A New Template for Religion: A Conversation with Michael Morwood, Part 3 - Worship, Prayer, & the Other Side of the Story

Essay by Rev. David M. Felten on 9 November 2017 9 Comments

What follows in interview form is the final installment of three columns inspired by a presentation Michael Morwood offered at the Common Dreams Conference in Brisbane, Queensland, in 2016. In this final segment, Morwood offers a new perspective on worship and prayer – along with some concluding thoughts on religion in general and recommendations on a way forward.

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How can the clergy educate its members into contemporary theology and attract back the church alumni without alienating the aging conservatives that finance the local church?


Dear Roland,

Thank you for your question. I think it is a very big one as it poses many issues of real importance such as the relationship between generations that is often problematic but especially in our time since we have one foot still in the modern era (most of our institutions are still there including the Reformation churches) and another foot in the postmodern era (where so many young people are located and where pre-modern wisdom is welcomed, not shunned as during modern times).

Science and Education also find themselves in this ‘in between’ place today. The British Scientist Rupert Sheldrake told me recently that at Oxford and Cambridge today there is a huge gulf between the professor class and the students specifically around the topic of religion or spirituality. Most professors surrendered all interest in religion generations ago but today’s students are eager to learn more about it.

I have written about the difference between modern and postmodern consciousness at the end of my short book on A New Reformation. You might find some food for thought there. It is, I think, imperative for the survival of our species that we learn anew to develop intergenerational wisdom. This means elders must wake up to their calling as elders and must learn to sit down and listen to the younger generation. The benefit will be mutual I am sure.

It also means that it is past time to establish rites of passage for elders to assist elders to wake up to their responsibilities. Our secular culture likes to put elders out to pasture after they have passed the age of peak consumer capitalism and are “retired.” I insist however that we retire the obscene word “retirement” and replace it with “refirement.” What we are talking about here—recovering true eldership—could constitute a whole new example of refirement in our churches.

In our book on Occupy Spirituality Adam Bucko (who worked for 15 very fruitful years with young adults living on the streets of NYC) and myself interviewed many young adults (ages 21-33) and one of the questions we asked was about elders in their lives. 98% said: “We want elders but can’t find them…..And the few we do find talk too much.” Elders have to get off the golf course and out of their couches and/or playing the stock market and make themselves available to young people. The young today are facing issues of climate change and eco-destruction and gross have/have not discrepancies that are unprecedented. A moral and survival imperative exists to radically change education, religion, politics, economics, art, farming and energy resourcing on this planet. We need all the wisdom they can get. The young and old can and need to put their heads and hearts together in this search for wisdom.

In an elder rite of passage ceremony that Creation Spirituality Communities conducted a year ago the young adults assisted in creating it. Of course the young also need rites of passage (and confirmation, I’m sorry to report, rarely cuts the mustard).

Our Cosmic Masses, going on now for over 23 years, have proven very valuable for bringing young and old together in a post-modern form for celebrating Liturgy, one that incorporates post-modern art forms (and pre-modern ones) including dance, dj, vj, rap and more. It is not enough that elder worshippers are “at home” or “comfortable” with their (modern) forms of worship that are pre-packaged in Liturgical books. Jesus never said “Blessed are the comfortable” (neither did the Buddha).

The question is this: How will future generations—including their grandchildren and great grandchildren—pray? It will not be from merely reading from books and sitting in pews and daring the preacher to keep them awake—that is all very modern because the modern age emerged with the invention of the printing press. It must include the body; the senses; beauty; and grieving together. Yes, there is much to grieve as well as to give birth to.

Our new Order of the Sacred Earth, which launches this month, is another effort to bring old and young together around a new (and ancient) vision of spirituality in practice. The book’s subtitle is “Intergenerational Love in Action.” You might check it out on line as well.

Best wishes in lighting the fire,

~ Rev. Matthew Fox


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Bible, Corporal Punishment and Human Guilt - Part 6


If God is not a punishing and rescuing deity, then who or what is God? If the biblical explanation of the source of evil is no longer operative, then from where does evil come? What is its origin? Can the way evil is viewed be changed or transformed? Can we human beings escape our need to view ourselves negatively, which is the interior situation that makes the punishing God necessary? If the task of the Christian faith is not about rescuing and restoring the fallen sinner, then what is the task of this religious system? If behavior control is not the Church's primary social agenda, then so much of the way we portray the content of the Christian faith simply falls away. Can Christianity survive without its doctrines of Atonement, and Incarnation, both of which hang on the sin and rescue themes? Is there any other way to see the divine presence of God in the life of Jesus other than to view Jesus as the incarnate sinless one who entered from the realm of heaven into the arena of the fall to pay the price God required for our sins and thus to rescue us from that fall? Can we dismiss once and for all the ancient Christian symbol of Jesus as a blood offering, a human sacrifice required by God?

I believe that we can and must. This riddance will furthermore, cut the ground out from under the manner in which violence has been justified on the basis of this religious system. It is thus a reformation eagerly to be sought.

The deconstruction begins by recognizing that the story, which opens the Bible, is not an accurate interpreter of life as we know it. It is a bad, false and inoperative myth. There never was a time, either literally or metaphorically, when there was a perfect and finished creation. That was an inaccurate idea that has helped to develop a guilt producing, dependency seeking, neurotic religion.

