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The New Christianity, Part 1: The Bible (1/25/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
(Words of Life: Genesis 1)
Today we will begin a sermon series called The New Christianity. I’m not sure how long this series will last. This is a very big subject, and I’m sure we will feel the need to move on before we exhaust all the issues facing the modern church. But I think this will be fun, and informative, and in the long run, inspirational.
William Sloan Coffin, who preached for many years at Riverside Church in New York City, recently wrote a book in which he claimed that Socrates had it all wrong. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. William Sloan Coffin claims it is the uncommitted life that is not worth living.
That rings true. Until we find something bigger than ourselves to which we can commit our lives, we will always be nagged by a certain emptiness. Many of us turn to our faith—our religion—to find that “something bigger.” And here is where the problems begin for modern Christians. The writings that inform our faith were written, for the most part, by people in the ancient world. They did not see the world—the universe—the way we do. For them, the earth was flat—it’s obvious! The sun circled around the earth—again, what could be more obvious?
When they felt the spirit of God moving within them, and they tried to put into words that unspeakable truth God was writing on their hearts, they poetically expressed themselves as best they could. God, and heaven, were up in the sky. Where else could they be? If there was some sort of hellish existence after death for the most evil of those who walk among us, that would be somewhere down in the earth. After all, they had seen animals die, and return to the dust, and it was not a pretty sight. There was something hellish about death that had to do with the earth, and could be overcome only by the God who was up in the sky.
Now, the most important thing a modern Christian can grow to understand is that there can be great truth in what those ancient writers were saying, even if the imagery they used to express themselves is now outdated. For example, in that ancient way of thinking about the world, when Jesus—the Son of God—came into the world, he surely came down from heaven. And when he died, he ascended—he went back up to heaven.
Is there any truth in that? The modern person of science would point out that if Jesus, at the time of his death and resurrection, ascended physically up into the sky, even if he traveled at the speed of light—which is faster than a physical body can possibly travel—he still would be in the Milky Way Galaxy. In fact, in the two thousand years since his crucifixion, he would not have traveled even one-millionth of the way to the edge of the known universe. So unless we think that God has physically set up shop on some cozy little planet near some star in our own little corner of the universe, that ancient metaphor of Jesus physically soaring through the sky to be reunited with God doesn’t make much sense to a modern person.
But again, is there any truth in the story? Yes! We can certainly believe that there is something special and unique about Jesus—that he came from God. And we can certainly believe that the great man from Nazareth did more than turn back to dust when the powers of this world put him to death. He returned to God. The message remains the same. The story tells the truth, albeit in language that a modern person can view most honestly as being poetic.
But here is where this idea of a “New Christianity” comes into play. There are a lot of voices in the modern church who tell us we must accept all those ancient stories as being literally true in order to call ourselves Christians. There are voices in the pulpits, in the press, and over the airwaves telling us that in order to be Christians, we must look squarely at the truth and insist it is not true. That’s what faith is all about, they say.
For example, we must take one of the most powerful, beautiful, and meaningful stories ever written—the creation story from the first chapter of Genesis—and believe that God created the universe in 144 hours—six earth days.
There are countless voices in the modern church telling us that we must pretend with all our hearts to believe that story, which defies the truth of the world God has placed all around us, is literally true, because if we don’t, we are turning away from God. Well nonsense! And this is where many of us who consider ourselves devoted Christians start getting apoplectic. Because even though the story is not literally, physically, scientifically true, the story is true.
The ancient writer of that great creation story was in touch with the eternal spirit of God in a way the rest of us can only dream of! He used his understanding of the world to express some of the most important truths ever expressed. Consider all the important truths he conveys in that story:
The universe is not an accident—it was created.
The universe was created in an orderly and intelligent fashion.
The process of creation was not instantaneous—it happened over time.
And most importantly, the universe is good. With each step of the creation process, God calls creation “good.”
