Why Christianity Must Change or Die


The above is the title of a book by Bishop John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal (Anglican) Christian faith (Harper: San Francisco, 1999).  He is now a teacher at Harvard University after retiring as bishop after more than twenty years.


When you read the quotations below from his book, you may find some of them controversial.  However, his message is an important one and you should examine what he has to say carefully.  I don't accept his message entirely, however, I do believe he is honestly and earnestly exploring problems that Christians are struggling with and the way he has resolved the struggles in his own life and soul are worth thinking about.


Spong says of himself: "I define myself above all other things as a believer.  I am indeed a passionate believer.  God is the ultimate reality in my life.  I live in a constant and almost mystical awareness of the divine presence" (p. 3).  "Yet, when I seek to put my understanding of this God into human words, my certainty all but disappears.  Human words always contract and diminish my God awareness.  They never expand it. The God I know is not concrete or specific.  This God is rather shrouded in mystery, wonder, and awe.  The deeper I journey into this divine presence, the less any literalized phrases, including the phrases of the Christian creed, seem relevant.  The God I know can only be pointed to; this God can never be enclosed by propositional statements" (p. 4).


The above is at the heart of Spong's way of exploring spiritual matters.  Read it over a couple of times so that you get his ideas clearly in mind.  They are not by any means unique concepts.  Mystics of every faith have come to the same conclusions for over two thousand years.  Yes, it is nice to have a bible or Koran or other written ideas about God.  But, words never fully communicate what God is all about and if you limit your knowledge of God to only the words, then you miss the wonders and powers of having a more intimate relationship with God.  That intimacy is inexpressible in words.


Spong wants you to be creative in the way you approach your God.  "The Church historically has been willing to criticize, marginalize, or even expel its most creative thinkers.  The list would stretch from Origen through Erasmus to Hans Kung.  This institution seems far more eager to expend its energy defending its limited truth than to see its holy words for what they are---mere pointers toward the reality that limited words always distort and can never finally capture" (p. 5).


Although I agree with the above, I believe Spong spends too much time attacking the specific language of the Bible.  For example, Spong notes that: "The opening phrase of the Apostles' Creed speaks first of God as the 'Father Almighty.'  Both of these words offend me deeply.  Here the mystery that I treasure in God begins to be filled with limiting cultural definitions.  The word 'Father' is such a human word---so male, so dated…It shouts of the masculinity of the deity, a concept that has been used for thousands of years to justify the oppression of women by religious institutions" (p. 5).  Yes, that is true.  You can be upset by the cultural context that distorts the message of God.  However, you need not be so upset.  You can also read other meanings into the use of the word.  Or, you can elect to change the words to 'Father-Mother' as some people do.  I would argue that you should avoid getting into endless arguments about the details as those arguments can distract you for the central messages of God and undermine your effort to become one with God. 


Spong points out that Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein have created an understanding of nature that undermined the literal interpretation of the messages of the Bible.  This is the same message that Clarence Darrow presented years ago in the Scopes trial here in Tennessee.  Spong feels that we need to stop being literalists and focus on the deeper and more profound messages from God.  He recognizes that this shift for some is frightening.  "I think the time has come for the Church to invite its people into a frightening journey into the mystery of God and to stop proclaiming that somehow the truth of God is still bound by either our literal scriptures or our literal creeds.  The hunger for God is deep and pervasive in our society today.  We need to recognize that this is not the same thing as hunger for the answers the church has traditionally given" (p. 21).


The shift that he wants you to make is one where you let go of a theistic approach to God.  Theism is where you view God as a someone like a person but without a body, who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe.  Spong defines theism as "belief in an external, personal, supernatural, and potentially invasive Being" (p. 46). 


Hey!  Most of you at this point should be confused!  Doesn't the above sound familiar to you?  Isn't that at the heart of our understanding of what God is?  Yes!  And, that is what he is calling you to let go of!


He wants you to let go of that way of looking at God because it tends to limit you.  "Theism is but one human definition of God.  Can any human definition ever exhaust the meaning of God?  Are we not aware of that ancient bit of folk wisdom suggesting that 'if horses had gods they would look like horses'?  No creature can finally conceptualize beyond its own limits or its own being" (p. 47).


"The attributes we have claimed for God are nothing but human qualities expanded beyond human limits" (p. 49).


Some would contend that "the reason God was so much like a human being was that the human beings were in fact created in God's image.  However, we now recognize that it was the other way around" (p. 49).


"Pressing this inquiry into the sources of theism further, we now need to ask, 'What was the human need that caused us to create God in our own image in the first place?'  

