Shuck and Jive

Monday, September 18, 2006

Peddling Antiquities

"Those who insist upon the unaltered retention of traditional forms of religious understanding and language and who retreat from the challenge posed by the actual world after Galileo want to direct the Christian community into the confines of a sacred grotto, an enclosed, religiously defined world that is brought completely under the control of scripture and tradition; and they want to turn the ordained clergy into antiquities dealers.
--Roy Hoover

I realize now that I am in the process of reforming my theology. This blog is a means to that end. This is a personal exercise yet I am engaging in it publicly. I have no delusions of grandeur about this. I don't expect anyone else to care or to take notice. I am not a scholar. I am a simple country preacher who recognizes that the god we inherit is too small for the world we inhabit.

I didn't plan it this way, but I see now that my previous posts are attempts to set our context as 21st century Christian Americans (or American Christians), in particular, and in general, as inhabitants of Earth. Cosmology, ecology, energy, economy, evolution, empire and so forth should not be relegated to the "seminary elective" category of Christian Ethics. These concerns are central to formulating a theology that can speak to us and enable us to participate in God's unfolding vision of Shalom.

This will mean that I will need to articulate an understanding of God, Jesus, the Bible, the Church, Hope (Eschatology), Sin, etc. that not only makes sense to our condition and context, but that can also raise our level of consciousness and inspire us to positive action. Your questions, challenges, resources, and ideas will be helpful to me and maybe to others. Maybe this personal yet public exercise will spark your creativity as well.

The above quote is from an article in the Fourth R by Roy Hoover (co-author of The Five Gospels with the late Robert W. Funk) entitled Tradition and Faith in a New Era. I invite you to check it out and to offer your critique!

Not content with peddling antiquities,


  1. Perhaps the understanding of the concept of God/religion is evolving as the understanding of the cosmos has changed just in my lifetime.

  2. John,

    I'm glad that you are being honest about how you are not really content with the Christian faith as it has been expressed in Scriptures and the confessions of the PC(USA). It's a big step.

    The question I would ask of you is this: what is (or should or might be) the highest level of accountability within your emerging belief system?

    Within classical liberalism, the answer has been human reason. Within Roman Catholicism, the answer has been the Pope and his defense of the faith through the magisterium. For historic protestantism, the answer has been the Scriptures.

    I invite you to visit your epistemology and your authority structures first and foremost as you enter into this exploration. If your lived experience is the key, or your perception of experience around the world, is foremost then you'll need to articulate how your new faith will be meaningful to others.

    If you seek to do this within a (post-modern) Christian perspective, I suspect that you'll say your ultimate authority will be the experience of God revealed in Jesus. If that's the case, you'll be begging the question of which Jesus? How do you arrive at knowledge of this Jesus who acts normatively (or at least formatively) in your faith journey. I suspect that you have largely answered this through your advocacy of the Jesus Seminar, but it might be nice to clarify it in your thinking and that of your readers.

    As for me, I guess I'm mired in the antiquated notions of a faith "once for all delivered" unto the saints.


  3. Harriet! Welcome! I think you are right about our concept of God/religion evolving. At least I agree! It is interesting that you say it has changed in your lifetime. Because the movement for this change can be traced back to the time of Galileo. I think that shows how slow the church has been to embrace science.


    Good comments. I am not completely comfortable with your statement that I am not "content with the Christian faith as it has been expressed in Scriptures and the confessions of the PC(USA)." That is only true to the extent that the tradition is fixed. If the tradition is fixed, then yes, I am not content.

    However, I believe that I truly represent the direction of the PCUSA. I may or may not be right. I suppose it will be determined by votes of the General Assembly.

    Nevertheless, in my view, the PCUSA is an evolving denomination. Its founders were called Reformers. They were considered heretics. They were "radicals" meaning that they went back to the root. For Calvin that meant scripture (not the encrustations of church tradition). I honestly believe I am following in the spirit of the reformers, Luther and Calvin, by going back to the roots, including seeking to understand how the scriptures were formed, identifying their literary forms, their social and historical contexts, etc. Since it is a Christian theology it does have to do with Jesus. Who was Jesus and who is he for us today?

