Monday, September 10, 2012

Christianity: ‘Change or die?’

Our leading spiritualist scholar J. Arthur Findlay observed in 1951 that “Theology never makes any advance, and holds to the creeds and dogmas of an ignorant past. The people must free themselves of these. The Church of the future must free itself of these ancient crutches and shackles, and, casting aside ancient and false tradition, tell the people the truth. It must strike out on a new path or ultimately perish.” (Where Two Worlds Meet, page 457)

The Rev. John Shelby Spong
That last sentence just slightly rephrased came into play again in 1998 as the title for a controversial book by a controversial clergyman ­– Why Christianity Must Change or Die by retired U.S. Episcopal (Anglican) Bishop John Shelby Spong.

As far as I know, the good bishop knows nothing of Arthur Findlay and there’s no hint in his writings that he has any interest in psychic science or mediumship but aside from this there is much that appeals to us spiritualists in this book of his and its sequel, A New Christianity for a New World (2001, both books published by Harper). Although he’s criticized by the orthodox, Spong has an immense following worldwide. This July he was again a week-long speaker at the fabled Chautauqua Institution in western New York state before SRO crowds – an accomplishment few achieve there. A couple of years ago he also was keynote speaker at the annual congress of the International New Thought Alliance and he lectures around the world before groups of all kinds. His website is also an important vehicle for his ideas. (

In our last blog post I pointed out that spiritualism, because of its rejection of cardinal dogmas of the organized churches, is not to be considered as part of Christianity. We looked at other movements such as Unitarianism and New Thought that are technically in the same boat although, to be honest, none of these groups goes around broadcasting this fact. Spong shares a great deal with these other groups with one exception – he’s still operating within the confines of a very orthodox Christian body, the Episcopal Church which he served as a priest and bishop.

It behooves us to look at some of the things this forward-looking clergyman is saying because, I suspect, he is the tip of a gigantic iceberg that is beginning to make its presence known in churchly circles. “Religion is… not what we have always thought it to be,” Spong writes in the epilogue of Why Christianity Must Change or Die (page 225). “Religion is not a system of belief. It is not a catalogue of revealed truth. It is not an activity designed to control behavior, to reward virtue, and to punish vice. Religion is, rather, a human attempt to process the God experience, which breaks forth from our own depths and wells up constantly within us. We must lay down, therefore, the primitive claims we have made for our religious traditions. None of them is drawn from otherworldly revelations. None of them is inerrant or infallible. None of them represents the only way to God. None of them can be used legitimately to coerce or compel another to belief. All evangelical and missionary activities designed to convert the heathen are base born. They are the expressions of our sense of superiority and our hostility toward those who are different. The only divine mission in life that the church of the future could possibly have is to open people to  a recognition that the ground of their very being is holy and that when they are in touch with that holy Ground of Being, they can share in God’s creation by giving life, love, and being to others. That is the task of those who claim to be God bearers. The Christians of the world are not here to build institutions, to convert other people, or even to claim that we can speak for God. Those aspects of our religious heritage must be sacrificed as the premodern misunderstandings of our primitive history.”

Wow! That could have been written by a modern-day Findlay or channeled by Silver Birch!

Spong presents his new vision of Christianity in a manner similar to that employed ages ago by Martin Luther – with a list of proposals that define where he stands theologically. Spong’s twelve points are as follows:
  • Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
  • Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
  • The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
  • The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
  • The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
  • The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
  • Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
  • The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
  • There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
  • Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
  • The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
  • All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

The Rev. Stainton Moses
As I read these 12 theses, I am reminded of another Anglican clergyman who lived 1839-1892 in England. The Rev. Stainton Moses became a medium and as such a proponent of spiritualism despite his affiliation with the Church of England. Two of his books, Spirit Teachings and More Spirit Teachings (available online) have come as close as possible to being considered the “Bible of spiritualism” as any other title. In this quote we read the words of Moses’ control Imperator (taken from More Spirit Teachings) where he uses words similar to Spong’s:  “You are living in one of the remarkable epochs of the earth. The old creed must die before the new can be received; but it will die hard, as round it still linger the associations of many ages; but it is fast dying out, never to live again. Happy are ye, living in this age, and learning these new truths, if ye rightly appreciate and use the blessing.”  The difference between Imperator’s statement and the road recommended by Spong, however, lies in the fact that Imperator makes reference to the truths of spiritualism that should replace the abandonment of outdated creeds.  Spong, on the other hand, admits that he has no idea where the church of the future should end up after it makes its shift away from creeds and dogmas that sound pagan and silly to rational thinkers today.

Medium Charlotte Dresser revealed, with the help of her spirit control Mary Bosworth, that the Christian churches would eventually be transformed.  “The time is coming, and coming fast, when there will be a reconstruction of the religion of the churches. Creeds will largely go, and love and service take their place.”  (Life Here and Hereafter, 1927.) This, too, tends to confirm Imperator’s prophecy given years before.

So here we have a modern-day clergyman with all the orthodox credentials saying much the same thing as church break-aways such as spiritualists. While I find myself in general agreement with the Reverend Spong, I tend to view his outlook for the future of the church as a rather bleak and uninteresting one. He talks of revising the prayer book to reflect his ideas but we’ve been told over and over from those on the other side that recitation of printed prayers is of no benefit whatsoever. Likewise, Spong sees a restructured liturgy as having a central role in the new church he envisions. Ceremonial and liturgy have also been cited by spirit sources as largely a waste of time.

To be frank, while Spong’s exposure of primitive creeds and his call for their abandonment are laudable, after introducing his reforms I can’t see much remaining that would attract a crowd on Sunday mornings. Here spiritualism offers a wonderful alternative. With our knowledge of the eternal nature of our consciousness – backed up by scientific evidence – we bring a vitalizing energy to those who have walked away from creed-based organized religions. And the ability to communicate with those on the other side adds an exceptional element of excitement as well. Spiritualists (and spiritists) can catch a glimpse of their role in the universe, grasp onto that and do whatever is necessary to advance spiritually. They then find themselves on a road to somewhere – not remaining stuck in some church building repeating endless prepared prayers and taking part in liturgical exercises.

I was an active participant
at the Episcopal Cathedral of
St. John the Evangelist
 in Spokane, Washington (above).
Afterword - While some of my remarks above about liturgical religion may sound somewhat like diatribes coming from evangelical Christians, such is not the case. My personal organized religious history includes membership in the Episcopal Church – the Rev. Spong’s church – and after graduation from college I was enrolled to attend the Episcopal Theological School whose campus adjoins Harvard University. This would have led me into the Episcopal clergy just like Spong. Just weeks before I was to leave for Cambridge, Massachusetts, to begin theological studies I withdrew and pursued other educational opportunities.

Why did I abandon my lifelong (at that point) ambition to become a clergyman? In the 1960s I had made the discovery that historically and rationally there was no basis for the positions outlined in Christian creeds. When I revealed my doubts to the dean of our diocesan cathedral he responded, “Don’t worry about those things. Most of us in the clergy doubt them, too.” While that is no doubt true, I couldn’t bring myself to enter a career where I was expected to teach things that I couldn’t subscribe to. So, the Episcopal Church lost a potential priest but 46 years later I have absolutely no regrets about that.

No comments:

Post a Comment