ADVENT AND Christmas this year will be different as a great cloud of unknowing covers the world. I recall the final verse of Canadian poet L. A. MacKay’s Carol for l938:
Oh in how many hearts of men
Is kept the ghastly tryst
Where, on the grieving Christmas tree
Hangs crucified, the Christ. It must to be unnerving for all faith groups to have listened to the rhetoric about good and evil, about serving God’s purposes, about the slaughter of the innocents which has characterized the propaganda from both sides of the conflict in the Middle East. The cry goes out, “Where is God in all of this?” For fundamentalists of any stripe the answer is easy – He is on our side. He is our tribal deity and He will bring us to victory. The problem arises when the message is the same on both sides. When one tribal deity confronts another in mortal combat, it is safe to say that the ultimate reality we name God has nothing to do with it.
John Shelby Spong’s A New Christianity For A New World has come to market at a time when the need for developing a deeper understanding of God is evident. For years as a priest, pastor and bishop, Bishop Spong has struggled with the issues of ordinary life and the seeming intransigence of institutional Christian-ity in coming to terms with them. In western societies permeated with a scientific understanding of life the Christian churches have not fared well.
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The debate between science and religion has raged since the mid 19th century. In the wake of World War II it took on a new significance born out of pastoral concern. Christian answers were not meeting ordinary people in the concrete realities of daily living. From this moment we hear words and phrases of a new generation: Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity,” Bultmann’s call to demythologize the scriptures, Tillich’s God as the “Ground of All Being,” Robinson’s Honest to God and a call for “worldly holiness,” and even a Death of God theology. In Canada Pierre Berton’s The Comfortable Pew, commissioned by the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Board of Religious Education, picked up the theme of the need for radical renewal. The reactions remained constant. The general public responded with an openness, ready to listen and consider, and the institutional church has generally gone into “damage control” fearing for its authority.
Bsihop Spong defines his task in these words, “It is far more difficult to sketch out a vision of something new, something people have never seen, something the world has never tested. But reformers cannot just tilt against the windmills of antiquity. They must develop new visions, propose new models, chart new solutions.” He begins with what he observes in the post-modern world as the dying of theism and poses the question, “If theism dies, does God die?” It is his contention that the time has come to “sketch out a vision of the holy that is beyond theism, but not beyond the reality for which the word God was created to point.”
He then proceeds to dismiss what he calls the basic Christian myth. The stories of Jesus’ birth, the interpretation of the crucifixion, the accounts of the resurrection and ascension, the doctrines of incarnation, trinity, atonement, are all reassessed in the light of a new understanding of what scripture says in harmony with the sciences as they have added to our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.
This is shocking stuff. What happens to our poetry and hymns, our prayers and liturgies? Bishop Spong’s vision is of a God not bound by human systems and creeds. His point is that theism is only, “a human explanation of the God-experience – not a description of who or what God actually is.”
While these questions need to be addressed, the answers will require greater study than the scope of this book allows. It is one thing to throw out the fanciful concepts surrounding the doctrine of original sin but it still leaves the problem of evil in all its horror. The evolutionary explanation of a developing human self-consciousness may not be as evident as Spong would claim and it is not enough to suggest, “Perhaps there will someday be a completely adequate explanation for evil, but we have not yet found it.”
Is it true that theism is no longer relevant or is it a case that at the name of Jesus every knee bows while ignoring what he says? Is there any guarantee that new models would be any less prone to corruption than is presently the case? And then there is that grieving Christmas tree! Canon Gordon Baker writes about books for the Anglican Journal.