Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Need for the Christian to Journey Beyond Scripture, Creed and Church

by John Shelby Spong

Theology is a rational, deeply human, attempt to explain our experience with God. Theology is, therefore, never primary; it is always secondary to experience. Theological explanations can thus never be eternal. All explanations not only will change, but must change when knowledge grows and by so doing will always invalidate previous conclusions. Theology can never be infallible, unchanging or ultimately real. This, however, is a reality that quite frequently cannot be embraced by religious institutions and religious leaders.

This means that there never has been an “inerrant Bible” or an “infallible pope.” The books of the Bible are always human attempts to explain a primary life experience, while every church hierarchy, including the papacy, is engaged in the task of trying to determine ultimate truth in a subjective, culturally relativized world. All scriptures and all theological pronouncements are inevitably time-bound and time-warped. A couple of illustrations might help us to see that no human explanation of any experience can ever be inerrant or infallible.

Since the dawn of self-conscious life, we human beings have had the experience of watching the sun rise in the east and set in the west That is a phenomenon well documented all over the world, an objective reality. Look, however, at the various ways that this experience has been explained throughout history. The explanations range from the ancient Egyptians, who interpreted this pattern of the sun to be caused by the Sun God riding a chariot across the sky each day surveying the world, all the way to the modern scientist, who asserts that the phenomenon of the sun’s rising and setting is the result of the planet earth turning on its axis every 24 hours, as it makes its elliptical journey around the sun. These explanations obviously vary widely, but note that the experience itself is identical.

In a similar fashion an epileptic seizure is another human phenomenon that has been observed from the dawn of time. In the New Testament an epileptic seizure was explained as having been caused by an invisible, demonic spirit suddenly taking over its victim, shaking him or her violently, hurling the victim to the ground and forcing the victim into an unconscious, trembling state until the spirit finally departed as suddenly as it arrived. Modern medicine, however, explains this same experience as a malfunction of the brain, resulting in a cascade of misfiring electrical impulses, which jump the track, so to speak, and thus create the resulting sense of seizure. The explanations are widely divergent, but once again the experience is identical.

It is the constant temptation and the regular pitfall of religious institutions and religious spokespersons to confuse their explanations with the experience itself. The gospels, we need to state clearly, are not the dictated word or words of God, but are rather the time-bound and time-warped explanations of the Jesus experience, couched in the language and understandings of the first century. At the time the New Testament was written, no one knew that women had an egg cell, so the story of Jesus’ birth to a virgin could be used to explain the experience, which was that in Jesus they believed they had encountered something, which human life by itself was not capable of producing. In that time, we need to understand that no one quite understood what happens to the body at death. They could, therefore, reasonably assume that the death process could be reversed, if the reversal occurred within three days, after which the decaying of the body became obvious.

When the New Testament was written, no one knew about germs, viruses, tumors or cardiovascular disease and so sickness was interpreted as divine punishment for sins committed. That was why it made sense to treat sickness by offering prayers and sacrifices. If we assume, as fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics still seem to do, that the gospel narratives are in fact literal renditions of what actually happened in time or in history, then religion has become idolatrous. It has invested the perfection of God in something that is in fact a human creation. By literalizing the Bible, religious people have also unknowingly literalized the world view of the first century that assumed that anything that could not be understood by first century minds must be a miracle, explained only by an appeal to the presence of a supernatural power.

So the presumably “inerrant” Bible of Protestant fundamentalism and the presumably “infallible” theological doctrines of Roman Catholicism, become nonsensical in the 21st century. A Christianity based on those outdated ideas can never be compelling to 21st century people unless they are willing and able to close their minds to modern knowledge. Biblical inerrancy is therefore not just ignorance, it is a distortion of both truth and humanity. To quote the Bible to oppose equality for women or justice and dignity for homosexual people is to confuse the cultural fears of yesterday with ultimate truth. It is also to be pathetically and profoundly uninformed.

