As I mentioned before, I am reading Spong’s Jesus for the Non-Religious. In it, he argues for a non-theistic understanding of God. Most people I have mentioned that to are perplexed by the statement. What is a non-theistic understanding of God? How does that even work? Isn’t someone who believes in God a theist, and someone who doesn’t an atheist? Apparently not.
As Spong explains it, theism is one way of understanding God. Like all other ways of understanding God, it’s a human invention. The major way of understanding God in the Judeo-Christian tradition is as
- A being, usually the Supreme being
- Has supernatural powers
- Is external to this world
- Periodically “invades” the world to perform miracles, answer prayers, etc.
Spong argues that a theistic understanding of God is no longer compatible with modern knowledge. When the Bible was written people imagined a three-tiered world in which God lived in heaven, just above the clouds. As he looked down on us, he could choose to intervene. And while the normal way to get out of this world was through death, God could also raise people up into the sky to be with him. Knowing that above the sky is space, not heaven, this perception of God becomes more tenuous. Similarly, since we no longer see lightning bolts or storms as acts of God, since there is less and less that is unknown in the world, there is less and less for a theistic God to do.
Unfortunately, if you strip away the theistic understanding of God, a lot of people are left with the question of “what now?” Most people in the modern world who aren’t atheists live with a sort of cognitive dissonance – a world in which we separate our belief in God from our knowledge of science. Only by choosing what Borg calls post-critical naïveté are we able to embrace the “truth” of the religious teachings and the truth of living in the modern world. Without that, one is forced to either suspend disbelief, or fight against the need for internal consistency. If that fails, people either reject God or reason.
Will people actually embrace a non-theistic (or post-theistic) Christianity, or will they simply move on and declare religion irrelevant? Does Spong’s idea (which obviously isn’t unique to him) actually offer the church a chance to make itself more relevant, or does it just hasten the decline of the church?
Update: from Spong’s A Call for a New Reformation
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 publish this challenge to Christianity in The Voice. I will post my theses on the Internet and send copies with invitations to debate them to the recognized 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.
- Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
- The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
- 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.