Wednesday, April 18, 2012

from Deconstructing the Story of the Fall

by John Shelby Spong

“The way Christians have told the Christ story, beginning with Augustine in the fourth century and continuing through Anselm in the twelfth century, is to postulate an original and perfect creation from which human life has fallen. This original perfection was first perverted and then lost by an act of human disobedience. At least that was the way the biblical story of the Garden of Eden was interpreted. Expelled from paradise because of this act of disobedience, the only human hope was that God would somehow come to rescue us from this fall; to save us from this original sin and to redeem us from our lostness.

“Given these presuppositions it should come as no surprise that Jesus was portrayed as God’s special rescue operation. His death on the cross represented the terrible price that God had to pay to accomplish our salvation. So on the Protestant side of Christianity we learned to say such things as, “Jesus died for my sins,” and on the Catholic side of Christianity we began to refer to the Eucharist as “the Sacrifice of the Mass,” which meant that the Mass re-enacted liturgically that moment when Jesus died for our sins.

“My last column in this series ended with the question: ‘What is wrong with these familiar concepts?’ My answer was ‘Everything.’ Today I seek to put theological flesh on those bare bones.

“It is interesting to note how negative Christian churches have been about the work of Charles Darwin…One does not see this kind of emotional reaction unless there is a deep emotional threat. The work of Charles Darwin has clearly disturbed the security that traditional religion seeks to provide. What, we must ask, is the nature of that threat?

‘Well, in its earliest phase Darwin clearly challenged the literalization of the Bible and especially of the Bible’s creation story…That, however, does not seem enough to generate the levels of emotional hostility toward evolution that has been expressed in churches over the last century. The real and unrelenting hostility of traditional Christians to Darwin rises out of the fact that Darwin has annihilated the familiar way the Jesus story has been told through the years.

“The traditional telling of the story, adapted from a literal reading of the opening chapters of Genesis, begins with a picture of the perfection of creation, which was both good and complete. One cannot claim perfection for creation unless it is a finished process. A still evolving universe could make no claim to be finished or complete. Yet that was at the heart of Darwin’s insight. Darwin said that there never was a perfect, finished creation, but that we have been evolving for a very long time. Darwin himself did not realize just how long that had been he only knew that it was ongoing.

‘If there was no original perfection, there could be no fall from that perfection into a state we have called original sin…If there was no fall from perfection into sin, there could be no need for a divine intervention…This theology has shaped our worship, our understanding of the Eucharist, our hymns, our prayers and our sermons, to say nothing of our creedal understandings of both God and Jesus for centuries.  When we understand the depth of this challenge…we then begin to understand why fundamentalists cling so passionately to their outdated concepts and even seek to impose them on everyone else as the only way for their point of view to survive.

“It also helps us to understand why mainline churches are in a statistical freefall. They know that the old literalism no longer works, but they do not know how to replace it, so they drift without a message and they are no longer able to bind people out of loyalty to their institutional forms. Separating oneself from religion is now relatively easy.

“Does that mean that we are witnessing the end of Christianity? I suspect it does, if by Christianity we mean the traditional way of telling the Christian story. The question we need to ask, and it is a deeply radical question coming at us from many angles, is this: Is the traditional way of telling the Christ story the only way to tell that story? Is the only way to talk about God the theistic way, that is, to define God as a supernatural being who dwells somewhere external to this world and who can and will invade the world to come to our aid or to answer our prayers? Is the only way to speak of Christ something that involves us in seeing him as the incarnation of this theistic deity?

“The fact is that only inside these dated categories, can we still talk about being “saved,” about salvation, about meaningful worship, about achieving forgiveness or even about life after death…To be able to think differently about the Christian faith or to accept uncertainty in the presence of this kind of challenge…calls us to a radical re-visioning of our faith story. It requires that we find a new entry point. It means that we become willing to give up everything we have ever known in order to move to a place where there are no road maps or road signs and we still have the responsibility of putting one foot in front of the other as we are forced to step into the cloud of unknowing. Many are no longer willing to risk this journey. They are the new fundamentalists. The pain of this transition is too intense, but the alternative is little more than a life of deception and illusion.

“Theological honesty requires that we admit that we have arrived at the status of the total bankruptcy of our traditional Christian symbols. What do we do now? We will pick up this thread and see where it leads us when this series resumes.”


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