What then about the creeds? They are fourth century attempts to codify religious beliefs that had been drawn primarily from the Bible. To insist that creeds are unchanging truth or to make creedal faith the hallmark of Orthodoxy is to state something that is absurd. It is to pretend that a quite limited fourth century, Greek-oriented worldview is the same as “the mind of God.” So, when we learn that there is no all-seeing God, who lives above the sky of a three-tiered universe, who is always looking down to record our deeds in the record book of life, by which our eternal destiny will be determined, is not to say that there is no God, but it is to say that truth is always relative. Heaven as a place of reward and hell as a place of punishment have become nonsensical dated ideas.

So is a Bible that contains the story of the Tower of Babel, the raining of heavenly bread, called manna, from the sky to feed the starving Hebrew people and the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. If the story of Jesus’ ascension literally means that he went up into the sky then we need to embrace the modern reality that Jesus did not get to heaven, he got into orbit or else he escaped the force of gravity and wandered into the infinity of space. Yet, on the basis of those limited, time bound fourth century creeds religious wars have been fought, religious persecution has been carried out, “heretics” have been burned at the stake and “witches” have been hanged to keep alive the myth that human words can capture, in some unchanging form, eternal truth. So often the business of religion has ceased to be the search for truth and has become the activity of mind control.

Christians who claim inerrancy for the first century words of the gospels or infallibility for their doctrinal understanding of the fourth century words of the creeds are quite simply delusional people, and in the name of both God and truth, they need to be resisted mightily. Yet the facts of history reveal that Galileo was condemned by the church for suggesting that first century cosmology was inaccurate and Darwin is still being roundly criticized and politically resisted for suggesting that pre-modern biology is simply incorrect. I was both startled and amazed when I read recently a widely reported poll taken in Georgia, which revealed that 73% of the registered Republicans and 53% of registered Democrats in that state still believe literally the creation story in the Bible. This is not a commentary on faith, it is a commentary on how an uninformed faith can impede and distort the educational system of one of the states of this union. To think that an electorate this deeply uninformed can still choose political leaders, who will make laws for this entire nation is frightening!

Yet, having now said all of these things, and quite clearly I hope, I still want to tell the world that there is a difference between an experience and the culturally bound explanation of that experience. I still plumb the meaning of the Bible on a daily basis. I still gather in my parish church every Sunday and recite the creed. I do these things joyfully and self-consciously. Am I simply schizophrenic, living simultaneously in two different worlds? Am I being delusional by intention and pretending to participate in rituals in which I do not really believe? No, neither is the case. I am rather a believer, not in a literal Bible, but in the experience to which the words of that Bible point. I am a believer, not in the literal creeds, but in the reality to which those creedal words point.

I view the creeds as a love song that my ancestors in faith created to help them process their God experience. I do not mind joining in the singing of their love song. I recognize my kinship with them in the history of my faith’s development over the centuries. The creeds are not for me an imposed girdle into which I have to force my flabby faith. They are not a straitjacket designed to force me to live within the theological boundaries and understandings of fourth century people. They are the dated explanations of an experience that I still believe and acknowledge as real.

Yes, let there be no mistake, I am convinced that there is a reality to the experience of God, but I do not interpret this reality as if God is a supernatural being who does miracles. I rather see this reality as a transcendent presence that is beyond human boundaries and that calls me and compels me not to allow those boundaries to bind my humanity into less than it is capable of being. I view God as the Source of life and love, and as the Ground of Being calling me to live, to love and to be.

My Christian life is thus a journey for which there is no literal roadmap. I am convinced that if I walk this journey deeply enough and faithfully enough, I will be led beyond all religious forms – beyond scripture, creeds, doctrine and dogma and into the wordless wonder of the true meaning of worship. The Christian Church exists, I believe, to point all of us beyond the boundaries of our own humanity. It is a pity that institutional religion in all its forms does not understand its own message!


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