There are six statements, which cannot be denied, yet cannot be affirmed without transforming Christianity as we know it. They are:
- Our Idea of God Is Not God.
This is as self-evidently obvious as any statement ever. I don’t know of anyone who would dispute it. It flows from the Bible. “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” says the Lord in Isaiah 55:8,9 “Nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so far are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” And, Paul joins in with: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Romans 11:33-34A).
Ah, but. What we don’t know, and cannot know, has never kept us from acting as though we know.
The church is always speaking as though it knows as much as God knows, as though it is the spokesperson for God, as though its ideas of God are God. Some church condemns homosexuality in the name of God. Some church proclaims the value of Creationism in the name of God. Some church declares this, and denounces that, and tells all comers that if they don’t do it the way that church tells them to do it they are going to hell, all in the name of God, in the place of God. It is as though the church is God. Certainly, it is as though the church’s idea of God is God.
Although the church’s actions belie its confessional stance, the church can, and does, proclaim in principle that God is beyond all concepts of God, that our idea of God is not God. However, the church will not entertain any new ideas about God. No fresh ideas about God have been allowed into the church since the Protestant Reformation. There have been a number of fresh ideas—Process Theology, Liberation Theology, and Feminist Theology, to mention three—but they haven’t found denominational sanction.
If you are going to think, and talk, about God in the church, you are going to have to stick with the concepts of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Apostles’ Creed—nothing more recent than that is permitted. Our idea of God may not be God, but it’s the only idea you’ll hear anything about in the church. If the church actually lived out of the realization that our idea of God is not God a number of things would change dramatically, instantly.
- The Church Was Before the Bible.
Abraham was before the Bible. Moses was before the Bible. The prophets were before the Bible. Jesus was before the Bible. The Apostles were before the Bible. The early Christian Church was before the Bible—and produced the Bible. The books that are not in the Bible are not in the Bible because the church decided that they should not be in the Bible. The books that are in the Bible are in the Bible because the church decided that they should be in the Bible. The Bible is what it is because the church decided that’s what it should be. The church created the Bible. The Bible did not create the church.
The Bible reflects the theology of the church—the thinking of the church—at the time the canon was closed (More on that in Statement 3). The Bible says what the church of that day thought the Bible should say. The church calls the Bible “the Word of God,” but the Bible is the word the church says God says. The church filtered the words of the Bible, and only the agreeable ones passed through. When you read the Bible, you read what the church of the fourth century wanted you to read. What the church did not, and does not, want you to read is called heretical, but that is the church’s idea, just like the Bible is the church’s idea.
The Bible is the product of the church. Without the church, there would be no Bible. We think of it in reverse. The Bible gets the credit for the church. The fact is that the church had decided how it thought things should be before it came up with the Bible. It helps to keep these things in their proper order. First the church, then the Bible.
Understanding the Bible as the creation of the church takes it out of the arena of Unquestionable Holiness and makes it accessible to our questions, our imagination and our creativity—which is exactly where it came from! And now, we can acknowledge that, examine its path through history, and come up with an entirely different assessment of the process from the one we have been handed and told to embrace.
The church writes the Bible, and what it says reflects the church’s ideas of what God would say if God were speaking. We can follow the evolution of the idea of God over the course of the 66 books that compose the Protestant Bible. Different Gods peer out at us from different parts of the Bible. We can’t square the Parable of the Prodigal, for instance, with the idea of a bloodthirsty God who requires our belief in the atoning death of Jesus before we can be received into the eternal habitations. Which way is it? The problem disappears once we understand the Bible as representative of different perspectives within the church that produced the Bible.
Understanding the Bible as the product of the church also provides us with the freedom—and offers us the invitation—to place our present-day understanding of God alongside the understandings of God that are presented in the Bible. The idea of God continues to evolve! All that can be known about God is not known! We are capable of perceiving God in ways that Paul, for instance, could not have imagined. We have a holy obligation to envision God as clearly as we are capable of envisioning God, and to live toward that vision, as we pass along the tradition of probing the Mystery of God to coming generations.
