Thursday, September 3, 2009

Rethinking Basic Christian Concepts in the Light of Charles Darwin

Below is Bishop John S. Spong's mediation today on the revolution in theology that the work of Charles Darwin has wrought. It outlines the task ahead if Christianity is to enter the 21st century with anything like intellectual rigor.

The Study of Life, Part 6
Rethinking Basic Christian Concepts in the Light of Charles Darwin
As I retraced Charles Darwin's steps through the Galapagos Islands, I contemplated anew his impact on traditional Christian thinking. I had been working intensively on Darwin for about three years in preparation for my book on eternal life. Darwin, more than anyone else, had shaken the foundations of belief in eternal life by defining human beings as animals with more highly developed brains, removing any sense of immortality from them. By the time we arrived in the Galapagos the time for any rewrites on this book was over. My manuscript was at my publisher, HarperCollins. The next time I will see this book will be in its published form. This book had been for me a grueling task since it drove me almost against my will to come to a new understanding of my faith. I discovered first that I could no longer make a case for life after death until I had journeyed to a place that was, as my subtitle suggests, "beyond religion, beyond theism and beyond heaven and hell." That was a direct result of my deep engagement with Darwin's thought. It is fair to say, however, that in the writing of this book I also became aware that Darwin's thought had also helped me to arrive at a new vision of what I believe will be the future of Christianity. Through this column I seek to share that process with my readers.
My struggle began with the recognition that the primary titles that we Christians have given to Jesus all carry with them a particular definition of what it means to be human. To call Jesus "savior" implies that human life needs to be saved from something. The same is true about the titles "rescuer," "redeemer" and "reconciler." This negative definition of humanity is why the traditional telling of the Jesus story focuses on Jesus' suffering, which was the price that Jesus had to pay for our salvation. The traditional Protestant mantra, "Jesus died for my sins," and the Catholic definition of the Eucharist as "the sacrifice of the Mass," both reinforce the assumption of human depravity that is a major theme filling Christian theology and history.

These distorting images began in a mythology that assumed that human life was a special creation, made in the image of God, and suggesting that human life originally shared in the perfection of God's finished creation. Falling from that status into what came to be called "original sin," however, quickly became the major focus of Christian theology. Starting with Paul, it has been the "fall" and its resulting distortion of God's creation that has been the bedrock of the way we have told the Jesus story. It was our sinful status that mandated God's divine rescue operation "for us and for our salvation." The heart of Christian theology, including such core doctrines as the Incarnation, the divinity of Christ, the Atonement and even the concept of God as a Holy Trinity, were all attempts to spell out the Jesus story in terms of this definition of what it means to be sinful. Human beings were those creatures who in an act of disobedience had destroyed the beauty of God's original creation and had plunged the whole world into sin. Charles Darwin's understanding of human origins ran directly counter to these assumptions. If Darwin was correct then this whole theological system, which featured the account of Jesus' sacrificial death to save us from our sins, was doomed to become inoperative.

If human life, as Darwin suggested and as modern science keeps verifying, is the product of millions of years of evolutionary history, then none of these theological formulas remain valid. Without an original, perfect and complete creation, there could never have been a fall from perfection, not even metaphorically. Original sin has thus got to go. Without that fall from perfection there was no need for God's rescue and no reason for Jesus to come to our aid. The idea of God as the punishing parent organizes religious life on the basis of the childlike and primitive motifs of reward and punishment. The cross understood as the place where Jesus paid our debt to this vengeful God becomes not just nonsensical, but it also serves to twist human life with guilt in order to make this system of thought believable. That is why Christian worship seems to require the constant denigration of human life. Christian liturgies constantly beg God "to have mercy." Our hymns sing of God's amazing grace, but the only reason God's grace is amazing is that it "saved a wretch like me." This theology assumes that God is an external being, living somewhere above the sky, whose chief occupations are two: first to keep the record books up to date on our behavior, thus serving as the basis on which we will be judged; and second to be ready to come to our aid in miraculous ways either to establish the divine order or in answer to our prayers. Darwin was only one part of the explosion of knowledge that rendered these ideas not only irrelevant, but unbelievable. Copernicus and Galileo had destroyed God's dwelling place above the sky by introducing us to the vastness of space, suddenly but not coincidentally rendering this God homeless. Then Isaac Newton discovered the mathematically precise and immutable laws by which the universe is governed, leaving little room in it for either miracle or magic, which rendered the miracle-working deity unemployed. One well-known English theologian, when he finally embraced these realities in the early 1980's, abandoned his Christian faith, pronouncing himself "a non-aggressive atheist." When asked why he was no longer a believer, he replied quite simply "because God no longer had any work to do."

