Question: Why Can’t—or Won’t—the Church Change? Answer: THEISM

I don’t think it’s any secret that the institutional church, especially in developed countries, is dying. The worst part: the leaders don’t seem to know how to revitalize it. What are your feelings?

From my vantage point, I don’t see how a church can survive if church leaders insist that a god lives up there, in heaven, and is the Great Master Puppeteer responsible for everything that happens. Church clergy and laity continue to pray to this nonexistent God, or his Son, to resolve world issues as well as to grant individual petitioners’ needs and wants.

The concept of such a deity is very old (four thousand years or more) and was based on the idea that the world was flat. Believers imagined a tiered structure starting with an Underworld (Sheol) way down below; then water (oceans, seas, lakes) and the stationary earth; then next the Firmament consisting of the sun, which they thought revolved around the earth, as well as the moon and stars. Next were the waters above, which caused all the precipitation. The final tier was Heaven where divinity dwelt.

Five hundred years ago we learned the Earth is round, but the church continues to preach the tiered concept, even though most folks know this doesn’t contain an iota of truth. Unfortunately, most of the church’s theology, hymnology, prayers, dogma, doctrine, and teachings are based on the old image of Heaven where God and his Son live. The leadership of the institutional church appears terrified to change anything for fear that someone might become upset. For me, that means that the church would rather die than change.

For me, theism—belief in a personal God who creates, preserves, and governs the world—is not only “la-la land” material but also the biggest reason for the church’s continuing demise.

But wait! Don’t throw the baby (Jesus and his message) out with the bath water (the institutional church). There is an answer, and it is very simple.

When I turned seventy, I made a vow that I would not tell, spread, or perpetuate any more of the church’s untruths. This wasn’t easy. I was raised with such mistruths and went to a church that perpetuated these fallacies all day, every day. I went to a seminary, supposedly progressive, where students were encouraged to keep on marketing such deceits. In the active ministry, again I had to go along with the party line if I wanted to be successful.

But quietly, I snuck in some changes. I stopped using the word god and substituted the word Creation, which encompasses the universe. This was a sneaky “promotion” for that theistic god.

Creation wouldn’t have had a “son” who, many claim, died for our sins. So I demoted this Jewish Jesus to a fellow human being (no longer a god), a charismatic teacher/preacher with a life-transforming message of agape (love).

I call him my “christ.” (Everyone has one of these. Show me your checkbook and I‘ll tell you who yours is.) Why? Because he has shown me how to live my life to the fullest. It has worked very well for me. I even pray every day, and my prayers are very action oriented. I was amazed to realize how much of the church’s dogma and doctrine went out the window once I promoted God and demoted Jesus. I’ll share that later.

Why can’t the institutional church promote God and demote Jesus? I’m thoroughly convinced this simple move could jump-start the dying church.

What think ye?

Visit Bil’s Blog: Peace Love Joy Hope

Illustration courtesy of Michael Paukner. CC by 2.0

Review & Commentary

  • Tommy Rannanpää

    A text that woke the fundamentalist in me. Let me first mention things I agree with. We do use human concepts of what God is, and old interpretations and there we could make a harsch clean up. God is not he (a man), and in most theological issues the right answer is – we do not know.
    I also agree that for many the church may rather die than change. I do not undderstand the need to keep everything as it was before.

    But if we have an old map, and we find out that it is not exact and representative in all cases, my own starting point is not to rip that map apart. It may have value in itself, and we should be aware of the faults… we could use that as a starting point, and we can correct the data as we realise it is wrong.

    What will you gain by ripping apart everything? Do you think everyone would follow a Church without Jesus? While we use all kinds of titles on Jesus, my answer about him is – I don’t know. Maybe he was God? Maybe the heaven isn’t above the clouds, but in another dimension to use a more modern term. Maybe God listens, but tell us that prayers were not intended as wish fulfillments, but as a contact to God. Maybe Jesus died for my sins.
    I live with hundreds of questions, but I am not ready to tear my map away. I keep my map and change the course and details when I see they are wrong for me.

