Why Traditional Christianity Must Die

Essay by Rev. Brandan Robertson on 4 October 2018 8 Comments

At the end of his most recent book Unbelievable, Bishop Spong poses a question that should be grappled with by every person of faith in this modern era. Essentially, he asks, “Can Christianity in its theology, liturgy, institutions, and practices evolve to meet the rapidly emerging new textures of reality in the 21st century?” As a Christian pastor and public theologian, I have often grappled with this very question, especially as I have witnessed my own worldview shift dramatically away from a “traditional” Christian perspective towards a new way of seeing and being that could only scarcely be called “Christian” by the standards of the dominant institutions within the religion.

The more that I’ve leaned into this question, the more that I have come to believe that the religion called “Christianity” itself may be irredeemable. It is common knowledge in progressive circles that the imperial religion that has dominated the world for the past 2,000 years is almost nothing like the radical ethical and social movement initiated by that first century rabbi named Yeshua. What he initiated wasn’t primarily a religious movement at all, but a socio-political movement that challenged the fundamental ordering of his society and called for an egalitarian and communal way of existing as a human community.

Along with these ethical and political teachings, Rabbi Yeshua incorporated what could be called a perennial spirituality which called for each human to move beyond our egoic projections in the world and to embrace our Divine nature within which unites us to all things. By moving beyond our “carnal” desires and identities (to use a Pauline term) and seeking to live from our truest nature, we could overcome both our struggles with “sin” (all of our greedy impulses that create inequity in the world) and our identification with the false constructs of identity that we’ve been conditioned to own as our identity. Only from that place of inner union could we truly create a united and equal society that Rabbi Yeshua dreamed of.

If you think about how a social and spiritual movement like this could be institutionalized into an organized religion, it seems nearly impossible. The early movement of Rabbi Yeshua was one that could be adapted and adopted by any culture or tradition, incorporating their own spiritual practices and language, their own legal codes, and their own social customs to create a contextualized spirituality and social ordering for each individual community that sought to follow in this path.

At the core of this movement are a set of values and principles rather than dogmas or rules. At the core of this movement is a fundamental push against patriarchy and dominator hierarchies that would make any traditional institutional structure nearly impossible to create. At the core of this movement is a critique of empire and religious institutions, which is precisely the reason Rabbi Yeshua and his earliest followers faced such severe persecution even unto the point of execution. How does one create a religion built on such a radical and evolving set of ideals?

Over the past 2,000 years, there has always been a faithful remnant of those who caught a glimpse of the radical nature of the movement that Rabbi Yeshua began and sought to embody and teach it to the masses. In almost every case, these luminaries were forced outside of the institution and were condemned as heretics by religious leaders and treasonous by the political powers of their day. For in the Yeshua movement, there is no allegiance to any power or hierarchy other than to the Creator who created all, is in all, and is for all. It is this consistent pattern that makes weary of believing that there can be a new “Christianity” in the future, in any institutional sense.

On the other hand, there are always new movements and moments of awakening that give birth to new and renewed ways of seeing and being in the world, and I believe that we stand on the brink of a new era in humanities evolution, the likes of which we have never seen before. We’re entering into an era in which billions of people around the world are beginning to question the way things have been for much of human history and begin to experiment and dream about what could be a new way forward. And a key part of this new moment in humanities evolution is to remember the wisdom of our predecessors- to resist the enlightenment notion that only new knowledge can be good for us and return to the ancient wisdom that has remained beneath the surface of the consciousness of humanity since the dawn of time.

We’re all aware of the multitude of surveys which suggest that the world is not getting less spiritual but it is getting less religious. I see this in my own day to day life as a Pastor of what could be called a progressive “evangelical” congregation (I use that term to describe our style of worship, not our politics or theology). We practice a mix of modern and ancient rituals that are unique to the Christian faith, we use the language of traditional Christianity, and frankly, while many newcomers enter into our church every week, very few of them stick around. One can only conclude that the tradition that we’re promoting is not meeting the long term spiritual desires of the majority of the population any longer.

Where we do see a growing edge, however, is among holistic and indigenous spiritualties. I was recently at a leadership retreat for young spiritual leaders hosted by Union Theological Seminary in New York. As I looked around the room and listened to the stories of my colleagues (primarily non-white, by the way), I heard story after story of the power of reclaiming indigenous spiritual traditions, of relying on the wisdom and spirit of ancestors, and of incorporating the health of our mind, body, and spirit into our “spiritual” practice, all the while, leaning heavily on the radical socio-political message of Rabbi Yeshua. These spiritual leaders led our group in a mix of indigenous chants and rituals, tied with a few ancient Christian contemplative practices, and eventually led us into conversations about creating local movements of subversive, grassroots justice for the good of the marginalized and oppressed.

