and what has been happening within them. She traces its demise by painting the Cathedral, then The Fire, The Alarm, The Fireman, The Ashes, and finally The Phoenix. “Come, great bird, to this place!” Unfortunately it is out of print with only a few second-hand copies available. Surely there will be a movement to have it reprinted – but someone must update her ubiquitous male language.

We are still dealing with, or failing to deal with, the social and psychological upheaval of the 1960s. The death-of-God quickly disappeared from public scrutiny, being swiftly swept under the rug. It continues as the aforementioned elephant in the room.

However, the church has not stood idle. Bishop John Shelby Spong has stood as a constant and relentless challenge to the unchanging church. He has opened the bible in new and enlightening ways and given us a human Jesus. The Jesus Seminar scholars have brought biblical scholarship into the public arena. With Marcus Borg we are Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. The scholars introduce us to their best understanding of what Jesus actually said and did. (The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say, Robert
W. Funk. The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do, Robert W. Funk.) We have a new awareness of the reality, wholeness and power of the human Jesus.

The church still wrestles with the grand issues of the day. The equality of women has been glimpsed. In 1998 my wife, Emily Kierstead, was leading the music at the national closing festival of the “Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women”. It should have been an accountability session but the churches had done little for which they could account. But the women knew what was going on.

In the United Church in the late 1980s there was great discussion and debate over the ordination of self-declared homosexuals. Strides have been made in some churches toward the acceptance and affirmation of all sexual orientations.

Although there are myriads of people and organizations exposing and confronting major issues both inside and outside of the church, the reality remains that the church is rarely at the head of the major efforts toward social change. It has been called “the little red caboose behind the train” – and that was away back when there actually was a little red caboose behind the train. The main impetus for change tends to come from society without any particular religious connection, which is an affirmation of the goodness that resides within us.

However, the fading of the church does not mean that spirituality is dead. Indeed, there is a great upsurge in yearning for a spirituality that connects us with the Mystery of it all. Even as Irion eloquently expressed that yearning in From the Ashes, it has grown ever since. The phrase, “I am spiritual but not religious” has become a cliché, but it expresses a profound reality. The institutions of religion are failing to bring the spiritual nourishment for which we yearn. Many search elsewhere with varying degrees of success.

The elephant in the room has poked its trunk from under the rug (pardon the mixed metaphors) in the person of Gretta Vosper. Her adamant and vehement denial of Theism has stunned the church, which avoided the theological issue by getting involved in irrelevant legal issues. She remains as an unmet challenge.

However, the stirring of something new of which Yeats was aware still carries on.

The Fundamental Paradigm Shift
To understand the fundamental movements in the on flow of history I go back to two great paradigm changing minds of the 20th century, Albert Einstein and Carl Jung.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein is generally regarded in the Western world as a top mind of the 20th century. He has dominated the scientific world ever since its early years. In 1905, while working in the Patent Office in Bern, Sweden, he published a paper on Special Relativity, and the scientific world has not been the same since. Newtonian physics was the standard of the day. Many scientists thought that they had most everything figured out. However, Einstein noted the slight irregularities in Newton’s theories. Why does light bend ever so slightly when passing the moon? Ten years later he wrote another paper on General Relativity and, along with other insights, opened the door to quantum physics.

To make a long story short, in the last fifty or so years we have seen an explosion in our knowledge and awareness of the big world and the small world. From the surety of Newtonian physics we have moved to the awesome wonder and mystery of an ever expanding universe and the ever increasing complexity of particles/forces in the small world. The Hubble Telescope and the Hadron Collider have opened up new vistas we never imagined.

Now we know in a new and profound way that “you are a child of the Universe”. The 13.7 billion years of the evolution of the Universe is written into our cells, the very core of our being. It is the primary reality and awareness of our lives. Before everything else we are “of the earth, earthy” (I Corinthians 15:47 KJV). “The Universe Story” is awakened in us. (The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic), Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, Thomas Berry. The Universe is a Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story, Brian Swimme. A Walk Through Time: From Stardust to Us – the Evolution of Life on Earth, Brian Swimme.)

Any spirituality of the future will rest upon this foundation. We see it happening within the church. In Worship Services I have attended in this area I note many references to the earth, the stars, the Universe. My brother, Walter, occasionally leads worship in a church where everyone sits in a circle and the ceiling is a painting of the heavens. There is hope.

