Monday, December 04, 2006

Demythologizing the Gospel: What's the Point?

Over the past week, we've discussed heresy, orthodoxy, and points of doctrine. Some responses reminded me of a Christian theological perspective that I've encountered before. It says that the Bible is filled with myths -- the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and so on. The Bible is not really the Word of God -- meaning that we can attribute to it divine authorship. Rather, it's a collection of writings from an ancient Near Eastern people from millennia ago. And the religion that it describes is not particularly unique. All religions have pretty much the same claim to truth.

Now I understand this point of view. I used to think that the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection were superstitious hookum. I used to think that the Bible was just a book written by people. And quite properly, during this time period, I called myself an atheist. I didn't go to church or pray or do any other Christianly activity because, well, there was no point. Christianity was just a mythos, like any other. It had some points of moral wisdom, like the Sermon on the Mount. But ultimately, it's just mythology.

If I still thought that the Bible wasn't true and that Jesus was just a good, human teacher whose disciples later fabricated miraculous stories about, then I wouldn't go to church or call myself a Christian. And if I would ever reach that conclusion in the future, then I'd stop calling myself a Christian because there still wouldn't be a point.

So what baffles me about the demythologizers of Christ is why they even bother calling themselves Christians and showing up at church on Sunday mornings. Especially the latter. There's no cost to calling oneself a Christian. But going to church is an investment of time and, if you tithe, money. I don't want to be insulting, but...well, if Christ is not God and the Bible is an unreliable witness of him, then what is the point to Christ-related activities?

I don't understand the motivation behind denying the divinity of Christ and yet still clinging to him. Why not just call oneself an atheist, sleep in on Sunday morning, and spend tithe money on D&D books?

When, as a teenager, I reached atheistic conclusions, I got up, walked out of the Church, and never looked back. Why waste my time on a fictitious being and his deluded followers? I had better things to do. So I'm rather baffled by unbelievers, like Bishop John Shelby Spong, who stay around in the Church devoted to the worship of what they see as an imaginary being. If Christ was just some Judean peasant who was never divine, then those who have been enlightened to this fact are better off finding some other more productive and meaningful activity.

So I understand demythologizers who leave the Church. Their behavior is, however based upon inaccurate conclusions, internally rational. But I don't understand those that stay.


John B said...

You say you don't understand why they stay. I don't either. But here's something else I don't understand. Why do we let them continue to call themselves Christians without challenging it?

Just because some refer to themselves as Christians, doesn't mean those who are faithful to Christ have to. I might call myself and truly believe that I'm a bear and though I'm big and hairy my actions obviously prove that I'm not one. So why would anyone refer to me as bear, just because I said I'm one?

bob said...

I think when church leaders refuse to accept the authority of the Bible or divinity of Christ or his resurrection we must ask why they personally stay. What agenda or motive they have is it money or power or something else ? Because people generally have a reason for the actions they take even if they don't realize it.

Anonymous said...

What bothers me are bishops and other clergy who violate their sacred vows by "disavowing" the doctrines they promised to believe, teach, and defend. Their so disingenuous; how can we believ them regarding any issue, and, therefre, what is their worth as leaders?

Keith Taylor said...

Excellent post, John.

It is an enigma. I cannot imagine calling myself a Christian, but then denying the divity of Christ, His blood attonement for my sins, and his Resurrection. I mean, what are you worshiping if Christ was simply a mortal man? But I know that Christian churches, including UM ones have these people in them and leading them.

Why??? I have no clue.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting take.

Why would Bishop Spong or Bishop Sprague stay in the church after having been branded a heretic, an outsider, a kook, an idiot, an atheist?

I would be curious to read some of their books such as "Affirmations of a Dissenter" or "Why Christianity must Change or Die". They might give clues as to why they stay.

But I digress, I have way too many books to read already.

Anonymous said...