As I sat in the room, I felt a deep sense of gratification in my spirit. There was something powerful about leaning into organic, indigenous expressions of spirituality which highlighted the profound diversity of humanity, but which also reminded us that though our language may be different, all of our spiritual paths and practices lead us to the same place. And once we moved from our spiritual grounding, we all began speaking in ways that echoed the words of Rabbi Yeshua, seeking to understand and undermine the power of our modern day “Caesars” in order to create the more beautiful, just, and generous world our hearts know is possible.

Everywhere I travel in the world and in every community I speak to, I have found this to be the trajectory of our social and spiritual evolution. These trends are consistently noted by spiritual leaders, from Bishop Spong to Ken Wilber to Pope Francis. The writing seems to be on the wall that whatever the future of humanity is, it will be either post-institutional or there will emerge a radically new form of spiritual and social community that allows for the renewed social and spiritual vision. And, it’s because of this that I have a hard time believing that “Christianity”, as an institutionalized religious force will survive in any way that is helpful or significant in the future of human evolution. However, I am more convinced than ever that those who follow in the radical path of that renegade rabbi named Yeshua will continue to be led by the winds of spirit along an evolutionary path that will create a more beautiful life and world for us all.

At the end of the day, my vocation remains to be a Christian pastor, and I do sincerely believe there is much good that can still be done from within the institution of the local Christian church. The local church, for me, has become a gymnasium of spiritual practice and a laboratory of social innovation, where my small but committed community can regularly harken back to the principles and values of Rabbi Yeshua and ask, “Where are these values leading us in our world today?” That remains an incredibly valuable practice and I am committed to leading a community in this path for the foreseeable future. However, I also must admit what is simply the truth: the traditional institution is no longer the primary spiritual or social vehicle of choice for the majority of the world anymore, and we must begin to dream beyond the traditional confines of religion to imagine what this next era of social and spiritual evolution can look like for our world.

~ Rev. Brandan Robertson

 

Question

I want to ask you, what do you believe will happen in the afterlife? Are we as the human race going to be okay? Should I worry about what's going to happen to me after death? My Girlfriend who believes in god but struggles with what to believe in exactly, is she going to be okay? I'm terrified right now, you seem to be one of the very few looking past religious Dogma. I need your help, just at least some insight into what I should be doing, praying for, anything.

Answer

Dear Brandon,

Regarding “Dying, Resurrection, Reincarnation,” I have written about this about 20 years ago in my book One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Flowing from World Faith Traditions as one of the 18 themes I treat that seem to me to be common to all world religious traditions. All ask and posit answers to the mystery of life (or not) after death in their own ways. One point I make is that the Reincarnation motif has more in common with the Resurrection motif than we usually recognize. Not only the idea of the “communion of saints” but also the notion of the purgatory hypothesis for example, which posits that if we don’t learn love this time around we will learn it someplace (called purgatory) another time around so to speak, echo many teachings on Reincarnation.

But what I would stress today in answer to your question is this: St Thomas Aquinas has a remarkable teaching about resurrection where he says there are two resurrections. The first is waking up in this lifetime and if you do that you don’t have to worry about the second (meaning, it will take care of itself).

The Biblical term “eternal life” is saying the same thing: Eternal life begins in this lifetime and does not cease. Meister Eckhart says that at death life dies but being goes on. Thus if we have learned to live life at a deep level, that of the true self and of the Christ within, we undergo his death and resurrection, we are “in Christ.” Thus we move beyond our fear of death which is a fear of the death of the ego, but does not include the death of being. Hildegard of Bingen said that “no beauty is lost in the universe” and Einstein said that no energy is lost in the universe. To the extent that we live our lives at the level of being and drink beauty and birth it, and imbibe energy and share it, nothing is lost.

I disagree with some Biblical commentators who want to throw out all the resurrection stories as fiction of some kind for this very simple reason: I hear stories of resurrection all the time from people even today. Just yesterday I was in a dialog with Bernie Siegel and he was talking about how his wife, since she died a few years ago, communicates with him on a regular basis. I have had such experiences too, as for example with my Lakota teacher and friend Buck Ghosthorse who died several years ago. I have a friend who is not a religious person at all but tells me this story: A few months after his mother died she appeared to him at the end of his bed and they had a conversation. She said, among other things, to live the life of values that she had taught him. This man, who is a blue collar worker who builds things with his hands, is not the least bit new age and is utterly grounded. Every time he repeats the story his eyes fill with tears.