    • Betty Jo Critchfield

      For me, the critical issue is not who is God, but what kind of God would kill his own son as a sacrifice, when Jesus himself was so anti-religion? What kind of God would make his non-believers be held as scapegoats for killing God’s special heir to the kingdom? I agree that we do not need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but the whole idea of what sin is must be reimagined or the rituals and beliefs will continue to essentially promote blaming others rather than Jesus’ whole message of loving one another, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, all the ones who did NOT conform to the traditional belief system.

      • Tommy Rannanpää

        The only right answers to your thoughts (can be found elswhere) but let me give you my views. As a SYMBOL I do understand God killing (HIMSELF or his “son” in this case) as a sacrifice for others. Compared to a God that you have to bow before and obey… in this interpretation, it is God “it”self that bows to us by suffering for us instead.
        In WW2 one person was randomly sentenced to death (because others fled (or tried to) from a nazi camp. One jew stepped then forward and said, please do not kill this woman she has a child, kill me instead.

        – Now for me this is words of caring/loving.

        Who are the scapegoats?

        While my life do certainly not rotate around what sin is, it is quite obvious that we have sin in us, or do bad things to each others if you want to use another term.

        Jesus was not against religion (as I define religion – as a set of gathered beliefs… as Jesus said BELIEVE ME, BELIEVE THIS….) however Jesus was as you say critical towards religious practice, that had nothing to do with love/caring about others.

    • Newton Finn

      I think you are on a good path. “A scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his storeroom treasures old and new.”

  • Margie Miller

    I have been on this same journey for thirty years. I have realized that any God that exists is found within each of us and is what I call “spirit”. It is the spirit of love. That was the primary message of Jesus and he managed to live it…something most of us, myself included, have problems with almost every day. I think the message Jesus brought was that everyone is “loved” by God….(call God what you will”) and we should be doing the same thing… yet we have people we prefer not to be around because they make us uncomfortable for one reason or another. Jesus, on the other hand chose to be around everyone…lepers, women, children, tax collectors, untouchables…you name it. Jesus chose to recognize them as people of worth.

    I wish I could do the same.

  • Newton Finn

    One hundred eighty degrees in the wrong direction. The world is hungry, indeed desperate, for a personal God, not the caricature described in this article, but one like the Abba of Jesus, who loves us like a Father/Mother and urges us to love others as brothers and sisters–the kind of God described in the note found sewed into Pascal’s coat: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not the god of philosophers and scholars.” Groups of believers that hold fast to such a God, and do His/Her will by serving others (especially the least of these) and to reverence all of creation, are the remnant of the church that remains vital in our dying materialistic society and holds the only promise of Christian renewal. The action is here…and in the many other groups like them that live out communally, concretely, the message of Jesus.:

    • Newton, I think there is a lot more commonality between what you describe and the point of the article than you seem to grasp. It can only be “one hundred eighty degrees” opposite if you are referring to a single statement or point.

      Language is such that we often set up opposites… or binary options of meaning. Either yes or no, black or white. But I think you’d agree we can’t confine understandings of God or spiritual matters to this. I don’t imagine you do it either. String two or more sentences together in trying to convey anything, including the “good news” and it’s immediately not just a “one thing or the opposite” matter.

      No one can derive meaning from the Bible itself with strictly either-or thinking. It’s necessarily complicated, although efforts to simplify things down can be valuable, if done well. (I’m a former Evangelical from childhood to age 45… now 67… who once rested in the “simplicity of the Gospel” and promoted it heavily. But eventually I saw how misguided and confusing that was.)

      I gradually came to what I’d hope you’d also find to be “simplicity from complexity” in the panentheism approach the commenter, Anthony Jacobs, refers to. The very descriptor of “panentheism” is long and unfamiliar enough that it often scares people off it seems. “Process thought” may be a better term, or Process theology. Look it up if you haven’t, and give it a fair examination.

