Marking the 100th Anniversary of Fundamentalism in America by Bullying Religious Minorities

Essay by Rev. David M. Felten on 11 May 2017 3 Comments

Right after Easter in 2015, I arrived at church as a fellow staff member was going out the door saying, “I’m going to get a picture of one of the banners.” “What banners?!” I’d come in the back way to town and hadn’t seen that down the main street of Fountain Hills, eight churches had posted large identical banners overnight: “Progressive” Christianity: Fact or Fiction?”

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If you do not favor conversion activity, how do you interpret the Great Commission?


Dear Mark,

I think there is a big difference between favoring conversion activity and preaching good news. Now what we call the "Great commission" is found differently in all four gospels and many Biblical scholars believe these are add-ons to the gospels that reflect more the goings on and practice of the early Church and its liturgical rites than the exact words of Jesus after the Easter event. Be that as it may, I recommend sitting down with all four versions of this injunction to get a feel yourself for the diversity of tone and words and meaning found therein.

For myself, I most appreciate the Markan words because they take us beyond the human and they emphasize the "good news" while saying nothing about conversion. Says Mark: "Go out to the whole world" (this theme is found in most all the other pericopes as well so it shows this injunction very likely followed the early church's expulsion from the synagogue) and its going out to the gentile world and beyond to "proclaim the good news to all creation." This raises the obvious question: What is the good news that all creation is eager to hear? Mark certainly sets Jesus' teaching and ministry into a more-than-human context, a cosmic context therefore. And clearly it is not about converting so much as "proclaiming good news."

The "whole world" is a big place (today we know our universe is made up of two trillion galaxies!) so there is plenty of space to roam in. While Matthew's "Great Commission" talks about teaching the commandments Jesus has taught, at the heart of these are love of God and love of neighbor and vice versa. Our neighbor is not restricted to the two-legged ones, but all creation deserves to hear that humans are busy loving all creatures--not destroying other creatures in narcissistic fits of greed and violence that end whole species while endangering human generations that follow with a depleted earth.

Whether the story of the Good Samaritan or the teaching of Matthew 25 that others, especially the needy, are other Christs, it is clear that Jesus' teaching is indeed trying to stretch our meaning and practice of love and compassion. That's the Great Commission and the Great Commandment(s).

~ Matthew Fox


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

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


Subdue the earth! It is an enemy to be conquered not a home to be treasured! Life is an eternal battle for survival between the human creature and the hostile environment. These are the assumptions that shape the primary religious tradition in the Western world. Today we are paying the price of those assumptions. It is as if the environment has launched a counter attack against its abusers. In many areas of our life the limits of abuse seem to have been reached. The prospect of the human species surviving for thousands of years is today an open question. The human future seems to be no more than an even bet.

Sometimes just the attempt to raise human consciousness to the dangers now confronting our common environment is rejected as nothing more than “doomsday preaching.” Those whose vested interest lies in not facing reality continue to live in denial. It is an ultimate expression of that sickness that thinks that the comfort of homo-sapiens is the only value to be served. “Subdue the Earth” is accepted among fundamentalist Christians as a divine command since it appears in a book that these believers insist, contrary to massive data, is “The Word of God.”

The biblical setting of this “Terrible Text” calling us to “subdue the earth” enters the sacred narrative in the seven-day creation story. Written by the priestly writer during the Babylonian Captivity in the 6th Century B.C.E., it is one of the newer parts of the Old Testament. This story makes no bones about the fact that every beast, every bird, every fish and everything that “creeps on the earth” is to be subjugated to the domination of human life by the commandment of God (Gen 1:28-30). It is overtly anthropocentric.

