Jan: David, where are you up to now?
David: I think I am more convinced than ever that the church as we know it is finished if it doesn't change radically. On the other hand, I am as hooked on issues of theology as I ever was and still part of the church. I find I cannot leave it. I've solidified... I mean.. worked out a bit more fully some of my ideas on what I find wrong with the church. But I'm not sure where those ideas take me.
Jan: Begin at the beginning. Rather than try and recall our previous conversations, how would you outline things now?
David: Christianity has a real problem. It is increasingly hard to believe that it can be true if we use the traditional formulation. It doesn't seem to matter if you have this formulation in a hardline conservative form or a more moderate form.
Some conservatives will tell you that "God created the world in 7 days, or at least a shortish period. Geology and biology are completely wrong in their story of origins. Adam and Eve were real people. The sinned, i.e. they disobeyed God, and because of that God cursed them and we all die. We all sin. Jesus rescued us by dying for our sins. He has risen from the dead in bodily form, he walked on earth again, and he ascended into heaven and is with God. If we believe in him, that he is the Divine Son of God, then we will be saved from eternal punishment. The worlds of the bible tell us all this, and they are all true."
Now you can get it in less ignorant form where seven day creation is seen as a metaphor - a 'why' story tell us about why God acts and what God is like... e.g. God saw all that he had made, and it was good. The story of the fall of Adam and Eve can be seen as a story about human self-knowledge and guilt. Jesus shows the nature of God in a new way, and he shows us the way we should live if we love God. He died for us, and his dying for us shows God's love for us. The Bible is a story of people's growing understanding of God over the centuries and their response to God. We are called to respond now. But this still often seems to have a sense of this all being God's plan, and God being a personal being who is in charge of it all, and acting as the director of the play, if you like. He is a bit less often on stage in this later version, but he is still very much in charge and directing things.
Jan: These are almost caricatures... but they are very different. How is it that you say the differences really don't matter.
David: I guess the caricature comes partly because I am tired of the arguments of literalist vs. "metaphor-ist," or fundamentalist vs. liberal, or however we want to describe it. I just don't have the energy and the drive anymore to write out for you a long detailed list of both kinds of approach. In any case, as you know, there are as many different positions as there are people, so I've given you two extremes to make my point, which is that the differences don't matter.
You see, it's like there is no point in arguing which end of the spectrum is correct. It's like the bushfire has come through, everything is burned, the stock are all dead, and we are arguing about how to put out the big smouldering mass of the hay shed! Why bother? That's all gone. Instead, now that the farm has burned, where will we find a home? Where will we find food? What will we live on?
We argue in the church over a dying theology. At their heart, most of the arguments still understand God as saving us through the sacrifice of Jesus. They still have the basic understanding of an omnipotent omniscient God at their core. What I am saying is that the details change, but the basic underlying image of God does not. A Bible Baptist and a UCA Minister may seem wildly different in some of their conclusions, but I am alarmed at how similar they are when you scratch below the surface, or they are threatened by a John Shelby Spong.
Jan: I wondered how long it would be before Spong came up in the discussion!
David: Well, he's just been in Adelaide, and caused a stir in some circles and rattled a few people's cages. He really clarified some issues for me... as you know, I went and listened. It struck me so forcefully that he was not saying anything new! I had heard most of what he was saying when I went to theological college years ago, and some of the books I was reading were many years old then.
In fact, what he was saying was the obvious implication of what has been common conversation in theological colleges and among some clergy and lay people for years... for decades, almost. Some people see him as a heretic, but really what he is a good communicator and educator. He has collected and summarised and made available to people what is already there for the most part. Those minister colleagues of ours who are upset by him must have had their eyes shut in theological college, or something.
He's also got more guts than most of us, because Christians are among the nastiest people I know when you point out the obvious flaws in their beliefs.
I read somewhere in an email list how someone asked some ministers how come no one is combatting Spong and refuting him. And they said, "Oh, he's not a scholar, he's just a priest. What he says has no credibility." It suddenly struck me how wrong this is. He is not just a priest. Listening to him is to hear a priest with a large pastoral heart seeking to set people free with the gospel. And the scholars don't refute him because what he is saying is academically uncontroversial. They may disagree with some of his conclusions, but he is not saying anything less than the obvious.
It's the conservatives, the non-scholars, or those using scholarship to try and bolster a dead theology who are upset. And the convince a lot of frightened people that Spong and those like him are evil.
Jan: What is the obvious implication you keep talking about.
David: This is how I would say if for myself.
We say Jesus is the central plank of our faith. Jesus tells us God is Love. Omniscient, all powerful God is Love. Love, faced with a sinful humanity could only deal with this problem, we are told, by taking the one truly, fully human sinless person who has ever been, and kill him so we could be saved! Somehow Love's honour, affronted by our sin, could only be assuaged and satisfied by committing what in every other case we would call a sin. Love killed an innocent man. And even after that... remember it took God 4,000 years to get around to this (on Bishop Usser's dating)- even after that omnipotent all loving God has allowed another 2000 years of rape, pillage and violence to continue.
It is true when someone said: If God is good, then God is not God. And if God is God, then God is not good.
Clearly if God is good, then God isn't God. God is not up to the job. God is simply not powerful enough to do the job of being God. If God is really omniscient and all powerful God is not Good. Because if God was good, he would not let the world exist ins such an evil shambles and perpetuate it with such an evil act as murder in the name of Salvation. The simple fact is that God allows unspeakable evil to continue.
Now I know you can have all sorts of arguments about the nature of evil and why there is evil and pain in the world. There is a whole branch of theology devoted to it (theodicy.) It struck me very early in theological college that almost all of this theodicy was about getting God off the hook. You can talk about human autonomy and self will and all that... you can introduce Satan into the scheme of things... but in the end it is all about getting God off the hook. The basic underlying premise is that God cannot, and must not be responsible for all that evil and pain.
Ockham's razor would suggest that the simplest hypothesis is that God is responsible. If God is Omnipotent and God is Creator, then God is responsible. God did not have to make this world the way he did.
But since God did make the world this way, then either God is not up to the job, or God is evil, or God simply does not exist.
Jan: So you are an atheist!
David: No! This is one of the interesting things Spong says. He says that the church basically forces anyone who sees the absurdity of its present position to become an atheist. If you don't believe like us then you can't believe at all, kind of thing. But in fact, the theology and philosophy of the last few years clearly lays a foundation for anew faith.
We know that God as we speak of God is not GOD. What we call God is an image... an imagining, an interpretation of our experience of the Divine. What we have done over history is to develop an interpretative system around the experience of God. What I am saying, and what Spong and many others is saying is that the common interpretative system of the church does not work! The powerful and undoubtedly salvation-channelling theologies of previous generations no longer interpret the God experience. In our age they hide God, make God irrelevant, and trivialise our human suffering. They make the Divine appear evil.
Jan: Where David has spoken of this in relatively dispassionate language, Greg's three pages, which come next, show us some of the pain these issues can bring us... as if we needed to know!