      You may not come to agree broadly with the approach, but please note along the way that Process people (myself included, and what’s on my blog) are big on the things you emphasize in the last part of your comment. There’s a lot of common ground. And I find it more helpful to look for that and continue to dialog than to emphasize differences, though I do some of the latter myself.

      • Newton Finn

        You and I, Howard, are about the same age, but I was fortunate to grow up in a liberal mainline church, which inspired me to focus on religion and philosophy in college and then go on to seminary (CTS) and become ordained…after which I went on to law school to more fully equip myself to fight for social justice. So rest assured that I’m well aware of process theology and have a great deal of respect for it (especially the approach of David Ray Griffin and how he interweaves his theology/theodicy with acute, courageous analysis of 9/11). I’m also familiar with panentheism and find it attractive (especially in the way that biologist Rupert Sheldrake relates it to his theories of morphic fields and resonance). And certainly there is common ground between secular humanism and Christian humanism–namely, the humanism–and obviously the compassion encompassed in that commonality is far more important than any metaphysics. All that said, I am firmly convinced that the turn away from a personal God is a massive error that is putting the final nail in the coffin of the kind of liberal Christianity that nourished me and so many others. And while it may seem to some like a daring, cutting-edge move, the worldview that seems to underlie it has been outmoded since the early 20th Century.

        • Newton, thanks for your courteous and thoughtful reply. Good to hear of our several overlaps… I was a student at CST from 90-94 (they reordered the name to “School of Theology at Claremont” sometime after then)… tail end of my Evangelical years.

          I apparently misread you at least in part… you don’t appear to be nearly as much an either-or thinker as it had initially sounded like you might be. Rather, you’ve given these matters a lot of careful thought. And even among people who largely agree, it can be tricky, especially in written correspondence, to properly define terms so we’re not bypassing each other and making improper conclusions.

          That said, I’m presuming that I’d probably be largely in agreement with how you mean a “personal” God. I’ve long found that hard to describe, either to get across my meaning or to understand it clearly myself. It seems to be part of the “unknowability” of God. One problem for me is that when most people say “personal God” they seem to be conceptualizing an extrapolation of human personality factors and functions, which I think tends to be more misleading than useful… unless carefully qualified.

          I’ve only had time to glance at the article you linked to. It looks excellent and I hope to get back to it soon. I think there’s no question that the mechanistic view of the universe is well outdated and on its way out, but it tends to be resilient and slow to depart, unfortunately. Thus, it still holds sway in science and much of culture in many ways. But I can certainly say the same about orthodox theism. The battle between the two is frustrating to watch when one has developed at least a framework for a third (or 4th, etc.) way of conceptualizing.

          • Newton Finn

            Thanks for engaging with me, Howard, and I’m sure that we have much in common in our theological thought/speculation. And aren’t all of our theological expressions, as our Buddhist friends say, only fingers pointing at the moon? Which doesn’t mean, of course, that some fingers don’t point more accurately than others. Let me leave you with a book recommendation (as if you don’t already have a long list). Surprisingly from the area of historical Jesus studies (an obsession of mine), not from contemporary theology, I have come across an utterly extraordinary exploration of the Abba faith of Jesus in which his Kingdom of God proclamation was grounded. The book is “The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus,” written by a highly-respected NT scholar from Princeton named Dale Allison. The entire book is remarkable in its honesty and humility about what we can and cannot glean about the HJ, and the last chapter is so good that I now read it devotionally. Look forward to speaking with you again.

          • Thanks and interesting you’d mention that book. I’d heard it similarly hailed before so had put it on my “short list” to try to get to. I also have spent a lot of study and thinking time on HJ and Xn origins!! I find it relevant to much else, though seldom is that “translated” so lay people can make decent applications (or even scholars can).

            However, I’ve just committed to a review of “Counter-Imperial Churching for a Planetary Gospel: Radical Discipleship for Today”, a new release from Process Century Press, so must get through that first, on my limited free time. But I DO intend to get/read the Allison book! Thanks again.

