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Digging for bedrock

Digging for bedrock

by George Clifford


Morton Kelsey was an Episcopal priest, Jungian therapist, prolific author, and professor at the University of Notre Dame. In perhaps his best-known book, The Other Side of Silence, he summarized his experiences working with Notre Dame students

“When [students] first came in to talk, it would be about some book or idea. If I passed muster in that situation, then in another hour of listening and talking I might hear about problems with parents or a brother, or in the dormitory; their sense of loneliness and isolation and problems of identity. And after that test I might then be admitted to a room full of sexual fears and tales of sexual peccadillos, some not so minor. But there was still another level of sharing which I found only when they were quite convinced that I would not doubt or ridicule or pressure. It was then I was admitted to their religious experience, their sense of the presence of God, their feeling of closeness and desire to serve and know Him better.” (p. 16)


As Kelsey elegantly describes, religious beliefs and spiritual experiences reside at the deepest level of the self. Not only does sharing our religious beliefs and experiences with another person require becoming vulnerable, but, contrary to our prior presumptions, discovering that some of our beliefs or experiences do not rest upon bedrock can shake, if not completely shatter, our religious identity.


Jesus appreciated the importance of building one’s life on spiritual bedrock (cf. Mt. 7:24-27). Unfortunately, Jesus failed to provide his followers with a clear statement of what constitutes that bedrock. Episcopalians tacitly acknowledge that omission. At ordination, new deacons and priests affirm that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation, a commitment without a definition of salvation or statement of what is necessary to obtain salvation. Furthermore, the Creeds, often interpreted in divergent and contradictory ways, offer no reliable guidance for distinguishing between bedrock and densely packed sand.


Three factors dramatically redirected my search for bedrock from which to derive theological and ethical norms: the historical-critical study of the Bible; recognizing that other sources of knowledge as well as the Bible inescapably inform theology and ethics; and globalization. Historical-critical studies launched the twentieth century quest for the historical Jesus, a figure no longer identical with the Jesus depicted by harmonizing the four gospels. Clashes between other fields of study and theological/ethical studies fueled both growing secularism and underscored the inadequacy of a literal reading of Scripture, e.g., progress in understanding race, gender, and sexuality contradicted traditional Christian teachings on those topics. Globalization exposed Christian exclusivity as tenuous if not indefensible and became another catalyst for reexamining Christian theology and ethics. Collectively, these three factors have been widely perceived as requiring a fresh evaluation of whether the purported bedrock upon which Christianity had constructed its theology and ethics was truly bedrock or simply densely packed sand. As theologian Mark C. Taylor in his book, About Religion, observed, “It is obvious that we are living during a time of extraordinary transition: something is slipping away and something is beginning.”


Consequently, it is unsurprising that many theological and ethical precepts that Christians regarded for centuries as bedrock have lately been shown to be sand. The Episcopal Church’s rejection of remarriage after divorce unless the spouse had committed adultery, limiting ordination to men, and teaching that same sex unions are inherently sinful illustrate sand historically perceived as bedrock.


The whole Church, including Episcopalians, has frequently avoided confronting issues raised by contemporary biblical studies, other sources of knowledge, and globalization. Sometimes a desire to avoid conflict resulted in clergy pandering to parishioners’ deeply held beliefs, a phenomenon James Smart described in his 1970 book, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church. Other times, clergy mentally shelved seminary content in order to preserve cherished theological ideas acquired before seminary. Still other clergy have struggled to integrate contemporary biblical studies, knowledge, and globalization into their ministries but lacked the skills and parishioners’ trust to overcome the fierce resistance they encountered when people realized that the changes required jettisoning beliefs widely considered the bedrock of the Christian faith. Whatever the explanation, Christians have largely acted like ostriches, sticking their heads in the sand and hoping the problems would disappear. They were therefore shocked when theological and ethical changes seemed to occur virtually overnight, although decades of debate preceded acceptance of these ideas.