A number of times I have addressed audiences and told this story and then told them to shut their eyes and then asked: “How many of you personally have had experiences like this with a person you knew who died?” Usually about 80% raise their hands. And I also ask: “How many know others whom you trust have told you experiences like this?” Usually about 75% raise their hands.

There you have it—Resurrection is a common human experience for many and our Biblical exegetes should spend perhaps less time with texts trying to debunk the resurrection stories and more time hearing peoples’ experiences.

Then there is this story. The late Navajo painter David Palladin suffered profoundly as a young soldier in a concentration camp during WWII, a suffering that his elders said initiated him as a shaman. After he died I visited his wife in their home where he painted and she told me, “frequently dead painters would come at night and dictate paintings to my husband.” She then left the room and came back with a painting which I identified immediately as a Paul Klee painting. And sure enough, in the bottom corner, it was signed Paul Klee (who had been deceased for decades). “I remember the night that Paul Klee came and dictated this painting through my husband,” she said.

Yes, life is more interesting and more multi-dimensional than many people—including I dare say many Biblical exegetes—are aware. All the more reason to wake up in this life time, to undergo Resurrection # 1. Waking up to our role in making gratitude and love and justice happen is the first Resurrection. What comes next will take care of itself.

Finally, a word from the great psychologist and student of culture, Otto Rank. He says that the very meaning of “soul” is humanity’s quest for immortality and there have been many efforts over the centuries to identify immortality ranging from the tribe itself, to pyramid building, to beauty; to children, to law itself. Yet for him there is one revelation that stands out: That of Jesus and Paul who by their teaching of resurrection actually democratize immortality and by removing the fear of death for everyone make full living possible (the first Resurrection). Now please note this fact: Rank was not a Christian but a Jew.

Thank you for your important question. I hope my response opens up some doors for you and your girlfriend.

~ Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox

 

Comments

 

8 thoughts on “Why Traditional Christianity Must Die

  1. Amen. Many years ago John Shelby Spong sent me on my journey of changing my way of thinking. My husband was a pastor for 20 years, and we both at the same time set in motion our new way of thinking.
    I can no longer think as I did then, but I feel very comfortable where I am at now. I no longer attend church, and I can no longer discuss Christianity with others. When we attended a symposium in Michigan many years ago when Spong was the speaker, there was also a young man from Australia named Ian who Spong ordained at the Sunday worship service. Ian’s comments changed how I think now also. He basically said that “Christians need to grow up in their faith.” That is what I have done since then. How Christianity ever survived all these years is beyond me. I think that most members go with the flow, instead of searching and studying. Most pastors are too comfortable in the churches they are at and don’t want to rock the boat. It is refreshing to read that Pastor Robertson has found his way at such a young age as to what Jesus was really all about.

  2. Although I am a member of a church in the mainline Christian body of faith (OK, I’m a Methodist), I think I am really more of a Yeshuan than a Christian. I don’t know if that is really an actual term or not, but while reading Brandan’s article, the term sort of just popped up. Are there any other Yeshuans out there? Maybe even a group of them?

