Thursday, September 25, 2008

Miscommunications and Integrity

(Arthur G Broadhurst, former UCC minister, now living in Palm Coast, Florida.)

It is precisely this difficulty with saying what we mean in a way that is clear, honest and helpful that made it impossible for me to remain in a parish ministry. Parishioners and I spoke a different language, which is to say that the meanings of the words that are most crucial to Christianity are no longer meaningful. Every conversation became an occasion of miscommunication. It became impossible to use words like god, creation, resurrection, and salvation in my conversations with church people without miscommunication, knowing that what I said was misunderstood or was heard in a way different than I intended.

Religious professionals sometimes avoid the problem of miscommunication by ignoring differences in meaning or not calling attention to them, but I was not comfortable with keeping private meanings for these important but troublesome words and could not continue to use them with the knowledge that by using them without reinterpreting them I was giving the impression that I used them in the same sense they were understood (or misunderstood) by lay persons. This raised an issue of integrity for me that I could not get around.

Some of my theological school classmates and ministerial colleagues had less trouble with this issue than I did, thinking it better to adopt the admonition given to physicians as a guiding principle—‘do no harm.’ In this case, the presumed harm was to undermine the religious faith of some parishioners, and therefore (as I concluded anyway) to ignore the implications of their theological education and to carry on with the life of the parish as if their theological education was an interesting but irrelevant side trip in their educational journey.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to a conscience much too sensitive, I was not able to ignore those implications. I believed then and still believe that serious harm has been done to our understanding of Christian faith by ignoring the intellectual challenges to Christianity posed by modern secular culture. By failing to deal with the challenge of modernity in a constructive manner and by failing to translate the meaning of Christian faith into the language and culture of our secular world, we have diminished its value and relevancy to many thoughtful people in our generation and that has been a considerable disservice to the integrity and viability of Christianity.

Our failure to reinterpret Christianity as it was received from an earlier generation into language that was understandable and relevant to our modern world left us with an archaic and irrelevant Christianity that could easily be ignored. The practical effects of failing to deal with the related questions of meaning and relevancy worked to diminish the appeal and the intellectual vigor of Christianity. The brightest minds of our generation increasingly began to feel that Christianity is not so much wrong as irrelevant because it reflects a world view that is incomprehensible to the 21st Century.

One obvious effect of the failure to reinterpret Christianity for the modern world can be seen in the precipitous decline of mainline protestant denominations since the 1960s and in the related but counterintuitive rapid growth and influence of the evangelical and fundamentalist churches throughout the 1980s and 1990s not just in the United States but also in the developing nations of the world.

Fundamentalism thrives as an escapist reaction to the intellectual challenge of modernity by providing simplistic but emotionally satisfying answers to difficult theological, existential and human questions. It gained its foothold through the decline of the classical and humanistic liberal arts education which in turn results from the failure of public education, and it flourishes through an incomprehensible intellectual schizophrenia in which the 19th Century theological world view of fundamentalism is held by those who live in our modern scientific world, apparently oblivious of the logical inconsistency of these conflicting outlooks.

Friday, September 12, 2008

More Excerpts

Here are a couple more excerpts from the book, 'Shackles of the Supernatural' by William J. Fielding...

Dogma – the mainstay and bulwark of supernaturalism – in the very nature of itself is unchangeable. Revealed religion, having been handed down direct from God, is therefore not subject to question, to say nothing of improvement or modification. From the orthodox standpoint, the slightest hesitation in swallowing the whole story is heresy. And since the distant day of the first revelation, the world has run red with the blood of heretics.

Of course, the orthodox are entirely consistent in their stand that if revelation is the word of God it is therefore final, irrevocable, unquestionable. The trouble is that there is no virtue in consistency, per se. As a matter of fact, it is all to often a set of blinkers deliberately adjusted by the subject himself to prevent him from seeing any light, or anything but the object upon which he has focused his attention. Compare that attitude with that of the skeptic who insists upon looking into and examining all phases of a question – and re-examining them; accepting no conclusions as absolute final and irrevocable, leaving open for further light and understanding any problem worthy of the name. Here you have the difference between the theologian and the scientist, the difference between the closed mind and the open mind.

