Thursday, August 14, 2014

Carrying My Understanding of Christianity to France

By John Shelby Spong

In two lectures in Paris, France, this summer and through various other media, I sought to place into the religious conversation of that nation a new way of looking at Jesus of Nazareth. The majority of both audiences that I addressed consisted of people who still have some relationship with institutional Christianity. The first was primarily those who had a Protestant orientation and the second those primarily of a Catholic orientation. In the Protestant audience some clergy were present. In the Catholic audience no clergy were visible, but one person in the question period did identify himself as a Jesuit.

One of the Protestant pastors was the senior minister of the church that hosted the lecture. He was French and French speaking with only a limited facility in English. His church may have been the largest and most active, indigenous Protestant congregation in Paris. He was tall, about forty, clearly impressive in ability and his response led me to believe that he was on my theological wavelength. He had welcomed me warmly. His name was James Woody, which surprised me because it did not sound French at all. I discovered that he received his name from his grandfather, who had landed with the American army on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. He then fought the Germans until they were ousted from France. In the course of his service, he fell in love with and married a French woman. Their son was the father of this pastor; hence James Woody was the rather Anglicized sounding name of this French-speaking Protestant pastor.

The second identifiable Protestant pastor was an expatriate, serving the American Protestant Church in Paris. His name was the Rev. Dr. Scott Herr and his ecclesiastical background was Presbyterian. His church was similar to the American Episcopal Cathedral located just a few blocks away. Both of these churches were built to serve the American business and diplomatic communities living in Paris. The Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral is the Very Reverend Lucinda Laird, who once served with great distinction as the rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Teaneck, New Jersey. She was not present for my lectures as she was attending a clergy conference in Baden-Baden, Germany, although Christine and I did get the chance to have dinner with her later that week. My sense is that her congregation is basically American with perhaps some English citizens who live in Paris.

The questions that came in the discussion following the lecture in the Protestant Church reflected the same modern tensions we find in the United States. Sometimes, they also revealed a defensive clergy mentality and a fear of stepping too far outside the traditional formulas of Christianity. For example, one questioner asked, “Do I have to agree with all of your premises to get to your conclusions?” with which, he stated, he generally agreed. I suspect that if we had had time to develop his comments. I would have discovered that he was in fundamental disagreement with my conclusions in regard to such things as the necessity of finding a way to talk about “God” without using the familiar theistic vocabulary.

People are not aware that theistic language always sees God as a being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world in some spatial realm and able to intervene in human history in invasive, miraculous ways. Christianity’s concepts of Incarnation, Atonement and its doctrines of the Holy Trinity, all assume a theistic God definition, and all of these ideas are very difficult to translate into categories understood by those who live inside an educated, modern world view. Despite that problem this theistic language continues to be used in Christian liturgies Sunday after Sunday, in both Protestant and Catholic churches. That is one of the major unrecognized reasons that so many people today find themselves unable to relate to the language of worship.

Other questions also revealed this unrelatedness. “What specific changes would you call for in the liturgy for Christianity to be able to live in our world in a new way?” one asked. That question assumes that one can make minimal adaptations around the edges of Christian thinking and accomplish the goals about which I wrote in my book on Jesus. That is no more in touch with reality than those who re-arranged the deck chairs on the Titanic just before that ship sank into the sea. A radical reorientation of our understanding of both God and human life is required. We need a shift from the idea of God as a being to the possibility of God as “Being” itself. We need to drop atonement language altogether. We need to dispense with the concept of Jesus as the “savior of the sinful,” the “redeemer of the fallen” and the “rescuer of the lost.” We need to see salvation in terms of wholeness. We need to stop relating to God as if we are trembling children standing before an abusive parent or as if we are convicted felons standing before a hanging judge. We need to drop penitential language like, “Lord have mercy” and “Kyrie Eleison.” If I had spelled out these requirements more specifically I wondered if any of the clergy present that night would have been prepared to take on such a task.

