Should Christian Faith Keep Evolving or Hold Steadfast to the Truth in the Face of Change?
I remember many years ago closing worship services with a ‘benediction’ that included the words, “Keep the Faith”. This word of instruction implied that there was a Christian truth that we should not only live by, but protect from change. And we all presumed it was a good thing to maintain that truth without wavering. But I’ve changed my point of view, just like Milo in Norton Juster’s story.
In the children’s classic, The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo encounters a boy who appears to be suspended with his feet about a metre off the ground. The boy explains that that’s the way folks grow in this land, which is called “Point of View.” Their heads are always at the same level, while their feet eventually grow toward the ground. When Milo explains that where he comes from, it’s just the opposite, the boy laughs. “Then your head keeps changing its height and you always see things in a different way? Why, when you’re fifteen things won’t look at all the way they did when you were ten, and at twenty everything will change again. We always see things from the same angle. … It’s much less trouble that way.”
I think that in the church we have confused the refusal to develop new perspectives with steadfastness and “keeping the Faith”. I suggest it is a good thing to allow our perspective to change when introduced to new information, to new realities that we didn’t know about previously.
Don’t Confuse me with Facts, My Beliefs are Forever Fixed.
Traditionally, churches have sought to proclaim an unchanging gospel in a changing world. The assumption has been that God was uniquely revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and the implications for human lives and ‘salvation’ must never be altered. Hence the fourth century creeds are still held as central by twenty-first century churches.
The church has never allowed the on-going development of knowledge through study of the universe, biology, ecology or culture to call into question those politically motivated creeds. Outsiders find it inexplicable that their well-educated Christian friends accept the beliefs and customs of the ancient world without question in matters of religion. On the other hand, many Christian souls are comforted by the thought that they still believe as they did when they first declared their faith, decades before.
What if Faithfulness Means Something Else?
Come with me on a journey that requires us to think within a whole new framework. What if being faithful to the beauty and love of God could be understood as always seeking to enlarge our image of God and constantly refresh our response to whoever God might be? Perhaps spiritual growth is not only compatible with, but linked to, an increasingly informed perspective on life and the cosmos.
Given that astronomers have revealed a universe of suns, planets, galaxies and black holes, perhaps the most appropriate spiritual response is one of awe and to sit lightly with our assumption that we humans are the central and highest expression of God’s activity. Or, for instance, as biologists describe the multi-faceted complexity of hormones and genetics, perhaps our most faithful spiritual response is to rethink the church’s previous assumptions about sexuality and gender relationships.
The indisputable expanse of knowledge available to us now means that we no longer do religious reflection within the same worldview that limited our ancient ancestors. Why should Christians or people of any faith feel threatened by new perspectives? Surely God is not threatened by a greater knowledge of reality. If so, that god cannot be God, but only a small, self-imagined idea of God.
We’ve Done This Before – Radically Changed our Beliefs in the light of New Information
Although in denial at first, (Galileo was kept under house arrest by the church for heresy) Christians eventually coped with the discovery that the earth was not flat and that the sun did not orbit the earth.
After sixteen centuries of preserving and preaching a changeless Faith, the church eventually reinterpreted how we should think about heaven and hell. No longer did the church preach that heaven existed in a spatial plane above the earth and hell in a place physically below the earth. That assumption would no longer withstand examination.
I’d like to suggest that many more discoveries of the last hundred years similarly invite us to rethink. Is it so unthinkable to integrate all the knowledge available to us with our contemplation of the larger questions of life and God? If we dare – imagination, discovery, mystery and divine encounters will all combine in the adventure of faith. It is doctrine, not God, that limits our excitement at the profound beauty of our cosmic existence.
It is Urgent That We Do It Again – Find a New Perspective, Live by a New Story
“Keeping the Faith” tied us to a teaching that human beings had been instructed by God to subdue the earth – that we are commissioned to be the lords and masters of nature. But twenty-first century knowledge of evolution, of natural ecosystems and the fragility of the planet itself invites us to rethink our place among the species. Perhaps the concept of human mastery over the land, waters and animals was harmless in the ancient world when earth’s population was relatively small and primitive technology could do little damage. The same assumption, of doing whatever we desire with this earth for our own benefit, no longer serves us – it is destroying our souls, our communities and our planet.
Traditional Christianity has no ethic of the spiritual connection and the practical balance required between humans, the physical environment, and the other species and who share our home. If we continue to allow our religious reflections to focus on salvation for the afterlife, we will fail to care for what God has given us here. It is a matter of urgency that millions of ‘faithful’ people around the globe develop new ways of understanding faithfulness in light of what we now know. The Christian church could help to mobilise a willingness to live differently, if only, like Milo, it will grow up and embrace a new “point of view”.
Surely it is time to appreciate and respond to the divine presence in the complex web of the natural world as much as we did in the life of Jesus. Alternatively, refusing to do what is necessary to heal our fragile planet, while hoping instead for a “new heaven and a new earth” is an expression of closed, uninformed minds and spirits turned away from God.