I think they stay just because they are folks who have grown fond of church. They like the services. They find them somehow deeply comforting - the same way that I enjoy walking around the house that my grandparents have owned my whole life and that I often played in as a child. It is familiar in a deep and powerful way.
The question is "is this an example of philosophical incongruence on their parts?" I think the answer is "yes." They are acting irrationally by continuing to come to church - unless they intend to use the church for something that their new un-Christian belief system would consider a good/end.

JD said...


I think it is much simple than that. A sociological even psychological need for someone to have something greater than themselves, even when they are unsure of what it really is. I truly believe that God has touched the heart of each of His creation. The longing each of us have in our lives is that call from God to return home. An understanding of Christ, that Christians feel, is the conclusion of that longing, and the relief of being home. Ask yourself this: as a pastor one day, if you could prove that God did NOT exist, would you share that with your congregation, or go forward preaching what you know is not true because you know it continues to give hope to the hopeless and faith to the faithless?

People stay because it makes sense. People stay, because in the end, when marriages fall apart, jobs end, family members die, their church, their community, their Lord they so vehemently try to deny, is there.

The reason some of these intense discussions regarding the Discipline have really bothered me on a spiritual level is because the intellectual level to which I am taken. Don't get me wrong; I truly love to discuss the intellectual side of our faith because it allows me to better understand my heart. I believe that this religiosity that we come to debate so well, allows us to better understand Bishop Spong in the following ways:

* Religiosity pulls us away from that heartfelt homecoming most Christians feel with their acceptance of Christ.

* Religiosity keeps pastors and members of the church that question the virgin birth and the resurrection from ever going home.

* Religiosity is an idol that keeps us from truly worshiping God and accepting Him as He is.

People stay because it is familiar, like going back to an old girlfriend, knowing it is wrong, but doing it anyway because you feel comforted. It is like an alcoholic that enjoys the comfort of a bottle because he feels relief and peace. Or it is like a smoker, who continues to light up when they have emphysema, because they have always done it.

For a guy like me, that enjoys the logical explanation, the straight forward answer, and Christianity nicely wrapped with a cute bow on top, the reasons for a heartfelt longing when I am not sure I believe will always be a mystery. I think it is easier to be logical about my faith. It is real, it is truth, and it is. But when I throw in a little emotion...well, let's just say, it is not so easy to just "believe." It becomes about so much more.


Faithful Non-Atheist said...

As someone who has left the church and no longer consider myself to be a Christian - in large part because I no longer believe many of the concepts you've been mentioning (Virgin birth, Resurrection, Divinity of Christ, etc.) - I felt that I shouldn't call myself something I'm not and I agree that those who do not believe they fit the label of Christian should no longer call themselves one. But then, their beliefs might be such that you might not think they're Christian but they are.

I take issue, however, with what you said that my "behavior [being a former Christian] is, however based upon inaccurate conclusions, internally rational." You say that it is inaccurate based on your own faith and reading of scripture. My behavior is also based on my faith in God and understanding of scripture.

One of the things I can never seem to understand is how something as personal as one's faith - whatever that faith may be - can just be written off by someone who has a different faith (calling it "inaccurate" or a only "internally rational").

What's so wrong about my faith just being different from yours? How does my faith threaten yours (or anyone else's for that matter)?

I also take issue with your implication that those who don't believe in the divinity of Christ, etc. should call themselves atheists. Are you saying that Jews are atheists because they don't believe in the divinity of Christ?

How is it that faithful people who are living out their peaceful beliefs in God should be called atheists just because their conception of God is different from yours?

I'm not seeking answers, partly because I've read this blog enough to know what the responses would be. It's just something to think about And I'm not going to respond further.

Anonymous said...

I think some of them stay because they are certain they are right and believe that if they argue loud and long enough they can hit upon something that will convince even us literalists (I believe that's one of Bishop Sprague's favorite words for us) of the rightness of their position. They do this at great personal cost, they claim, because that is how much they love us and, more importantly, love truth.

I think some of them stay because this is where the money is.