Carl Jung
There is a further dimension to this reality that must be explored. For this we go back to the second paradigm changing person, Karl Gustav Jung. Jung was born in 1875 in Kesswil, Switzerland. He was the son of a clergyman with several uncles of the same profession. He was never able to understand or accept what his father preached and taught. After choosing psychological studies he was drawn to the insights of Sigmund Freud and the unconscious. About the time Einstein was writing his Special Relativity paper Jung parted ways with Freud, thinking that Freud’s view of the unconscious was too narrow. He then had a profound and long lasting confrontation with the depths of his own psyche, from which came the rest of his life’s work.

I met Jung over thirty years ago through reading Answer to Job. I remember thinking that if I could get my mind around this it was all I needed to know. It turned out not to be all I needed to know, but a good part of it. About the same time, Emily, having been converted to “The Universe Story” at a workshop of the same name, brought me into that orbit. Jung and the Universe Story form the basis of how I envision the emerging foundation of faith.

From Heaven to Earth
Jung’s primary contribution to religion/spirituality was translating religious/supernatural language into psychological language: changing the concept of Theism, the view of a supernatural, all powerful, deity somewhere up there in control of everything, to the experience of our inner life. This is a change from the realm of intuitive speculation, sometimes quite accurate, to the careful observance of what we are experiencing. Jung was a scientist of the soul.

What has happened with the Greek gods and goddesses presents us with a good example of what Jung instigated in relation to Christianity. The Greek gods and goddesses were once a live religion for the Greeks. They felt themselves the object, and often victims, of the whims and plans of Zeus, Hera, and the whole pantheon. They understood them as supernatural, external, forces acting arbitrarily on their lives. Greek religion is long gone as a living religion, but now we understand their gods and goddesses as psychological entities, archetypes, which work in our lives. (Gods in Everyman: Archetypes That Shape Men’s Lives, Jean Shinoda Bolen. Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women, Jean Shinoda Bolen.)The Greek religion is transformed into a rich source of wisdom to be mined for the understanding and betterment of our lives.

Jung has transformed Christianity in the same way. We no longer need worship a supernatural deity or go to great lengths to get into “His” good graces. Now the story of the Jewish and Christian people, the bible, becomes a rich source of wisdom as we seek to grow as individuals and evolve a just and peaceful society.

Jung’s translation of religious language to psychological language amounts to what I name as The Death and Resurrection of God: From Christianity to the New Story; the title of my previous book (Pine Valley, 2013). The Theistic “mask of God” (Joseph Campbell) that has sustained and nourished Jews, Christians, and Muslims for eons has lost its reality for many – religion however, will hang on for hundreds of years. Now the Psyche communes with our psyches. It is our way of relating to the Ultimate Mystery. The Psyche becomes our contemporary “mask of God”, one that speaks to our time.

The Psyche is Real
Jung experienced the Psyche as real. In our scientific disregard for all things spiritual it is easy to believe that there is nothing beyond us, that everything is within our own brain. We can see our brain as the magnificent computer it is, but like our personal computers, much of the programming comes from outside, from other psyches and the Universal Psyche that connects us all.

Jung knew that there was a self, a soul, within him that was a force, often against his personal wishes, urging him to form and follow the true destiny of his life. He found the same inner reality to be present in the many clients who came to him. His voracious reading confirmed what he knew from his personal experience. He also knew that this internal reality pointed to a Psyche that went far beyond the individual psyche to a universal Psyche that was as complex and wondrous as the material universe. Our personal psyches are all meshed together in a grand network that is the Psyche of the Universe.

Twice Born
The word “archetype” has entered our everyday language. The universal Psyche contains an infinite number of archetypes, energy centers, that are at work within and among us. Certain ones take root in us and shape who we are. In a deep sense we are all twice born. We are born into this world as a human bodily creature, subject to the possibilities and limitations of our individual body/mind. The task of the ego, the CEO of our mortal life, is to protect and promote us in our worldly existence. The true essence of who we are, however, resides in a deep self or soul that has not been consciously created by us. The task of this soul is to remind us who we truly are and to make our unique contribution to the life of the world. Thus we are “born from above” or from the mysterious working of the Psyche within us. Jeremiah had a true intuitive insight when he had God say “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5, NRSV).

The Psyche seems to have a place for us, which we may, or may not, fulfill. It may be anything from hobbies, to career, to caring for family and friends, to an overwhelming inner demand to garden, restore old cars, seek justice, or whatever. It is not always easy to do what your inner selves desires.

The Evolving Psyche
As Jung points out forcefully in Answer to Job, the Psyche is itself in the process of becoming conscious. This means that God, the Psyche, is not complete and always the same – a major change in how we think about the Ultimate. It is in the process of growing in consciousness. The picture of God, Yahweh, we meet in the First Testament is of an unconscious male dictator who requires praise and makes great threats if not properly treated, and then is sometimes sentimental and loving toward his chosen. Jung traces the maturing of this image through the biblical account and beyond.

