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I understand that the topic I will be covering may be old news for some of you, uncomfortable for others, and possibly offensive to others. I do not come here as a religious scholar or to change anyone’s view. I only wish to offer a perspective that suggests that unless our traditional understanding of Christianity changes many of us will continue to feel exiled.
Many of us see ourselves as Christians in exile: Christians in exile in that we choose to remain in the church while refuting most of the biblical and creedal positions that we have been taught.
Bishop Spong, an Episcopal bishop, grew up in North Carolina in the 1930’s in what he described as church-sponsored segregation and a presumption of white superiority. He experienced the great depression as well as the racial and religious politics of his time. Bishop Spong had been taught that racial segregation and slavery were God’s will.
He was a product of both Presbyterian and Calvin backgrounds and, particularly from his mother’s viewpoint, in an environment that represented an intense moralistic code as related to observing the Sabbath, the use of alcohol, swearing and corporal punishment.
Spong and many of us were introduced to God early in our lives as the potentially punishing parent. This God had heaven as a place of reward and hell as the place of punishment. We were taught to fear this God.
Religious education was an integral part of our education; daily in school and cathesism classes on Saturdays. For me, I recall being constantly reminded that we Catholics were better than Protestants. After all I belonged to the one and only true church: the rest of the denominations were late entries. Our religious education made it perfectly clear that our Pope was infallible and represented an unbroken line back to Saint Peter.
Both Rev. Spong and I enjoyed the opportunity to sing in the church choir, to be confirmed, to serve as an altar boy. Both of us experienced seminary life. Both of us recall our 5:00 am treks to church to serve mass.
Theological questions were encouraged and discussed at the Virginia Theological Seminary. He recalls an incident at the university where the Dean’s wife was ill and a prayer vigil was requested. Still she died. The dean did not blame God. This was a new revelation for Spong.
For many of us, we sensed that something was wrong with the values we were learning in our religious education. Ultimately many of us knew these values could not be our values. That transition has not been easy in a world where even the values of the church seems to affirm the values of a racist and sexuality denying society coupled with a God who has total control over us.
The theologian, Paul Tillich, introduced me to the idea that God is not an external being but the Ground of All Being. Was this God a part of our own being or was he the divine father protector or Mr. Fixit living somewhere out in the sky?
I began to question whether I should view Jesus as the divine rescuer who enters human history through a virgin birth and exits through a cosmic ascension or as the revealer of who God really is.
Who is God?
A new reality of God has emerged for many of us. Who are we dealing with? Are we dealing with a God who is capricious and who needs to be revered and placated lest his capricious deity strike again? At least that seems to be the primary focus of the religion even to this day.
Over time, this need to clarify who God is has become of great interest to me. A conversation I had three years ago confirmed my thirst to reexamine my faith. I was doing some management training for executive directors in Montana. One evening after class one of the directors asked if we could go for a walk. I had played basketball with Tom and his friend earlier in the week and he was one of the nicest guys I had ever met. In his small town in Montana he served as an agency Director and had served several terms on the city council. During our walk Tom expressed his anger with God because of the loss of a male friend from a car accident while he was at the seminary. His continuous anger with God became exasperated when his father, also a Catholic, died later and was not offered a catholic funeral because he had not been a “regular practitioner”. Tom’s anger with God for allowing these incidents to happen caused him to leave the seminary. Tom asked why had God allow this to happen especially since he had committed his entire life to the church.
I suspected, but was not able to confirm, that Tom was also dealing with his own sexual identity, knowing very well the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality as being both sinful and abnormal. I find the church’s position ironic given the recent sex scandals within the church. As a result, Tom was not allowed to live out his full humanity. Even to this day the papal authority accuses homosexual priests as sinners rather than examining their arcane policy of celibacy.