    Luther and Calvin were constructing a theology appropriate for the 16th century. The Copernican Revolution hadn't yet made an impact. It still hasn't for the church. We still sing hymns to a god "up in heaven."

    Your question of authority is an important one. How do we determine what is true? I think the methods of modern science are about the best that we can do right now. Something is not true because an "Authority" says it is true. Authority is earned by the truth it tells. I have no ultimate answer on this one. But I think truth and authority are related to being honest about our experience and how we see the world.

    Thanks for the conversation!

  4. I appreciate this very public exercise in theological self-exploration. It is a process that is no doubt foreign to those who are steeped in their old dogmas.

    I just finished reading Spong's book "Why Christianity Must Change or Die". I think that Spong was dead on as far as his criticisms of traditional Christian orthodoxy, but he also went further and spelled out where he thinks Christianity needs to go. He confidently asserted that his own Tillich-based theology was the way that all of us "believers in exile" are going. I think this is a bit presumptuous of him, and I don't think it is fair for him to speak on behalf of the rest of us. One thing I have seen, in participating in the discussions in the TCPC online message board, is that progressive Christians don't all see things the same way. Spong says that his ideas are based on Tillich's, and I haven't read Tillich, so I don't know how much agreement there is between Tillich and Spong. Spong frankly came across to me in his book as a pantheist, but a commenter in my blog suggested that Tillich was really a panentheist.

    That being said, Spong alludes to an important point. Western religion was never a fixed dogma that simply came out of the sky unchanged, regardless of what fundamentalists will tell you. The Jewish religion of Jesus's time was not the same as the Jewish religion of Moses's time. In those intervening centuries, a lot changed, and crises emerged in Jewish theology led to the evolution of understanding of such ideas as God's role in history and the development of the idea of an afterlife. And after Jesus's death, many different Christianities emerged, competing ideas about God and the nature of Jesus, and only after one victorious theology emerged and suppressed the others did a theology become defined as "orthodox".

    The point is that religions do evolve. We are at a time in Christian history when a lot of people are calling out for a new paradigm. I appreciate your courage in publicly exploring this process in the face of conservative critics who hound you and who question the legitimacy of your role in your church. These sorts of attacks, unfortunately, are something that courageous people in many Christian denominations are facing right now from the religious right.

  5. Thanks, Mystical Seeker!

    I am pleased to that you provided a critique of Spong. His theological plan is one of many.

    My theology will likely arise out of and reflect my Reformed/Presbyterian background even as it seeks to move in new ways.

    Matthew Fox is certainly different than Spong and reflects a Roman Catholic sensibility.

    Also we have Process Theologians (John Cobb, etc.), the radicals like Don Cupitt, and feminist theologians like Sallie McFague and Rita Nakashima Brock.

    There is a lot out there!

    All I will do is steal and piece together what seems to make sense to me.

    Which, to be honest, is what theology is for everyone!

    As far as opposition, well, it keeps us honest and makes us stronger!


  6. My perspective of the change in
    the understanding of the universe came from the knowledge revealed by the Hubble telescope. I believe that I remember reading that there are probably 9 billion stars in our galaxie and 9 billion galaxies in our KNOWN universe and when I was in school, that was not known. Blows MY mind! Earth is like a grain of sand in the whole big picture. I think that we are so limited in our understanding of the vastness of it all and perhaps also the energy that is present and available to us. In time that knowledge and understanding will evolve....and God/Spirit will be in all of it. Let's be a part of that exploration. Thanks John for not being afraid to walk with us as we reach toward better understanding.

  7. I am pretty sure that Matthew Fox is a panentheist, but I could never really relate to his writings much, and I wasn't sure why that was until a Catholic friend said to me that you almost have to be Catholic to appreciate him.

