Earth Day 2017: The Return of Healthy Religion?

Essay by Rev. Matthew Fox on 4 May 2017 3 Comments

There is such a thing as “fake news”; and “fake science;” and there is also, we must make clear, such a thing as “fake religion” and certainly of “fake Christianity.” I would maintain that all those persons and institutions political and corporate that are in purposeful denial about climate change are in direct contradiction to everything Jesus taught and tried to teach.

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What does progressive Christianity have to say about the concept of hell that seems so central to so many other forms of historic and current Christianity?


Dear Reader,

That is an excellent question and we progressive Christians really would do well to have some thought out responses when our more evangelical friends ask us about these matters – as well as our agnostic, atheist, and spiritual but not religious friends ask us this same question. As with so many things, progressive Christianity doesn’t have any official stance about this, but it does seem to be the case that most progressive Christians do not have a concept of hell as part of their faith and practice. I cannot speak for all of progressive Christianity, but I can share how this progressive Christian understands things – hell isn’t even part of the Bible and shouldn’t be a part of Christianity. To be blunt about it, let me repeat, Hell isn’t Christian – or Jewish. It’s pagan.

The modern English word Hell is derived from Old English hel, helle (about 725 AD to refer to a nether world of the dead) reaching into the Anglo-Saxon pagan period, and ultimately from Proto-Germanic *halja, meaning “one who covers up or hides something”.[2] The word has cognates in related Germanic languages such as Old Frisian helle, hille, Old Saxon hellja, Middle Dutch helle (modern Dutch hel), Old High German helle (Modern German Hölle), Danish, Norwegian and Swedish helvede/helvete (hel + Old Norse vitti, “punishment” whence the Icelandic víti “hell”), and Gothic halja.[2] Subsequently, the word was used to transfer a pagan concept to Christian theology and its vocabulary[2] (however, for the Judeo-Christian origin of the concept see Gehenna). Some have theorized that English word hell is derived from Old Norse hel.[2] However, this is very unlikely as hel appears in Old English before the Viking invasions. Furthermore, the word has cognates in all the other Germanic languages and has a Proto-Germanic origin.[3] Among other sources, the Poetic Edda, compiled from earlier traditional sources in the 13th century, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, provide information regarding the beliefs of the Norse pagans, including a being named Hel, who is described as ruling over an underworld location of the same name.”

Jesus didn’t speak of Hell, but rather, of Gehenna, as a potential punishing realm for those deemed unworthy. Gehenna was the name of the burning garbage pits outside of Jerusalem. Jesus was speaking in hyperbole in such instances – as a teaching tool to help some people be motivated to do right in this life; i.e., as a metaphorical stick. That said, he rarely spoke about “the stick” and spent far more time offering “the carrot” – describing the kingdom of God/Heaven and the merits and blessings of living in godly ways that demonstrate we’re living “kingdom lives” in God’s beloved community and realm.

“The truth of the matter is that there is not one single word in the Hebrew and Greek Manuscripts of the Bible that means hell. …hell is a man-invented, pagan, unchristian, heretical belief that was first embraced and christianised by Roman Catholicism, and incorporated into the Bible by Jerome through his Latin Vulgate in the early history of Christianity.“

As a Jew, Jesus likely believed that human souls go to “sheol” – a nebulous, ethereal, and neutral realm that is thought to lie beneath the surface of the earth. Sheol being the place where all souls reside/rest/sleep until the judgment day where, in the Christian case, “Jesus returns to judge the quick and the dead.” But even those who go to hades, according to Revelation, don’t experience “eternal suffering” as “hell” itself becomes swallowed up and obliterated".

That said, I – along with many other Christians – am agnostic about the afterlife. I don’t know if there’s a heaven or a hell. I rather suspect that the only hells that exist are the ones that we create and allow at this time – and there are far too many of those.

I don’t follow Jesus in order to go to heaven when I die -- or conversely, to avoid going to hell. That’s a cheap form of faith that is really nothing more than fire insurance. I follow Jesus here and now for the sake of experiencing salvation (which means “wholeness” and “healing”) here and now – and to help others do the same.

To the extent that I think that salvation has anything to do with what happens after we die, I believe in universal salvation. William Barclay wrote a classic essay arguing for this showing how this is biblically based. See: “Why I am a Convicted Universalist”

For many progressive Christians, going to heaven after we die, isn’t the cake, it’s merely the icing on the marvelous cake that is life’s majestic pageant here and now. We’re called to live “kingdom lives” (lives in sync with and that reflect God’s Beloved Community) – now – trusting that whatever happens afterward will take care of itself.

