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.