In my awkward way, I tried to assure Tom that his view of God as a capricious supernatural deity was not my understanding of God. Unfortunately, Tom and I had been victims of a teaching that presented a God that had the capacity to be mean and capricious if we did not get our act together. Tom had turned his wrath on God and was continuing to blame God for the death of his friend. For Tom, the danger of blasphemy is that the blasphemer runs the risk of incurring, once gain, the divine wrath.
Can Tom and others accept that “bad things happen to good people” without reference to an external God who is pulling the switches?
Although many of us define ourselves as Christian believers, we do not define God as a supernatural being. We do not accept a theist deity who can help a nation win a war or a football game, which can intervene to cure a loved one’s sickness, or affect the weather for anyone’s benefit. We do not accept the position that this external supernatural God has selected America as the country he has chosen to bless. And yet some find it hard to understand why there is so much hate directed toward our country. How presumptuous can we be?
Beliefs Not Accepted:
I do not see God as a being and, therefore, do not assume he possess Godlike power. I do not believe that Jesus could or did in any literal way heal a paraplegic, restore sight to a blind person, or raise Lazarus from the dead. Why would Jesus return someone from heaven, if that is where he thought we should go?
I do not believe that Jesus entered this world by the miracle of a virgin birth or that virgin births occur anywhere except in mythology.
I do not believe any of us is born in sin and that unless baptized will be forever banished from God’s presence.
I do not believe that women are any less human or less holy than men which some churches have argued for years as the basis for not allowing women to be ordained.
I do not believe that homosexual people are abnormal, mentally sick or morally depraved. Those who would believe so are wrong and ill informed.
I do not believe that skin pigmentation, ethnic background or religious orientation constitutes a matter of superiority or inferiority.
I do not believe that the bible is the word of God. I see the book as a human book mixed with the profound wisdom of the sages reflecting their human perceptions of reality at a particular time in human history.
I do not believe that Jesus (or in fact anyone), at the end of their life, returns to God by ascending in any literal sense into a heaven located somewhere in sky. It seems to me that Jesus was attempting to prevent us from destroying ourselves now, not having a preoccupation with after life.
Specifically, as a former Catholic, I do not believe that Jesus founded a church or has claimed the Catholic Church as the one true church founded by St. Peter as its first pope.
Recently A rabbi, a minister and a sheik have come together to address their three faiths. When asked to recite what they regarded as the “untruths” in their own faith, the minister said that the one untruth for him was that “Christianity is the only way to God.” The rabbi said for him it was the notion of Jews as “the chosen people.” And the sheik said for him it was the “sword verses” in the Koran, like “kill the unbeliever.”
For those of us who identify ourselves as Christians in Exile we do not believe in….
 The divinity of either Jesus or God

 The notion of Jesus as God’s only son

 The notion that God can remedy any wrong or prevent any disaster.

 Or the notion that Jesus sitteth at the right hand of God, the father almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
The question for many of us is whether we can claim with integrity to be Christians and at the same time dismiss so much of what has traditionally been defined as the content of the Christian faith?
I still claim Jesus as my Lord who enables me to experience a God presence. Christ has always been part of my consciousness. I claim my faith is strong but the church and Christianity as I have known is dying.
In short I cannot identify with what Christianity has become. Spong, for example, makes reference to the growth of Christian bookstores; many who sell materials that are intellectually embarrassing, supports positions against women, advocate child rearing techniques that sometimes border on child abuse, and who express ignorance and hate toward homosexuals. Spong is concerned that the church has also entered the political arena: the so-called Christian voters that base their positions on fear, hatred and bigotry.
I saw their true side after Colin Powell, in conversations with teenagers from around the world, advocated the use of condoms for those who choose to be sexually active. The growing worldwide AIDS epidemic was of major concern to Powell. The Christian right was on the airwaves the very next day chastising Powell’s position as immoral.
My main thesis is that the church today appears more motivated by institutional or survival needs and is fearful of new truth. I have witnessed the increasing defensiveness of church leaders and their need to blame the secular humanists, the religious liberals, the feminist movement, the gay lobby and godless communists for the demise of the church.
