There are six statements which, if affirmed, will transform Christianity as we know it. They are:
1. Our idea of God is not God. Now, this is as self-evidently obvious as any statement you will ever hear. 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, let’s don’t leave Paul out of the conversation. Here’s his take: “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). And yet, and yet…
The church is always speaking as though it is the spokesperson for God, as though its ideas of God are God. The church condemns homosexuality in the name of God. The church proclaims the value of creationism in the name of God. The church declares this, and denounces that, and tells all comers that if they don’t do it the way the church tells them to do it they are going to hell, all in the name of God. It is as though the church IS God. Certainly, it is as though the church’s idea of God is God. But no. Our idea of God is not God.
It get stranger. The church can agree that God is beyond all concepts of God, that our idea of God is not God. But, the church will not allow any new ideas about God. There hasn’t been a fresh idea about God allowed into the church since the Protestant Reformation. There have been a number of fresh ideas—Process Theology, Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, to mention three—but, they haven’t found what you might call “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 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. Actually living out of the realization that our idea of God is not God would change a number of things, over night.
2. The church was before the Bible. Of course, 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. The Bible is a product of the church. 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 at the time the canon was closed. 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 thinks God should say. The church filtered the Bible, and only the agreeable words passed muster. When you read the Bible, you read what the church wants you to read. What the church doesn’t want you to read is called heretical. Which is interesting, in light of statement number three below.
Understanding that the church was before the Bible changes the foundation of authority. Now, 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. So, 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 the church put the Bible together, the church is uniquely positioned to reevaluate the Bible 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 sound like the worst sort of heretic, which gets us rather nicely to the aforementioned statement number three.
3. Every step forward is a step into heresy. Every doctrine that we embrace with such fervor, and recommend with such rhetoric, and believe with such conviction and certitude 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. Heresy is our heritage, and our hope.
We cannot think a new thought about God without thinking an heretical thought about God. We cannot deepen our understanding of God, expand our vision of God, 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 been seen and see something more. Perhaps something that calls into question everything that has been seen. As in a God who would have us love our enemies and the least of those who live at the margins of society.
4. 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 to patch things up with God and get us back in 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, 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. My mother 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 minds; 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 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. Always being cared for and taken care of, without having to choose our own course, make up our own minds, 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.
5. 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 instead? 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 would help, not hinder, us along the way. You would think that we would believe things that would create community, deepen connections, foster compassion and justice, understanding and peace, and make for a better world. We certainly have that option. We would be wise to choose it.
6. Ants find the picnic, flowers turn to the light. Yet, we think that without some external standard of moral rectitude we would be lost in a morass of decadence and 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, and drowned witches, we believe without hell it all goes to hell. We believe we cannot do what is good without being threatened 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 follow 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 blithely obey, 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. You cannot embrace these six principles without transforming the church of your experience into the church as it ought to be. The ninety-five theses need be only six.