2016-06-30
As a new year dawns with hope and promise, people turn almost inevitably to the future. That is what produces resolutions aimed at self-improvement. In that mode, I would like to gaze into the future of the Christian Church and shape three New Year's Resolutions that might guide the church into tomorrow.

Resolution #1: The church will move away from its fear of maturity and stop patterns that encourage worshippers' childlike dependence.

Traditionally, the religion of the West has emphasized a relationship between the believer and a supernatural parent-God who lives somewhere above the sky. A faithful worshiper is encouraged by this deity to be passive, docile and dependent. The liturgies of our churches are filled with references to human weakness. We sing such passive words as "Thou are the potter, I am the clay." Our theological systems have traditionally focused on human ineptitude, depicting people as dumb sheep, passive followers, who must stand as fawning praise-givers before the almighty deity.

The result of this emphasis has been the encouragement of an immature, childlike lack of responsibility. If we can do nothing good without God's help, the nerve that drives us into maturity is cut. We become little more than passive recipients of God's grace. The faithful are taught not to challenge or to question the authority of the church, but, rather, like obedient children, to do as they are told.

The church that claims to follow Christ must take seriously Jesus' words as St. John records them: "I have come that you might have life, and that you might have it abundantly." One cannot offer the gift of abundant life and still require the recipient to eschew maturity. To get beyond passivity in religion is a first step in the necessary reformation that is inevitable if the church is to live.

Resolution #2: The church will cease its concentration on evil and begin to see the beauty in human life. A vision of original goodness needs to balance the church's concentration on original sin.

I wonder the Christian church seems to believe that the only way to glorify God is to concentrate on human evil. Listen to the words of our liturgies: "There is no health in us." "We are miserable offenders." "We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs" under God's table. Even when we sing of God's "Amazing Grace," we have to add that the reason this grace is amazing is that it saves "a wretch like me." We have become immobilized by our concentration on guilt and sin. We say: "We are born in sin." We say that this sin is so deep and terrible an affliction that it required Jesus to die "to pay the price of our sins." We are worms, unworthy, lost, depraved, evil creatures who brought about the death of Jesus.

This emphasis on humanity's sinfulness is first of all psychologically abusive. We teach parents to encourage their children, to praise their accomplishments. Why do we not listen to our own advice when we speak about the people who occupy the pews? Can any of us imagine parents treating children the way the church treats its people, reminding them everyday of how sinful and helpless, how lost and depraved they are? Such a message will never produce whole adults. People tend to become what they are defined as being.

Secondly, the idea of human sinfulness is undergirded by an appeal to biblical assumptions that are no longer operative. Despite Christian claims, there never was a perfect or finished creation from which human life has fallen into sin. We live on the other side of Charles Darwin, who confronted the world with a totally different understanding of human beginnings. Creation is ongoing and therefore unfinished. There could have been no Fall from the Garden of Eden, since no human perfection ever has existed. Life began, rather, in the incompleteness of a single cell some 3 billion years ago. It evolved into increasingly complex organisms and into various states of consciousness.

We homo sapiens are the only creatures who appear to have achieved the status of full self-consciousness. We are thus the only creatures who embrace how fragile life is, and who face the chronic presence of trauma and fear. In our self-conscious incompleteness, we have installed survival as the highest virtue of human life. That is where human evil originates. Our drive for survival has made us radically self-centered people. In the service of our survival, we wrap around ourselves the protective layers of tribe, prejudice, gender differences and religious superiority.

The problem with human life is not that we are fallen, it is that we are incomplete. A survival-oriented self may have helped us to win the evolutionary struggle, but now it prevents us from becoming fully human. The traditional Christian myth proclaims that because we are fallen we need a rescuing savior, who saved us from our sin.

What we need, however, is not rescue but the power to enable us to step beyond our survival-oriented limits into a new humanity that we have never before experienced. Salvation becomes a call to a new humanity, not the story of our rescue from the fall. The task of the church is to empower people to be all they can be, not to denigrate their humanity until they are made to cry out for help and then to wallow in the guilt of their inadequacy. The church must find a way to couch its essential message in positive terms. The coming reformation requires it.

Resolution #3: The church will give up its idolatrous claims to be the sole possessors of God's ultimate truth. It will surrender the claim that in its leaders reside infallibility or that in its sacred text resides inerrancy.

One of the marks of human insecurity is that we are driven to make excessive claims for our religious tradition. "We have the true faith." "We are the only true church." "We possess the sole path to salvation." Aside from the bizarre suggestion that any human mind could know perfectly the truth of the infinite God, these claims have been at the base of such human activities as religious wars, the Inquisition, and anti-Semitism. This attitude still fuels the hostility that divides Catholic from Protestant in Ireland, Jew from Muslim on the West Bank, and Hindu from Muslim on the boundary between India and Pakistan. It also lies at the base of the mentality that caused Muslim fanatics to commandeer airplanes and drive them in suicide missions into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the soil of Pennsylvania. All of these are manifestations of a human claim to possess the "truth of God" inside our human religious systems.

No human being, no hierarchy, and no church can ever tell anyone who God is or what God is. Let us be clear about that. All anyone can ever tell another person is how he or she or a particular institution believes it has experienced God. All God talk--including all scriptures, all creeds, all theology--is subjective, not objective. Human beings can only journey into the mystery of God. We cannot and do not possess God.

To say it bluntly, God is not a Christian; God is not a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist or a Hindu. No one and no system of thought can ever contain the holy God. No one possesses the only path into truth. If every religious system, including the dominant Christianity, would embrace that reality, the pain that various religious traditions inflict on the world would be dramatically lessened.

So there you have my proposal for three New Year's resolutions for the Christian church. If we Christian could begin to implement these resolutions for the coming year, we might just start the new and much needed reformation. It would be a mighty achievement.

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