Visionary Previous - Next


The Future Church: A Speculative Dream

By John Sprong  
  Can one really worship in a meaningful way if there is no concept of a theistic deity to receive that worship? Can one confess, give thanks, offer petitions, or sing praises if there is no personal being to whom these acts of worship are directed? Those are crucial questions and demand a serious answer. Some in the religious community are sure that travelling this path will result only in the death of the religious past with no hope of a religious future. I do not agree with that judgment and I am prepared now to demonstrate why.

I begin with a story that a Buddhist monk and mystic named Thich Nhat Hanh told about himself in his book Living Buddha, Living Christ. A Protestant pastor came up to this monk and rather aggressively asked him, "Are you a grateful person?" Taken back by this question for a moment, Thich Nhat Hanh took a moment to respond. This allowed his adversary to press on, which he did in a quite revealing way. "If you are really grateful, how can you not believe in God? God has created everything we enjoy, including the food we eat. Since you do not believe in God," he concluded with a flourish, "you are not grateful for anything!" The judgment out of which the question arose was now fully revealed.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a holy man, known and respected the world over. He has been praised by a fellow mystic from another tradition, the Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton. He has been acclaimed as a spiritual giant by the great civil rights leader and Protestant pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr.. Popular theological writer Elaine Pagels has publicly expressed her debt to his spiritual leadership. Thich Nhat Hanh prays and meditates every day of his life. He lives inside a God-consciousness that is apparent in everything he says, does, and writes. How could this Protestant pastor and Western religious critic make the assumption that Thich Nhat Hanh could not be a grateful person because he did not believe in God?
Brown, like so many others, cannot envision God save as an intervening, personal, supernatural presence who can invade history to make a specific difference. That question arose because Thich Nhat Hanh's Christian adversary, like so many fearful religious people in a fast changing world, made his judgment based upon the assumptions present in his own theological definitions. This Buddhist mystic has moved, in fact, beyond the God of theism. Yet that was the only definition of God that his questioner understood. The questioner was therefore blind to anything that did not lie within his own limited theological parameters. He had defined the reality of God quite narrowly, and thus he had dismissed anything beyond his vision as not real. That is not an uncommon attitude in religious circles. Anyone who tries to redefine worship in nontheistic categories or to reshape institutional Christianity for a new age will surely confront a similar response.

Indeed, Andrew Brown, the former religion editor of one of the United Kingdom's finest major dailies, The Independent, has already made such a charge about me in print. In a personal profile entitled "All Gas and Gaiters," published in the magazine supplement of the Sunday Independent, Brown wrote, "It seems to me that if you remove from God all power to make any difference in the world, you are not a heretic, but an atheist, no matter how well you perform as a bishop." Perhaps disturbed by that conclusion, Brown then added his own more humble disclaimer, "but then I too am . . . not a theologian." Brown, like so many others, cannot envision God save as an intervening, personal, supernatural presence who can invade history to make a specific difference.
Worship to me is not a peripherical activity. It is, rather, central to the meaning of our humanity. But my contention is that once the holy has been redefined in nontheistic terms, a revolution in the meaning of worship will be inevitable. Worship to me is not a peripheral activity. It is, rather, central to the meaning of our humanity. To be human is to see ourselves self-consciously in terms of what is ultimately real. Worship is the name of the way we practice that self-definition. So worship may well have to be defined anew in every age, but worship must always be an aspect of our humanity. Since worship must be located somewhere, then something like a church as a center or place of worship must always be a part of our future. Both the activity of worship and the structure of the church may be very different, but my conviction is that we cannot be fully human without them. The question for our time is, can worship and the Church escape its theistic understandings, which will guarantee the deaths of both as we know them? Can both move from where they are today to where they must be tomorrow without a complete break with yesterday? Must a death to the past be a prerequisite to life in the future for these aspects of our humanity?

We have looked at the signs of change already apparent in the activity called worship. Now let me try to sketch the future, first in broad brush strokes and later in more specific details.

Worship beyond the exile will not be marked with chanted words to an external deity. Liturgical activity will not be a repetitious living out of a remembered tradition that celebrated the perceived activity of the theistic God. Worship in the future will be marked, rather, by the self-conscious awareness that all of us are or can be God bearers and life givers and that our deepest religious task is to give ourselves away. It will involve a call to that state of being where giving one's life away is both natural and desirable. Worship beyond the exile will not be oriented toward an external God but toward the world of our human community. That, however, will not result in a shallow humanism but in a recognition that the place where God is ultimately found is in the depths of our own humanity. So there will be no attempt in our future worship to escape life, but every attempt to expand life.

Those few whose being has been affirmed by the theistic patterns of the past will find themselves stripped bare.

Since God will be seen as a presence at the heart of life, available to everyone and not as the special possession of the religious institution, then surely worship in the future will be less and less hierarchical and more and more circular. It will inevitably shed its denominational agenda and its territorial wars. It will lay down its royal images and its pretensions. It will cease to pretend that it speaks for God or that it is the sole channel of divine grace. It will dedicate itself to the search for truth, universal truth, rather than expending its energies in seeking to defend its narrow version of truth. It will treasure its sacred scriptures as the record of its ancestors in faith as they sought to worship God. But it will not be bound by either the cultural or the cultic limitations of those scriptures. It will recognize that the revelations of the Holy One did not cease when the canon of scripture was closed. It will call people into the fullness of life. It will not exist to support that specialized activity called religion. Those few whose being has been affirmed by the theistic patterns of the past will find themselves stripped bare. But those who hunger for God, who thirst for righteousness, and who believe that worship issues in an enhanced being for all will rejoice.

