Lectureship that Challenges What is, in the Name of What Can Be

The Third Annual John Shelby Spong Lecture was held at St. Peter’s Church, Morristown, New Jersey, near the end of April. A crowd of people, numbering around 400, according to the ushers’ count, came from near and far to participate in the event. We had members of the faculty and student body from nearby Drew University. We had a visitor from Columbia, South America, here on a student’s visa, who was returning home soon. He had been raised in a traditionally Catholic home but, in his later teenage years he had been affiliated with Pentecostalism. Now as a young adult, he felt at home in neither and had become a seeker after a God still unidentified by him. We had one man who drove up from Baltimore to attend the lecture. We had a significant number of St. Peter’s congregation, but more importantly, we had a large number of those for whom organized religion of any sort had become a turnoff. To this assembled audience, Professor Elaine Pagels, author and a faculty member of the Department of Religion at Princeton University, spoke on the book of Revelation. This is the book with which the New Testament now closes and, throughout history, it has also been the favorite biblical resource of those who like to talk about and even to predict the end of the world. The book is not regarded in academic circles to be of high value, so it was not surprising that during the question and answer period, someone in the audience asked Dr. Pagels why this strange book had captured her fascination in the first place and just when that fascination was born. “It was,” she responded “when President George W. Bush quoted this biblical text to support his invasion of Iraq.” “Shock and Awe” was justified with quotations from the Book of Revelation. That answer did much to put this Book into a modern perspective.

It was my privilege to introduce Professor Pagels and in that introduction to put the “Spong Lectureship” into perspective. This lectureship was launched three years ago by a group of my friends who were concerned that Christianity was not being properly challenged from within; that is, from those who identify themselves as Christians. This challenge from within had been the focus of both my priestly career and my writing career and these friends did not want this focus to die when I finally decided to fold my tent and enter the quietude of retirement. I actually did retire as the Bishop of Newark in 2000, at age 69, after 24 active and exciting years serving my church in this capacity, but I am still actively engaged in the task of speaking to my church as one of its resident, yet devoted, critics. So in my introduction of Dr. Pagels, I placed this lectureship into the context of the crisis facing contemporary Christianity.

“Christianity,” I began, “is a faith system whose scriptures are the product of the first century, which inevitably means that those scriptures reflect the world view of first century men and women. These scriptures assume that epilepsy, mental illness and muteness result from demon possession. They assume that sickness is a manifestation of divine punishment. They assume that God is a supernatural being, who lives somewhere external to the planet earth and that this God invades human history periodically in supernatural, miraculous ways to accomplish the divine purpose. These scriptures also assume that whatever could not be explained within the first century frame of reference must be regarded as a miracle. This of course means that people today, who want to literalize the scriptures as the ‘inerrant’ words of God, inevitably literalize a world view and a series of assumptions that no modern, educated person could possibly believe.”

I then noted that the creeds of Christianity are products of the 4th century and refer to a 4th century view of the world. One clear creedal assumption is that the earth is the center of a three-tiered universe, with hell being beneath the earth and heaven being above the sky. They reveal a picture of a divine escalator moving up and down amid the three tiers.

The creeds also assume the literal and biological accuracy of what came to be called the Virgin Birth in which Jesus is conceived by the operation of the Holy Spirit. This idea is of special interest because one of the earliest forms of the Christian creed came to be called “The Apostles’ Creed” suggesting that it in fact reflects the beliefs of the apostles themselves. The fact is that neither Paul, the first writer of the New Testament (51-64 CE), nor Mark, the author of the first of the gospels to be written (ca.72 CE) ever mentions the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Paul says simply that Jesus was “born of a woman,” like every other human being and “born under the law,” like every other Jew. Mark portrays Jesus as a perfectly normal adult human being, who comes to be baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist at which time the Holy Spirit falls on him and he becomes a “God-infused human life.” The first narrative of a miraculous or Virgin Birth for Jesus does not enter the Christian tradition until the 9th decade of the Common Era in the writings of Matthew, who wrote long after most, if not all, of the apostles had died. A second and very contradictory version of the story of Jesus’ virgin birth is then added to the developing tradition by Luke about a decade after Matthew. The virgin birth story assumes that the woman is not a genetic contributor to any new life, for the idea that a woman had an egg cell was not discovered until the early years of the 18th century! Clearly the belief system of the apostles did not include the concepts found in the “Apostles’ Creed.” So, if the creeds are literalized along with the doctrines and dogmas of the Christian Church, which are based on those creeds, what happens is that the three-tiered universe and long-abandoned biological assumptions are also literalized thus making the creeds nonsensical in the modern world.