When and why did theism actually emerge?  Our deepening probe suggests that theistic religion was born at the exact moment when human self-consciousness first emerged out of the evolutionary process…human history has never existed without both self-consciousness and theistic religion…it was the emergence of self-consciousness that demanded the creation of theistic religion" (p. 50).  "That is why the death of theism feels like the death of God.  The two have never been separated before" (p. 51).


"If trauma is sufficiently intense, and if it cannot be dealt with adequately in any other way, then the inevitable human response is hysteria. Religion, Freud contended, was the coping mechanism, the human response to the trauma of self-consciousness, and it was designed above all else to keep hysteria under control and to manage for these self-conscious creatures the shock of existence" (p. 51).


When you create a personal deity and give it power, "these powers could be related to and controlled in the same way that human beings had always been able to deal with those who possessed authority.  These powerful divine figures could also be placated, bargained with, flattered, or appeased.  Frail and frightened human beings thus could ingratiate themselves with these external personal powers so that instead of being victimized by them, they could move the deity to protect or spare them instead" (p. 52).


"Truth in its objective form can compete and win in debate in the public arena.  Religious truth and theistic understandings were shielded from that debate.  Religion itself was not an activity in pursuit of truth; it was rather born to be a significant part of the security system of human life.  Only when we recognize this defense mechanism in religion can we grasp the meaning of the constant presence in primitive religion, and certainly still present in Western religion, of an intense, even a killing, anger.  Irrational hostility is a symptom of hysteria.  Anger has always marked the religious establishment" (p. 53).


Spong believes that the path away from the anger and fear is the path the mystic takes.  "The mystics of every religious tradition have always cried out against every specific definition of God…The mystical portrait of God was first imaginative, and then it became quickly ineffable.  It involved an interior journey, not an exterior one.  This inward probe ultimately resulted in a transfigured humanity.  It thus enabled the mystic to escape human limits without violating human integrity.  At the same time, this wondrous, mystical God experience did not reduce human beings to the status of powerless, dependent children, subject to the will of an external authoritative deity.  Rather, it called human life beyond every boundary until that life itself was seen as a revelation of the God who emerged out of life's very depths.  Mysticism assumes that all of creation is finally capable of revealing this divine one at the very depths of its own being.  So to the mystic, the God of one person is never quite the same as the God of another person.  Idolatry is thus countered.  In the mystical tradition no one can claim objectivity for his or her insight.  Each person is called to journey into the mystery of God along the pathway of his or her own expanding personhood" (p. 62).


"God for the mystics, is found at the depths of life, working in and through the being of this world, calling the whole creation into the transcendence that reveals our deepest potential.  It is a God concept better approached, I believe, if we move first from a 'who' question to a 'what' question and then from what we perceive God to be to what our experience of God is" (pp. 62-3).


"Rudolf Bultmann, probably the dominant New Testament scholar of this century, carried this study to a new intensity by making us aware that all of the Gospel material was encased inside the mythology of antiquity and therefore could not be literalized.  The theistic understanding of God was part of that mythology.  But Bultmann suggested that if we could demythologize those texts, the insights of a saving truth could still be found" (p. 63).


"Paul Tillich…suggested that we must abandon the external height images in which the theistic God has historically been perceived and replace them with internal depth images of a deity who is not apart from us but who is the very core and ground of all that is" (p. 64).


"God has always been identified with that which gives life...Frequently, the sun received the worship of those who recognized that without its warming rays, there would be no life…behind the content of every image of God was the meaning of God as life giver, source of vitality itself.  So Tillich urged his readers to examine existence and to discover that which calls people into life and, once that was found, to acknowledge it as a manifestation of the divine if not the divine source itself" (p. 65).


So, where does this all lead?  It leads to love.  "Love is…the source and the creator of life.  Without love we human beings shrivel" (p. 65).


"Love opens the whole creation up to life and calls all things into being.  On the human level, love is the essential power that deepens our relationships and simultaneously expands our own humanity.  The more we are freed by love to be ourselves, the more we are enabled to give our lives away to others.  The more we know of life-giving love, the more we find the courage to risk exposing ourselves, not in some frenzy of exhibitionism, but as a way of expressing and revealing the Ground of our Being.  The more we explore the depths of life, the more we discover that life is interdependent, interconnected, and indivisible.  At the core of the human being there is no such thing as separateness and aloneness.  Each one of us is an integral participant in a complex living organism, the constituent parts of which die and are born in every instant of time.  Yet each part of that living whole participates in the eternity of being united to an ultimate ground of what slowly but surely we may someday learn to call God" (p. 66).