This relatively recent narrative was then merged with the older stories about Adam, Eve and the Garden, which tell the story of the fall from grace plunging the human being into a struggle with the hostile environment. Prior to the act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden, all human needs were filled. But that cosmic act of violating God’s single command to refrain from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil resulted in expulsion from that paradise. The punishment handed out to the woman included pain in childbirth, and for the man the constant need to scratch from the earth a meager living. The divine words used are quite harsh: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you

Is there something about Western religion itself that predisposes its adherents to environmental disaster? Do such texts as “Be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth” arise out of something far deeper and more basic in our faith tradition? Why is it that among non-Western religious traditions, the concept of having a religious duty to subdue the earth would be considered a strange and alien idea?

In many Eastern worship traditions God is envisioned as a universal spirit or divine presence that cannot be separated from the world. This God is a life force flowing through every living thing, not a distant ruler or a great chief in the sky, who is somehow separate from the world of human experience. Perhaps this distinction might open our eyes to a significant clue, which seems to be so deep in the western religious tradition, that violating the environment and exhausting the world’s resources have become realities that we still seem to think are blessed by God.

In Buddhism, for example, God is not an objective presence standing over against the world perceived as subject. Buddhism seeks wholeness or at least a sense of harmony with the whole. That is quite different from seeing human life as called to subdue, to conquer and to exercise authority over the world.

In the biblical tradition the claim is made that we know God by divine revelation since God comes to us from outside. Through the sagas of the Bible, God’s divine name is changed from time to time. Yet this distinction always remains. Yahweh became the dominant name for God after the conquest of Canaan and was defined against the fertility cults of the Canaanites and their God who was called Ba’al. Perhaps the most dramatic Ba’al story is the conflict on Mt. Carmel in which Elijah; the prophet of Yahweh first stood down and then slew the priests of Ba’al (I Kings 18:20-40). Contemporary readers of this narrative need to understand that this was a conflict between Yahweh, an overwhelmingly male deity, who lived above the sky, and Ba’al, a deity identified with the agricultural fertility cycles and thus one who was perceived as far more a part of the life of the world.

Ba’al actually began his divine career as the consort to Astarte or Asherah who was a fertility goddess. It was only as the concept of the deity as feminine declined in the ancient world that Asherah was de-emphasized and the male consort Ba’al emerged as the primary Canaanite deity who was locked in a mortal struggle with the God of the Jews. While Ba’al was identified with the cycles of nature Yahweh was understood as a deity who invaded history. Yahweh may well have begun as a kind of supernatural tribal deity, but later evolved into being the chief ruler over the entire world. In the Judeo Christian tradition, it was in this image of God that human life was said to have been created. Human beings were said to be the God look alike, to whom was assigned the divine task of exercising dominion over all living things.

Israel’s God was said to have created all things out of nothing. This made the world both subservient and answerable to this external divine power who lived in a sphere located beyond the sky. As the Scriptures unfolded, in addition to a heavenly dwelling place, God established a symbolic dwelling place in the midst of the people. First, it was in a mobile tabernacle that was carried by the Jews during their days in the wilderness. That was symbolized by the fact that the tabernacle was connected to heaven by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The tabernacle was in effect a colony of heaven. When the permanent temple was built and dedicated the Shekinah – God presence, perhaps God’s spirit or even God’s light – was sent as the sign of God’s willingness to make that place the earthly home of the Holy One. This God remained, however, primarily the all-powerful creator who viewed the world from outside it. God could fill the world but was never to be identified with it. The world was a creature that neither possessed its own holiness nor participated fully in the holiness of God. So the idea was born in this religious tradition that we human beings, like God, were not really part of this world. We were made to rule the world in God’s name, to have dominion over it and ultimately to make sure that it served our needs as those made in God’s image. This was the attitude, I submit, that enabled the anthropocentricism found in the Bible to be developed. Out of this anthropocentricism, I believe, there arose the insensitivity to and destruction of our common environment, and the human unwillingness to curb our breeding practices. Only a deity who was not part of the world could order the human creature to be fruitful and to multiply and subdue the earth as if the earth was an enemy.