Most of the liturgical forms still used to some degree in all Christian churches are the product of the 13th century. This means that we are still forced to make 13th century assumptions if we want to continue to worship God in the 21st century. The all-seeing God who plays the role of a judge is certainly apparent when we pray, “Almighty God unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid.” Not surprisingly it seems appropriate to say “Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy” to this 13th century view of God. Salvation is assumed to be a gift from this God above the sky, who comes to rescue us from the fall from our original perfection and who pays the price of our sins in the death of Jesus. That is the context in which we say, “Jesus died for my sins!”

In our post-Darwinian world, however, there is no original perfection. There is, rather, an ongoing and ever-evolving process carried out over billions of years from single cell life to the complex self-conscious creatures that we are today. If there was no original perfection, there could never have been a fall from perfection, so “original sin” is also non-sensical. If there was no fall into “original sin” then the idea of a divine rescue from a fall that never happened loses all of its meaning. Is there any reason not to understand why 21st century people find the liturgies of our Church to be so meaningless?

21st century Christianity is thus wedded to the world view of its 1st century scriptures, its 4th century creeds and its 13th century liturgies. Consequently Christianity presents itself to potential modern believers encased in a series of doctrinal and liturgical forms, undergirded by a theological point of view that communicates almost nothing to those people who gather in church to worship. Why is there any surprise that the number of worshipers is in steep decline? Modern Christianity offers only two alternatives. The first is to close our minds to the explosion of knowledge in order to build a protective fortress around the religious formulas of antiquity. We then surround these formulas with the claim that they are supported by an infallible or inerrant tradition. Such a stand offers people the security of the delusion that they possess the ultimate truth of God. We call these who think this way “fundamentalists” and they come in both a Catholic and Protestant variety. So from this perspective the church’s invitation is to “believe this or leave.”

Those who elect this second option today are legion! People are abandoning “institutional religion” in droves. The Church Alumni Association is now the fastest growing organization in the Christian West. As religious conviction fades secular humanism becomes the only viable alternative. The tension between a religion tied to antiquity and secular values quite divorced from that religious heritage today marks not only church life, but our national political life. We seem to be gridlocked between both a religious and political past that some want to impose on all and a religionless future the nature of which no one finally understands.

These sterile alternatives are the reality to which the “Spong Lectureship” at St. Peter’s, Morristown seeks to respond, This congregation, under the brilliant leadership of its rector, Janet Broderick, has installed an adult education hour into the heart of Sunday morning. In this class, the Bible is taught in the same way as it is taught today in the finest academic centers of this land. No one seeks to protect the Bible from the insights of modern knowledge. Also, in this class the historical critics of traditional Christianity are engaged. It looks at the challenge brought to Christianity by Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, just to name a few. It studies modern prophets who have challenged Christianity from outside, ranging from Baruch Spinoza and Franz Kafka to Malcolm X. The traditions of the Christian faith are thus forced into dialogue with the intellectual breakthroughs of the ages.

To supplement this ongoing congregational program, this annual lecture series brings to this church and to its community the best Christian minds of this generation. That makes St. Peter’s unique, but is this not the place to which all Christian churches must come? I believe it is. Death by boredom or attrition is the only alternative.

~John Shelby Spong

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Review & Commentary

  • Ruth Koenig

    How refreshing and reassuring to learn that Bishop Spong is still sharing insights. Given the entrenchment of the archaic beliefs that still hold sway not only in churches but in our culture, and particularly in public life, how will the church ever deal with all these misguided beliefs and practices.