Dr. Watson’s Wednesdays @Whatever November 18, 2020
I’m a bit of a sports fan. I love big games, big matches, and big tournaments. I love knowing the “story” of some of the players. One of my favorite book genres is biographies of famous athletes. But what I like more than anything else in the world of sports is the game changer.
In sports, a game changer is a literal thing. It changes the game. Something happens that potentially changes the flow or outcome of the game. In football, there is the timely interception that changes momentum from one team to the other. In baseball, there is the diving catch that stops a rally. In basketball, a game changer might be a key defensive stop and a slam dunk on the other end.
In life in general, a “game changer” is “an event, idea, or procedure that effects a significant shift in the current manner of doing or thinking about something.” That’s exactly what happened when John Shelby Spong, long-time Episcopalian bishop of Newark, New Jersey, wrote his 1999 book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die. It was a game changer. Not everyone agrees, of course. And not everyone believes the game needed or needs to be changed as much as he claims it does.
But at least in progressive Christian circles, this book was a game changer, much like the 1963 book by Spong’s mentor and friend, Bishop John A.T. Robinson, titled Honest to God. If you haven’t read that book, then please stop what you are doing right now and go find a copy. Coincidentally, Bishop Spong retired from his post in 2000, the year after his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, was published. Retirement leads to freedom in more ways than one.
In his book, Spong offers twelve controversial theses. I talked about the first two last week. #1: Spong says we need to reevaluate “theism,” the belief in an interventionist God, and #2: Spong says we need to reevaluate our Christology (doctrine of Christ) because it is rooted in theism.
Let’s move on to point #3: “The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.” Allow me to unpack this sentence.
Spong is claiming that the church ignores the science of evolution at its own peril. People won’t take us seriously if we don’t take science seriously. Many Christians, of course, take the Creation story (stories) literally, and assume that God created everything “perfect and finished.” We now know this is not true. All of life has evolved from one-celled critters, we all continue to change, and most species that have occupied this planet are now no longer with us.
To believe that we humans were created “perfect and finished” and then “fell into sin” in the mythical Garden of Eden is to ignore what the evidence suggests. We didn’t “fall” into sin; we evolved into sin. At some point in our evolution we became conscious and aware of good and evil. We became ethical beings. Now, unlike the rest of the animal species in our world, we are somewhat responsible for our “bad behavior.”
Notice, by the way, that the writer of Genesis 2 rightly attributed the first “sin” to eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Once we shed our literalism, we can easily see how the writer of Genesis 2 is trying to link the knowledge of good and evil with sin.
Genesis 2 is not historically factual, but it is true. And what’s amazing is that the writer had no knowledge of Darwinian evolution. But we do, so for us to continue to tell that story as if human beings (and all of creation) were created “perfect and finished,” and then we lost our shine when we ate the forbidden fruit, does more harm than good in terms of sharing our faith and worldview with others.
The lesson here is that one needs to read the two Creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 alongside Darwin’s Origin of Species if, and only if, one wants to be taken seriously.
Point #4: “The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes the divinity of Christ, as traditionally understood, impossible.” Do you notice a theme here? Spong is asking us to take science seriously. And if you take science seriously, there is no way to interpret the virgin birth story in a literal way.
Some people take this virgin birth thing very seriously. Let me tell a story. Years ago, while I was nearing the end of serving my first parish in Central Texas, a pastor search committee called me and said they were traveling down I-35 to hear someone preach from the Dallas area, and wondered if they could stop and interview me along the way.
It was an unusual request, but I said yes. When they arrived, I led them to our meeting room, sat down at the table with about five people from their search committee. The leader of the committee said they just had a few questions to ask. I said, “Go ahead.” Their first question was, “Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?” I was thrown aback, as you can imagine. Finally, I said, “What difference does it make. We’re not Catholic.” They collected their notepads and left without saying a word. (Some people take the Virgin Birth story very seriously!)
As I said last week, Spong is known for deconstructing traditional Christian doctrines. It seems like his main concern is that we, the church, be taken seriously, and he knows we won’t be taken seriously if we insist on the literal beliefs of people who lived in a pre-science world 2,000 years ago.
I’ll stop right there today, but before I go let me say this: I’m not saying you can’t believe in such things as the literal “fall of humanity” or the virgin birth of Jesus, because it’s a free country. I am saying, however, that if you do believe these things in a literal, physical way, then you have to be ready to defend these beliefs to a generation of people who believe in science.
Like all of us, they are looking for a “game changer” in terms of their faith, but they want it to be real and believable.