Finding the bedrock upon which to develop Christian theology and ethics is a daunting and ongoing task. Some Christians persist in arguing for an unrealistically expansive view of that bedrock. Others, like me, favor a minimalist understanding of Christian bedrock. In view of contemporary biblical studies, continuing advances in human knowledge, and globalization, the theological nucleus that constitutes the bedrock at the heart of Christian theology seems reducible to three elements: love God, love others as yourself, and follow Jesus to learn how to love God and others. Understanding even that brief credo entails looking through a glass dimly. For example, to what reality does the word God refer? Hence, searching for bedrock is an ongoing endeavor, which Paul Tillich labelled the “Protestant Principle.”


Rethinking Christian bedrock inevitably ignites controversy. Globally, disputes about ecclesial authority, sexual mores, and biblical hermeneutics have brought the Anglican Communion to the precipice of schism. Locally, disagreements about biblical hermeneutics, sexuality, and other topics have prompted a minority of Episcopalians to leave this Church for another church. Future clashes may focus on questions about the extent to which virtual Christian communities can or should replace physical communities, the desirability of ecumenical and interfaith unity, etc.


I find digging for bedrock exhausting. Finding time for theological reading and conversations means leaving other important tasks undone. Even then, I am constantly aware of how little reading and excavating of the detritus atop the bedrock that I actually accomplish. I am also keenly aware of how inadequate my efforts to describe Christian bedrock are. Nevertheless, we must dig for bedrock. Otherwise, the exodus of people who recognize the sand that prior generations regarded as bedrock will simply grow until Christianity twenty or fifty years from now is a tiny remnant, resembling the Flat Earth Society more than it does Jesus.


Rethinking Christian bedrock is an iterative and collaborative process. No single Christian, not even a Pope, can authoritatively define Christian bedrock. My July contribution to the Café’s Magazine (“Life after Death,” Part One and Two) contended that critical-historical biblical studies, advances in knowledge, and globalization require reconsidering Christianity’s historic teachings about life after death. My musings prompted a lengthy rebuttal posted in The Living Church blog that defended the Church’s historic teachings. Both the rebuttal and most of the comments on the Café’s website opposed my attempt to rethink the meaning of life after death. Sadly, no respondent proposed an alternative reconstruction of Christianity’s historic teachings about life after death. Failing to conduct fresh excavations to uncover Christianity’s real bedrock condemns the Church to a slow, lingering, and irreversible decline that will inexorably culminate in its own death. The Church’s only hope, as Bishop Spong declared in one of his book titles, is to change or to die. I, for one, prefer the challenge of change to death.





George Clifford is Priest-in-Charge of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Honolulu, HI. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has taught ethics, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


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Stewart Clem

I’m the author of the rebuttal piece (on the Covenant / Living Church blog) George mentioned. I was going to respond to George’s comment in his final paragraph, but another commenter (Rod Gillis) took the words out of my mouth: “Why would one would propose a ‘reconstruction’ when one is unconvinced by the author’s attempt at deconstruction?” Indeed. It seems odd to accuse me of failing to propose my own ‘reconstruction’ when doing so would undermine the very point I was trying to make.

It’s fine for George to disagree with me (as I suspected he would), but it’s rather dismissive to write off his interlocutors simply because they disagree with the premises of his argument. That’s precisely where the engagement should be happening, but instead George takes it for granted that Christianity is outdated and must be radically reformulated.

Leslie Marshall

There is no exhausting or daunting digging involved for the Rock that Jesus talked about in Matthew 7:24. [He is not talking about ‘bedrock’.]
He’s in plain site for all with eyes to see & ears to hear.

There are over 20 scriptures in the bible about a rock, or the Rock. It’s a symbol of his eternal nature, and the security that he offers.

