Friday, May 27, 2005

Is Theism Dead?

As some of you know from reading this blog, I've been pondering religious issues for some time, both as they directly relate to politics as well as for their own merit. I grew up in the fundamentalist, evangelical, biblical literalism tradition of the Christian church. While I continue to think that the church has something to offer through its community and its revelation of the Jesus story, I've been increasingly disenchanted with the church's regressive views on human development. And I've come to believe that the concept of Biblical literalism has its own set of problems, even irrespective of its sometimes ghastly implications for how we treat people that don't share our nationality or our system of beliefs. So I think it's fair to say I've been sorting through what psychologists refer to as "dissonance" when it comes to reconciling my more modern views of society with many of the primitive and exclusive dimensions of church life.

In the last week I picked up a book by John Shelby Spong, a retired Epicospalean Bishop, on the Sins of Scripture. I ended up racing through that book and bought three more of his books a few days later. Needless to say I've found his commentary highly enlightening and refreshing.

The basic gist of his conclusions is that the Bible is not the Word of God, but is rather a historical epic or series of epic stories that have been merged together out of a common tribal heritage. The personal, intervening God of these writings was once afforded responsiblity for natural disasters, described as supporting the nation's foreign policy and acting to rout and destroy its enemies, attributed as the source of wisdom underlying the tribe's religious practices and social system of hierarchy, and generally treated as if He was aligned with the interests and purposes of the tribe in its struggles against other nations and peoples.

Spong says many of these assumptions have been demonstrated to be unfounded by the growth and improvement of scientific and social scholarship and discoveries associated with the modern era, dating generally to the 1500's when many new findings in astronomy, geography and psychology began to be emerge.

So, no longer can we really give any serious credence to tales of God planting a rainbow in the sky, manna falling from "heaven", and God's reported support for any one nation or body of people at the expense of another. These assumptions derived from primitive views of the world that attributed personal motives and qualities to natural forces, and which were based largely on the need for security.

This need for security in a vulnerable world led in turn to the creation of a father-like deity that handed out promises and threats, rewards and punishments, and could otherwise be placated, appeased and flattered by people in need of protection and life meaning, through the means of animal and ultimately human sacrifices and by means of liturgical services (worship) in which songs of praise were sung and prayers of gratitude were offered to this being.

As the tools of modern science have made this God less relevant and in the language of some, unemployed and idle now that He doesn't have much to do, the prominence of God, especially in the western world, has declined. Old creeds, doctrines, and cliches no longer maintain the same potent meaning once attached to them.

Perhaps most significant of the casualties involved in the retreat of theism is the assumption that life was once perfect before The Fall, after which Atonement was needed for us to restore our connection with God and our once state of perfection. Hence emerged the concepts of sin, punishment, and the need for a bleeding, dying, but eventually resurrected savior. It was said that God and his angels in heaven recorded our every thought, word, and deed. The outcome, for those who submit to this savior and accept this atonement is an eternal life in heaven with God. Those who refused this atonement and this belief, or were found wanting in the books of heaven, would be sent to Hell, to burn to death or to burn eternally (The Catholic church and much of the conservative evangelical world favors the view that "sinners" will burn forever while a few denominations hold that this punishment is to last only as long as is necessary to kill the person).

This belief system carries with it several significant implications for life here on earth. For one it generates a mind set of aiming for rewards and avoiding punishments. While most Protestant denominations hold that our "works" do not gain us heaven, obedience is still treated as essential to gain entrance to the promised land. Evangelicalism varies in its understanding of the cause and effect relationship between behavior and reward, in some cases differing only in emphasis. But the most common and acceptable view to emerge has been that our obedience that assures salvation is a "result" of our being saved, grateful as we become for Jesus dying for our sins and accepting His "new birth" into our lives that we change, become more and more like him, and thus put ourselves in the deserving category. At its best, such a system would seem to help ensure good behavior to others and a stable society. But all of this of course also lends itself to varying forms of severe psychosis and neurosis. For one, it puts a lot of pressure on a person to ensure that others are "saved". At the same time, it generates a heavily self centered, and robotic approach to life where one endeavors to conduct oneself in the proper manner so as to gain God's favor and eternal reward. It also generates an exclusive mind set where only those who believe, act, and indentify themselves with the believer's God or denomination will be saved.

In short, the Christian notions of life and salvation embody many problematic and child like attitudes of dependence, and behavior driven by fear of punishment or desire for favor and reward. Combined with a methodological emphasis that discourages serious intellectual inquiry, challenge, and change, the church's beliefs are gradually being eclipsed by a world that no longer needs the control of institutions and that can no longer accommodate creeds based on outmoded assumptions about people and how the world works. The result is a church that is both dying as well as becoming less biblical and more politically vindicative as it seeks to maintain its relevance in a changing world.

So, the question to ask is, does the church and the bible still have any importance? Does the emporer still have any clothes?

I believe the answer to these questions is affirmative, but the Christian church will need to change its fundamental assumptions, beliefs, and power goals to accommodate a spiritually searching and developing world. Ancient calls for tribal distinctions and exclusions, and the repression of women and gays will have to go. The church will need to be less condescending to a world and people it doesn't understand. It will need to let go of the illusion that life is about "getting into" the kingdom so that it can better work with others towards making a better, more inclusive and peaceful present.

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