This means that the Psyche, in our limited human language, is alive and active with an intention of its own. Amid all the multitude of archetypes at work in the Psyche there is one that focuses on pushing us to become who we can be. Among all the spirits there is a Holy Spirit that will “guide you into all the truth.”(John 16:13, NRSV). This archetype of wholeness is always at work within us and throughout the Universe. As much as we can discern it at this point in history, this Spirit, archetype, represents the core purpose of the Universe, which is to become whole by bringing wholeness, maturity, consciousness to each of us and through us to the Psyche itself.

We are born with the ability to be conscious. However, it is only through the experience of living in the rough and tumble of our day by day mortal life that we actually become ever more conscious. By reflecting on our experience with others, nature and ourselves we learn more of who we are, and grow in the process. Our bodies, our fleeting mortal selves, are the vehicles the soul uses to promote our growth.

According to Jung it is the same with the Universe. As below so above. The urge toward consciousness and wholeness needed a material universe to be the vehicle through which the Universe could see itself reflected and thus grow in consciousness. Even some scientists are now thinking of consciousness as the creative force behind all that is. The priestly writers of the first creation myth had an intuitive awareness of a truth when they wrote, “So God created humankind in his image” (Genesis 1:27, NRSV).We reflect and participate in the evolving consciousness of the Universe.

Human Responsibility
We are at least one form of life within the Universe that has attained self-reflective consciousness. We have come to the point where what we do dictates how the future will unfold upon planet earth. Swimme calls it the “ecozoic age”, meaning that we have now entered a new age where the future depends on us. As our social and political life is now we need to take a giant leap in consciousness to assure a future for ourselves and life on planet earth.

This means that the purpose of our life is to become more conscious and aware that we may structure a social order of equality, justice and peace. It is happening, but our future is not assured. We need all the wisdom we can get.

Mining the wisdom of the ages is a rich source. The religious of the world bequeath to us the wisdom gained from the various paths of human experience. However, we must transform them from being supernaturally based to being sources of human wisdom, e.g. “Do justice … love kindness … walk humbly” (Micah 6:8, NRSV) – if we could accomplish that our future would be assured.

In the case of the Judeo/Christian tradition I believe the bible provides the best witness the Western world has to the evolution of consciousness, both human and divine (Psychic). From Eve’s first step into consciousness, it recounts the unfolding from the mythic beginning to the mythic end, and two thousand of years of real happenings – if variously recorded – in-between. The bible recounts the often very interesting experiences and teaching that have helped us become more mature and responsible. But that is a story for another day, recounted in my book, The Bible Beyond Religion: Witness to the Evolution of Consciousness (Tellwell, 2021). (Website:

Then we need the rites and rituals that enable us to commune with life, the earth, and the great Mystery of it all. Such explorations are in the beginning stages but will take the experience and experiments of a great many spiritual communities to carry it through..

Over the years there will be many variations on what I am presenting here. However, the paradigm changes remain as a background constant. Something that was is no longer.

However, in Irion’s words, “There is a stirring on the religious scene that says something is trying hard to be born and one can easily guess that it will be a humanistic,
naturalistic, nontheistic religion.”

The phoenix is rising from the ashes. Yeats’ “rough beast” has become a beautiful, growing child.

So. Three clichés. “Bite the bullet.” “ Read the handwriting on the wall.” “ Get with the tour.”

About the Author
Donald F. Murray, B.A., M.Div., M.Th.; further training in Transactional Analysis, Education Design, Group Dynamics, The School of Sacred Psychology (Jean Houston’s Mystery School), Jungian Psychology. Don is a United Church of Canada minister, educator, workshop facilitator and author enjoying retired life with his partner Emily Kierstead in Truro, Nova Scotia. He served pastorates in the Maritimes for 32 years and as a Program Director and then Executive Director of Tatamagouche Education and Spirituality Centre for 8 years. Having awakened to the-death-of-God in the early 1960s, Don has been an avid searcher. He has authored four books, For Unbelieving Christians (1987), Celebrating Eve (2001), The Death and Resurrection of God: From Christianity to the New Story (2014), and now The Bible Beyond Religion: Witness to the Evolution of Consciousness. With Emily, he enjoys their families, eight children (two deceased) and eleven grandchildren, along with fiddle playing, singing, and a passion for the emerging Universe Story.

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