For Christians like me, the issue is not whether there is a God or whether all of us have not experienced a God presence. God it not the issue. It is the attempt of explaining the nature of God that has become corrupted or outdated, not the experience.
We are reminded that there are a variety of explanations of God even within the Gospels. For example, Paul in his letters to the Romans states that “in Christ God was reconciling”. What was God trying to reconcile? Again we remind ourselves that Paul was expressing a human view of his day as being sinful, fallen, needing to be rescued, not worthy, and helpless. Humans were viewed as unworthy stewards who had broken the perfection that God wanted, For Paul, God wanted to start over by destroying evil. All previous divine efforts had failed. Jesus stories began to emerge against this view of human life. Jesus becomes God’s final desperate act to reclaim the world from evil by making Jesus the ultimate sacrifice.
It is important to note that the notion of a theist God, one who is a supernatural being external to life who periodically invades the world in amazing ways, did not emerge until several decades after Christ’s death.
I am neither critical nor surprised by these explanatory attempts during these first centuries. I understand that these explanations are culturally conditioned and are based on available knowledge of those times.
Jesus never intended to begin a movement called Christianity. Paul is the main author of that faith. The first written work in the bible was written 50-60 years after the death of Jesus and came from oral traditions. Many scholars believe that only a very small percentage of the words attributed to Jesus actually came from Jesus.
My position is that the creeds that we recite in claiming our God did not drop from heaven fully written. These words were not even part of the original Christian understanding of the God revealed in Jesus. The creeds we read today are all man-made, developed by the institutional church. The Apostles Creed later modified by the Nicene Creed and still later by the Athanasian Creed all had human authors who were limited by their prejudices, stereotypes and unchallenged assumptions of their day just as we are limited by our current day prejudices and assumptions. I would suggest that the purpose of every written creed over the centuries was not to clarify the truth of God. It was, rather, to rule out other contending points of view.
The Gospels are not divinely authored works. They were written by communities of faith and they express the biases of those communities. Many of the Gospels have internal contractions. They are not static. Furthermore, most eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus were long dead before the Gospels entered history.
The earliest descriptions of Jesus illustrate his humanity, not his divinity. Only later in Mark’s writings several years after Jesus’s death, do we see an attempt to correlate the divine and human dimensions of Jesus, a theme that Paul had initiated earlier.
Ten years later authors Mathew and Luke expanded on how the external divine power of God had become intertwined with the human Jesus.
The union between Jesus as the Son of God becomes even more dramatic in subsequent gospels. By the ninth decade we see God explained, not by resurrection, according to Paul, or by pouring out spirit through baptism, according to Mark, but by the precise action of God through use of a virgin.
By the 10th decade John’s explanation of a God presence in Jesus was not through a virgin birth, but God and Jesus becoming synonymous with Jesus preexisting with God.
At the time the Gospels were written, it was also common wisdom that the earth was flat and was located directly beneath the sky. Beyond that sky was the realm in which the all-seeing holy God was believed to live. Human life was thought to bask in the ready and constant attention of this personal deity. Hell was the third tier of this universe and was assumed to be located beneath the earth. In this cozy three-tiered world everything that was not understood or that seemed either irrational or inconvenient was assumed to be a manifestation of this heavenly God’s specific divine intervention. Concepts like miracles and magic abounded.
Again the Christian faith came into existence in a world radically different from what we now experience. Spong is suggesting that these creeds be revisited and for us to redefine the Christ experience for our time and in words and concepts appropriate for our world.
I feel like God has been taken away from me. It did not happen over night but over several centuries. I am concerned about how the church has created such a loving Jesus while creating such a mean God.
There is agreement that the citizens who engaged Jesus witnessed a God-related experience but attempts to explain this God presence over the centuries resulted in incompatible concepts being developed.
New Definition of God:
The question for each of us is whether God can be real and yet not be located in an external place as a supernatural being? Can God be real if there is no divine entity that can be invoked to come to us in our moments of need? Can God be real if all images of God as a superparent are dismissed?