To those who say that it’s important to hold fast to Jesus’ teaching about “eternal” life. It is my understanding that the koine Greek words “perisson/perissos” that are often translated as “eternal” in English also mean “abundant/full” and so it’s as much about a state and quality of being here and now as it is about infinite perpetual time. With this in mind, I tend to emphasize our invitation to experience abundant life by following the way and teachings of Jesus.

~ Rev. Roger Wolsey


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Terrible Texts: Be Fruitful and Multiply and Subdue the Earth – Part II


For most of Western history, our attention has been given primarily to the task of maintaining the growing human population. Only in relatively modern times, has our focus begun to turn to giving some attention to the process of slowing down the birth rate. That would prove to be a new and very different battleground.

One of the reasons that birth control had trouble gaining traction was that it confronted a major enemy in organized religion. The leadership of the Christian Church attacked vigorously any procedure that separated sexuality from procreation, arguing that this would lead only to moral anarchy. Having claimed for itself the right to define and to defend public morality, the Church’s very self-image was at stake. The lines of battle were thus drawn between new moral issues that resulted from an exploding population and traditional moral issues that emerged when sex was separated from procreation.

Sex has always been feared by organized religion. Great efforts have been exerted by religious traditions to keep this powerful force under control. Ancient religious systems, especially those shaped by the cycle of agriculture, tried to co-opt sex to serve its fertility needs. Temple prostitutes, both male and female, became part of their liturgies. The Western Catholic tradition made the suppression of sex a prerequisite for the holy life of both the ordained and the Religious. The implication was that bodies were unclean, even loathsome, and physical desire was called the mark of the evil one.

Marriage itself was regarded as a compromise with sin while virginity was installed as the highest virtue. It was St. Paul who proclaimed that ‘sin dwells in my members, making me do what I do not want to do.’ He spoke of a war that went on inside him with his mind following one law and his body another. “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death,” he asked. That plea was later used to equate celibacy with holiness.

The Church had come a long way from the Creation Story in which God was portrayed as creating ex nihilo – out of nothing, and calling good all that God had made, including bodies with their sexual desires. The battle in religious circles over birth control was, therefore, a battle that pitted a religion of control and repression against a religion that celebrated the goodness of creation. It was not between morality and the breakdown of morality, as many religious spokespersons even today like to assert. That battle is now entering its final stages. Does a universal and morally required birth control mean that organized religion, which has historically opposed it, has to die? That is the anxiety that underlies the sexuality debate going on in religious circles today.
First, a very brief history is essential. Primitive attempts at birth control have been around since the dawn of time, motivated primarily by the inconvenience of an unwanted pregnancy. There is even a biblical story about a man named Onan who did not want to produce an heir by his deceased brother’s widow, so he practiced what came to be called ‘coitus interruptus’ and, as the Bible said, “spilled his seed on the ground (Gen. 38).” This ‘seed’ was thought of as the ‘source of life’ and its ‘holiness’ was not to be wasted. Religious negativity toward masturbation finds some of its roots here.

Before DNA evidence could trace parenthood so precisely, the only way a man could guarantee the legitimacy of his own offspring was to keep his wife confined in a place where no opportunity for indiscretion existed. That too was a form of birth control. There were also techniques developed to produce a “spontaneous abortion” but none of them was particularly satisfactory or safe. The only sure method of birth control in those days was abstinence and the primary force undergirding abstinence was public opinion, enforced by the moral pronouncements of ecclesiastical leaders. Hence in the Western world, the Christian Church staked its claim to being the guardian of this powerful sexual force, which they believed had to be controlled, or public morality be doomed. Birth control was, therefore, the implacable enemy of the church. But when human circumstances changed, each of these claims was called into serious question.
Before the defeat of most of humanity’s natural enemies our human future required a high birth rate. Given the casualties among young males in both war and the hunt, the excessive number of women in the tribe could be cared for only with a system of multiple wives, so polygamy was not only encouraged it was said to have been blessed by God. The Bible is, of course, filled with stories that illustrate this principle. The patriarchs of Israel’s history, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, all had numerous wives.