Understanding that the church was before the Bible shifts the foundation of authority from God to us. We are the authority who determines what we will believe and do! From this standpoint, when the church says, “The Bible says,” we can understand that to mean, “The church says that the Bible says.” Of course, the church will say that God was using the church to select what was to be in the Bible, just as Paul can say that God gives us the government, so we shouldn’t complain about the way we are ruled. Neither argument bears scrutiny. Crooked politicians aren’t given to us by God, and the church served its own interests in composing the Bible.
Now, when we hear, “The Bible says,” we can ask in all seriousness, “But what should the Bible say? What would the Bible say if it were being written today?” Because people much like us put the Bible together, we are fully capable of reevaluating the Bible in light of all that is known now that wasn’t known then, and choose, much like the fishermen in the parable of the net of fishes, what is to be kept and carried forward, and what is to be tossed aside and left behind. Of course, to talk like this is to dive deep into the waters of heresy, and that being the case, let’s go for a swim in the next Statement:
- Every Step Forward Is a Step into Heresy.
Every doctrine that we embrace with such fervor, espouse with such rhetoric, and believe with such conviction was, at one point in the history of religion, rank heresy. Jesus was called a blasphemer and a heretic by the religious authorities of his day. The Apostles, and followers of Jesus, were persecuted by the Jews in Jerusalem for continuing, and deepening, the heresy of Jesus. Rome considered early Christianity to be heretical and dangerous. The Roman Catholic Church saw the Protestant Reformation as blasphemous and heretical (and Protestantism returned the favor). Heresy is our heritage—and our hope.
We cannot think a new thought about God without thinking a heretical thought about God. We cannot deepen our understanding of God, expand our vision of God, or grow in our knowledge of God without changing how we see God—without seeing God differently. Seeing God differently is heresy. Spiritual formation and faith development are possible only for those who can be heretical, who can stand apart from the way God has always been seen, and see something different—perhaps something that calls into question everything that has been seen, as in a God who would have us love our enemies, and heal on the Sabbath, and honor the least of those who live at the margins of society.
Heresy is essential to the process of aligning our life with the Stream of Life and Being, and it was outlawed by those who committed the greatest heresy in the book of heresies when they closed the canon. The canonization of the scriptures froze the idea of God that prevailed at the time. It would be very helpful if the Bible had moved on, and included the reaction of the people to their idea of God, and the experience of their lives, at the time of the collapse of Rome, and the Crusades, and the discovery of the New World, and the World Wars, and the Holocaust, and landing on the Moon… The idea of God that was sacrosanct through all those events was the idea of God that was operative at the time of Jesus’ death. That is the idea we still have of God, two thousand years later.
But, there are a lot of us who don’t share that idea. Just as the people moved past, moved beyond, the idea of God liking the pleasing odor of the sacrifice of bulls and goats, or of God needing a Temple in order to be properly worshipped, so some of us have moved beyond first century ideas about the end of time, and angels and principalities, and God being in complete charge, and tight control, of everything that happens—just to highlight the tip of the ice berg.
Yet, where do the people who have an idea of God that is different from the popular idea go to be recognized as having the right to think the way they think of God? We cannot think differently of God without being relegated to the trash heap of religious oddity. The orthodox tradition does not permit thinking differently about God, but—to the chagrin of traditional, orthodox Christianity—the heresies will not die. The heresies persist, with modification—which is the hallmark of evolution—and that suggests to me that there is something to them. The fact that they are still with us suggests the church has been, and continues to be, remiss in dismissing heresy as without value, and a threat to true belief.
The idea of God will continue to evolve despite the church’s best effort to squelch it, kill it, stuff it, and hang it on a wall, or put it behind glass, for all to worship and adore. The heretical is not the creation of the heretics. The heretical did not burn at the stake. The heretical will not die. It represents the continuing evolution of the idea of God, and lives outside the camp, in the wilderness, ahead of the church, preparing the way of the Lord, as light in the darkness, leaven in the dough, salt in the soup—in the fine tradition of the Heretic of the Ages, Jesus of Nazareth.
- The Garden of Eden Did Not Have Latitude and Longitude.
The Garden of Eden was not an historic, literal, actual fact. There was no time of perfect obedience, of perfect innocence, of moral perfection. There was no before and after. There was no primordial Paradise from which we were expelled for disobeying God—and hence no Original Sin which requires the atoning death of God’s only Son Jesus Christ our Lord to patch things up with God, and get us back into God’s good graces if we confess, repent, and believe. There was no Fall. There was nothing to fall from. It’s been a mess from the start.
