…“Christianity,” I began, “is a faith system whose scriptures are the product of the first century, which inevitably means that those scriptures reflect the world view of first century men and women. These scriptures assume that epilepsy, mental illness and muteness result from demon possession. They assume that sickness is a manifestation of divine punishment. They assume that God is a supernatural being, who lives somewhere external to the planet earth and that this God invades human history periodically in supernatural, miraculous ways to accomplish the divine purpose. These scriptures also assume that whatever could not be explained within the first century frame of reference must be regarded as a miracle. This of course means that people today, who want to literalize the scriptures as the ‘inerrant’ words of God, inevitably literalize a world view and a series of assumptions that no modern, educated person could possibly believe.
I then noted that the creeds of Christianity are products of the 4th century and refer to a 4th century view of the world. One clear creedal assumption is that the earth is the center of a three-tiered universe, with hell being beneath the earth and heaven being above the sky. They reveal a picture of a divine escalator moving up and down amid the three tiers.
The creeds also assume the literal and biological accuracy of what came to be called the Virgin Birth in which Jesus is conceived by the operation of the Holy Spirit. This idea is of special interest because one of the earliest forms of the Christian creed came to be called “The Apostles’ Creed” suggesting that it in fact reflects the beliefs of the apostles themselves. The fact is that neither Paul, the first writer of the New Testament (51-64 CE), nor Mark, the author of the first of the gospels to be written (ca.72 CE) ever mentions the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Paul says simply that Jesus was “born of a woman,” like every other human being and “born under the law,” like every other Jew. Mark portrays Jesus as a perfectly normal adult human being, who comes to be baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist at which time the Holy Spirit falls on him and he becomes a “God-infused human life.” The first narrative of a miraculous or Virgin Birth for Jesus does not enter the Christian tradition until the 9th decade of the Common Era in the writings of Matthew, who wrote long after most, if not all, of the apostles had died. A second and very contradictory version of the story of Jesus’ virgin birth is then added to the developing tradition by Luke about a decade after Matthew. The virgin birth story assumes that the woman is not a genetic contributor to any new life, for the idea that a woman had an egg cell was not discovered until the early years of the 18th century! Clearly the belief system of the apostles did not include the concepts found in the “Apostles’ Creed.” So, if the creeds are literalized along with the doctrines and dogmas of the Christian Church, which are based on those creeds, what happens is that the three-tiered universe and long-abandoned biological assumptions are also literalized thus making the creeds nonsensical in the modern world.
Most of the liturgical forms still used to some degree in all Christian churches are the product of the 13th century. This means that we are still forced to make 13th century assumptions if we want to continue to worship God in the 21st century. The all-seeing God who plays the role of a judge is certainly apparent when we pray, “Almighty God unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid.” Not surprisingly it seems appropriate to say “Lord, have mercy, Lord, have mercy” to this 13th century view of God. Salvation is assumed to be a gift from this God above the sky, who comes to rescue us from the fall from our original perfection and who pays the price of our sins in the death of Jesus. That is the context in which we say, “Jesus died for my sins!”
In our post-Darwinian world, however, there is no original perfection. There is, rather, an ongoing and ever-evolving process carried out over billions of years from single cell life to the complex self-conscious creatures that we are today. If there was no original perfection, there could never have been a fall from perfection, so “original sin” is also non-sensical. If there was no fall into “original sin” then the idea of a divine rescue from a fall that never happened loses all of its meaning. Is there any reason not to understand why 21st century people find the liturgies of our Church to be so meaningless?
21st century Christianity is thus wedded to the world view of its 1st century scriptures, its 4th century creeds and its 13th century liturgies. Consequently, Christianity presents itself to potential modern believers encased in a series of doctrinal and liturgical forms, undergirded by a theological point of view that communicates almost nothing to those people who gather in church to worship. Why is there any surprise that the number of worshipers is in steep decline? Modern Christianity offers only two alternatives. The first is to close our minds to the explosion of knowledge in order to build a protective fortress around the religious formulas of antiquity. We then surround these formulas with the claim that they are supported by an infallible or inerrant tradition. Such a stand offers people the security of the delusion that they possess the ultimate truth of God. We call these who think this way “fundamentalists” and they come in both a Catholic and Protestant variety. So from this perspective the church’s invitation is to “believe this or leave.”
Those who elect this second option today are legion! People are abandoning “institutional religion” in droves. The Church Alumni Association is now the fastest growing organization in the Christian West. As religious conviction fades secular humanism becomes the only viable alternative. The tension between a religion tied to antiquity and secular values quite divorced from that religious heritage today marks not only church life, but our national political life. We seem to be gridlocked between both a religious and political past that some want to impose on all and a religion-less future the nature of which no one finally understands…”
This essay was written by Bishop John Shelby Spong, Bishop of Newark, New Jersey in the year 2000.