I call this definition of God “Theism.” God is a supernatural being, external to the world, who periodically invades the world in a miraculous way. Theism is the dominant definition of God in the Bible and, through the Bible it has become the dominant definition of God in the Western world today. The proof of that is seen in our language, which defines a theist simply as one who believes in God, and the only alternative is to be an a-theist.

A theistic God can be thought to manipulate the weather to create the great flood, to engage in political conflict by slamming the Egyptians with plagues and then splitting the Red Sea during the Exodus. This God shapes morality by dictating the law at Mt. Sinai. This God raises up prophets in Israel to speak the divine word. This is also the God, who, in the “fullness of time,” invaded the earth in the person of Jesus and lived among us. So powerful was this “external to the world” God image that it captured the life of Jesus. Jesus came to be seen not as a God infused human being, but rather as a divine visitor who came from heaven. As a divine visitor, Jesus needed a mythological landing field, which is how the miraculous birth tradition of the virgin entered Christianity. He also needed a launching pad in order to make his exit. That is how the story of Jesus’ cosmic ascension became part of the tradition. Between his miraculous entry into the life of the world and his miraculous exit from it, this Jesus was said to have done other God-like things, like walking on water, stilling the storm and expanding the food supply, all of which can be shown as God attributes in the Old Testament. There was also present among the Jews, the hope that when the Kingdom of God dawns in human history, the signs of that kingdom will become apparent. The prophet Isaiah (chapter 35) described those kingdom signs as the blind seeing, the deaf hearing and the lame walking. Therefore, it was quite natural that stories about these kingdom signs would be attached to Jesus and even expanded to include “the dead rising.” The dominant theistic understanding of God shaped the way this “god life” of Jesus was remembered. It was Charles Wesley who, in his 1739 Christmas carol, captured this meaning best when he wrote that far from being human, Jesus was a life that had been “veiled in flesh,” so that we could “the Godhead see.”

It is this theistic understanding of God that allows us to view the earth as profane, even secular. This theistic God who is imaged only in human beings has literally drained the holiness out of the life of this world, rendering it an enemy to be subdued. This theistic God allows us to pretend that, like God, we too are separate from this world, that we are the only creatures who are holy and that the world and all that is in it was made for our benefit. One can dominate and subdue a world that is not holy. One can view all life as created for human benefit only if you assume that holiness is external to this world. The theistic understanding of God opens the door to separating the world from holiness because the God, who is the source of holiness, is separated from this world. So long as we view God through the lens of theism, we will see the world as an object, even as an enemy, against which we must struggle to survive. Ideas do have consequences and we are living today with the ecologically disastrous consequences that derive from an anthropocentric view of human life based on a theistic understanding of God and creation. If we are going to overcome our looming environmental holocaust, then the proper place to begin might be to jettison the theistic understanding of God. For most Western people that is an almost unthinkable possibility. Yet I believe it is the essential first step toward both a theological reformation and a realistic hope for a human future.

Can the theistic understanding of God be abandoned? The answer to that question is yes but it will mean that we must engage and overthrow the powerful vested interest that religious institutions have in preserving the theistic God who is the source of their authority. The only place I know where we can begin this task is to return to the scriptures to see if theism is the only way there is to envision God. Are there minority voices hidden in our religious past that have been all but drowned out by the claims of the theistic organized religion? Perhaps the environmental crisis that is upon us will be the catalyst to force us to enter this new and radically different understanding of God. If we are successful in this effort, we will inaugurate a reformation so radical that the whole superstructure of organized religion in the Western world, with its intricate authority claims will crumble before our eyes. That means many will vehemently resist it but without it I am more convinced that there is neither a Christian nor a human future.

In my next column, I will attempt to lift out of the scriptures a different portrait of God, a God beyond theism. It is a minority view which I believe must soon become a majority view or we have no future. My hope is that it will lead us to a new vision of what it means both to be human and to live in harmony with the world.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally Posted September 2003




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