–The LORD is my rock, my fortress
–…of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel
–Strike the rock, and the water will come
–He is the Rock, his works are perfect
–O LORD, my Rock, and my Redeemer
–..and on this rock, I will build my Church
–…man who built his house on the rock
–and a rock that makes them fall (stumbling block)
–a chosen and precious Cornerstone
–a precious Cornerstone for a sure foundation
–Christ Jesus himself as the chief Cornerstone

etc., etc.

Jesus most certainly did provide a clear statement about what ‘bedrock’ is. It is He.

[No need to re-think Christian ‘bedrock’.]

To the Ordinates: Salvation is Eternal Life with God, and it’s for all who are Born Again.

JC Fisher

Great, you can do a Bible word-search on “rock”, Leslie.

But I just don’t get a sense that your faith really IS built on the Rock you describe.

“But it’s not new, and it should be frightening to those that care.”

WHY are you so fearful? Like your salvation is ever about to slip through your fingers? If Christ is the Rock (I believe he’s my Rock!), then what matters if others dig to get a new facet, as it were, on that Rock? (“Take what you like, and leave the rest”)

I don’t have to agree w/ Fr Clifford’s particular theological conclusions (nor, as I say above, his attitude about those conclusions) to value his efforts. They don’t diminish my faith, au contraire, as steel sharpens steel, they help me better *define* it.

Take what you like, and leave the rest, Leslie. Jesus isn’t going anywhere—and if he is, I believe he’ll take us all w/ him! 🙂

Leslie Marshall

I’m not frightened of losing my faith. It is assured.

But I think what M. Taylor said should be frightening to those that don’t know where they will spend eternity.

‘…something (faith in Jesus) is slipping away, something (false teaching) is beginning …’.

Christ’s whole message is that HE did the work, and it’s finished. (again, there is no digging involved.) Jesus does not make us ‘work’ for our supper (like all the other religions do).

When some insist that more digging needs to be done, and more layers have to be peeled away, and every year the gospel gets more complex (to keep priests working), it puts the focus on the worker, and not where it belongs… on who Jesus is, and what He did.

A child can understand it. Someone in the hospital on their back can understand it. [But apparently the affluent have a tough go of it –just as Jesus predicted. I think we need to fight against the desire to put our own stamp on it.]

Gwen Palmer

I read pieces like this, from Clifford, and Spong, and other folks online, over and over. And always, it starts with how we need to embrace new ideas and be more inclusive, and eventually shows its true colors and explains how believing in an Incarnation and a resurrection, and an incarnate transcendent God, is silly and the stuff of fairies and must “change or die.” Embracing and including fall to insulting and excluding.

Oddly, I am fine with Clifford’s and Spong’s interpretations as to what makes sense for them. But they are not all expansive/inclusive/accepting of what makes sense to me. I am not fine with Meet the new dogma, same as the old dogma. What will kill Christianity is pretense that we have a handle on the mind of God and must insult and badger others into agreeing. It’s certainly better to merely insult each other than burn each other at the stake over doctrine, but it will kill faith.

Melissa Holloway

Episcopal Cafe defines itself as being from the perspective of ‘Progressive Christianity’. The internet is certainly broad enough that if you don’t want to encounter the likes of Spong, Borg and others you needn’t do so. I read Episcopal Cafe because I am seeking out that progressive perspective. Your comment seems to indicate you’re not on board with the perspective of the service offered here in the first place. Maybe you didnt know that’s the stated perspective. I hope it is not the case that you DID know the perspective and use these comment sections to somehow dissuade people of the very perspective which draws them to be interested in reading these posts.

Gwen Palmer

Since progressive Christianity doesn’t have a set definition, many of us feel we can have a liberal and inclusive social perspective and still find a supernatural God believable and not an “antiquated notion.”

I’ve said clearly that I respect the beliefs of Clifford, and Spong, and anyone else who finds a transcendent God implausible. I protested only the author’s obvious disrespect and demeaning terminology for my own beliefs.

To accuse me of “[using] these comment sections to somehow dissuade people of the very perspective which draws them to be interested in reading these posts,” is way, way out of bounds.

