Living the Questions

By Tony Copple
Kanata, Ontario, Canada

When I heard this liberal-oriented course was coming to my church I tried to stop it. I failed, based on the concept that the people have the right to hear all the arguments, and many want to ask questions that have answers that may not be found in the bible. My concerns arose from the list of contributors including John Selby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg - all involved in The Jesus Seminar.

What follows is a series of ideas presented by the course, followed by my comments, sometimes immediately [in square brackets] and always after each session.

Notes, Session 1 - The role of biblical authority
10 Jan 2006

Not presenting answers, just questions for discussion. Exploring a mystery together.

JDC: Defined literalists and fundamentalists (fundamentalists say that of you don’t agree with literalists you can’t be a Christian. Fundamentalism (1920s) is one of the most dangerous things in the world. They are successful when everyone else who disagrees is dead. Also the fundamentalists are harming the church

There is a gap between the seminaries and the churches (people in pews). But, new priests, if you come out with the ideas that the seminary introduced you to (that you had thought radical and even wrong) you may be surprised how the congregation can accept them.

Spong: the church has taught that segregation, capital punishment, exclusion of homosexuals etc ……were right. Wrestling with God is good and essential. So the targets of today’s orthodox (eg homosexuality) have no more objection in God’s eyes than segregation did.

To what extent is the bible the inspired word of God? Borg: the bible is a lens through which we view life/truth. But we don’t worship / believe in the lens. Some people would treat the Bible as no less than the fourth person of the Trinity.

Lloyd Geering: The Bible is made an idol by those who believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God. New definition of idolatry.

Borg. It’s a human product. It’s not a divine product. [do these people not believe in prayer?] It tells us how ancient people saw things. God can be believed in in total realness. This is so in different religions. The bible is a human response to the stimulation of God. [Sickmaking]

We are all on a journey (The way) and the destination is unknown.

Borg – doesn’t feel anyone has lost faith through the Jesus seminar or Spong. “Orthodoxy never gives love”. “Heretics see truth a generation or so before the rest of the world”.

We were then asked to consider in small groups, and then to distill what we feel for the larger group.

Questions / comments
Certainty is the mother of problems in our faith.
Is there something in common that all religions have that we can learn.
Some are uncomfortable with literalism of some parts of the Bible but we are also uncomfortable with the course’s suggestions of the alternatives.

My impressions and comments after the first session.
None of the speakers appeared to me to be someone with Jesus in his/her heart. I would not recognize any of them as a man or woman of God. They are all academics seeking to dissect our faith for analysis using human credibility as their yardstick. They are doing their jobs, rather than living their faith. I found none of them had grown to be the smallest amount like Jesus. They seek God through intellectualism. They would say “I understand in order to believe” rather than “Credo et intelligentsia” (I have misquoted the Latin but it means): “I believe so that I might understand.” Considering the fruits of the spirit, where were love, joy, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness. Give me Sandy Millar any day.

While I was comfortable with their criticism of literalists and fundamentalists, the implication I inferred was that they would see all orthodox believers (such as I) as either literalists or fundamentalists. My acceptance of the Bible is not a literal one – but I know that this extraordinary book was the work of God directing many human minds.

Their denigration of the Bible, as a production of humans energized to write about Christianity and producing a hodge podge of conflicting and flawed writings that we should take only some broad principles from, made me feel angry and sick. After that session I told my table that I disagreed profoundly and didn’t trust myself to remain polite in the discussion so would curb my tongue.

Further, the new age concepts began to creep in that all religions can offer a way to God, ignoring the unique role of Jesus in atonement. The words “I am the way the truth and the life” were challenged (by Spong?) as being taken out of context.

Were I not a Christian, tonight’s exhibition would convince me to run the other way fast. Theirs is a man-made religion where the supernatural is continually discounted and the second coming sneered about because it didn’t come in the first few decades. This is religion for those who only understand and believe what they can see. This is not Christianity. It is a philosophy which takes some of the Christian ideas and blends them with new-age concepts to be easily acceptable in our so sophisticated society.

This religion of theirs would be incapable of converting 100,000 a day on the frontiers of our faith in the third world. Who would martyr themselves for a God who was incapable of fathering a human son or inspiring the words written in a book that would be the main channel of communication from Him to them forever? Me, I wouldn’t give any credence to such a God. Back to atheism for me if I took much of this seriously!