    Process theologians are also definitely panentheists. I personally have been deeply influenced by process theology in my own views--ih fact, it was my discovery of process theology that reintroduced me to religion after a decade or so of atheism--but that doesn't stop me from looking into other theologies, including some that you mentioned, like feminist theology.

    Of course, I am not a trained minister and don't have the theological background and training that you do, so I tend to learn about theologies based on perusing bookstore religion sections and finding books that seem interesting. :)

  8. John,

    Thanks for letting me be a dialogue partner with you in such a public way (even if it undermines your delusions of non-grandeur ;).

    I guess something that would be helpful to this semi-public exploration is what you understand "the tradition" to be. If it is, lexically speaking, something that has been handed to us then what has been handed over? Is it, as many maintain, a body of doctrine, latitudinarian statements of orthodoxy, and a faithful copy of the Scriptures? Or is it more a way of life - a mystical exercise by which we encounter something transcendent and yet immanent at the same time?

    As for votes of a GA determining the direction of the PCUSA, I find it unsettling that according to our own pollsters, there is a great disconnect between middle and national courts of the church and the people in the pew. However, I am at a complete loss as to why this is so. I long for our governing bodies to be truly representative of the church at large.

    Your reference to the PCUSA as an evolving denomination strikes me as odd. It seems as if "survival of the fittest" is an odd metaphor for a church that has plummeting membership, giving, and missional activity. Especially as it undermines your point - the churches that are growing in all the observable factors have a much more fixed sense of Christian doctrine that is in line with historic orthodoxy and the Protestant high view of Scripture.

    As for your historical allegation that the Reformers were regarded as heretics, I have to take issue with this on historical grounds. The only truly catholic council that the Reformers possibly violated was the Second Council of Nicea (787), which repudiated the iconoclasm of the Council of Constantinople (754). For instance, nobody could charge them with being Arians, Nestorians, or Monophysites. Protestants then, as now, claim orthodoxy by holding to the councils of the unbroken church and rejecting the unbiblical accretions of the medieval Church of Rome.

    But that's all a bit academic. The heart of your answer to my question is found in your statement about scientific method being the best source of authority we have. You don't say why, but simply assert it as true (or true enough). So my question becomes: What is Christian about that epistemology? How do you avoid the slide into a secular materialism if modern science is the best source of authority? Or the slide into the panentheism that Stephen Hawkings and other eminent scientists have recently advocated?

    More importantly, how does it jive with your declaration that Jesus is Lord?

    Thanks for your thoughtful replies.


  9. Hi Harriet,

    I see what you mean now. Right. In light of that reality, how the universe is, what is our spiritual resoponse?

    I think we have to be, like you say, humble and open to better understanding.


  10. Thanks MS,

    If ya'll haven't found Mystical Seeker's blog, you ought to check it out. We are both discussing similar things:

    I think we will need to talk about views of God, theism, monotheism, pantheism, panentheism, polytheism, and atheism, and many others.

    I joke with my Buddhist friend that atheism and pantheism are the same thing except that one sounds more spiritual.

    Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering I think would call themselves Christian atheists. That raises a few eyebrows.

    What do we mean when we say "God"? A supernatural being, or everything that is, or everything that is plus a bit more?

    We gotta talk about God, I guess.

    I think it is great what you are doing!

    Don't let us so-called trained ministers get away with anything. If anything, we are trained to obey... like puppies.

    My real theological education happened when I started to read what my parishioners were reading.

    It was a member of my church who introduced me to John Dominic Crossan and another to Robert Funk!
    And yet another who finally convinced me to attend a Jesus Seminar conference. The church I serve now introduces me to all kinds of things!

    My point being that it is the "laity" who are really leading this movement. The clergy can't seem to see beyond their clerical collars.

    Enough of that! Keep at it!