That creation story is a wonderful way to start the Bible, and it is a wonderful place to start our faith. There are many in our modern world who claim that life is a meaningless accident; that it just happened with no intention or purpose; that human beings are meaningless and temporary blips of consciousness in a vast sea of emptiness, the only real cause being a series of fluke chemical reactions.
The author of Genesis 1 knew better, and he said so the best way he knew how. And our faith is not served by those who claim we must accept his ancient view of the physical world in order to accept the beauty and truth of his spiritual message.
This is the most important first step in developing The New Christianity: we must accept the fact that we can learn from the ancient scriptures, and from the writings of the great Christian thinkers from across the ages; and must study them for truth; without checking our brains at the church door. We don’t have to pretend to believe things that are obviously not true in order to be Christians.
Now, let’s get to the heart of the matter, and the reason I decided to do this sermon series on The New Christianity. I said that I hope this sermon series will be fun, informative, and inspirational. Many accuse The New Christianity of being more informative than inspirational. Many claim that this developing “New Christianity” has lost its heart. Many claim it has lost its sense of mystery, its sense of the sacred.
And frankly, in many ways, they are right. The fact is, it is much easier to take the old faith apart than it is to put the new faith together. It is much easier to point out the flaws in the old, ancient way of thinking than to find a truthful and inspirational new way of thinking.
There are several important voices in the New Christianity, and I read pretty much everything they write. These voices include Marcus Borg, Bishop John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Tom Wright, and William Placher. These people do not speak with a unified voice. Theologically speaking, Spong and Crossan are ultra-liberal, and Tom Wright and William Placher are quite conservative. I don’t know exactly where on that spectrum Marcus Borg falls, but he is my favorite of these theological voices, because I agree with him about 90 percent of the time. (You’ll notice I didn’t say “he is right 90 percent of the time,” I only said that I agree with him 90 percent of the time.)
There will be very few “original-Gary-Cox-thoughts” in the things you hear over the next several weeks. What you hear will be a distillation of the thinking of the people I just mentioned. I will say that I am using Marcus Borg’s latest book as a guide. Because my sermons go out over the internet, as well as in printed form from the church office, I do not want to be accused of plagiarism. So I state up front that Marcus Borg’s wonderful new book, The Heart of Christianity, is serving as the foundation and outline for this series. I will plug in the thinking of those other writers I mentioned, along with considerable personal commentary, as we go along.
We will cover several areas over the weeks, because there are several things we must wrestle with. We will examine several traditional elements of Christianity, and ask ourselves if there is still a place for these things in The New Christianity. Some of these are ideas that many modern thinkers have thrown on the scrapheap of Christian history. Some of the things we will consider are the Bible, faith, God, Jesus, The Kingdom of God, the idea of being born again, sin, and salvation.
If you’re thinking I just gave you an excuse to sleep in for the next few Sundays, let me make a promise to you. This will not turn into some heavy theological discussion. The reason I chose Marcus Borg as the foundation of this series, and the reason I picked those other writers to fill in the spaces, is because they all speak in plain English. These are not Professors of Systematic Theology. They are scholars who have gained great popularity because they take the dense ideas of those theologians and write about them in language that the average person can understand.
Whereas the academic theologian might say, “What is the immediate eschatological significance of nuclear fusion,” the writers we will discuss would say, “Are we about to blow ourselves to kingdom come?” It means the exact same thing, so why ask the question in such a pretentious manner?
Our writers might say something like, “It’s insulting to claim you have to be a Christian to go to heaven when we live among so many people of other faiths.” That’s much too simple for the academic theologian, who instead would say, “Our newly pluralistic Western civilization makes the traditional soteriological claims of Anselm difficult for many to palate.”
So, even though we will be looking at the subjects that consume the great modern theologians, my commitment to you is that we will approach them in a way that you—and I—can understand.