One of them described himself as a “generous conservative,” an interesting phrase that seemed to make a virtue out of clinging to the theological patterns of the past. Another worried about how these concepts would translate to our children. That is always a smokescreen. Our children have given us their answers; we simply have not been willing to hear them. Every poll shows that those we call the “millenials,” that is those who came to their maturity in the 21st century, are today stepping outside of organized religion in droves. Their parents know that and so parental questions about what kind of theological language will engage their children is little more than a reflection of the parents religious anxieties, but without the courage that their children seem to have in being able to admit it.

If we adults do not face the fact that our churches are in a statistical freefall, we will never be able to take the action needed to address this reality. Most Christian congregations have never even dealt with the contemporary biblical scholarship of the last 200 years. If they cannot face that, there is little reason to think that they have the ability to grapple with creedal and liturgical issues that are challenged by current theological thinking. Protestantism is very weak in France, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, but so is the Roman Catholic Church. Rigor mortis would be too lively a phrase to describe the life of Christianity in not just France, but in most of Europe today.

When I arrived the next night at the Catholic venue, the previously mentioned self-designated Jesuit, was the only person who admitted to a significant relationship with this church. Catholic monuments abound in France, but Catholic practice is almost non-existent. The shortage of clergy is desperate and quite apparent. One priest might today serve as many as five churches, having time for little more than “saying Mass.” Take the tourists out of Notre Dame Cathedral and the congregations on Sunday mornings would be embarrassing. I found little here respect for what might be called “Catholic thinking,” since most French people assume that the Catholic Church has little wisdom to offer to this generation. When prodded they would regularly say something like “the hierarchy is so conservative, they are out of touch.”

Some of the questions arising from my “Catholic” audience were these: “I wonder if you are not losing part of the incarnation in your approach?” “Why do you keep using the phrase fully human?” “How could the human Jesus step beyond the boundaries of his humanity?” “Was Jesus not religious? In your book, you cite 23 references to Jesus being in the synagogue. Does that not indicate that he was religious?” The Jesuit stated that he basically agreed with my concepts. Then he went on to say that no book can interpret Jesus completely and suggested that mine did not either. I did not disagree with him, but in my opinion he was seeking to appear open to new possibilities without ever having to commit himself to anything. In the last analysis he did not even ask a question, he only inquired as to how I might relate to his comments. “I do not have answers,” I responded. I only believe that we must start a new religious conversation.

The first step is to let go of the language of the past; it no longer works. The second is to learn to walk faithfully into the unknown without yesterday’s certainties impeding us. Any religious system that purports to offer security is an empty idolatry. People trained in the traditional Christian pattern of history, so often cannot even get past this first step.

It was my third audience, the totally secular representatives of the French Press that gave me hope. They like most of France were completely non-religious. They had no agenda or turf to protect. They asked questions not out of defensiveness or fear, but out of a quest for knowledge. For them this press conference was a possible story, nothing more. Their first response was shock, rooted in the fact that I was a bishop saying things they had never heard a bishop say before. Shock quickly turned into interest, however, not so much in my answers, but in what they perceived to be my authenticity. Religious debates in their experience were between two equally irrelevant positions. The debate I sought to inaugurate was about the search for truth with no “sacred cows” needing to be defended. It is about how human beings can process transcendence, about how I find meaning inside an institution which they had long ago abandoned, about how to deal with life’s limits and life’s fears, and about whether there is anything by any name that we can call ultimate.

The most encouraging memory of my time in France is rooted in the fact that the press conference went on for three hours with no journalists leaving and then during a radio interview the following day, learning that the producer in the control room let out a few “wows” as the dialogue developed. If my writings ever make an impression in France, it will be because the media presents them to the nation. I discovered there that a “God shaped hole” is still in the soul of the secular French. The world in all of its non-religious secularity still yearns to have it filled with meaning.


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