Charting the New Reformation: The Twelve Theses

“Time makes ancient good uncouth.” The poet, James Russell Lowell, who wrote these words, understood the difference between an experience and the way that experience is explained. So important is this distinction for our later theological work that I want to press it onto the memories of my readers with two rather commonplace illustrations.

First, look at the motion of the sun. It rises in an absolutely same manner each day in the East and sets each day in the West. Look next at the variety of ways that this experience has been explained in human history. The Egyptians explained it by suggesting that their God, Ra, rode his chariot across the sky each day surveying the earth. Other ancient people explained it as the sun circling the earth, making the earth appear to be the center of the universe. Galileo explained it as the planet earth turning on its axis as it made its 365 ¼ day elliptical orbit around the sun. The experience being described was identical, but the explanations reflected the time in which the explainer lived and the level of knowledge that the explainer possessed.

Now look at the experience of epilepsy, a phenomenon that affects only a small minority of people, but is common enough to be universally recognized. A 1st century epileptic seizure is identical with one that occurs in the 21st century. The way epilepsy was explained in the 1st century, however, differs so widely from the way it is explained in the 21st century that one would hardly recognize that they were describing the same thing. It is hard to relate “demon possession” to the “electrical chemistry of a brain cell.” These illustrations point to the distinction between an experience, which can be real and even eternal and the explanation of that experience, which is always time-bound and time-warped.

Jesus was a 1st century experience in which people perceived that what they called the divine and what they understood as the human had somehow come together. The New Testament is a 1st century attempt to explain that experience. The creeds of the Christian church are a 4th century attempt to codify that experience. No explanation can ever become identical with the truth it seeks to explain. Lowell said it so clearly: “Time makes ancient good uncouth.”

Historically, Christianity then proceeded to make excessive claims for the authority of its explanations, freezing them into their 1st and 4th century frames of reference. Literalized words are always doomed words since the perception of truth is always expanding and changing.

The explosion of knowledge over the last five hundred years in the West has rendered most of the biblical and creedal presuppositions to be unbelievable. They rise out of a world that no longer exists. Yet churches continue to operate as if eternal truth can be placed into these earthen vessels, proclaiming that in both the Bible and the creeds ultimate truth has been captured forever. The result is that Christianity seems less and less believable to more and more people. Can we separate the Christ experience from the dying explanations of the past? If we cannot then surely Christianity will continue its relentless journey into a declining irrelevance. If we can achieve this separation, however, the result will necessitate a reformulation of Christianity that is so radical that Christianity as we know it may well die in the process. Death or radical revision, however, appear to be the only realistic alternatives. I cast my vote for the latter. I would rather die in controversy than die in boredom. So I issue today a call for a new reformation. To frame the debate I post through this column “Twelve Theses.” I state them as sharply and as provocatively as I can. People need to feel the dead weight of their traditional claims before they can develop the ability to open themselves and their ancient words to new possibilities. I now invite the Christian world into this debate.

The Twelve Theses

  1. God

Understanding God in theistic categories as “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external to the world and capable of invading the world with miraculous power” is no longer believable. Most God talk in liturgy and conversation has thus become meaningless.

  1. Jesus – the Christ.

If God can no longer be thought of in theistic terms, then conceiving of Jesus as “the incarnation of the theistic deity” has also become a bankrupt concept.

  1. Original Sin – The Myth of the Fall

The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which we human beings have fallen into “Original Sin” is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

  1. The Virgin Birth

The virgin birth understood as literal biology is impossible. Far from being a bulwark in defense of the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth actually destroys that divinity.

  1. Jesus as the Worker of Miracles

In a post-Newtonian world supernatural invasions of the natural order, performed by God or an “incarnate Jesus,” are simply not viable explanations of what actually happened.

  1. Atonement Theology

Atonement theology, especially in its most bizarre “substitutionary” form, presents us with a God who is barbaric, a Jesus who is a victim and it turns human beings into little more than guilt-filled creatures. The phrase “Jesus died for my sins” is not just dangerous, it is absurd.

  1. The Resurrection

The Easter event transformed the Christian movement, but that does not mean that it was the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ deceased body back into human history. The earliest biblical records state that “God raised him.” Into what, we need to ask. The experience of resurrection must be separated from its later mythological explanations.

  1. The Ascension of Jesus

The biblical story of Jesus’ ascension assumes a three-tiered universe, which was dismissed some five hundred years ago. If Jesus’ ascension was a literal event of history, it is beyond the capacity of our 21st century minds to accept it or to believe it.

  1. Ethics.

The ability to define and to separate good from evil can no longer be achieved with appeals to ancient codes like the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount. Contemporary moral standards must be hammered out in the juxtaposition between life-affirming moral principles and external situations.

  1. Prayer

Prayer, understood as a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history, is little more than an hysterical attempt to turn the holy into the servant of the human. Most of our prayer definitions of the past are thus dependent on an understanding of God that has died.

  1. Life after Death

The hope for life after death must be separated forever from behavior control. Traditional views of heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment are no longer conceivable. Christianity must, therefore, abandon its dependence on guilt as a motivator of behavior.

  1. Judgment and Discrimination

Judgment is not a human responsibility. Discrimination against any human being on the basis of that which is a “given” is always evil and does not serve the Christian goal of giving “abundant life” to all. Any structure either in the secular world or in the institutional church, which diminishes the humanity of any child of God on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation must be exposed publicly and vigorously. There can be no reason in the church of tomorrow for excusing or even forgiving discriminatory practices. “Sacred Tradition” must never again provide a cover to justify discriminatory evil.

 

Can a new Christianity for a new world be forged on the basis of these Twelve Theses? Can a living, vital and real faith that is true to the experience of the past, while dismissing the explanations of the past, be born anew in this generation? I believe it can and so to engage this task I issue this call to the Christian world to transform its holy words of yesterday into believable words of today. If we fail in this task there is little reason to think that Christianity, as presently understood and constituted, will survive this century.

Having laid these Twelve Theses out in the briefest of ways, I will start next week to address each one until we begin to catch a glimpse of what the Christianity of tomorrow might be. I will not stop until the case is clear, at least to me. I invite you, my audience, including academics, scholars, pastors, faithful and disillusioned people alike in the pews and even those who have long ago given up any religious commitments to take up citizenship in “The Secular City,” to join in this journey and to engage this debate.

~John Shelby Spong

 

This is Part III in a provocative new series. To read Part I, II and the upcoming essays in this series, sign up for his column here: https://johnshelbyspong.com/sign-up/

 

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