Even as a metaphor, the story of the Garden of Eden overstates its case. The implication in the story is that Adam and Eve are representative of men and women everywhere throughout history, and that everyone would do as Adam and Eve did, and sin by disobeying God, and eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. I have two objections to this presentation. In the first place, I don’t think everyone would make that choice. Elijah wouldn’t have done it. Jesus wouldn’t have done it. The Buddha wouldn’t have done it. Gandhi wouldn’t have done it. The Dali Lama wouldn’t have done it. And my Aunt Lois most certainly would not have done it. I think a large number of us would not have done it.
In the second place, the metaphor declares that it is evil to know the difference between good and evil. That it is evil to be in position to make up our own mind; to decide for ourselves, what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong. That it is better just to take God’s word for it. Better, how? Whose idea of The Good is mindless innocence, unthinkingly following instructions, and blithely taking somebody else’s word for what should be done and left undone? Eternal childhood, with no cares, no responsibilities beyond being obedient, no questions, no conflicts—who thinks that is Good? Always being cared for and taken care of, without having to choose our own course, make up our own mind, decide for ourselves, and suffer the consequences—who says that is Good? It sounds to me as though the story was crafted by someone who wanted to be taken care of, or by someone who wanted to be obeyed, as if to say, “If you people would only listen to me, and do what I tell you, things would be fine!”
Once we remove Original Sin from the picture, we remove the necessity of the atoning death of God’s only Son, and have to rethink who Jesus was, and what the meaning is for us of his death and resurrection appearances. Everything changes when our idea of Original Sin changes.
- We Are the Ones Who Say So.
We decide. We choose. We say. We believe what we believe because we believe what we believe is worth believing. How do we know? We take it on faith. Why do we take what we take on faith and not something else instead? We just do. We decide. We choose. We say.
We say, “The Bible is the Word of God, and the absolute authority in faith and practice.” Who says so? We do. We say so. We are the authorities who declare the Bible to be authoritative. How do we know? We take it on faith. Why do we take that on faith and not something else in stead? We just do. We decide. We choose. We say. We believe what we believe because we believe what we believe is worth believing.
That being the case, you would think that we would believe things that help, not hinder, us along the way. You would think that we would believe things that create community, deepen connections, foster compassion and justice, make for understanding and peace, and bring into being a better world. We certainly have that option. We would be wise to choose it.
And, that being the case, we are certainly free to choose it! Free to make up our own minds—or bound to! Free, or bound, to come to our own tentative conclusions about how to live our life, and free, or bound, to revise them in light of our lived experience, and come up with different tentative conclusions to carry us forward into the unfolding wonder of our life.
This approach would give us a different kind of church—one that would be able to equip us for the task of listening to ourselves, and divining the path from among all of the paths that open before us along the way from where we have been to wherever it is we are going. A community like that would be a good thing to have around!
- Ants Find the Picnic, Flowers Turn to the Light.
We think that without some external standard of moral rectitude we would be lost in a morass of decadence, depravity and abomination—that without being made to be good, we would be evil—never minding the fact that Christianity launched the Crusades, justified slavery, burned the heretics at the stake, drowned witches, and committed all manner of atrocity on its way through the world. We believe without hell it all goes to hell. We believe we cannot do what is good without being threatened, cajoled, and coerced into doing it.
Yet, we are perfectly capable of doing what ought to be done because it ought to be done. We only have to see the need to meet the need. Perceiving the evil, we produce the good. Perceiving the good, we serve the good. The awareness of how things truly are is the foundation of transformation. Seeing into the heart of things, we act out of our heart for the good of all.
Eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that understand are not the result of indoctrination, and do not flow from keeping the rules. Seeing, hearing, and understanding lead to lives that are well-lived in the fullest sense of the term. The task is not to obey without question, but to see, and hear, and understand—and live lives aligned with the deepest, truest, and best that we can perceive and imagine.
That’s it. We cannot embrace these six principles without transforming the church of our experience into the church as it ought to be. The ninety-five theses need be only six—which leaves us at the place of wondering, “What now?” When we throw six hundred years of orthodox, Protestant theology out the window—what shall we put in its place? Part of our work is discovering what shape our idea of God will take, and how our lives will develop around that idea.