Susan Moritz

Where in this essay does George Clifford insult anyone? Bishop Spong likes to encourage controversy, as he says in a recent interview (where he actually insults the Jesus Seminar):

But to say that people who reject literal readings of the Bible are equating the transcendent incarnate God with the stuff of fairies is itself silly. Marcus Borg, for example, wrote and spoke truthfully and respectfully about the historical Jesus, and showed how to follow Jesus (and be an Episcopalian) without accepting a literal interpretation of the Bible. Richard Rohr presents a progressive vision of Christianity without insulting traditionalists.

Whether Christianity will survive is another question altogether, and has much to do with the three factors George Clifford discusses. It also has to do, in my opinion, with the fact that people today are free to learn about religion without priestly intermediaries. Neither Christianity nor any other religious system “has a handle on the mind of God,” as you say. That in itself suggests that institutional Christianity must change and is changing. And Marcus Borg and Richard Rohr, and even Bishop Spong, show that change does not kill faith. Actually, for many people, it makes faith possible.

Chris Harwood

Perhaps not in this particular essay. However, if you read others and if you go to his own website, there is plenty of “People who believe in a literal _______ are ridiculous”. And while I often disagree with Clifford and others, I prefer people who are more open about what they do or don’t believe rather than having to read between the lines. That is why I always make a point of reading Clifford and others like him. It helps to figure out what the less open are really trying to say.

Susan Moritz

@GwenPalmer: With respect, you find insults where I don’t.

You say the examples you cite “sound very judgmental to me, referring to avoidance, to being pandered to, to clinging to things we ‘cherish.’” And that “It assumes we refuse to look at all this historical and scientific knowledge, in fear of what we would find.”
I know many committed Christians who avoid “confronting issues raised by contemporary biblical studies, other sources of knowledge, and globalization,” and who cling (in the sense of hold) to traditional faith even in the face of contradictory biblical evidence, and who cherish (in a positive sense) their faith. Pandering by the clergy may be an overstatement, but it seems mild in the context of deliberately withholding important information from your congregations. And as for “judgmental,” this essay is opinion. The author is entitled to make judgments—but that’s not the same thing as being judgmental.

What I do consider insulting, to the author of this essay and to those of us who disagree with you, is to conclude: “Either we’re ‘avoiding’ or we’re agreeing that biology and physics are the boundaries of all that is.” That’s a false argument which diminishes a very important conversation and is simply untrue. Marcus Borg and Bishop Spong and Richard Rohr, for just a few examples, as I’ve already said, would never argue that biology and physics are the boundaries of all that is. Neither would Darwin, I believe. They are proposing new ways for human beings to approach God and Christ and the world. If, as you say, your problem is not with beliefs that you don’t share but with issues of respect for creedal Christians, then I’d hope you’d show the same respect to those who disagree with you.

JC Fisher

I’m rather w/ Gwen on this one. The line near the end of Clifford’s piece, above,

“Both the rebuttal and most of the comments on the Café’s website opposed my attempt”

does tend to suggest there’s no small amount of ego involved here. If we become overly-attached to our own “bedrock” searches, they can become just another idol. [Same w/ pietist platitudes, as posted below!]

Rod Gillis

@ Gwen Palmer, “The use of ‘avoid,’ ‘pandering,’ and ‘clinging’ says something about attitudes toward creedal Christians.

Those words appear in the context of a paragraph which I took to be a kind of sweeping generalization born out of frustration perhaps; and as such, the pointed vocabulary notwithstanding, one I didn’t take personally.

But, I think I see what you mean. Certainly terms such as “pandering” and “clinging” could be understood to be patronizing, for example.

For better or worse, I tend to respond to that kind of thing as water off a duck’s back.

I prefer to tackle the global argument and dismantle it by contesting assumptions, which is what I was aiming for in my initial comment above.