The great split in Jewish history between the Kingdom of Judah and the Northern Kingdom called Israel was explained by the fact that Jacob had two wives, Leah and Rachel. Since women were considered to be the property of men multiple wives were a sign of wealth and power. Alliances were frequently sealed when one king gave his daughter to the harem of another king. The Bible tells us of Solomon’s 1000 wives and concubines. The day had not yet dawned when the male imposed stereotype of the female was thought of as immoral. Women’s feelings were given no consideration since controlling the woman’s body for the sexual benefit of the male was the only priority.

When monogamy, reflecting an increasing appreciation of women, became the norm the growing sense of a woman’s worth made family planning even more important. Some natural processes of birth control were called moral by the Church. These included the fact that pregnancies were thought to be less probable while the mother was nursing so postponing the weaning process resulted in better spacing for the children. Then religious institutions began to encourage couples to practice periodic sexual withdrawal for pious reasons. A couple might give themselves to prayer and abstinence for the forty days of Lent, for example, which would, not coincidentally, take the woman out of production temporarily. There was also a widespread use of mistresses, especially post-menopausal mistresses, who posed no threat of pregnancy and whose presence meant that wives could be spared the regular risk of childbirth.

The double standard of morality allowed this and no word of disapproval from the Church was forthcoming. None of these practices committed the cardinal sin of separating sexuality from procreation.

In the 20th century, however, many things coalesced to produce a dramatic sexual revolution. There was first the development of the sanitary napkin, which did more to free women than has yet been fully understood. The inhibiting bustle was replaced by form fitting dresses worn by the “flappers” of the 1920s when they did “the Charleston.” Next there was the rise in various emancipating forces: the suffragette movement, the opening of the doors of higher education to women and their subsequent entry into the work force. These new freedoms led to new career opportunities for women that made family planning increasingly necessary. The need for effective birth control grew. A safe, relatively efficient condom was developed. This was by every measure the most successful method of birth control yet devised and one is not surprised to discover that condoms are still today readily available through dispensers in almost every public rest room in America.

World War II’s male shortage greatly expanded women’s role in the work place from which they would never depart. Finally, ‘the pill’ was developed and birth control was now convenient, safe and fully effective. These were the forces that created the era of sexual freedom that appeared to justify the worst fears of the most righteous moralists. The 60’s were a decade of rampant sexual experimentation. The pill separated women once and for all from their male imposed biological definitions. The pill also began finally to affect population growth. Every nation in the developed Western world today has slowed its birth rate substantially with some nations like Italy no longer even reproducing their present population.

The people of the Western world simply threw off the repression of Western religion. The Protestant churches, by and large, adapted to these new realities and no longer condemned “family planning.” The Roman Catholic Church held firm to its condemnation of all “unnatural” means of birth control only to see its constituency abandon the church’s teaching on this subject almost totally. Polls indicate that Roman Catholic women in the developed nations practice birth control in exactly the same percentages (90% +), as do Protestant women, Jewish women and non-religious women. Papal teaching on this subject is simply ignored.
The only place where the traditional sexual teaching of the Church fuels emotion today is on abortion, which I regard as nothing more than the last gasp of the birth control battle. Abortion would be minimal today if sex education and birth control were available to all of our citizens. But, of course, conservative Catholic and Protestant Churches would never allow that.

The population of the world continues to explode today only in the third world where poverty, ignorance and traditional religious teachings combine to produce a senselessly high birth rate that results in starvation and shocking infant mortality. Relief efforts to feed these children, without a corresponding program of education and birth control, will only guarantee a population explosion in the next generation that will make infant mortality even worse.

The time has come for the Christian Church in all of its forms to recognize that its traditional negativity to birth control has itself become immoral and that limiting births has become a new virtue. Religious teaching must turn from its fear driven moralism and concentrate on deepening relationships, articulating a new responsible human maturity and recovering the essential goodness of life. The day has come when people no longer believe that God commands them to “be fruitful and multiply.” This ‘terrible’ text must be named for what it is and the literal understanding of the Bible that gave this verse such force be jettisoned.

Human survival means that we must cease our outrageous over-breeding, and learn to live in harmony with this world, not as the dominators of life but as an essential part of a fragile ecosystem. To examine the origins of that sense that human beings were meant to have dominion over all the world will be my topic next week as we continue to examine this particular ‘terrible text.’

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published September 3, 2003




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