The New Reformation - Revisiting the Meaning of Chris

by the Rt. Rev. John S. Spong, Bishop of Newark

Last month I posted in this column and on the Internet the 12 Theses that I believe must be addressed as part of a New Reformation in Christianity. They were drawn substantially from my newly published book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die. The response has been overwhelming. My mail on this topic is now averaging one hundred letters a week. The content of these pieces of communication is wonderfully mixed. "You are an utter a bishop you are beneath contempt" - an e-mail message. "Had you been a naval officer you would have been tried for treason and shot" - from a Pennsylvania layman. An English Canon preached against my 12 Theses at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. But when the BBC sent me a copy of his sermon, I noted that he had edited and distorted my theses to make them more amenable to his attack. It was yet another example of evangelical dishonesty. I suppose that attacks like this are probably inevitable. Certainly Martin Luther's life was at risk when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517. Every religious reformer before and since has confronted the same hysterical fear. More impressive than this hostility to me has been the outpouring of positive mail and the interest on the part of the media. The ratio of positive to negative mail is now about 4 to 1. The content is also quite revealing. From Alabama, "I am a recovering Baptist and your latest book is like spiritual manna." From South Carolina: "Let me congratulate you on your newest book. My 82-year-old father was bragging about it to my superiors who called you 'that heretic.'" From Tennessee: "Where can I find a church in this area whose minister might share your views?" From Texas: "You really have nailed me down [as a believer in exile] and I am deeply touched and affected. I thought I was alone." From a retired bishop in New England: "I read your article with great interest and sympathy. I agree that we must reinterpret the faith." From a Montclair non-Episcopalian: "[reading your book] has been a liberating experience...helping set me free from a childhood confusion...where I tried to believe things that were on their face unbelievable." From a Sparta Episcopalian: "You have done for me what one of your premises was - to give those who find it difficult to have faith in the convoluted and archaic tenets of classical Christianity, a way back to the truth."

From the media have come two invitations from Bill O'Reilly to appear on his Fox Network program, "The O'Reilly Factor." I have debated Pat Buchanan on CNN's "Crossfire." Major features have appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in USA Today. I have done a radio debate on the BBC and a one-hour program for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. There is clearly an interest in things religious in our society when they are looked at openly and honestly.

I find it interesting that those who are identified with present day institutional religion are the most eager to shut the debate down and even to purge my ideas from the Church. But those who live on the edges of institutional church life and those who have abandoned Christianity itself are effusive in welcoming this debate to find a new way to God. So to press for a New Reformation, I focus now on the dated way the Jesus story has been traditionally interpreted and on what a reformed Christology might look like.

The bedrock of the Christian experience is captured in the assertion that the Holy God was present in and met through the life of Jesus. That experience was at first not explained, it was simply stated. Paul did it best when he wrote, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world." But once that assertion was made, various explanations began to develop based on the way God was perceived in the 1st century as a supernatural being dwelling beyond the sky, who invaded human history to accomplish the divine will. If God was in Christ, then an explanation had to be devised about how this God above had entered the world in Jesus and how this God in Jesus returned to heaven when the work of redemption was complete. The story of the virgin birth was designed to achieve the divine entry. The story of the cosmic ascension provided the means of departure.

The virgin birth tradition, however, assumed an ancient view of reproduction which believed that the newborn lived in the sperm of the male who simply planted it into the womb of the female. So to proclaim the divine origin of a person, one simply replaced the human father with a divine agent. It was not necessary to replace the mother since she was believed to add nothing to the new life. A virgin birth was therefore a rather sexist male misunderstanding of procreation.

But in 1724 the egg cell was discovered and people realized that the woman was the co-creator of every life, contributing fifty percent of the genetic code of every child. Suddenly virgin birth stories became biological nonsense. The Church needs to face this fact. At the end of Jesus' life a story had to be devised to enable the theistic God whom they believed they had met in him to return to the divine abode above the sky. The ascension story accomplished that. This story assumed that the earth was the center of a three tiered universe. The sky was the roof of the earth beyond which the theistic God lived in heaven.

