By Bishop John Selby Spong


John A.T.Robinson bishop and author of “Honest to God” (1963)
exposed the work of academia to general view:
Rudolf Bultmann called for demythologising of the Christian message
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wanted to separate religion from Christianity;
Paul Tillich said that God could not be seen as a personal being.

The traditional church struck back!
Robinson was pilloried in press and pulpit
and sidelined in the church before resigning as bishop and taking up a teaching post.
Whilst Robinson identified the faults and problems,
he never completed the task of reconstruction.
Spong's book “Why Christianity must Change or Die”
attempts to reissue Robinson's call for radical reformation.
There was a large, and marginally positive, response.
Many found the book resonated with their own struggles with the established church,
and were (as I am) glad to find that they were not alone in their views.
Whilst the positive feedback was largely from lay members,
the (aggressive and hostile) negative feedback came largely from clergy.
- defending their turf/jobs/pay-packet and their pension.
Other authors who took the path that this book endorses include:
Paul Tillich (On the Boundary)
Don Cupitt (After God),
Richard Holloway (Godless Morality).
This book attempts to pick up these threads and open the gate to a radical reformation of Christianity
(I do not think he gets that far, being still caught up by clerical considerations).
Opposition is to be expected as the book moves beyond the Christian power-claims of a exclusive pathway to God.
It also discards much of the divine support package that brings us comfort,
for the religious promise of security is an illusion designed to generate a child-like faith.
This is an invitation to come and explore and see if we can find the reality of God beyond theism.


A Fundamentalist charter was published in 1910-15, defining the basic tenets of being a Christian as
1. The inspiration of Scipture as the literal revealed word of God.
2. The virgin birth as the miraculous ansd literal means by which Jesus was born.
3. The substitutionary view of the atonement accomplished through the death of Jesus.
The saving power of his blood and the gift of salvation accomplished by his death.
4. The physical bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead,
the accuracy of both the empty tomb and the appearance stories in the gospels.
5. The truth of the second coming of Jesus, the reality of the day of judgement,
based on the record of one's life and the cartainty of heaven and hell
as eternal places of reward and punishment.

These fundamentals now seem both naïve and rejectableby any Christian scholar.
Scripture is filled with cultural attitudes that have been rejected as immoral, even evil.
Concepts such as the virgin birth and physical resurrection are treated as metaphors today.
The substitutionary view of the atonement is grotesque, both in its understanding of God and of man.

We need to rethink our view of God, as other than a supernatural being.
God does not help a nation win a war or intervene to cure the sick.
Our knowledge of the natural world shows that these things do not happen.
Jesus can not be an earthly incarnation of what is not a being,
nor can he have broken the laws of nature to perform the miracles attested to him.
These stories must be looked at in other ways.
Virgin birth is a feature of mythology before the facts of medical science were known.
The whole birth narrative and subsequent adventures are legends devised to support the meaning of Christ.
Similarly the Resurrection stories and appearances are later developments of the religious tradition.

We need to rethink our view of humanity and discard our tribal prejudices.
We are not born in sin,but evolving to a holier future from an unthinking past.
We are not separated from each other through our physical or sexual appearance,
but all share a common humanity.

We need to rethink our view of Christianity.
Must we belief the impossible and put my faith in the untenable,
or may I reject the ignorance of the past to see Christianity as a living faith
which addresses the needs of today- in fact of all ages?

This is a call for fundamental reformation,
not of the organisation but of what the organisation represents.
We are tilting against the battlements of the establishment
and their defence mechanism is both practiced and assured.
However popular culture and the present shrinkage of church attendance
lends hope that the castles will fall
– be starved into surrender even if never captured by assault.
We need to replace the provision of answers in our pulpits
by the raising of questions
– to stir up the people as Jesus did
– to risk the same fate that he encountered.


It seems that God, seen as a powerful supernatural being dwelling outside this world, is dead.
Miracles are no longer seen as mracles, but as things for which we do not yet have an explanation.
God is not longer the “prime mover”, from which all things emerge.
We now, at least begin, to see how and why things happen.
In our churches we use the language of the past
without thinking much about its meaning.
Any change from the theistic position
is seen as atheist.

The rejection, by the public, of deism
has generated a defensive fundamentalism, in every world religion.
The concerns that we we used to cover with our theistic conviction, are no longer covered over.
It may be that some form of drug mirrors the effect of religious security,
even caffeine or alcohol or nicotine.
These are all measures to combat the “pain of human existence”

Another aspect of our insecurity is violence, particularly between children,
aimed at removing threats to our way of life.
The ultimate in this case being wars and ethnic cleansing,
or the wars of religion which still rumble on.
These are all corollaries of the death of theism –
the ancient way of coping with the awareness of human vulnerability and lack of meaning.
Modern replacements (apart form the fundamentalist churches) include diet, exercise and sport.
The end od theism is shown by the gap between what people say they believe and their values.
The major coping device for dealing with the underlying fears of humanity
has been a powerful theistic God, who watched over us and rewarded or punished us.
Removal of that belief has exposed for humanity the fears and lack of meaning in life.
We need a realistic replacement!


“What we had imagined we then believed”

Self-consciousness marks humanity as different from other life forms.
This gives us the means to appreciate finitude and our ending. - our non-being.
Life has evolved over some 5 Billion years.
Self-conscious humanity emerged some 100,000 years ago.
Over the first 4.9 billion years no being had a sense of non-being, or purpose.
The concept of mortality brought with it a dreadful anxiety – and a need to find a meaning to existence.
From this came the concept of divinity.
If “I” am, others must also be “I” to themselves,
and “I” must live in harmony with them.
Thus natural forces came to be seen as having personhood, and thus “God” was born.
Theism emerged from the need of humans to cope with the fear of non-being.
The earliest theism came from the need to placate the spirits seen in other life-forms.

This form of theism developed and changed as humanity changed.
The female became for a while the dominant deity,
thus we have Mother Nature and Mother Earth.
Our burials reflect the need to return our children to their source of being.
In time the male took over.
The earth became fertilised by the male sending rain to impregnate her etc.
In time these became a pair male+female and then a hierarchy.
Tribal deities vested all power in a single male deity,
but, to start with, a power limited to tribal boundaries.
In time monotheism became the norm in a number of different settings.
This God was external to mankind, still required to be placated, still supernatural.

Theism is thus a definition of God which was born as a human coping device
to give purpose to existence and meaning to human life.
If Theism is dying, we should expect the trauma of non-being to return.
(is that apparent in the troubles of our present world?)

In the beginning humans developed coping strategies;
religious practices to manipulate the supernatural powers that they had devised.
Group survival strategies were evelated into the status of the “will of God”,
and the priest/shaman became the person to interpret that will.
Liturgies of praise were developed; the power of the priesthood arose.
We attempt to accentuate God's power by a grovelling language of worship!
Theistic religions developed claims for absolute truth and power.
It is a circular argument: our deity is the only true deity,
so what he says is truth and he says he is the only true deity
– or there is no salvation outside a particular religion
– or the infallibility of the bible because it says so.

Theism still serves to counter the threat of non-being, but theism is dying.
The gaps of knowledge that God filled are closing and God has lost his purpose.
The question remains - can humanity cope without the mechanism of theism?

A manifestation of that death is the rise of hysterical irrational fundamentalism.
Another is the increased use of stimulanst and coping drugs.
Another is mindless violence and overreaction to opposition.
Are we really alone ?

There is no realistic option for recreating the dying theism of the past,
such efforts are vain.
But is there a truer option
– not a coping mechanism but a new way to affirm self-consciousness
as an asset leading us onward to further stages of development;
a heightened humanity.
Is God then still a viable proposition?


God is an experience that can never be defined or contained.
The Evangelical form of God is a human creation,
designed to counter the fear of self-awareness.

To challenge the existing concepts, with a more truthful message,
is to threaten people's security, but not do so can only lead
to the eventual death, or corruption, of religion.
We need to grow out of infantile spiritual dependence
into the exhilarating insecurity of adulthood.

Every image of God, whether material or conceptual,
is inadequate. “Trinity” is yet another.
These are attempts to explain our experience of God.
We can never see where God is, but we can see where he has been (like Moses).
(Can God be what holds us together as community – lie in the links between us?)

The God of the Torah is a supernatural being outside creation
who periodically invades it to do miraculous things.
This is surely a concept that we need to discard.
The Israelites who escaped Egypt found the insecurity of freedom frightening.
Some even longed to to back! Did they then invent another Master through religion?
The search for that security is spelt out in the Moses stories; the need for Laws and duties.
God , it was said, would punish any offence,
but it was the community that punished, using their God to justofy the action.
Communal values had been deified. “God” has become a vehicle to invite people to recognise their unity.
God is seen as the ultimate source of life ---- and of the love that has no boundaries.

We worship God by giving love away.
We replace our dependence on a paternal God in the sky,
by an experience of being part of that which is eternal.
We no longer have to defend our theistic God's strange activities,
nor utter glutenous praises, nor acknowldghe our sinful nature.


Discarding the theistic God has a domino effect on other religious concepts.
Can we tell the Christ story without the concept of a theistic God?
If the supernatural being who lives above the sky and periodically invades life is no longer credible,
Jesus can no longer be thought of as an incarnation of that deity.
We have to reimagine Jesus without the trappings of miraculous events.
Was jesus just a great teacher? (see "Revolution" in whispersdivine.
In the writings of Paul there are no miracle stories, no virgin birth, no physical resurrection,
and these may well had been added or endorsed in adjustment to other writings.
Miracle stories first appear in the Gospel of Mark
Mark ties up events in the life of Jesus with events in the Jewish liturgical year.
This undermines any concept of biographical accuracy.
However Jesus was still a person
through whom the presence of God was experienced
– somehow.


Living faith becomes a Creed to be followed.
Hope for the coming of the Kingdom becomes a doctrine of immortality.
Ministers of the Spirit become clergy and others become people to be taught.
Fervent prayers becoem hymns and litanies.
Spong spends a lot of time trying to show that the Gospels are related to the Jewish liturgical year.
The supernatural element of the Jesus story were later additions,
which can be removed without destroying the original story.
Matthew adds further spiritualising to the Markan account,
and Matthew's account is taken further along that line by Luke.
John emphasises the deity of Jesus throughout, and the supernatural aspect,
particularly after his death.
Throughout the progress from Paul to Mark,
the humanity of Jesus has been taken over by a divine nature

– a supernatural deity living above the sky who invades earth to accomplish his will.

The theistic pattern born of human anxiety and fear was not original to Christ
but has become the pattern of Christianity.
Can those chains now be discarded?



Gracious God forgive us, when we would make much of that which cannot matter much to thee
(Rt Rev John Elbridge 1973 – used to open sermons)

Can Christianity get to whereit needs to go, if starting from where it is?
The only way is to return to the starting point and begin anew,
for we have taken a wrong path.

Analaysis has exposed things that render the birth stories untenable
dates that do not work: conflicts between accounts:
impossibility of avirgin birth.
Similarly the exit strategy is flawed,
by ascension in a three-tiered universe.
Atonement has been denied by the destruction, through evolutionary science,
of the biblical creation narrative and thus the concept of original sin.
This left no need for atonement which had, anyway, been rendered futile
by rejection of ideas of animal sacrifice.

Evolution takes the converse view,
that we are progressing from imperfection towards something better
(surely the Christian viw could be that we are heading for perfection).
The evil that we do is not a feature of our fallen nature,
but of our trying to improve, progress, grow and getting it wrong.
The loss of this prop undermines most of the superstructure of the church.

Christianity is at a junction.
To go straight on, leads nowhere except to continuation of the present decline.
We need to find a new way to tell the Christ-story.


The NT has Jesus ask “Who do you say that I am?”
But if Jesus is not son of a divine entity nor part of a divine trinity, what is he?
Perhaps he is one who calls us to go past our tribal fears and have a global view.
Without barriers or prejudice to walk beyond our distorting fears.
Our differences represent the richness of being fully human.
Jesus is consistently shown as one who reaches across whatever barriers he encounters,
in whatever form those barriers take. We too can take that path of inclusive Love.
Such a path of Love will not attempt to protect or justify itself,
but be content to give itself away.
Love never judges, merely embraces the other., denying any barrier.
This is a form of life that Jesus exposed as the doorway to divinity.
The gospel writers are painting a portrait, not telling a story.


Dchrist was not a divine figure on a rescue mission
but a human figure demonstarting a portrait of divinity.
“Jesus is not a example but a vision that impells” !
Seeing Jesus as example does not address the problem of evil.
On the other hand the concept of “original sin” is abhorrent
and does not do justice to the wonder of the human mind and the advances it has made.
But evil is part of our story.
We are born with a sense of incompleteness and a need for fulfillment.
This can be expressed as a need to suceed at the expense of others, to survive.
Most, if not all, of our tendency to evil comes out of this primal drive.
It is again a feature of our fear of non-being – of having no meaning.
That is itself rooted in our journey from non-sentient to self-conscious beings.
In the extreme such things can be excerbated by the Spiral of Purity
into group behaviour which would not be contempleted by any of the individuals involved.
There are also elements of individual evil arising from mental disorders.
Kleptomania, claustrophobia, sadism, machochism etc may arise from abuse in childhood
and/or be features of ecessive application of a targetted survival instinct.
Mental illness can give the image of evil and bondage to some evil power,
but needs to be addressed medically rather than through some supernatural power.

Evil is this the product of our basic incompleteness and fear.
There are scars on our nature left from our self-centred past,
which can burst into new wounds, but these are left-overs from our struggle to survive.
Maybe we can see that past as our “original sin”, but then realise that we are putting it behind us,
and that following the way of Jesus is a good path to doing so.
But we need to wait for the fulness of that development.
We can not pull out the Tares until the Wheat is grown! (Mt 13:24-30)


If we abandon theistic deity, we also abandon the power claims made in His name,
which serve to enable the institution to claim ownership of truth - and suggest that others do not.
Thus salvation is only on offer to members of the true church. It is the same in all religions.

(we have yet to discuss the subject of resurrection/heaven/after-life.
If there is none, how are salvatory claims relevant?)
This is imperialism in a religious cladding, and it has carried as dark a side as secular imperialism
as it attempted to conquer the world “in the name of Christ”, but for the benefit of the merchants.

Islam is carrying the same banner of tribal theism.
Such evangelism is postulated on the concept that I am right and you are wrong;
based on a presumption of superiority. And the ownership of truth.
Exlusive religious boundaries are unsustainable in a modern world, other than as vehicles of power.
We can look at the claims of the past and see how and where they point beyond themselves
to a new broader view of divine reality, beyond the limits of tribal boundaries.


“Nothing fails to work better, or more frequently, than prayer.”
The image of a controlling deity is an illusion,
yet prayer is where the nontheistic concept of God clashes most immediately
with the religious security system. We are left with a sense of aloneness.
We seem to assume that prayer is a list of petitions addressed to a deity that can intervene.
This a reversion to the need for a protector found in the origins of religion.
But there is no divine plan, no God at the helm, no security blanket to cuddle.
But prayer can still be a valid experience as we open ourselves to the ground of being,
to give ourselves away, to wait for divinity to fill the gap in our being
- or through our presence to fill the gap in the being of others.


Liturgy is infected with deism. Yet change is in the air.
One is the placing of the priest behind the altar to face the people,
rather than before and facing where God is presumed to be..
Another is the reduction in the practice of kneeling.

Yet universal original evil underlies much of church practice,
and ransom theology still lies at the heart fo the communion service.
Do we need to literalise these liturgical words?
Maybe we can find excuses as ways to retain a place in the church organisation.
However they are a firm turn-off to many outside the church.

Why do we gather?
Not to sing praises; Not to confess unspecified sins;
Not to count on the group's prayers to change the course of the world;
Not to look upward to where God is presumed to be.
Yet he still sees a need to gather for worship!
Why gather – to share our humanity,
the significant events of our life-journeys and our problems
The task of worship and liturgy is to hold before the world
the eternal meaning that we, as Christians, have found in the life of Jesus
– including “our” failure to accept the vision that he showed us
and “our” violent response to his challenge.
In the liturgy we need to reflect that challenge
to move beyond a survival focus into a capacity to love others beyond our own needs
- naturally and without conscious effort.
The goal of the gathering will be to give practical expression to such selfless love.
Truth would never be claimed, merly the search for it.
The danger will still be that guilt will become a weapon and power
an aim as leaders are, necessarily, appointed and become authoritive figures.


The question arises “So what?”
We need to show that what we believe or say matters – now.
This is not saying “believe or burn”, which is imposing a particular view,
but that these things matter in everyday life; no matter what you believe.

There have been many cases in which the church's misunderstanding of truth has ended in disaster,
slaughter, or evil as it tried to keep a lid on progress.
Crossan asked “Is Christianity more like sex or politicis?”
ie more about indivdual belief and practice or corporate belief and practice?
If the latter, can it avoid the imperialistic nature of its past behaviour?
The sexy route would be safer, but Jesus was all about going out, publicly.
Still look what it got him!
The RC church recently issued “Dominus Jesus”
affirming that Christianity is the only true religion
and the RC church the only true variant of it. Back to the dark ages!

Rather than issuing an invitation to enter the Kingdom
the church has always tried to impose an Empire - and still does so.
The Kingdom ignores tribal ecclesiastical boundaries and the truth-claims that they proclaim.
Spong goes on to run through a list of what the agenda of such a faith might be,
buit has yet to show how this is effected by lack of deism.
What he is saying is that the church needs to abandon its ownership of truth.
The message of Jesus stands against those who see Christianity as a vehicle
for power and authority, which divides the world.
The message of Jesus enhances love.
His “I am” sayings point to his solutions to human need.
There should be no barrier between faiths or around faiths or between other aspects of humanity.
We reimagine God to escape the pain of relying on a theistic deity,
with His definitions and boundaries.
We need that God to be on public display as the fount of Being.


The Creeds are border-makers, responses to arguments within the current Christian community.
(and thus undoing the teaching of Christ.)
The Creeds gave us the Crusades, the damnation of all unbelievers, the subordination of women,
the justification of slavery, the route to climate change and the death of Jesus.
The God embodied in those Creeds is the father who slaughtered his son,
the lord who endorses ethnic cleansing, the source of male privilege,
the father of spiritual slavery.
The Creeds make the Christian faith-system unlivable for any thinking being.
The church has warned others about idolatry, but not listened to its own warning,
for God can not be captured and bound by our written words.
It has presumed that the gate to divinity lies in its hands
and so excluded those who use other words and symbols.
We can never truly say “God is”.

The Christian church has become like a flooded village,
which we fear to leave for it contains our hopes our memories and our possesions.
But the possessions are now water-logged and unusable,
our memories have disappeared under a sheet of water
and the very ground has been poisoned by salts of the rising water.
We dare not move on, nor can we continue to exist where we are. This has become a place to die.

We must leave the God of miracle and magic, of supernatural invasive power.
We must leave the promises of certainty, the illusion of possessing the truth,
the claims of unchallangeable revelation,
but do we dare to leave the consolation of the realisation of divinity.
We must move on, but how far do we dare to travel?

The central issue is that God is not a person.
God is not a being. God is Being itself,
or as God is said to have said “I am”.
In this reappraisal all claims for the power of prayer,
and of the church hierarchy, need to redefined.
It is no wonder that so many resist such a change.

Attempts to convert others are marks of our insecurity over where we are.
Christian education needs to become a search for truth
rather than indoctrination of the faithful.
Christianity must become something to be lived
rather than something to be believed.

Yet most churches would rather die than change.