From parable to paradox

Apart from the fact that they all call themselves Christian, what do the following people have in common? Right-wing, ultra-conservative Roman Catholic Mel Gibson and former bishop of Newark John Spong, who says: “I do not believe that any propositional statement about God can be literally true.” United States President George W Bush, who seeks war, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who seeks peace? Six Day Creationist Kent Hovind and mathematician and Templeton Prize-winner George Ellis? Unitarian minister Gordon Oliver and Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, head of the Zion Christian Church? The gay- baiting archbishop of Central Africa and the gay bishop of New Hampshire?

The answer would have to be: very little. There are material differences in the beliefs they hold—even in their Christian beliefs—in their core values, in the way they live their lives and in what they believe is best for the populations of planet Earth. Is the description Christian any longer meaningful? What exactly is the defining characteristic of a Christian?

These questions were raised by the Mail & Guardian in an interview conducted with the Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, who provided the following answer: “The Resurrection is the key to the Christian faith: no Resurrection, no faith.” But what is the common Christian understanding of the Resurrection? For Roman Catholics, and for many millions of Christians in other denominations, it is a bodily resurrection.
But listen to Ndungane on the subject: “For me that [bodily Resurrection] is neither here nor there; my faith doesn’t stand by whether there was an empty tomb or not.” This is a concession of no minor import. When the Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus as recently as the 1980s, it caused a widespread and very public scandal.

Today the archbishop of Cape Town holds to the same view as if it were commonplace.

Ndungane also gives precious little credence to the notion of heaven or hell: “I don’t preach the hope of heaven and the fear of hell.”

Taken together, these are views that would have had him burnt at the stake even in the Protestant England of Henry VIII. He does believe in the existence of heaven, but it seems that the meaning or purpose of heaven is marginal to his understanding of himself as a Christian. Asked the question: “Does a good person who is not a Christian go to heaven?” He laughs and says: “That is not an issue for me to decide, that is God’s decision.” In this respect he differs markedly from Paul, the founder of his religion.

Spong writes a newsletter from his home in the United States, which circulates to many South Africans. In it, Spong, who calls himself a Christian, denies the existence of Christian miracles, he denies the virgin birth, he denies the existence of the Trinity, he denies the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, he qualifies the divinity of Jesus, he is forthrightly critical of the Christian God of the Bible, and the God of popular Christian belief, and he disputes the meaning and significance of most Christian rituals and ceremonies. But he still calls himself a Christian.

Ndungane makes a distinction between what he calls first-order principles of Christianity, and second-order rules, and he relegates the issue of gay priesthood to second-order rules, where it can then comfortably be accommodated as a cultural issue. The problem is that his counterpart, the archbishop of Nigeria, as well as many of his colleagues in other African provinces of the Anglican Church, interpret Ndungane’s approach as no more than a transparent tactic to hold things together that are rapidly flying apart. The ordination of gay priests, they insist, is a violation of first-order Christian principle. One would not think that Christians could differ so profoundly in what they understand to be the difference between their principles and their rules. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has not challenged the anti-gay lobby within Anglicanism, nor clearly distanced himself from it. In fact, a writer for The Guardian, who recently interviewed Williams, speculates that—in the event of a schism within Anglicanism—Williams will throw in his lot with the African conservatives.

To read the interview that Alan Rusbridger conducted is to encounter in a painfully embarrassing way the phenomenon of a Christianity quite incapable of making a single propositional statement of belief and behaviour. Williams sounds for all the world like an angst-wracked existentialist, capable of no more than provisional judgement on the smallest of matters, largely incoherent and apparently quite unable to decide whether his table lamp is a source of light or a demonstration of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Astonishingly he tells the media that he does not consider his role to be one of moral leadership. Atheists and free thinkers will welcome such diffidence, but Christians must consider themselves to be betrayed by it.

Here are some of his comments for a taste of what it is to be a Christian in a post-modern world: “Leadership is, to me, a very, very murky and complicated concept ... I think the question I always find myself asking of myself is, ‘Will a pronouncement here or a statement there actually move things on, or is it something that makes me feel better and other people feel better, but doesn’t necessarily contribute very much? ... I just wonder a bit whether, you know, when an archbishop condemns something, suddenly in, I don’t know, the bedsits of north London, somebody says, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be having premarital sex,’ or in the cells of al-Qaeda, somebody says, ‘Goodness, terrorism’s wrong, the archbishop says so. I never thought of that.’ I’m not sure that’s how it is ... My theological conviction is that there is a good case for recognition of same-sex partnerships if they are stable and faithful. I would not, however, call it marriage. If physical sex is not always tied to procreation, then same-sex relationships might be legitimate in God’s eyes ... At the risk of sounding horribly pious, you always have to ask, when somebody makes a criticism—‘Well, what’s it about?’”

Outside of the Roman Catholic Church, Christianity is fast losing claims to be a belief system at all. Instead, it focuses ever more narrowly on the significance of Jesus as a wise man and a humanitarian, and those who call themselves Christians define themselves not so much by what they believe, as by the quality of what they understand to be their relationship with Jesus, by their sense of communion with others who claim a similar relationship and by their commonly shared rituals of prayer and devotion.

How does the Christian God fit into this picture? Very puzzlingly. Jesus, it seems, understood his God to be the God of the Hebrew Bible. This is clearly not the God that Christians today believe in, or pray to. This Christian God has a very uncertain theological status, and is not derived from Christian holy scripture. More to the point, ask 10 Christians to write on one side of a piece of A4 paper a defensible and a rational explanation of who or what they mean when they refer to God and you will receive 10 different answers with multiple references to the word “love”—often fraudulently appropriated as a Christian quality—and bare of any single propositional statement that would reflect the consensus view of all Christians.

We may well live in a post-modern era, but even so, humanity is committed to a course of ever expanding understanding based on principles of reason and evidence. Within such a world, beliefs that depend for their existence on mystery, myth and magic are simply unsustainable. The Roman Catholic Church blithely ignores the claims of reason. The irony is that, in showing sufficient openness to such claims, the Protestant churches are fast arriving at a theological destination at which they will be devoid of a distinguishing belief system at all, and will be regarded as a religion only if we are to regard Freemasonry, the Round Table or the sport of rugby as religions.

The gospel according to Spong

In 1998 former Bishop John Spong posted the following on the Internet, incorporating his famous theses:

“The renewal of Christianity will not come from fundamentalism, secularism or the irrelevant mainline tradition. If there is nothing more than this on the horizon then I see no future for the enterprise we call the Christian faith.”

“My sense is that history has come to a point where only one thing will save this venerable faith tradition at this critical time in Christian history, and that is a new Reformation far more radical than Christianity has ever before known and that this Reformation must deal with the very substance of that faith. This Reformation will recognise that the pre-modern concepts in which Christianity has traditionally been carried will never again speak to the post-modern world we now inhabit. This Reformation will be about the very life and death of Christianity. Because it goes to the heart of how Christianity is to be understood, it will dwarf in intensity the Reformation of the 16th century. It will not be concerned about authority, ecclesiastical polity, valid ordinations and valid sacraments. It will be rather a Reformation that will examine the very nature of the Christian faith itself. It will ask whether or not this ancient religious system can be refocused and re-articulated so as to continue living in this increasingly non-religious world.”

“Martin Luther ignited the Reformation of the 16th century by nailing to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 the 95 Theses that he wished to debate. I will … post my theses on the Internet and send copies with invitations to debate them to the recognised Christian leaders of the world. My theses are far smaller in number than were those of Martin Luther, but they are far more threatening theologically. The issues to which I now call the Christians of the world to debate are these:

  • 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 writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
  • 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.”

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