Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exileby John Shelby Spong
An important and respected voice for liberal American Christianity for the past twenty years, Bishop John Shelby Spong integrates his often controversial stands on the Bible, Jesus, theism, and morality into an intelligible creed that speaks to today's thinking Christian. In this compelling and heartfelt book, he sounds a rousing call for a Christianity based on critical thought rather than blind faith, on love rather than judgment, and that focuses on life more than religion.
John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ, for more than twenty years and is one of the leading spokespersons in the western world for an enlightened Christianity. He is currently a visiting lecturer at Harvard University. His previous bestselling books include Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Living in SW, Liberating the Gospels, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die.
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Read an Excerpt
On Saying the Christian Creed
"We believe in God... "
Beginning with these words, the corporate faith of the Christian Church finds expression in the phrases of what it calls the Apostles' Creed. That "we" who "believe in God" is made up of many individuals. I am one of them.
I define myself above all other things as a believer. I am indeed a passionate believer. God is the ultimate reality in my life. I live in a constant and almost mystical awareness of the divine presence. I sometimes think of myself as one who breathes the very air of God or, to borrow an image from the East, as one who swims in the infinite depths of the sea of God. Like the psalmist of old, I have the sense of God's inescapableness.' I am what I would call a God-intoxicated human being.Yet, when I seek to put my understanding of this God into human words, my certainty all but disappears. Human words always contract and diminish my God awareness. They never expand it.
The God I know is not concrete or specific. This God is rather shrouded in mystery, wonder, and awe. The deeper I journey into this divine presence, the less any literalized phrases, including the phrases of the Christian creed, seem relevant. The God I know can only be pointed to; this God can never be enclosed by propositional statements.
The words of the Apostles' Creed, and its later expansion known as the Nicene Creed, were fashioned inside a worldview that no longer exists. Indeed, it is quite alien to the world in which I live. The way reality was perceived when the Christian creeds were formulated has been obliterated by the expansion of knowledge. That fact is soobvious that it hardly needs to be spoken. If the God I worship must be identified with these ancient creedal words in any literal sense, God would become for me not just unbelievable, but in fact no longer worthy of being the subject of my devotion. I am not alone in this conclusion. Indeed, I am one of a countless host of modern men and women for whom traditional religious understandings have lost most of their ancient power. We are that silent majority of believers who find it increasingly difficult to remain members of the Church and still be thinking people. The Church does not encourage us in this task. That institution seems increasingly brittle and therefore not eager to relate to its creeds as a set of symbols that must be broken open so that the concept of God can be embraced by new possibilities.
Institutional Christianity seems fearful of inquiry, fearful of freedom, fearful of knowledge-indeed, fearful of anything except its own repetitious propaganda, which has its origins in a world that none of us any longer inhabits. The Church historicallyhas been willing to criticize, marginalize, or even expel its most creative thinkers. The list would stretch from Origen through Erasmus to Hans Küng. This institution seems far more eager to expend its energy defending its limited truth than to see its holy words for what they are-mere pointers toward the reality that limited words always distort and can never finally capture. This simple conclusion becomes inescapable as soon as the creeds themselves begin to spell out their affirmations and our questions shout to be heard.
The opening phrase of the Apostles' Creed speaks first of God as the "Father Almighty." Both of these words offend me deeply. Here the mystery that I treasure in God begins to be filled with limiting cultural definitions. The word Father is such a human word-so male, so dated.' It elicits the traditional God images of the old man who lives lust beyond the sky. It shouts of the masculinity of the deity, a concept that has been used for thousands of years to justify the oppression of women by religious institutions. That history and that practice repel me today. The Christian Church at times has gone so far as to debate whether women actually had souls and whether girl babies ought to be baptized. That Church universally relegated women to clearly defined secondary roles until the latter years of the twentieth century, when that sexist prejudice began to dissipate. Even the recent ecclesiastical breakthrough in some faith communitles, which has allowed women to be pastors, priests, and bishops, is embraced by only a small minority of the Christians of the world. The Church dedicated to the worship of a God who was called "Father" has consistently justified its rampant discrimination against women as the will of this patriarchal deity or, at the very least, as something idolatrously called the "unchanging sacred tradition of the Church." I do not care to worship a God defined by masculinity. I am no longer tolerant of gatherings where all the participants are men, sitting in a solemn assembly, clothed in their ecclesiastical dress, and acting as if they can determine what a woman may do morally with her own body. I have no interest in being part of an institution that is so deeply biased against women and intends to stay that way.
The word Almighty is equally troubling. Almighty has been translated theologically by the Church into such concepts as omnipotence (all-powerful) and omniscience (all-knowing). These two understandings constitute a provocative and disturbing claim. By attributing omnipotence to God, one also attributes to the deity the power to remedy any wrong or to prevent any disaster. Yet wrongs and disasters continue to be a part of life. Religious thinkers have danced around these realities since the dawn of time. The traditional arguments about free will and the virtues developed through suffering are today so weak and so unconvincing. To attribute to God omnipotent power in our world is thus logically to assert that the God who possesses this power must have chosen not to use it. The only real alternatives to this conclusion are found in asserting that God is limited...
Meet the Author
John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000, has been a visiting lecturer at Harvard and at more than 500 other universities all over the world. His books, which have sold well over a million copies, include Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy; The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic; Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World; Eternal Life: A New Vision; Jesus for the Non-Religious, The Sins of Scripture, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?; Why Christianity Must Change or Die; and his autobiography, Here I Stand. He writes a weekly column on the web that reaches thousands of people all over the world. To join his online audience, go to www.JohnShelbySpong.com. He lives with his wife, Christine, in New Jersey.
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