My comments to Sally (course leader) after the first session

"The first session quite upset and angered me. Thank God I wasn't exposed to this stuff during the time I was coming back to the Lord after my atheism or I would never have considered Christianity. I though Borg, Spong et al gave no impression of having Jesus in their hearts. I particularly hated Geering. For them this is an academic exercise. How awful if young people were exposed to this as their first taste of the faith. I am most devastated by how some of the people in our audience are apparently hoodwinked by what they are hearing. I don't trust myself to speak out because I am so removed from them in my understanding. If I hadn't been on Alpha to hear the truth explained, by now I would be a basket case, believing that the whole basis of my beliefs and my life were a pack of cards, blowing over, and that I was alone in the world with my picture of the universe."

While the session on the Bible in Alpha focuses on its strengths, the LTQ session attempts to destroy its credibility. Well, it won't succeed.

Notes, Session 2 - Thinking theologically
17 Jan 06

Bill Nelson: We maybe must stop using the word God and replace it by something like “The divine”. Something not in our image.

Minerva Carcańo: We have to think in terms of race, gender, class. A whole religious experience was being left out. [They are designing a faith that suits them, because they felt that what we have leaves them out. In fact, it may be true that practitioners at any one time leave some groups out of account, but Jesus didn’t].

John Cobb. Omnipotence is not a biblical doctrine. Does God have all the power? God’s power is persuasive, rather than coercive.

Borg: We need to move people from pre-critical naďveté via critical thinking, to post-critical naďveté. Critical thinking is corrosive of religion in general and the Bible in particular. Post Critical naďveté is the ability to hear the substance of these “stories” as true even though they aren’t literally true. “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this to be true.”

Spong: 5 versions of how God got into Jesus. All of them are probably wrong. But somehow God was in Jesus. No one treats the virgin birth stories as history any more (!) However, we still believe that God was in Jesus, in some remarkable kind of way.

God is incarnate in everything.

Spong: the difference between Jesus and you is a difference in degree not in kind. “As you become more fully human you enter into divinity” - Spong’s interpretation of God in Jesus.

Borg. The theological process is one of getting rid of unnecessary obstacles.

Ted Sample (Texas): The Christian way can be wide at times, narrow at others. When it’s wide it allows for multiple interpretations.

My impressions and comments after the second session.
The session started with a quote from “The Colour Purple” reminding us of how the church at the time had not had a place for feminists, blacks, etc., so it needed to change to accommodate them. The fallacy here is that what was wrong was the attitudes of church leaders at the time and their failure to obey the 11th commandment. There was, is, and never will be a missing aspect of Christianity that we somehow have to “put right.”

The progression from pre-critical naďveté via critical thinking, to post-critical naďveté is helpful. However, the inference is that all sensible people are either in stage 2 or 3. Borg’s description of stage 3 attitudes was fine. However, this all makes an assumption that the majority of the audience have grown out of pre-critical naďveté, and therefore will not swallow such “myths” as the virgin birth and the killing of the Holy Innocents. On this basis, I am still in pre-critical naďveté. In his analysis, Borg takes this sequence to extremes. It is as if he seeks an explanation for the good wisdom in the Bible that has no dependence in the supernatural. This is presumably so that anyone in our post-modernist society, who doesn’t believe in miracles, can still benefit from the philosophy of Christianity.

The problem with this is that it is a blue-print for creating one’s own religion based on the words of a superb teacher, and discounting miracles, and (we have yet to discover, but I fear it) the afterlife. In my naďveté I believe God came to earth as a child in the virgin’s womb, and that the miracles were factual.

So Borg is trying to solve problems that people like me do not have, because we accept much more of the Bible story. However, if he is exposed to people who have not yet heard the supernatural versions why would they ever feel the need to believe in faith, and why would a religion without a supernatural element be worth living, or dying for.

The session also introduced the New Age ideas that God is in everything (I bleed if someone scratches a tree) and that if we all try hard enough, we not only will become more like Jesus (fine), but each of us can become as divine as Jesus is (not so fine, but Caligula would have appreciated it).

Notes, Session 3 - Creativity and stories of creation
24 Jan 05

Sally started with a quote of an alternate story of creation by British Christian physicist Ted Burge as if written by scientists, from a book "Reflections on the Nature of God" [– I really liked it. Reminds me of my piece: God’s Duplication Service,, written some years ago. In fact this was to me the high point of the evening.]

God gave us dominion over the earth. That leaves us to make decisions affecting our future.

Borg. If the Bible is God’s word then the creation story must be literally true [This is the kind of false logic that the course specializes in].