  3. Dear Brendan: I like your essay using “Rabbi Yeshua” from the First Century to replace the more familiar word Jesus. I’d thought when you used “Why Traditional Christianity Must Die” as your title for this essay, you were going to fill these pages with the list of reasons to show how and why the Traditional Christianity Must Die? I have read many of Bishop Spong’s books to understand many of the reasons for me to convert to the Progressive Christian way of thinking. This new question by Jack Spong, “Can Christianity in its theology, liturgy, institutions, and practices evolve to meet the rapidly emerging new textures of reality in the 21st century?” certainly has been what I have grappled for quite some time since I heard him speak at the church where I had become an elder in San Jose, CA during his presence there in 2001. Jack permitted and encouraged me to translate his older book of 1991 into Chinese language. I finally finished the translation in 2015, and was honored to meet Jack again right in his home in 2016 about one month after he suffered his stroke. However, about half of a year after I came back home to Suzhou, China, I also suffered a stroke here which put me in the hospital for 10 days. I have recovered about 90%.
    In January, 2018, I sent several letters along with the entire copy of my manuscript to the Religious Bureau in China (Beijing). I was given an introduction letter from the president of ProgressiveChristianity.com which I also included in my mail. Until today there has been no reply from the Bureau. Then when we traveled to Shandong in the summer I approached one of the ministers of the local church in Laixi city and attended a few of their Sunday worship plus one of their PM bible “study” group meetings Again I gave the Chinese manuscript with letters to them, plus my response to their sermons and their bible study on one chapter in the Book of Revelation.
    So far, I got nothing, no response at all from them. After I came back to Suzhou in September, I also approached one of the ministers at the big church here in the city. Perhaps you might have some suggestions for me to continue with my effort.
    Apparently over the years as Priest John Spong grew in his preaching experience, Jack Spong realized that the God that was feared and revered by the Hebrews was not the God who was loved by Rabbi Yeshua, because Rabbi Yeshua did not preach killing or hatred, neither did he preach that his own Heavenly Abba would use him as the sacrificial lamb in order to save other people from the so-called sin which was created many years after Rabbi Yeshua died. Jack Spong also realized that God, who is a spirit, could not have actually consummated the sexual relationship with a young woman (Mary) in order to give birth to a son who later became Rabbi Yeshua. That was one of many difficult questions the younger Priest John Spong had encountered in his earlier life preaching to his congregation. Jack Spong gave a humorous assessment using the numbers being first posed by Carl Sagan for Rabbi Yeshua to have literally risen 2000 years ago while being continuously propelled upward at a very rapid speed of 180,000 miles per second, such that Rabbi Yeshua might still be rising rapidly through the Milky Way today!
    Later on through his writing of many books and his continued teaching and preaching, Bishop John Spong made substantial contribution to the evolvement of emancipation for gay, lesbian, and other similar people who had suffered discrimination for thousands of years. In his analysis Jack Spong also realized that the self-chastising Paul who later through a spiritual encounter with Rabbi Yeshua was also emancipated through the love of God.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  4. Dear Brendan: You said: “We’re entering into an era in which billions of people around the world are beginning to question the way things have been for much of human history and begin to experiment and dream about what could be a new way forward.” That sounds ideal. You have also suggested that people in this new movement ought to “remember the wisdom of our predecessors” Unfortunately a very large number of those still believe in the Traditional Christian faith (including most of the churches in China) are not part of the “billions of people” in this era. They still use the mantra “Fear of the Lord God in the beginning of Wisdom” instead of changing it to: “The love of God, not fear, is the beginning of Wisdom” because God the spirit of Yeshua does not preach killing or hatred.
    As Jack Spong says, “Most of those church goers usually just leave their brains along with their hats and scarves at the front of the church in the safety room when they enter the church pews.” because they feel more comfortable. And half of the clergy feel comfortable the way it is, or that it safes their salary and their pension?

    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  5. Eugene, again?

    Now you quote Spong’s, at what is one of his lowest moment, to again mock other Christians. Unless you or the Bishop knows these people individually (not the ‘type’ but all as individuals), you cannot know what their traditional faith has given them, how it impacts their lives. Are some (many?) of these people, good people, do they lead loving lives? Yes and many are the soldiers, fire(wo)men, police, and those that assist their neighbors in moments of everyday life and in times of disasters. This is the measure of a life, not their so called mantra: it is not the one who says Lord, Lord – it is the one who does the will of the Father; it is the man or woman who loves.

    I have no problem recognizing that the so-called progressive take on Christianity seems to be ‘better’ (for me) but it does not motivate me to turn and mock or denigrate those who believe something different or express that belief in terms that, to me, are outdated.

    As for the clergy, you are now saying that half of traditional Christian leaders are only motivated by salary and pension? Do you know them (all of them, any of them, can you provide their names and testimony)? Please, that is the equivalent of a conservative, traditionalist ‘Eugene’ saying that half of the progressives leaders (including contributors on this site) are only in it to build reputations and sell books since ‘billions’ are begging for answers to their questions.

    If there is a debate or a discussion with other Christians, especially leaders or theologians, and a progressive presents their side and even questions the validity (or the effectiveness) of the conservative position, that is one thing. But to attack Catholics Christians and now ordinary tradition Christians is or should not be what Progressive Christianity is about.

    Most of us bemoan the ‘excesses’ and intransigence (burning heretics, inquisitions, explosion of Jews, treatment of women, crusades, etc.) of some ‘traditional’ Christians – but it serves no one to replace these with the bullying and persecution (by words, slurs and attitudes) of other Christians today. Simply………it is not Christian!

    If our progressive ideas have merit, let us present them for others, in their freedom, to consider. If they see something in them, great; if they don’t or even if they stand in opposition to them – we don’t give up, but we don’t have to bully those who may very well be good human beings (in Christ).