I also think, by the by, that one needs to take care when proposing remedies, as Clifford does, for the church’s predicted “slow, lingering, and irreversible decline…” Clifford’s remedies may actually precipitate the very thing about which he cautions his readers. Christian identity is a necessary aspect of the church qua church. There is a point of no return in attempting to make the church into something it has never been. A star that implodes is no longer a star.

Gwen Palmer

Hi, Rod – I did give some specific examples of terms he used that were dismissive and demeaning.

I also made it as clear as I can that my problem was not with beliefs I do not hold myself, but with that same respect and thoughtful treatment you call for not being extended to those of us who think otherwise. The use of “avoid,” “pandering,” and “clinging” says something about attitudes toward creedal Christians. And, this being my 4th comment of the day, I will now bow out, at least until tomorrow.

Rod Gillis

@ Susan Moritz, “Where in this essay does George Clifford insult anyone?” Good question. One suspects that allegedly “insulting” remarks are really just George Clifford being passionate about his subject matter.

Clifford names a number of important issues that are of interest to large constituency in the churches.

Labeling comments “insulting” runs the risk of dismissing them, and that would be a shame. The better and more challenging strategy is respectful and spirited disagreement where such exists. Taking time to express thoughtful disagreement with a person’s views is a mark of respect–for both the person and his/her opinion.

Gwen Palmer

“Ostriches sticking [our] heads in the sand” anyone?

Language like “avoided confronting issues raised by contemporary biblical studies, other sources of knowledge, and globalization”;

“…desire to avoid conflict resulted in clergy pandering to parishioners’ deeply held beliefs…”;

“clergy mentally shelved seminary content in order to preserve cherished theological ideas acquired before seminary”

sound very judgmental to me, referring to avoidance, to being pandered to, to clinging to things we “cherish.” It assumes we refuse to look at all this historical and scientific knowledge, in fear of what we would find.

The possibility that some of us (and again, I don’t require that everyone be like me) are plenty willing to look at Darwin and cosmology, but find nothing in research on the space/time continuum that clashes with, or addresses at all, the existence of a realm outside that space/time continuum, doesn’t even seem to be on the table. Either we’re “avoiding” or we’re agreeing that biology and physics are the boundaries of all that is.

Rev. Bill Christy

Sometimes it amazes me to listen to people’s focus and interpretation on things. I’ve often suggested that if someone is having difficulty interpreting a Bible verse correctly, hand it to a child to read and interpret. In their innocence, a child’s interpretation will most likely be closer to the truth than anyone else’s. The “Rock” spoken of is simply our Lord Jesus Christ and God’s spiritual “Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven!” I guess we could fill volumes discussing the race of the man in the picture, the shape of the hole, the depth of the hole, what the man is wearing, and the choice of tool used by the man. I guess we could fill volumes concerning reference unto the possible metaphoric reference unto “Bedrock of Rock,” but I always remember the advice given by a First Aid Instructor, “Keep it simply stupid!”

Leslie Marshall

–the quote from above by theologian, Mark Taylor’…’something is slipping away, and something is beginning’ makes it all sound so cutting-edge and exciting!

But it’s not new, and it should be frightening to those that care.

[It’s as ancient & commonplace as the serpent saying…’you can be like God’.]

Rod Gillis

From George Clifford’s final paragraph, ” … no respondent proposed an alternative reconstruction of Christianity’s historic teachings about life after death.” Indeed! Why would one would propose a “reconstruction” when one is unconvinced by the author’s attempt at deconstruction?

And (final line), “The Church’s only hope …is to change or to die.” This assertion fails to recognize that the church experiences ongoing change, but it does so as within a more discernible matrix than he allows. Semper idem, semper reformanda est.

George’s article contains a wealth of interesting observations; but I’m not convinced he achieves the synthesis he is seeking. He argues for “bedrock”, but in the end his sustained metaphor (“bedrock”) seems more of a misplaced metaphor. The onion he is peeling back does not have “bedrock”.

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