Spong. According to the Bible story, woman was created as a lower form of life than man.

Various people made fun of the Biblical story of creation, with the inference that all orthodox Christians are literalist creationists.

The discussion about original sin was unsatisfactory, with Borg saying that it is strange and unnecessary that Christian church services invariably include confession and a prayer asking forgiveness. (But John Cobb said shortly after that the whole world needs to repent of our failure to manage the resources of the earth.) Spong and Borg left an impression that forgiveness wasn’t as necessary as we have been lead to believe. This all led to the suggestion that Christians dwell too much on evil when they should instead be celebration humanity and the basic sheer goodness to be found in those around us. I sense that this is a step towards negating the devil.

Spong. As a disciple of Jesus I am not trying to convert people, I want people to be what Jesus wants them to be in His infinite variety.

The creation presentation then morphed into a celebration of the beauties of nature, leading to a suggestion that God’s world (universe) would be hardly less significant had man not arrived on the scene. There were references to panentheism and native spirituality. This weird diversion prompted a question as to whether man has any higher claim on God’s attention than any of the animals, or indeed a leaf or a butterfly.

My impressions and comments after the third session.
The discussion of creation on the presentation could have been far wider, in view of the huge unnecessary divide between creationists and Darwinoids. Instead the presentation concentrated on apparent contradictions between the Genesis 1 Genesis 2 stories. As if most of us set any store by this.

The paying down of (original) sin weakens the significance of the huge sacrifice made my Jesus on our behalf to take those sins upon himself. It seems to me that just as bacteria will eventually kill a piece of fruit, so the sin that we are born with can develop without limit if not dealt with.

The detour into the beauties of nature as being perhaps as significant in God’s eyes as his creation of man was a concept that I am uncomfortable with. It seems to question the “meaning of life” as being our capacity to love and worship God, which is the source of the most exquisite pleasure for Christians. This subject matter also prompted our discussion into an irrelevant section on whether there are other worlds with thinking beings out there.

Notes, Session 4 - Restoring relationships
31 Jan 06

Borg: Three primary stories in the Bible: Exodus/bondage; exile/return; sin/forgiveness. The third of these has dominated Christian thought, perhaps wrongly (we are all so sinful etc).

Minerva Carcano: God’s grace frees us (from bondage).

Borg: used the Passover ritual to illustrate that all of share the exodus, and the returns, in every generation. The inevitable result of socialization is bondage, as different worldviews clash.

Bill Snelling: Jesus died for our sins? I don’t believe it. He died because of the sins of the world. Snelling suggests that Jesus objected to the killing of birds and animals for sacrifice, hence his overturning of the tables in the temple. The lamb of God in fact means a cuddly gift of love!!!! [This is getting me angry. It conflicts with Isaiah’s prophecy for a start.]

Stephen Patterson: The blood sacrifice to atone for sins has been an acceptable form of dealing with sin in traditional Christian thought – but today we can think differently.

Heather Murray Elkins: story of the pastor who’s name was “not good enough” as told to a prayer group. Later he said that every time I put my hand in the water to help name a child I will remember who I am - a meaning of baptism. This somewhat out-of-context story is presumably a substitute for teaching that God loves each one of us individually and we have value.

My impressions and comments after the fourth session.
The discussion following this session showed that some in the group did not understand the purpose or value of Jesus’ death. Maybe this is why they feel the need to come to this course!

More scurrilous is that the course teachers are succeeding in muddying the water in the crucially important subject of why Jesus died, subject of the second Alpha video, and The Passion of the Christ movie. The seed is now sown that God would not have been so cruel as to kill his own son, so the death of Jesus was not a predetermined sacrifice to open the gates of heaven to us all but a merciless act by the Romans and little more. As I said in the discussion period I found this blasphemous. These so-called teachers will stop at nothing to replace the essential supernatural elements of out faith with modern day rational explanations that are more easily accepted by the man in the street who doesn’t need anything in his life that he can’t see and touch, but might be duped to go back to church for a man-made philosophy.

Notes, Session 5 - Evil, suffering, and a God of Love
7 Feb 06

"When you suffer the worst, the only one who suffers more is God." “On the cross God takes our pain and suffering and suffers for us for the sake of evil’s ultimate defeat – now we can live in hope.” “We are called to be Samaritans for some of the time, but more often we are the ones who are beaten and bruised and left on the side of the road.” [I welcome these thoughts with open arms.]