These changes are upon us at this moment. The world is taking part in a spiritual quest, but many citizens of this century no longer believe that the Church is an asset to their quest. Institutional religion today is tearing itself apart externally as it collapses internally. The choices are clear. Religion moves into the future and beyond the exile, or it dies. Worshipers have already noticed that the traditional words of worship are no longer capable of embodying literal truth. Some have already begun their exodus from Church life. Next, those who remain will struggle to translate these archaic forms into usable concepts. At this task they will ultimately fail. Finally, out of this practice of muttering nonsensical concepts in worship will be created the life-or-death scenario. Substantive changes will be irresistible when the alternative is death. Then the forces of change will cascade as if falling off a cliff, and the Church of the future, with liturgical forms for the future, will come into being.

The liturgical changes will begin by focusing on the God experience itself, not on the explanations of the God experience that rise out of yesterday's consciousness. A new liturgical awareness will include acknowledging that the God experience carries us into a sense of awe and wonder, into a state of life beyond limits or time. It can never be bound by rationality, nor will it always be fully responsive to human inquiry.

Those believers in exile who, like me, grew up in a Christian worldview will need to find a way to journey through that Christian system to what lies beyond all systems. We will wonder what, if anything, from our Christian past we can appropriately carry with us. Can the theistic symbols be viewed nontheistically? Can the Christ figure still be a doorway for us into the divine? Can we move beyond the definitions of the past in order to get to something new? Exploring that tactic will, I believe, offer more promise than most have suspected.
  Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist.

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. Without sunshine, the forest cannot grow. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in the sheet of paper.... And if we continue to look, we see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the the mill to be transformed into paper. And we will see wheat. The logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. The logger's father and mother are in it too.
Those who embark upon this journey will require not only courage but also spiritual maturity. If I am still to be able to claim the Christ as a doorway, I will be compelled first to remove from that Christ all of the exclusionary and imperialistic claims that have been placed upon him by a power-conscious Church of the past. This Christ will have no part in the division between Protestants and Catholics that historically has torn the Western world and still divides Ireland. Nor can this Christ ever be used again to denigrate or to judge the adequacy of any of the world's other great religious traditions, which surely have been the doorway into the holy for countless numbers of people. The Church beyond the exile will seek a Christ who is not the arbiter at the gate determining who is worthy of entering but rather an inviting presence who says to all, "Come unto me and discover the infinite dimensions of transcendent wonder." When that occurs, then that Church will be able to claim whatever treasures it can from the wisdom of its own religious heritage. So purging and opening will be the dual foci of future worship. Those who embark upon this journey will require not only courage but also spiritual maturity.
But life that transcends every human limit is a powerful portrait. How does one purge and open simultaneously? One does it by clinging to the essence while allowing the forms to wither away. Christian worship historically has been dominated and shaped by the life of this Jesus. The church year starts with his birth and journeys through to his ascension. It is theistic to its core. Can we transform that sacred calendar and those holy days so that they will be celebrated beyond the exile? I believe we can.

The birth of Jesus was the moment when Christians recognized that the Holy God had now emerged in human history in a self-conscious way. In the birth of Jesus, Christians celebrated the recognition that the God who had been perceived as holy and other now was revealed to be present in the heart of human life. That is why angels were said to have sung and stars were said to have appeared in the eastern sky as a sign of that birth. That is why wise men and shepherds were said to have journeyed from near and far to worship this moment of revelation. The God met in this Jesus was not to be a limited God, the revelation of a national or tribal deity. This birth was a sign that the infinite could be known in the finite, that the eternal could be met in that which is transitory, and that the divine and human could not be separated. These are the realities that lie underneath the Christmas stories, and they can be celebrated and observed fully. Their truth extends far beyond the literalized symbols of the birth narratives. Thus, purged and opened, these symbols can join our journey into and beyond the exile. Christmas was indeed a moment of light that was able to shine in our darkness. That light can still draw the searchers to itself.

Easter with its story of the resurrection can also be transformed, I believe, and carried with us into a postexilic future. Yet before that is possible, the miracles of physical resuscitation, the angels who roll stones away from tombs, and the bodies that appear out of nothing and disappear into thin air must be dismissed for the developed legends that they are. But life that transcends every human limit is a powerful portrait. Death, which opens all things to new possibilities; love, which triumphs over hatred; being, which overcomes nonbeingthose are the truths to which Easter points, and those are the truths that emerge when God is met on the edges and at the limits of our finite humanity. That is what the stories of the resurrection are all about. So it is that purged and opened Easter can also accompany us beyond the exile.

Ascension, the story of Jesus rising into God, and Pentecost, the story of Jesus dispensing the God Spirit to all people, are perhaps the easiest of all the Christian celebrations to transform. We dismiss once again the literal accounts of angelic beings who come out of the sky to interpret the event in the biblical text. We make no attempt to preserve the gravity-defying cosmic levitation or the language-defying unity said to have been found in the new Church. Those are once again the legends of our theistic past. But we concentrate on the nontheistic aspects of these narratives, which suggest that the human has entered into the divine, that God and human life are not divided, that humanity ultimately empties into divinity, and that we are called to an expanded life in the Holy Spirit of God. Once again, purged and opened, Ascension and Pentecost can walk with us beyond the exile.
  Taken from Why Christianity Must Change or Die: a Bishop Speaks To Believers In Exile. (c) 1998 by John Shelby Spong. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Harper San Francisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

This article will be concluded in the next issue.

Previous - Next