  6. Brandan,

    While I agree with much of what you have written, I simply question whether Jesus initiated a “radical ethical and social movement.” Seemingly, he was a Apocalyptic Prophet whose sole and abiding concern was the coming Kingdom of God, which would be initiated by God (not people). The Jesus of the first century was not, according to the best scholars, concerned with a social or political movement. Certainly, he was interested in an ethic of love in preparation for the Kingdom but he did not expect ‘this world or any worldly social/political order’ to continue.

    What Jesus initiated was primarily religious, not a socio-political movement that challenged the fundamental ordering of his society and called for an egalitarian and communal way of existing as a human community.’ This (supposedly) would have come to pass if the Kingdom was established but then too, God not men would have accomplished it. The “radical ethical and social movement” was initiated by Christians, first and subsequent generations, in light of the reality that the fullness of the Kingdom was ‘delayed.’ It was his followers who initiated this fundamental re-ordering based on their remembrance of Jesus and, seemingly, in light of re-interpreting him in light of the continuation of history.

    As it was for them, I believe it is totally acceptable and necessary for each present generation of Christians to continue and, hopefully, improve on the re-ordering of society (obviously such efforts, including the imperial model have not been successful). However, it was not Jesus or Yeshua who did this; it was other human beings, i.e. Christians.

    Again, there is no problem with ‘re-ordering’ society and being Christ in one’s world – but it is not necessary to recast history to do this or to provide a Jesus based social/political rationale for such action. If one remains a traditional theist then one must follow Jesus and assume he was always right and, therefore, all future action, like a social/political reordering of society, must have its beginnings in him. However, the progressive or the panentheist sees a human being who can and, seemingly, did make mistakes: it is not ‘just’ the work of God; it is was not going to be fulfilled in the lifetime of those in his presence; and, the old world (kingdoms of man) did not end. And, the progressive sees, in the very human Jesus, one who had no interest in ‘future’ human, political movements.

    Jesus was a human being whose words and deeds were the mark and means of becoming and being truly Human (by being Divine, i.e. Love); his gift to us, his power for us, is his Way (his ‘work’ was religious in the tradition and fulfillment of his Jewish religion). Ours should also be a ‘religious movement,’ and since the End is still before us and not expected anytime soon, this movement should seek also to be a political, communal movement or, simply, a movement (a Way) that creates life for the world: it is not all ‘up to God’ but requires a humanity that embodies God; a humanity that ‘is’ as God IS.

  7. Dear Brendan: Although Jack Spong has written so many great books about the radical rabbi Yeshua who was human and was killed 2000 years ago for his radical belief and his teaching of those people to live and seat among the “sinners” such as the tax collectors, to pluck the wheat for food, or to help or heal the sick and disabled poor on a Sabbath, and teaching his disciples to go out without a second pair of shoes and with money, and to also teach people of a new God who would not do physical violence against others to the point of letting himself be killed. Although everyone of his disciples had run away to hide as rabbi Yeshua was killed and had not been resuscitated back to life, somehow they all came back to carry out what he had taught them and were willing to be killed within the Roman empire (except John who was released from an exile in Patmos Island, and Thomas who had sailed to India to teach what he had taught and to start Christian churches in India until he was also killed.), such that his teachings had been transferred to the world and was sustained. However, as a direct result of the four gospels: Mark (70 CE), Matthew (82 CE), Luke (90 CE), and John(100 CE)with all of them following the death of rabbi Yeshua, plus Paul who encountered rabbi Yeshua in spirit, had contributed to their misunderstanding and their misinterpretation of his teachings along with the original tradition much of which was good teaching. Then 300 years after rabbi Yeshua had died, the Romans religion forcefully took over those stories given by the disciples and made it into a grotesque “pretzels” which over the next 16 centuries became the “traditional” Christianity until today. People of Progressive Christianity must try to unwind those grotesque “pretzels” and sometimes it is very difficult. Thank you.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  8. Eugene,

    Without the gospels and Paul, we would never know any Jesus; there would be no Jesus without the NT.

    What specifically was misunderstood or misinterpreted?

    If the Roman religions took over the stories of the disciples (and made them pretzels, catchy though), we would not have Christianity, we would have one of these Roman religions. Rather, Christianity adapted some elements of the pagan religions, making them their own.

    Finally, as to your pretzel, much remains part and parcel of a progressive understanding of Christianity although understood, explained and updated by contemporary knowledge.

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