And I think some of them stay because God is still working on them despite themselves.

JD said...

That touch of God on their heart, eh Pirate?


John said...

Faithful Non-Atheist, it is by logical necessity that I say that either:

1. Atheism is correct
2. Christianity is correct
3. Both are wrong

Reality must conform to one of these three possibilities, but cannot be two or more.

Should those who deny the Virgin Birth etc necessarily be called atheists? Thanks for catching my error. Indeed one may be a Jew or Hindu or Shinto or whatever and reject the Virgin Birth and Resurrection. I should have been more precise in my description. I am descipting a particular form of self-proclaimed Christian who rejects the divinity of Christ.

lssaunde said...


I think they stay because they are most likely to be unitarians, not atheists completely. They think they can lead the Christian church in a direction to honor and revere Jesus but not worship him as the Son of God, and to them that is a good enough reason to hang around. I also think there is merit in the argument that they are attached on some emotional level to the church. At least one woman I know found herself returning to church in her fifties after decades away from it; she is an admirer of Spong, but for her the emotional pull was the reason to return, not the intellectual. Obviously, she chooses to be a member of a congregation that follows Spong's teachings.

MethoDeist said...

I attend a United Methodist church with my wife and I am not a Christian. However, I do not label myself as a Christian nor do I consider myself one. Instead, I label myself as a modern Deist who has a profound belief in God and accepts that their are many ways to God by way of faith.

My wife is a United Methodist from birth so I attend with her. I am not a member but I am welcomed by most and I am able to participate. I have found many that are no longer Christian by the standard definition but still attend church for a sense of fellowship and community.

I disagree with these people calling themselves Christian just as I would disagree with them calling themselves Deists but believing in Jesus Christ as lord and saviour.

I like much of Spong's theology but I disagree with him still calling himself a Christian as he fits into the Modern Deist category quite well. However, this does not mean that he, myself or others cannot be involved in the Christian church.

I must disagree with this statement as well, "behavior is, however based upon inaccurate conclusions, internally rational." My conclusions are fair from innaccurate as all theology is based on faith and not on evidence regardless of what people may claim. The Christian religion is not an evidence based religion as its central tenets cannot be proven by empirical evidence just as I cannot prove my beliefs either.

Remember, it is faith that we believe on not evidence. So, my beliefs have just as much validity as yours and vice versa. Can both be correct as you asked? No, but without evidence to support or deny the conclusions we can never truly move beyond this question into which is the one true faith.

As a pluralist, I accept that we all have metaphysical positions that are based on faith and that the spiritual is not limited to out small conceptions of God. Our conceptions are important to us but are just that, conceptions. My conception allows me to experience God in all the ways that we should and I know that my wifes conception allows her to do the same even though we have different beliefs.

I do agree with your overall views on the matter of labels and you are right on the issue.


dave said...

I appreciate what MethoDeist has to say.

I think, John, your list of either one is right, the other is right, or they're both wrong is a little too simplistic. For me, religion can't fit into such tight boxes, nor does it.

All I know is that God is larger than my understanding and because of that, I have no authority to say who is right and who is wrong. I can only say what works best for me. I wouldn't dare say that Christianity is downright wrong and some other conception is absolutely right. If I don't know everything, and I certainly don't, I have no right to judge the veracity of another belief system as a whole one way or the other.

For me, my conception of God leaves open the "both...and..." possibility. I don't think and "either...or..." is our only option. That limits God by saying that the faith of everyone but "true" Christians is rooted in lies because the only way to come to an understanding of God is through this one specific religion.

I also don't get how there is such a need to define "us" and "them," who's "in" and who's "out." That just rubs me the wrong way.

larry b said...

dave - you said "I also don't get how there is such a need to define "us" and "them," who's "in" and who's "out." That just rubs me the wrong way"

It certainly rubbed the pharisees in Jesus time the wrong way too, but that didn't stop him from telling them who was wrong, who was in, and who was out.