I rarely agree with anyone on matters of religion. Most people who do not fit into a traditional mainstream religion are the same, as are those who simply wish not to surrender their personal beliefs to the dictatorship of a human organisation. However, after a long long time I have recently discovered some Christian leaders whose teachings I can begin to agree with.
It has to be said that in Sri Lanka, I have always admired Bishop Dulip De Chickera for his inclusivism and courage. He is a practical man who leads by principle and example. Although I suspect he sympathises with Christians from the liberal side of the spectrum, I have rarely heard him speak on theological matters. This is perhaps because I think he believes his calling lies elsewhere. Therefore, although he inspires me whenever I listen to him speak, for me at least, he has not been a source of solutions to difficult theological questions.
Recently I discovered Bishop John Shelby Spong, a member of the Anglican (Episcopalian) church, who is a liberal theologian and a lecturer at Harvard. The discovery marked the end of a eight year period of doubt and searching. His views have helped me figure out what I believe and don’t believe and has given me the courage to reject things that I have been fed on and have held on to from the time I was a baby – things that I was nervous to completely reject for fear of falling.
Here is an excerpt from a question and answer session by Spong in his regular newsletter, and below that is an excerpt from Spong’s call for a another reformation of Christianity.
“Steve Langley from the Internet writes:
“I am a 63-year-old man who was raised in the Pentecostal Church until I rebelled and forced my way out at about age 14. I subsequently have lived my life with the existence of God as an open philosophical question to me and with utter contempt for all religious structures and teachings. I have always thought they were self-serving as institutions and for the people who wrap themselves in those teachings. I once had a conversation with two doctors who were both raised in the same Muslim faith. One remains devout in the most human way. The other has drifted from the religion of his birth. He now believes that ‘democracy’ is the best religion. I have thought about his concept and your teachings as I have read them in your newsletter and several of your books. Democracy, in its purest form, and the Christ experience as you ponder and teach it. What a marvelous concept. In a pure democracy there would be neither ‘man nor woman’ nor any other of the differences that exist now in our world and religions. For me, my recent reading of your teaching on Paul and the scripture quoted above seems to make ‘democracy’ and humanity the best religion. As for the Christ experience and your teachings not just of faith but humanity in the Christ experience, it is something I have started to think about. I must thank you for a lifetime of faith, work and all that goes into it so that one day I might pick up your writings, read them, and begin to think about WHY AM I HERE DOING THE GOOD ‘CHRISTIAN DEEDS’ IN MY LIFE WITHOUT THE SUPPORT OF RELIGION OR EVEN A BELIEF IN GOD BECAUSE I BELIEVE THEY ARE RIGHT?? Maybe there is a new Christianity that would reveal itself in me, but perhaps not in my lifetime. Thank you for reaching out to people like me. I look forward to each newsletter.”
Dear Steve , Thank you for your letter and a description of your pilgrimage. You are certainly traveling in the same direction that I find myself walking. I think faith is a journey to be undertaken not a set of propositions to be believed.Religion always seems to begin in childlike immaturity in which God is portrayed as a being, supernatural in power, eager to bless, protect and care for us in our childlike fear. As we mature, the need for the parent God fades and the divine, as being itself or as that experience of transcendence, comes into focus. The boundary between humanity and divinity also fades and the two seem to penetrate each other, making the way into the divine and the journey into self-awareness quite similar. The goal of the Christian life then becomes not rescue from the bondage of sin, but expansion into a deeper sense of what it means to be human.
This approach represents, I believe, a significant shift in consciousness. It also makes it clear that the content of the traditional religious myths is no longer operative. Facing the end of traditional religious systems, we fear that nothingness dwells at the heart of life and that drives us to create security systems to protect us from our fear. Some are religious and they always claim to possess inerrant truth or to be guided by an infallible authority. Others seek to lose themselves in the pursuit of the idols of alcohol, drugs, sex, wealth and pleasure. Still others sink into the despair of being alone in an impersonal universe. I believe there is a better option.
My sense is that the Christianity of the future must be willing to let go the content of yesterday in a far more radical way than people have yet imagined, but to do so without sacrificing the experience that created yesterday’s content. Only then can we begin the slow and laborious task of developing new content to make sense of the eternal experience of being human.
Long after fundamentalist churches have moved away from their excessive but uninformed zeal and long after Benedict XVI has discovered that no one can return to the Middle Ages without committing intellectual suicide, a still, small voice will speak and a new reformation will begin on the edges of yesterday’s religious systems and slowly begin to make its way into the center of our reality. I live for that day. — John Shelby Spong”
And here’s Spong’s call for another Reformation and a debate on these 12 points:
Martin Luther ignited the Reformation of the 16th century by nailing to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 the 95 Theses that he wished to debate. I will publish this challenge to Christianity in The Voice. I will post my theses on the Internet and send copies with invitations to debate them to the recognized Christian leaders of the world. My theses are far smaller in number than were those of Martin Luther, but they are far more threatening theologically. The issues to which I now call the Christians of the world to debate are these:
1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination