“Think Different” – “Accept Uncertainty” by John Shelby Spong

“Think Different” – “Accept Uncertainty”

I recently read Walter Isaacson’s provocative and fascinating biography of Steve Jobs, the founder of the Apple Corporation.  He was innovative, iconoclastic, weird and a genius.  He built his company not only into a successful giant, but made it the highest valued company in the entire world.  One of Steve Job’s secrets was that he was never willing to live inside the boundaries of the given.  He adopted as the motto of his company the words, “Think Different.”  I grant you that he would have been more grammatically correct if his words had been “Think Differently,” but things like that mattered very little to this man. Later he added the slogan “Accept Uncertainty.” The more I thought about Steve Jobs’ slogans, the more I yearned to make them the mottos of the Christian Church, though there is little evidence inside institutional Christianity today that any one would be responsive to either slogan.  Nonetheless that idea fed my theological fantasies and caused me to wonder what the Christian Church would look like if its members and leaders had the courage “to think different” and to “accept uncertainty.”

The timeliness of this idea also intrigued me. If there ever was a moment in which Christianity needed to step outside the traditional theological formulas and speak in bold new accents, it is today.  Such exciting possibilities are, however, overwhelmingly resisted in religious circles where security, peace and the absence of either conflict or change are all regarded as virtues.  So I have decided to do a series of columns throughout the coming year through which I can invite Christians into a new kind of dialogue.  I want to speculate about what Christianity might actually evolve into if Christians had the courage to do things like Steve Jobs did, that is, not to let what is be the limits of what can be.  What would be different, for example, if we were able to free the Christ experience from the first century interpretation of that experience as we now have it in the New Testament?  Why do we continue to pretend that a first century interpretation is somehow going to embody truth for all ages?  What would Christianity look like if we were willing to separate the Christ experience from the fourth century’s interpretation of that experience as presently found in the creeds?  Why do we continue to pretend that fourth century words are adequate to be the bearers of ultimate truth for all time?  Recently I had a letter from a friend who wanted to start a book study group in her Methodist Church in Mississippi to be a meeting place for those who wanted to explore the edges of Christianity.  They wanted to read some of the boundary-breaking theologians. Her request was denied by her current minister.  It was his job, he said, to “defend the faith not to question it.”

How can either the scriptures or the creeds be studied in any meaningful way if the assumption is that they are, in their present forms, identified with unchanging reality?  That dated attitude precludes the possibility of any different thinking from that of the first century in regard to the scriptures or the fourth century in regard to the creeds.  The world’s knowledge has, however, increased exponentially from that which marked the minds of people in New Testament times or those at the time the creeds were formed. No one today, for example, believes that demon possession is the cause of either mental illness or epilepsy, that Jesus could literally ascend into the sky of a three-tiered universe in which the planet earth was the center or that everything not understood in life had to be explained by an appeal to a supernatural miracle.  Modern Christian scholars no longer even debate the traditional claims made through a literal reciting of the creeds that the virgin birth is about biology or that the resurrection is about the physical resuscitation of a deceased body back into the life of this world.  If the only choices we have in dealing with either scripture or creed is to believe these words literally or not at all, then the future is bleak indeed.  We can either become “true believing fundamentalists” (and they come in both Protestant and Catholic varieties), or we can give up Christianity altogether as an ancient, but now irrelevant superstition and take our places as citizens of “the secular city.”  If we choose the former then we will watch Protestants protect themselves from change by claiming an inerrant Bible and Roman Catholics protect themselves from change by claiming an infallible Pope.  Both claims are preludes to death and both are today widely regarded as absurd.  If the latter alternative is adopted then the dying of Christianity will continue, but at accelerating speed until the Christian God takes a place in the museums of human antiquity along side other deceased deities like Baal, Marduk and the gods of the Olympus.