    • Bil Aulenbach

      Thanks Newton for your thots.
      My BIG problem is figuring out whose god? the fundamentalists god? the Jehovah Witness one? the Jewish one?; the Islamic one? the Hindu ones and on and on. There is no way I can figure out which god will I choose. I can assure whichever one I choose will be wrong for others. I find it interesting that we say “God is Love.” It sound lovely but who’s defining the word love.
      My cop-out: The word Creation which can describe everything and nothing at the same time. But this I know: Jesus, prophet/sage has given me the tools to do love.

      • Newton Finn

        And thanks for responding to my comments, Bil. I quite agree that there are a bewildering number of gods vying for human devotion. To me, those that lead to “the tools to do love” that you find in Jesus are a constellation of imperfect images attempting to reflect the same transcendent truth. The god I put my trust in (feebly, at best) is Jesus’ Abba, whom I have come to accept with the simple faith of a child. That seems to be the course suggested by Jesus, but he also made it clear that what matters, in the end, is love, not theology. For those who claimed to do mighty works in his name, while neglecting to act with compassion, Jesus reserved perhaps his harshest words: “I never knew you.”

  • Anthony Jacobs

    I agree with Bil Aulenbach that the experience of God needs to be increased and the “Christ” part of Jesus be de-emphasized, to be replaced by a totally human Jesus who through his life walking the dusty roads of Palestine gave us a model of what the fullness of life is all about — that is, actively fighting for the value of each and every person. In the period of post-modernism it is almost painful to hear the story of Jesus dying on a cross to atone for our sins and restore our relationship with God which started with Adam and Eve. The modern person finds this “good news” to be offensive.
    But the real message that is needed today is ‘who is God?’ The Theistic God of the three tiered universe is generally rejected by almost everyone that has seriously reflected on the paradigm. But what is left after one rejects the transcendent theistic God? Is it pantheism? That image of God being in and controlling everything is also repugnant for it leaves man more or less like a puppet. The current image and explanation of God, I believe, is panentheism – where God lives in the core of being and indeed is the ground of being pushing every being to achieve its fullness. This put the image of God where it needs to be because it satisfies the deepest longings of all religions that hunger for an encounter with Life itself.

    • I heartily agree. I’m a pursuer of Process thinking and it’s particular view of a panentheistic God. A God of purely uncontrolling love, never threatening nor coercing. Of course, some “threats” are intrinsic to nature and society and we must pay them attention. But God runs the “process” by which things move and come to reach their “god-given” potential… by “his” lure. I sometimes deal with Process on my blog, such as a lengthy review of John Cobb’s most recent book, “Jesus’ Abba”… a great book!

  • Matarangi

    We each find our own way to God as we leave the ancient myths behind. This is a good thing, as one of the things that has hampered our growth is being expected to subscribe to a collection of doctrines, and we don’t want to leave one lot behind only to impose another one our fellow seekers.
    I’m still working on it, and fortunate to have found in a local group people who share their feelings and respect one another’s.

    Fortunate, too, to have a Lay Supply worship leader in my local church who defines Progressive Christianity in his preaching and can use words like myth without anyone appearing upset. Which may explain why in more than eighteen months our board has been unable to fill the vacancy left when our last minister moved on. There seem to be a lot of newly trained evangelicals around.
    Meanwhile, for me, we are all sons and daughters of God, but Jesus was closer to understanding the nature of god, the spirit of love, who exists everywhere and is present in this room as I write.

  • Paul Meier

    I agree with most of the article. I’m not sure deism is more important than the example and teachings of Jesus, but there is room to discuss this. The church won’t change because it is not open to any other options for believing what sixteenth century translators continued from fourth century decisions of one man, Jerome. I believe, from my own translations, that the English translation is flawed. How can the church change if it blindly believes one man was correct (and thus KJV translators) in his conversion of the Greek to English?

