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Reimagining Christianity For Our Times

In my understanding of western civilization, I find individuals who rose above the masses and lived exemplary lives and/or made great contributions to society. They seem the exception rather than the rule. Humanity’s history is not great. It is marked by individual, clan, religious and nationalistic violence. During most of this era Christianity has been a dominant force and claimed to be a source for morality and yet, individuals lacked the spiritual energy to make much progress in Jesus’ goal for loving the other and forming a more peaceful society. I have been led to believe that the historic organization of the church has played a role in perpetuating the status quo rather than renewing society. The church needs a transformation which takes it back to its roots and which empowers individuals for living in the 21st century. I share my reasoning.

Imagine a family situation in which the father keeps telling his children that they are no good and that they cannot do anything right, but he still loves them. So that the children understand their worthlessness and the father’s love, the father develops a family ritual which they perform once a week in which the children come to the father and confess they have done wrong, they have not done the good they should have done, they are sorry for all this and ask for father to forgive them. Then the father reminds them that if they believe that he loves them, he will forgive them. The children become adults limited by the lingering knowledge that they are worthless, dependent individuals. They may continue to say that they love their father, but they will not love themselves. And not loving themselves, they will be unable to love others.

That’s been the psychology of the traditional church throughout the centuries. Power is focused in a clerical group. People are invited to confess their worthlessness and inability to do anything right and the pastor then declares that God loves us so much that God sent his son to live on earth to show how humans should live, humans killed Jesus, he was raised from the dead and if you believe in Jesus your sins are forgiven and you will live with him forever. [That was not empowerment for transformation, but a crutch for maintaining the status quo.] We need to return to Jesus’ original mission of transforming life on earth—a message which he demonstrated with his outreach to those neglected by society: the rejected, sick, blind and hungry; and his call for justice by the religious and political leaders and systems.

After Rome conquered Jerusalem and leveled the temple in 70 A.D., many Jews moved to other cities scattered around the Aegean Sea. Followers of Jesus were heart broken and tried to find meaning in the tragic death of their beloved leader. Looking for answers in their Jewish Heritage and Scriptures, they focused on vague prophecies of a messiah who would restore the nation to the glory days under King David. Since that now seemed impossible in light of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish dispersion, they found a way to turn Jesus into a spiritual deliverer. They made up stories about a magical birth which [following Greek Mythology prevalent at the time] turned Jesus into a divine/human figure whose ultimate death was a sacrifice for human sin and brought deliverance to all who believed in Jesus. This is the view expressed by the New Testament Gospels which were actually written 40 to 70 years after Jesus’ death. This interpretation of Jesus’ life led to the doctrine of substitutional atonement. This comforting message attracted new followers and proved to be a perfect tool for a ruling class of church leaders to control the masses. This doctrine has been used for centuries, but many 21st century Christians find the images and concepts ‘unbelievable’ although they are hesitant to let go of the promised benefit of eternal life.

We need to reimage Christianity for our time and our understanding of nature. Some insights into the evolving nature of life on earth and the expanding universe make us aware of the energy responsible for all that exists. Perhaps it is helpful to think of this life-giving energy as an image for ‘God.’ This would give us insight for a renewed appreciation of the earth and all its creatures and of how all humans and all life is related. We certainly need some uniting image to restore the brokenness of humans from each other and the earth. The original mission of Jesus would be our model and what he taught, such as the Sermon on the Mount and parables, would be our guide. We could gather to contemplate God’s presence all around us, and focus on the way the apostles Paul thinks of the resurrection of Jesus as a metaphor for “daily dying to sin and arising to newness of life.” We could still gather each week, perhaps no longer praising an image of God in heaven, but praying that the spiritual energy all around us would energize us to care for the earth and especially for all its people.

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