Whatever else we know about creation, we are now certain that it is an evolving and still incomplete process. So there was no perfect beginning, no Garden of Eden and no first man and woman. We have evolved. We have not fallen from perfection. 'Original Sin' must go! With it goes the superstructure of doctrine, dogma, and theology. The psalmist was wrong. We were not created a little lower than the angels. Rather, we have evolved into a status that is just a little higher than the apes.

It is a vastly different perspective. There is an enormous contrast between whether we are fallen creatures or incomplete creatures. Our humanity is not fallen, it is incomplete. The fact is we do not yet know what it means to be human since that is a status we have not yet fully achieved. What human life needs is not to be saved it is to be called and empowered to enter a new being. The idea that Jesus had to pay the price of our sinfulness becomes an idea that is bankrupt. When that idea collapses, so do all of those violent, controlling and guilt producing tactics that are so deeply part of traditional Christianity.

The dominos begin to topple. Baptism, understood as the sacramental act to wash from the baby the stain of that original fall, becomes inoperative. The Eucharist, developed as a liturgical act to reenact the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross that paid the price of our sinfulness, becomes empty of meaning. Those disciplinary tactics, from not sparing the rod with our children to the use of shame, guilt and fear to control the behavior of childlike adults, become violations of our life. They apply the wrong therapy to the wrong diagnosis. The uses of afterlife symbols to motivate behavior, by promising either eternal reward or eternal punishment, lose their credibility. When the plug is pulled on the definition of human life as something infected by the sin of the fall, then the whole superstructure of Christian doctrine is revealed as a human control system. That is when we will recognize that Christianity will either change or die!

If change is to be adopted, it has to be so total and so radical, that many will call it impossible. It would be easier they will say to build an entirely new religious system than it would be to seek to reform anything this totally. They may be right, but I am not yet convinced of that. The Christianity of the catacombs in the first century of the Church's life could never have envisioned its future being capable of producing either Christendom or its dominating cathedrals. Yet the Christians of the 13th century looked back and saw as their ancestors the Christians of the Catacombs. Our task is thus not to build tomorrow's church. That is something into which we have to live a day at a time. Our task is rather to face the need for radical change and take the first step necessary to erect a totally new foundation. That step, I believe, comes in the acknowledgement of our evolutionary origins and dismissing any suggestion that sin, inadequacy and guilt are the definitions with which we were born. We must also rid ourselves simultaneously of the idea that the world was created for human beings, or that the planet earth is somehow different or special in the universe. Anthropocentrism is a product of a pre-evolutionary mind set. We human beings are simply the self-conscious form of life that has emerged out of the evolutionary soup. We are kin to both the apes and the cabbages. Homo sapiens were not made to dominate the world, but to enrich it by living out our role in a radically interdependent world. We might be a dead end in the evolutionary process, like the dinosaur, destined for extinction. But we also might be the bridge to a brilliant future that none of us can yet imagine. Our task is first simply to be what we are, and then to adapt and finally to be a link to that emerging new being. That is quite different from the role generally assigned to human beings in the ongoing story of our religious teachings.

Whence then comes this evil that we see it every day? It rises not from a fall, mythical or otherwise, but from the incompleteness of the evolutionary process. It is not appropriate then to wallow in our inadequacy or to accept as our due being denigrated by religion or having our behavior controlled or our guilt expanded. What we need is the power to take the next step into a new and more complete humanity, to transcend our limits, to walk beyond our insecure humanity. We need to face the trauma of self-consciousness, the self-centeredness of that hysterical struggle for survival that leads to the erection of security systems, which finally destroy our emerging humanity. We need to see the evil things we do to one another as the result of our incompleteness. This evil cannot be controlled by threats or by discipline, parental or divine. Security can never finally be built on violence. To be 'saved' does not mean to be rescued. It means to be empowered to be something we have not yet been able to be.

Is there any role for Jesus in this new vision of reality? Does the Christian story finally die in this ditch? I do not think so. Jesus emerges rather as a symbol for a humanity that is not defined as fallen or sinful. It is a humanity that is portrayed as so whole, so complete; it is experienced as God infused. Jesus cannot be a divine visitor from the heavenly realm. As John A. T. Robinson argued some fifty years ago, Jesus cannot be "A cuckoo inserted into the nest of humanity." He was created out of the gene pool of humanity. Our doorway into divinity must be found on this path, since there is no other. We are beginning to understand that divinity is a human concept that can only be found in humanity. I see in Jesus one so radically human and free, so whole and complete that the power of life, the force of the Universe that I call God, becomes visible and operative in him and through him. It is a new way to travel theologically. It has been built on a new premise about the origins of life itself. It leads me ultimately back to that original assertion on which later theology would be built: somehow, in some way, through some means, God was in Christ and that this God presence can still be met in the depths of our humanity.

Incarnational and Trinitarian doctrines were necessitated in traditional Christianity by the premise of the fall. God alone could overcome the fall. Jesus, perceived as the rescuer, had to be divine since he accomplished this task. When the fall is dismissed, traditional Christology cannot help but go with it and a new Christianity must emerge, as a phoenix rising from the ashes of the past. It will be based on the call to wholeness, the power of love and the enhancement of being. That is obviously not all that can be said on this subject, but it is as far as space allows me to go in this column.

I am content now only to expose the negativity in the terrible texts that have for so long fed the neurotic human need to justify both suffering and violence as our due, as something earned by the fall into sin over which we had no control.

There is surely a better way than this to love God with one's heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is also surely a better way to speak of Christ as the "human face of God," in whom we meet the source of life, the source of love and the ground of being. That is the Christ I seek and that is the Christ to whom I am still powerfully drawn.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published July 21, 2004




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