  • I just want to be supportive. My story is complicated but I seem to be in a similar place. I do not know whether Jesus was a real person or just a character in work of fiction, but real people wrote the stories and buried in those stories some serious encouragement to love others. I consider myself a follower of Jesus because I admire the message of love. But, I no longer consider myself a Christian because the notion of Christ as Messiah ties Christianity to the Hebrew Bible and the rather numerous unloving passages included there. I am all about love and I discard all messages to the contrary. As for God, I believe it would be impossible for us to know anything of that God. If God created everything physical, then God could not be physical, and trapped as we are in physicality we could know nothing at all of that God. Anything physical we have about God (the bible, for instance) could not even possibly capture or describe the nature of God. No one could know. I taught the ethics of love in three churches for a total of 14 years because I could contribute something that way. But, I detached myself when I got the idea that the church was not as committed to love as I would desire. I feel somewhat isolated now, but at least I can be totally open about my beliefs. Greetings and love to all.

  • Alex Kinnet

    How familiar this is all to me.

    I assume it has to do with our lifetime experiences with a rich catholic( or Orthodox) communal life that slowly in my region began to loose members as from the sixties.

    Being 76 years old and living in Belgium-Flanders this is a loss of a rich tradition which, still to day, is hurting me somehow.

    I’m wrestling with this important issue for the past 30 years. Even to day I try to ask the correct questions, why, how come, what now? I’m vigouresly continue my quest to understand, intellectually and with my heart hos to cope and find the real issues, problems and tentative opinions.

    I’m mostly English speaking courses and books using as my documentation. A funny desicision as most people n the continent look at the French sources.

    Unfortunately, as I have explained in quite a 25 papers the last 15 years the interesting publications and websites are consulted by the ” specialists, really an academic level, interesting but boring. Also the faith and atheist fundamentalists are getting popular and seem to control the media an attract the attention.

    The U.S. situation is quite different from our European experiences.

    I’m glad I came to know recently Progressive Christians webside, it opened quite a different outlook in the issue.

    What I’m a bit surprised is the multitude of communities-churches-denominatians your have in the States. Here we tend not to look into the content of faith(dogmas) but are more concerned about living our faith- the fruits of our personal and communal life.

    As , officially still an Orthodox, we have sunday services were content of faith isn’t the point but the sharing and supporting and the sunday worshipping and thanksgiving are the main elements.

    We respect that we live in a Living Tradition, that Love, Mystery are part of our life and limits as well.

    Interesting efforts to bring our christian tradition up to date like the writings from A. Peacock

    with his Panentheïstic concept are largely ignored in the States as far as I can see. A pitty.

    Might you like to be in touch with our European approach I gladly will mail you one of my papers. List included.

    Keep up the good faith.

    Alex Kinnet


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  • Will McGarvey

    The god of the sky, of the omnis – omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent – makes little sense any longer. If god is up, which up? Toward the sun, the moon, the center or cusp of the edge of the Milky Way? Why? We no longer are motivated by dualistic mythologies, and cannot fathom evil spirits outside of the systems of oppression we all swim within. Perhaps monotheism, as a subset of theism itself, conflates the creative and destructive elements ascribed to whatever definition one may attempt at the divine or ultimate. If such a being of force exists, we must scrub our anthropomorphism and ascriptions of human particulars. Any use of systems of sin and redemption must be scrubbed from the Empire which instituted them to preach the Crusades, turning god into an abusive father who scapegoats his own son. Mary Daly was right, “If god is male, then the male is god.” Phrases such as “god is like….” should return to our lexicon. Love is like… Liberation is like…. Jubilee is like… Human potential is just that, so lay off the guilt trip and amend your anthropology. Perhaps Aquinas was correct. “If you make a mistake about creation, you will make a mistake abou god.” Oh, and we should stop making our theology based on normalizing the insights of troubled monks making sense of other troubled monk’s past theological mistakes.