Increasingly modern men and women can no longer live their lives within the boundaries set by the church.  Popular Christianity is today represented in the media in devastatingly negative terms.  We are the ones who are trying to protect our children from learning about evolution in public schools; we are the opponents of the feminist movement, battling to keep women outside equal rights to in all areas of their lives, including control over their reproductive abilities, and we are the ill-informed bearers of religious homophobia who continue to hold to prejudiced definitions that have long ago been dismissed in medical and scientific circles.  This characterization of Christianity is a major, but undeniable embarrassment to which few people will be drawn. “Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” provides us with a new alternative.

When the insights of our space age became almost universally acknowledged as true in the educated world, the God we defined as dwelling above the sky, watching over us, answering our prayers and intervening supernaturally in human history became quite simply unimaginable.  Yet to listen to the words in most church liturgies one gets the impression that little has changed in how we understand the world since the high Middle Ages.  Most of the hymns we sing and the prayers we pray on Sunday mornings still reflect this theistic definition of God.  As believers we have somehow closed our minds to the reality that the planet earth is not the center of anything.  It rather revolves around a mid-sized star, our sun, which is located about two-thirds of the way toward the edge of our galaxy, called the Milky Way, in which there are about 200 billion other stars, most of them larger than our sun.  Beyond our single galaxy there are in the visible universe between100 billion and one trillion other galaxies, separated by distances that the human mind simply cannot fathom. So if people inside the church continue to define God in that familiar theistic pattern as an external being located somewhere above the sky and ready to come to our aid, they are engaging in little more than pious language that is untranslatable inside the bounds of current human knowledge.  The fact is, however, that traditional Christians seem to know of no other way to talk about God and have made no effort to “think different” in the 500 or so years since Copernicus first challenged our three-tiered mentality and construct. Is it any wonder that modern people who come to worship services have a glazed-over look before much time inside church has passed?  How would we worship, however, if we dared to “think different” or “accept uncertainty?”  Yet as obvious as this question is, anyone who asks it inside church walls on a Sunday morning would be considered quite controversial, even radical!  Someone will surely charge that person with being an atheist!

In our world Newtonian laws are counted on to operate in mathematically precise ways until we reach the realm of the subatomic world on one side and the astrophysical world on the other.  There is, therefore, in Newton’s world no room for a God who lives above the sky and who operates on our lives with supernatural power. Yet we read of miracles in the Bible.  People continue to tell of sightings of the Virgin and even to make their way by the thousands to such religious shrines as Lourdes.  In popular culture a person like Tim Tebow, the former University of Florida and now Denver Broncos’ quarterback, kneels to give thanks to God for the victory of his team on the gridiron and sportscasters, citing six last minute victory drives that carried the Broncos into the National Football League playoffs, claim on national television to be “believers” though in what I am still not sure. Their belief seems not so much about Tebow’s prayer life as it is in Tebow’s strong will to win.  Does anyone really think that God intervenes in human history to help the Denver football team win because Tim Tebow is a convinced believer? If this power is real then why did God not intervene to stop the holocaust, to end slavery and segregation, to guide the hurricane away from New Orleans or to protect the Haitians from the earthquake? Does this not make God so trivial as to be unbelievable?  Yet if someone were to say in a church on a Sunday morning that there is no longer a supernatural deity above the sky, who answers our prayers, a deep and hostile response would be inevitable.  The gap between the knowledge by which we live and the faith we continue to practice is vast.  Our unwillingness to part with these woefully inadequate concepts continues primarily because we know no others and we fear the bottomless pit of nothingness far more than we are embarrassed by continuing to parrot unbelievable mantras as if they were still capable of being held by any thinking citizen of the 21st century.  No one appears willing or eager to “think different” or to “accept uncertainty.”

There is no chance that human thought is going to turn away from the demonstrated wisdom of Copernicus, Galileo or Isaac Newton. If there is no other way to envision the holy, the God of yesterday will simply die. That is why it is so imperative that those of us who love the Christian faith be willing to “think different” and “accept uncertainty.”

How can we learn to think as Christians outside the theological boxes of antiquity?  It begins I believe by dismissing “theism” as an adequate definition of God and to recognize that the opposite of theism is not “atheism.” Can we do that? Will people still experience God in the definitions that emerge beyond theism?  Time alone will tell, but for now just let these questions resonate. To them we will return.

~John Shelby Spong


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