I am wrestling with the following questions:
o Is it possible for us to move beyond belief in a theistic supernatural, external God as portrayed in most of our creeds?
o Is it possible to be a Christian and not a theist?
o Can God be real if there is no divine entity that can be invoked to come to us in our moments of need?
o Can God's presence still be real and yet not be located in an external place as a supernatural being?
o Is there something within our own being, that if we could open ourselves to, we could use the word God to describe that state of being? Could that experience be equally profound even if it were not defined as an external presence?
But how do we pray to a God who is not a being? If the word God, defined as a personal deity with supernatural powers, is no longer operative, could the concept of God be experienced in another form? Could not the concept of God manifest itself in us?
Each of us can be part of what God is, suggest Paul Tillich, by daring to be all that one can be. By daring to live life fully. By daring to love wastefully and abundantly. Would not these qualities reveal the image of God that is within each of us?
Of the little that any of us knows of Jesus, it seems clear that his life reflected an acceptance of everyone’s capacity to live out their full humanity regardless whether they were prostitutes, homosexuals, gentiles or lepers. If Jesus were here today where do you think he would stand regarding the conflict between Israel and Palestine, in the acceptance of homosexuals and women in the church, on the legitimacy of non Christians, on the right to life issue, etc.? What standards would he apply to each of these situations?
Instead of loving an external deity that will take care of all our needs, if only we pray hard enough, why not consider a God presence that comes when we commit ourselves to living life fully and daring to love wastefully and abundantly? Would a life that reflects these qualities not be seen to reveal the image of God that is within each of us and reflected the life of Jesus? I recall these god-presence experiences:
 when I lost my job and my friend, Lowell, spent time with me. Lowell did not place judgment or offer advice. His supportive presence was sufficient;
 when I drove pass Wedgwood Middle School 15-20 years ago and saw Gordon playing with his young challenged son in the school sand box. I will never forget his presence;
 when seeing my father, who owned a small town grocery store, periodically slipping away from the store to deliver a bag of groceries for a family he knew had no food. No one new but I did. I also recall him working six days a week and every Sunday afternoon driving 25 miles to spend time with his mother in a nursing home. He never considered himself a religious man, but I remember that experience.
 the presence of a friend of my dad who believed in me and convinced me that I could do anything I wanted.
 a telephone call from a friend with inoperative cancer who was more worried about my cancer than herself. Listen to her advice-“Rene reach out to your friends and the healing will begin.”
 the time that a social worker sat with a 13 year old teenage mother who was crying her heart out. When the 13 year old was asked about her mother’s feeling, she replied that her mother wished she had aborted her. Her presence is unforgettable.
I would suggest that these experiences, although difficult to explain, and not defined as religious, reflect God experiences within me. Maybe even just for moments each of these experiences responded to Tillich description of what constitutes a God presence: that is when we dare to be all that we can be, when we dare to live life fully, and when we dare to love wastefully and abundantly.
So the question for all of us is whether the meaning to life is external to life or can be discovered in our own daily experiences?
So if we are in fact alone and we cannot turn to an external deity, do we now need to decide how we will live now with this reality?
If so do we need prayer? Do we need the church? Do we need worship?
March 3, 2002 started out as a typically normal day for me. I arrived early at my office, interviewed a couple of candidates for a position, and participated in a meeting that took me to lunch time. Knowing I had a doctor’s appointment at 1:00pm I hung around the office visiting with one of my staff. She knew I had a doctor’s appointment and wished me good luck.
I arrived at the doctor’s office and after a few minutes he came into the room and informed me that he did not have good news. I was informed I had prostrate cancer but it appeared it was still in its early stages. We reviewed my prognosis, treatment options and agreed to additional tests. Somewhat in shock I returned to my office, closed my doors and cried. The entire range of emotions hit me from being scared to being confident that I could lick this disease. The staff person who I had visited with during lunch knew by the slam of the door that the news was not good. She came in to reassure me.
