Will Christianity Survive the New Millenium? by J.S. Spong

Daniel J. Berger (bergerd@bluffton.edu)
Tue, 5 Nov 1996 10:10:01 -0500

I am forwarding this for comments. Seems to me that Bp. Spong's cosmology
is a bit simplistic, but I won't have time to write comments on it until

Apologies to those who are on more than one distribution list and so will
get this twice.


Dan Berger

From: Ecunet mail gateway[SMTP:network@ecunet.org]
Sent: Monday, November 04, 1996 9:16 PM
To: EPISCOPAL@indigo.atlanta.com

From: Louie Crew <lcrew@andromeda.rutgers.edu>
To: bishops.letters.topic@ecunet.org
Date: Mon, 4 Nov 1996 18:01:30 -0500 (EST)

Date: Mon, 4 Nov 96 15:03:36 EST


Will Christianity Survive the New Millenium?

by John Shelby Spong, Bishop of Newark

As the romantic sounding year of 2000 C.E.
appears on the horizon, people in all walks of
life begin to speculate about life in the third
millennium. It has
clearly entered the rhetoric of politicians
this election year as they attempt to build =D2a
bridge to the 21st century.=D3
But amid all the banter there is a serious
concern. What will be the shape of humanity in
this future? What values will survive? What
issues will engage us? What new knowledge will
reorganize our thinking? The leadership of the
Christian Church must surely also ask about those
things that are present on the Church=D5s horizon,
and seek to understand the direction in which
Christianity is headed.
When this century began in 1900, the thought of
Charles Darwin was just beginning to reverberate
around the western world. The Origin of Species
had been published in 1859 and the attack on
traditional Christian thinking implicit in its
pages had just begun to be felt. The literalness
of the seven-day creation story was the first
casualty, but the authority of all scripture was
also seen to totter. An uneasy accommodation was
made by the pious suggestion that each day in the
biblical account of creation was really millions
of years. Scripture could thus still be called
accurate even as its substance was visibly eroded.
It did not, however, save the Church from the
embarrassment of the Scopes trial in the 1920=D5s.
Periodically, other versions of the same hysteria
that found John Scopes guilty would erupt to play
across the headlines of our newspapers as fear and
ignorance masqueraded as faith and knowledge.
However, Darwin=D5s challenge to traditional
Christian concepts was far more profound than
first imagined.
Darwin=D5s revolutionary concepts destroyed
forever the power of the traditional Christian
myth by which this religious system had defined
itself for centuries. This myth assumed that the
original act of divine creation was perfect and
complete and that from this perfection human
beings had fallen away into a sinfulness that was
both universal and inevitable. This =D2fall,=D3 it was
said, required a divine rescue operation and in
terms of that requirement the Christ story was
typically told. That is what produced the various
atonement theories which stated just how it was
that the divine rescue of our =D2fallen nature=D3 had
been accomplished by Jesus. =D2Christ died for my
sins,=D3 became the codeword. His death was even
interpreted to be a sin offering that God required
to be paid, a ransom if you will. Those strange
sounding theological words reflect a first century
Jewish-Christian mentality which understood Christ
in his death as the new paschal lamb slain to
break the power of death or the new sacrificial
lamb of Yom Kippur, that was believed to have
taken away =D2the sins of the world.=D3 But Darwin
has confronted this traditional understanding with
the vision of an unfinished and therefore
imperfect universe and of human life not fallen
but still emerging out of its evolutionary past.
The basic Christian interpretive myth of Jesus as
God=D5s divine rescue operation, designed to save a
fallen creation, quickly becomes inoperative. As
that realization has dawned in religious circles,
both anger and defensiveness have risen and,
simultaneously, religious power has waned. The
heart will never respond to that which the mind
One manifestation of this decline in religious
certainty is that people today no longer have
confidence in the reality of life after death.
Life after death was a powerful and consoling idea
in a believing age. It was this hope that kept
our human fears and insecurities in check. It
provided believers with the ability to embrace the
radical unfairness of human life. It promised
that God would rectify this unfairness in the
world to come. With the demise of belief in life
after death, a passion was born to bring fairness
to this present world now. Heaven, as a solution
for this human problem, was simply too nebulous.
That was the reality that gave birth to the
revolutionary politics of the 20th century. From
the writings of Karl Marx to the legislation that
launched The Great Society, the hope to build a
just society was born to deal with the loss of the
assurance that justice would be done in heaven. So
it was that this century witnessed a variety of
liberal political expressions: communism,
socialism and the New Deal. Its emergence was a
kind of secularized attempt to provide what belief
in a just God who promised an afterlife once
provided. But the conviction that liberal politics
could make fair our unfair world has also died and
with its death has come a new disillusionment. The
liberal experiment died in the 1980=D5s, and was
replaced by a mean-spirited politics of greed and
raw power. National budgets are cut by curtailing