So, for the balance of this morning, I would like to make a broad overview of the most basic differences between the Old Christianity and the New Christianity. There are a few basic ideas over which the modern church argues, and these differing viewpoints have produced, for all practical purpose, two different religions.
Now, I don’t like separating our faith into “Old Christianity” and “New Christianity.” For one thing, some of the ideas that The New Christianity takes for granted—things like the Bible not being literally true—are hardly new. They are a part of Christian history. St. Augustine, over 1500 years ago, recognized that the creation account from the first chapter of Genesis, which we talked about earlier, was not literally true. What I refer to as “Old Christianity” is, in many ways, a development of the past few hundred years.
What we have here are two paradigms—two ways of thinking. A paradigm is a way of looking at the world. The thing about a paradigm is, a person doesn’t really know what their paradigm is! A paradigm is the way a person thinks when they’re not thinking about thinking. Let me say that again. A paradigm is the way a person thinks when their not thinking about thinking. A paradigm is the way a person sees the world—things that are taken for granted—things that seem so obvious, they hardly deserve discussion.
The old paradigm—the Old Christianity; and the new paradigm—the New Christianity—use the same Bible and the same language. But the main thing that separates these two worlds is the way they think about the Bible. The Bible stands between these two worlds, these two religions, and it is the radically different approaches to the Bible that result in radically different approaches to religion—and to life.
Consider the Bible’s origin. The old paradigm says that the Bible is a divine product with divine authority. The New Christianity says that the Bible is a human product—not the direct work of God, but rather a human response to God, created by God-inspired people.
The old paradigm says the Bible should be interpreted literally; that in all cases, it is an historical book, to be taken in all cases as the literal truth. The New Christianity says the Bible is sometimes historical and sometimes metaphorical. In other words, there are stories in the Bible—such as the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis—that are not literally and historically accurate, but which nevertheless convey timeless truths about God and the universe.
What is the function of the Bible? The old paradigm says the Bible functions as the holy revelation of truth; that it contains doctrines and social morals that are true in all cases and in all times. If the Bible says women were to be treated a certain way three thousand years ago in the ancient Middle East, then that is exactly the way women should be treated in 21st Century America. The New Christianity says that the Bible functions as a means of understanding the historic relationship between God and humanity. The Bible remains the most important collection of writings in the world, not because it reveals hard and unchangeable religious rules, but because we can learn about and discover the very Spirit of God as we study those pages with open hearts and open minds.
While the Bible sits at the intersection of these two approaches to Christianity, there is another important difference, based on the answer to a simple question: What is the purpose of the Christian life? Okay, we might disagree on the origin of the Bible, and how to interpret the Bible, and what function the Bible should serve in our lives. But life itself—this time we are each granted in this creation—what is its purpose? What is its meaning? First, there is some agreement on this subject. Both the old paradigm and The New Christianity believe we are meant to live our lives in a relationship with God, loving our neighbors. Both views of Christianity also believe there is more to our being than this life of mortal flesh. As one of the great 20th Century theologians, Tielhard de Chardin, said, “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a physical experience.” Both approaches to Christianity claim the things we do in this world have consequences—the universe is not morally neutral.
But there is a major difference in emphasis. The old paradigm says that the primary point of the Christian life is to be saved; to escape the damnation to hell that is our fate in life; to believe and do those things that will assure we go to heaven. The New Christianity says that the primary point of the Christian life is transformation: transformation of oneself into a more spiritual and loving being; and through that personal transformation, a transformation of the world into a more beautiful and loving place.
Well, that’s more than enough for one week! To return to the heart of the matter, can we develop a New Christianity that still has a heart? Can we keep it from becoming an academic exercise? Our claim is that this church of ours—University Congregational Church—is a place where head and heart are equal partners in faith. My hope is that as we work our way through the issues that face the modern church, our faith will grow, our minds will remain open, and our hearts will expand to encompass every element of our lives.
May God be with us on our journey, and may the love of Christ light every step.