  11. Chris,

    Way too many questions to answer! But good ones to ask and to ponder.

    I feel uneasy about the answer I gave regarding sources of authority for truth. It depends on what kind of truth you are looking for, don't you think?

    Modern science cannot give us all truth. What is the truth of happiness and love? What is the truth of why I feel calm when leaves are rustling? What is the truth of laughter?

    I like this quote. It is the conclusion of Frederick Buechner's book, "Telling the Truth: The Gospel and Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale."

    It was an assigned text in my preaching class at seminary. Did you run into it? It has been a helpful book for me.

    “Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in that silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depths of [God’s] absence that God makes himself present….And finally let [her] preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true because to dismiss it as untrue is to dismiss along with it that catch of the breath, that beat and lifting of the heart near to or even accompanied by tears, which I believe is the deepest intuition of truth that we have.”
    --Frederick Buechner

  12. I haven't read it, but I generally appreciate what Buechner writes. I'll have to add it to my stupendously long reading list.

    Your response to MS is interesting. How should Trinitarians answer this question? Is there a way to uphold Trinitarianism apart from reliance upon a supernaturalist understanding of the Scriptures (or at least of the NT)? If Jesus isn't God-incarnate (and I'm not alleging that you deny that - though it would be great if you would enlighten your audience), then what reason do we have for a Trinitarian framework?

    Looking forward to your response,


  13. It is my inclination that "we" are pulled toward being a part of this evolutionary process. We are changing and changing to be more spiritual beings. I can never remember whom to credit, "We have to get away from God to find God"...or something like that. Country preachers like you can help us find how we are to respond. Perhaps walking in leaves, maybe holding a child's hand and laughing at it all.

  14. Thanks Chris:

    I think you bring up an important question regarding the Trinity. A helpful tool might be to explore the history of the formation of this doctrine. What were the circumstances, what was the cosmology, the limitations of the views of deities that would lead the church to express God and Jesus in that way? We would also want to look at positive ways in which we might interpret the Trinity in our time.

    We will have to work on that!

  15. Thanks, Harriet.

    Getting away from "God" to find God is the via negativa. It is a stripping away of all the baggage, all of the names, concepts, dogmas, and whatever else.

    It requires that we risk jumping and not knowing if we will land on our feet because we get to the point that we have to jump. To remain the same, to remain safe, is stifling, and ultimately destructive.

    This is my mantra not only for religion but for how humanity itself and the way we are living. Because of our inability to see the world as it is, our unwillingness to look at the crises that are unfolding, and the way our stagnant way of life is contributing to these crises, we are stuck on the bank. What I mean by being stuck is that we are stuck into thinking that war is inevitable, that our economy is master rather than servant, etc.

    We need to jump and trust. That is the via negativa.

    Walk in leaves and laughing is a good start!


  16. The precipitating crisis of Trinitarian theology is clearly delineated in the many standard works, the most widely accepted modern statement being found in the work of J.N.D. Kelly.

    The claim of the absolute divinity of Jesus Christ by Paul (early 50s), the Gospels (60s and forward), and the earliest of Church Fathers (Ignatius who died in 107AD) and impartial Roman reports on Christian thought as it relates to historic continuity with the monotheistic faith of Israel (see the shema) is what sparked deep and lengthy theological and philosophical and biblical investigation into the revealed nature of the Godhead.

    Now, deny Jesus Christ as God (not simply an avatar, or divine teacher, or - as the gnostics so often had it - angelic spirit or emanation) and you do not have to deal with the "embarassing claim of one God in three persons."

    Is Jesus Christ truly God - from all eternity the uncreated second person of the Trinity?

    If you answer that question affirmatively, then many other speculations fall away.

    Deny it, and the Christian faith is an empty lie. John Spong denies it. And I'm guilty of not praying as oft as I should for that enemy of the Gospel. For if he continues to deny Jesus Christ's own claim of divinity, then Jesus Christ will deny him to the Father.