It was Darwin, however, who applied the coup de grâce both to religion and to the belief in life after death, at least as traditional Christianity had proclaimed these things. To Darwin human beings were merely a work in progress. Far from being created perfect we had evolved into our present form like every other creature by "natural selection" over more than three billion years. Salvation built on the three premises of a perfect creation, a fall into sin and a rescue from above that was achieved on the cross became an exercise in fantasyland. Indeed the story of the sacrificial death of Jesus by crucifixion began to look bizarre. This theology made God appear to be a deity who required a blood offering and a human sacrifice in order to forgive. Jesus began to look like a perpetual victim, perhaps even a masochistic person who willingly endured, even welcomed, suffering and death on the cross. Human beings looked like guilt-ridden creatures whose sinfulness made the death of Jesus necessary. Finally, Christianity became a religion of guilt, which was encouraged liturgically. There was nothing about this scenario that could be called good news or "gospel," yet it persisted for centuries. These distortions in the Jesus message began to wobble under the impact of Galileo and Newton, but it was Darwin who made it clear that the Christian world could no longer go on pretending that nothing had changed. The foundations on which the Christian message had been erected had collapsed.

When I embraced what this meant existentially I came to the conclusion that if Christianity was to have a future, then I must find a new point of entry and a new way to hear and to believe the Jesus story. That was the challenge I had to meet before I could ever address the possibility of life after death. I began that reconstruction task in my book Jesus for the Non-Religious and now I had to complete this task by spelling out a new way to view eternal life.

I was delighted to discover that the greatest of the New Testament scholars in the 20th century, Rudolf Bultmann, regularly spoke of Jesus not as the "savior," but as the "revealer." That shift was not subtle. Bultmann was suggesting the Jesus "revealed" a new dimension of what it means to be human and in the process opened a new window into what it is to experience the presence of God. Suddenly I had found a whole new way to look at what divinity is in human life. Underneath the focus on sacrifice revealed in the gospels I began to view Jesus as one who was so deeply and fully human that whatever it is that we experience God to be could be seen in him and experienced through him. A new way to view the cross next began to come into view. The cross was not a sacrifice to placate an angry God, but a living portrait of a human life that was no longer controlled by the innate drive to survive. Here was a life free to give itself away, a life with no need to build itself up at another's expense. This was a new dimension of what it means to be human, what it means to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that life was meant to be. When I got beneath the level of later explanation, which dominates the gospel narratives, and began to ask what was the Jesus experience that compelled his followers to stretch the words available to them to an infinite degree to enable those words to be big enough to capture their Jesus experience, I heard them saying we have met and encountered in the life of this Jesus everything that we mean by the word "God." It was that word "inflation" that gives us virgin births, wandering stars, miracles, parables, physical resuscitations and ascensions into heaven. They were trying to say that in his humanity, which seemed to break all human barriers, they had found a doorway into the meaning of transcendence, the reality of God. The way into divinity became for me the pathway of becoming fully human. It was to affirm that we are still evolving into we know not what. Jesus was a new dimension of life for which we may all be headed.

So I had to begin my quest for life after death by going into the depths of the mystery of life itself. Just as we now know that life evolved out of lifeless matter, that consciousness emerged out of life and finally that self-conscious life has emerged out of mere consciousness, so perhaps the day is now arriving when we will experience the possibility of entering a universal consciousness that is beginning to emerge out of self-consciousness. We are thus part of the oneness of life, bound together by a common DNA and that oneness makes us part of God. It also suggests that we are linked to eternity since God is found at the depth of the human.

These words can only scratch the surface of the thought I try to develop in my book on eternal life, but they do presage the path I walk. Charles Darwin, who for me made a new Christianity necessary, turns out to offer the clue to that new direction. This vision now stands before me. I invite you to join me in entering it.


Franklyn said...

I have never understood why Spong doesn't take the next step and admit everything he believes leads to humanism.

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