That evening I decided to call Ken who is my friend, my tennis partner and a cancer specialist. We visited and he assured me that full recovery is most likely. I like what he said at the end of our conversation: “Rene, call me anytime even if you want just to yell and scream”.
I did not assume that my new spiritual journey or my fight with cancer would be an easy journey. There can be something frightening and lonely about recognizing that I can not longer be child dependent on the theistic parent-God. It is like leaving home for the first time. However, I belief more fervently than ever that God can be approached, experienced and entered in a radically different way.
We can speak of God only in our limited human words. We have no other. Can I experience God without being able to define God? Yes.
One of my previous staff members was raped repeatedly as a young girl, resulting in dysfunctional behavior including her addiction to alcoholism. Her additional fear of a vindictive God had created a life of hell for her. She viewed herself as a bad person. What Juley needed to hear is not the fear of a vindictive God but an understanding of God as love experienced through each of us.
My understanding of this love is something like the footprints of God. The reason I cannot see God but only where God has been is that I believe God is part of who I am, who she is and who you are. And so for me love is God.
The God that I previously saw as a supernatural being I now see as a symbol of Being itself. Moses inquired of God, What is your name? The response was I am who I am is my name. Could it be that God is not a being but Being itself- the reality underlying everything that is?
So if I want to worship this God of today, I now must learn to climb over my protective fences and walk past the barriers of my fears. I no longer have to defend a theistic God who appears to act so capriciously and to violate the standards of justice so consistently. I am free of a God who demands endless praises, a God who indicates that we are born in sin and therefore helpless, and a God who seems to delight in punishing sinners and who wants us to be dependent on his every whim. Finally I am relieved that God is not met outside of life, but at the very heart of life.
If God is not a being, then no human including Jesus can claim to be his chosen representative. For me, Jesus is defined as differing from each of us only in degree-not in kind. If the difference between Jesus and each of us is a matter of degree, then very one of us has the potential of being more God-filled and more like Jesus. I have a new enriching view of who God is not, who God might be, and who Jesus never was, and who Jesus is for me.
As some have expressed to me, many ministers have been exposed to these works in their seminary studies. However, those who want to go to the pulpit with the message find that they can’t. It won’t fly from the pulpit of the institutional church and the professional risk is too great.
Who was Jesus?
At some point we have to ask ourselves if we can speak of Jesus other than some supernatural force that came down as a divine rescuer as the church over the centuries would have us believe. Can we speak of him other than the only Son of God? Again, Can’t we view Jesus as a revealer of what God is rather than a savior?
For me God is love, Jesus is love, God was in Christ. I believe this was the God experience that was experienced during the life of Jesus. I believe we can only experience God by living out that love. Jesus experienced life and he engaged life. Jesus had the courage to be himself and to not worry about being politically correct but to focus, instead, on caring. And no human being in his time was outside his capacity of loving- not prostitutes, homosexuals, lepers, or religious outcasts.
Recently I overheard a conversation from some of my tennis partners regarding blacks, liberals, and gays—all in the context of a narrow Christian perspective. I wanted to respond, but I did the political correct thing and said nothing. How easy it is to say nothing even when you know it is wrong. How would my tennis partners have reacted if Jesus was here and in his typical political incorrectness confronted them on their lack of acceptance and appreciation for those who differ from us?
When I undertook my cancer surgery in 2002, I accepted my cancer as a fact of life. There was no divine plan and there was no one I could appeal to. I would never want to be sick alone nor would I ever want to die alone. I want to feel that collective sense of energy that can be generated when we care for each other. Was it not Jesus who said: Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself? There is none other commandment greater than these.
In conclusion, a recent national study of Hospice programs concluded that dying people consistently ask two questions: Am I love? and Have I loved enough? I know I am loved and I know I want to love more. That love, at least for me, is God and I am happy to have met him finally.