But in the 16th and 17th centuries Copernicus and Galileo confronted us with a new version of cosmic reality. The centrality of the earth was obliterated and the heavens began to be demystified. Suddenly Christians had to recognize that ascending into the sky was not the route to heaven. Given our present knowledge of cosmology, such a journey would at best achieve an endless orbit, while at worst one would ultimately escape the limits of gravity and sink into the infinite depths of space. So the literal story of the ascension no longer translates to space age people.

Perhaps the most challenging and disturbing realization of all comes when believers begin to recognize that the primary way in which the death of Jesus has been traditionally understood is in terms of human sacrifice. That is hardly an appealing concept in our day. The words so central to Christian self-understanding, like "Jesus died for my sins," or "Jesus paid the price of sin on the cross of Calvary," or "I have been saved by the blood of Christ," are nothing short of ludicrous when we recognize what they mean. They assume a literalness about various elements of the ancient Christian myth. That myth proclaimed that God, at the dawn of time, completed the act of creation and judged it to be perfect. Turning the creation over to human beings, this myth asserted that the human creatures violated God's sacred order in an act of cosmic disobedience and fell into sin. So distorting of our humanity was this "original sin," as we called it, that human beings stained by this sin were exiled permanently from God's presence. Unable to save themselves, the myth continued, these human beings stood condemned before the throne of grace, crying out for a savior to rescue them from their self-inflicted wounds.

Jesus was God's answer to these cries. He came from God to aid the fallen world only to discover that the price of rescue would be his very life. Accepting that price, Jesus became the human sacrifice which both God and sin required. In the death of Jesus, God's sense of justice was thus satisfied and the divine wrath of God was turned away from the fallen human creature, at least from those who were willing to be covered by the shed blood of this sacrificial act. Only through that human sacrifice on the cross, this myth proclaims, are human beings enabled once again to enter the presence of God from which the fall had banished us.

Christians have repeated the formulas of this traditional myth so often that we have become inured to the grotesque image of God they reveal, and to the destructive definition of human life they employ. Such words may have carried the Christian message in an ancient world, but they are not likely to carry it into an enlightened future. A Reformation must redefine the function of the Christ if Christianity is to remain a viable faith system. We begin that Reformation with the recognition that we are post-Darwinian people. We know that creation is neither finished nor perfect. Human life is still in an evolving process. New galaxies are still being formed . So the definition of human beings as fallen from an original perfection becomes unreal. Reality for us is that we emerged from the darkness of our evolutionary struggle and we have been moving for billions of years into higher and higher levels of consciousness. Thus the tale of a savior who rescued us from a fall that never happened and who has restored us to a perfection we never possessed is not likely either to communicate or to appeal to modern minds. Equally unappealing will be a liturgy designed to reenact each Sunday that saving sacrifice of the cross which required the death of the divine Son as a ransom.

The traditional view of Christology is thus no longer operative. These ancient explanations must now be seen not as the essence of Christianity, but as part of the cocoon of our religious immaturity that must be abandoned. They can never be the essence of our religious future. If these outmoded understandings of the meaning of Jesus exhaust the Christ experience, then Christianity will surely die.

Christianity so clearly stands today in need of a Reformation that will recast the Christ experience in radically different ways from those of our Christian past. If God was in Christ, as I deeply believe, then a new way must be found to make sense of that incarnate presence. But surely that must be a call into the transforming love of God, rather than a call into dependent gratitude. The idolatry of ancient and outmoded explanations must be broken open or we stand to lose the wonder that makes the Christ so radically important.

I welcome the pressures that will usher in this New Reformation. I will continue to encourage them. I seek nothing less than to light a spark that will ignite a movement that, once begun, will be unstopable. I cast my vote for this kind of scary religious future because I am a Christian and I am not willing to assume that there is no way other than the way of yesterday to process the eternal Christ experience.

So the debate goes on.

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