What are the results to the individual of the acceptance of the concepts of dogma? He has been taught that the tenets of his religion, say Christianity, are absolute Truths. If the revelations set forth in his Bible are absolute, infallible truths, and as a Christian, he believes them to be so, then it is perfectly logical for him to stop thinking on all questions relating to human conduct and motives which by direct statement and implication the Bible covers. The phrase “stop thinking” is perhaps not the proper one, because if a truly faithful adherent of his religion, he has never started to think on these important questions.

Religious concepts represent a development over a long period of time of the emotional response to fear-arousing stimuli and mysterious natural phenomena – the whole set-up based on fear of the unknown. This system finally became institutionalized, creating traditions as it went along, and used as a means of exploitation by the privileged caste (religious orders) which administered it for the aggrandizement of themselves and the prevailing ruling groups.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Food for Thought...

An excerpt from the book, ‘Shackles of the Supernatural’ by William J. Fielding

Only those who have had a conventional religious upbringing and have found the incomparably fuller life that is opened up in rejecting supernatural belief, can appreciate the contrast. Those hampered by the limitations that come from allegiance to a creed, feel or profess to feel, that the Freethinker, Agnostic or Atheist is missing something from which they derive great consolation. This attitude, of course, has been inculcated with the creed of which it is part and parcel. The primitive slave was similarly taught to cherish the retraining virtue of his chains.

It should be apparent that adherence to dogma and creed inhibits the free-functioning of the faculties. It naturally follows that when these hindrances are discarded, the mental horizon is extended, cerebral energy with its inevitable emotional accompaniment is not wasted in pursuing a will-o’-the wisp, and the opportunities for intellectual achievement, emotional fulfillment and peace of mind are increased beyond measure.

Bishop Spong's Q&A 9/5/08

Doris Christoph, via the Internet, writes:

Having read two of your books, I finally have answers to several questions that have troubled me for years. But now I have some new ones, two of them of immediate importance:

1. My very fundamental Seventh Day Adventist Church: How do I fit in when I no longer fit in?2. Prayer: How do I now pray? To whom? About what? For what? How do I express my gratitude, my sorrows, my joys?

Though I feel that a great burden has left me now that I feel you have given me permission to understand God and Jesus in the light that I have seen in the distance for a long time but was too afraid to reach for, I also feel very much an outsider and alone. How do I deal with this?

Dear Doris,

Thank you for your letter. I assure you that in the Christian life there is no such thing as a time when questions will cease and you will arrive at answers that will endure forever. Christianity is a journey, not a religious system into which all truth can be fitted.

To your questions, only you can decide whether you can continue your pilgrimage inside the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Normally I encourage people to remain in their households of faith as change agents. However, that is based on the assumption that a particular household of faith is open to change. Churches are frequently security systems and change will destroy them, not transform them. This is particularly true for those parts of the Christian Church that are built around a single issue or a single ethnic group. Such churches are themselves not likely to survive.

In terms of prayer, this format is not nearly large enough to address those concerns. First you need to develop an understanding of God other than the supernatural parent figure who lives above the sky and is waiting to come to your aid. Christian prayer is not an adult letter to Santa Claus. Second, you need to understand the nature of the world in which you and I are living. It is not a world of miracle, magic and divine intervention, but a world of order, natural law and precise mathematical formulas that enables us to predict with total accuracy the tides, the time of sunrise and sunset and even eclipses of the sun and moon. We can send spacecraft to the moon and to the planets as far out as Jupiter because we know the laws by which such things as motion and gravity operate. Prayer must take place in that kind of world.

There are many books that might help you in this phase of your journey. I have written on this subject twice, once in a book entitled Honest Prayer that has recently been republished by St. Johann Press (315 Schraalenburgh Road, Haworth, NJ 07641) and the second is A New Christianity for a New World, published by Harper-Collins. Maybe one or both of them would help.

Enjoy your quest for truth.
John Shelby Spong