welfare and medical resources for the poor.
Homelessness increases in the richest nation of
the world.
So it is that another reality the Church must
face as we prepare to enter the third millennium
is that we do so on the wings of a dying idealism.
That is why I believe we are witnessing today a
growing political concern to protect the
boundaries of our affluence from the surging
masses of the third world, and why we struggle to
maintain our standard of living at the expense of
the poor in our own country and the underdeveloped
nations of the world. An increasingly cruel and
insensitive world is on the horizon of the new
millennium. One wonders how or if the Christ
story will be heard in this world where tomorrow
is rapidly approaching.
Still another factor before us as we enter the
third millennium is that the 20th century has seen
the breakdown of one oppressive dehumanizing
stereotype after another. As each stereotype has
crumbled, Christian anxiety, which manifests
itself in both hostility and defensiveness has
increased. The 19th century ended slavery
legally, but the 20th century gave rise to
racism=D5s bastard stepchildren known as segregation
and apartheid. The battle to end these twin evils
has been won officially, but unofficially racism
has demonstrated an incredible tenacity and it
still lurks just beneath the level of our
consciousness. The churches of the Christian west
continue to have soiled racist hands.
The traditional religious definition of a woman
as a second class human being, based upon
significant literal biblical references, has also
been obliterated. Only in this 20th century have
college and university educations been opened to
women; the power to vote and to serve in public
life achieved by women; and the freedom to
determine how their own bodies would be used, won
by women. Only in the latter years of the 20th
century has full participation in the life of the
Church been accorded to women. Each of these
battles divided the Church into warring camps.
The traditional religious stereotype of
homosexuality is also dying. This century has
finally learned that gay and lesbian people are
not heterosexual people who, because of their
moral depravity, have chosen to live sinful
homosexual lives. They are not people who need to
be rescued from this evil and converted or
restored to normalcy. They are simply people born
with a different sexual orientation who have been
inaccurately defined as abnormal and condemned as
immoral by an ignorant heterosexual majority.
Once again, as this new consciousness has dawned,
the Body of Christ has been torn between the dying
stereotype and the new learning. On every front
the relentless revolution in thought that has
marked the 20th century has been resisted by
traditional religious voices. Yet nowhere is
there any evidence that the thought revolution is
being deterred by this opposition. Rather, the
Church itself is being driven involuntarily into a
new world which will require a new understanding
of what we Christians believe and how we live that
Christianity out. A religious system based on the
dismissed truth of another age and filled with the
vestiges of the rejected stereotypes of the past
will hardly appeal to people in a post-modern
world. These are major factors before the Church
as the new millennium is born.
We could cite other thinkers whose work has
shattered the operative presuppositions of the
religious life in the past. Despite the
assumptions of the Bible, the earth is not flat.
It is not the center of the universe. God is
therefore not looking down on us from beyond the
sky. This God does not invade our world with
miracle and magic to fight our wars, destroy our
enemies or do our bidding. Virgins do not
conceive. Resurrection cannot mean physical
resuscitation and the restarting of bodily
processes after three days of death. People
cannot ascend on their own gravity-defying power
into the sky of a Ptolemaic universe that is no
longer believed to exist. Both human truth and
traditional moral standards have been relativized.
Infallibility and inerrancy do not exist any
longer. These are among the changes that have
created the tidal wave that now propels us into
the 21st century. Reality is that we are destined
to be third millennium Christians or we will not
be Christians at all.
How shall we respond to this new reality? Can
we learn to sing the Lord=D5s song in the strange
land of the third millennium? Can we be believers
without denying the reality of the world? Must we
park our brains outside the church door in order
to worship?
Until we address these issues, all that we do
as a Church will be akin to rearranging the deck
chairs on the great ship Titanic! Yet from within
the Christian institution seldom do we hear a
voice that speaks to these concerns. Church
leaders rather seem content to occupy themselves
by stopping the leaks, denying the storm and
pretending that things will soon improve.
My vocation as a Christian and as a bishop is
to walk into this future of our faith. I prefer
to walk in concert with others in the body of
Christ, but if this institution is unresponsive, I
am prepared to walk alone. I do it because I am a
believer who lives in a world that the Christians
of the past could never have anticipated. I will
never sacrifice my faith, my integrity or my
citizenship in this modern world. Faith must have
integrity. It must live in this age or it will
not live at all. The third millennium ought to be
exciting for it will be the context in which the
life or death struggle for the Christian Church is
engaged. Stay tuned.