The first part of the evening was standard teaching on the fact that God does not punish us by sending pestilence, sickness or earthquakes. There is no connection between suffering and previous deeds. More often than not in this world the good guys get to suffer and the bad guys enjoy the spoils of their misdeeds. But that is the nature of the world.

The second part touched on the nature of evil. It stayed short of declaring the existence of the devil, preferring a formula that places a little evil in all of us. Towards the end was a 7 minute talk on journaling that seemed out of place, followed by the regular potters’ wheel meditation that is getting somewhat tedious.

My impressions and comments after the fifth session.
This session on suffering and evil was the least bad of the sessions so far, in that most things were said would be accepted by most Christians, and some things were inspiring teaching – the first two sentences above. Spong did not appear in this session.

But isn’t it sad that it has taken 7 weeks to hear an inspiring statement from these “leaders.” I know they are theologians, but hopefully they wouldn’t have chosen the profession without inspiration, and they seem hard pressed to pass it on. If the message has not been engaging, how about the production, filmmaking and other ancillaries. Sorry, have to give them hardly a passing grade. The background jazz continues to aggravate, the camerawork is amateur, the continuity is just adequate, the determination by all the speakers to appear somewhat scruffy in appearance, the insertion of irrelevant subject matter…I could go on.

My issue on this session, both with the talks and background reading, and also with some on my discussion table, was the inability to believe in a real devil out there somewhere. Instead we have this half-hearted psychological ploy that evil (and presumably good) are something we are born with and must resist. Again this is the attempt to create a religion that does not involve the supernatural.

Notes, Session 6 - Intimacy with God
18 Feb 06

Minerva Carsano – in extreme poverty had a mystical revelation of God’s love and care for her as an individual, having never before known a personal relationship with Him.

Bill Nelson - There shouldn’t be a separation of the sacred and the secular. They are both God’s creation. Spong – After spending some hours with a dying woman, he ended with prayer – regular “official” prayer, and discovered that the “official” prayer seemed artificial and not comforting compared with the counselling time.

Nancy Ammerman - The need for a spiritual element to our lives is becoming more recognized in society.

John Cobb – Do our prayers have an effect on an omnipotent God? It may sometimes be better just to be with someone in love than to pray for love for them. So in addressing prayer to God we can see an effect on the pray-er’s view of God. And we have empirical evidence that intercessionary prayer “works.”

Stanley Haurwas – If prayer has taught me anything it has taught me to be patient – to operate in God’s time.

Spong – told the story of his wife, stricken with cancer and many prayer groups praying for her all over New Jersey. But when she lived an extra four years over the two that the doctors had expected some of the groups claimed the power of prayer had been shown, and this bothered Spong a lot because he couldn’t see how God could favour his wife over, say, the wife of a garbage collector who might have been dying at the same time. He could not believe in a God who will extend one person’s life as a result of lots of prayer, while letting someone else die because there wasn’t enough prayer.
John Bell – The psalms are a great source of comfort on multiple levels.

My impressions and comments after the sixth session.
This session generated the best discussion in our groups, since prayer is a relatively better understood subject that some of the previous material. There was less particularly controversial in the presentation. Spong’s logic gets in the way of faith that others may have that if they pray, God hears and may act. They don’t burden themselves with questions of logic in God’s decisions. Did Spong pray for his wife’s recovery from her illness or just for relief from her suffering; we don’t know. Our group debated whether the prayers of thousands of intercessors were of more effect that the prayer of a single sincere person. I said that I felt that God hears every prayer, but from the point of view of the pray-ers there is a lot of power in praying together.

Someone in our group quoted Nicky Gumbel, and I can’t help wondering if in years to come anyone would quote anything said on the Living the Questions course.

Notes, Session 6 - Social justice
21 Feb 06

John Bell – when will the church begin to sing about injustice to those who are not heterosexual. We are talking justice.
Minerva – Justice is concerned with God’s will for all, rather than some. I am concerned by excluding people by gender, colour, sexual orientation.
Lloyd Geering – Has written about the disasters that are coming upon us in ever more frequency. We can destroy ourselves and appear to be trying hard to do this. However this is not an “end times” scenario beloved of evangelicals.
Borg – Prophetic theology indicts the domination of people by leaders.
Emilee Townes – the moral life is doing the right thing day after day.
Borg – our society is structured to serve the self interests of the rich. Jesus has the lower strata of society very much in his heart.
Crossan – made a brief statement that I was unable to understand.

My impressions and comments after the seventh session.
First, a general point. Several people commented on the relatively poor correlation between the pre-session reading matter and the video. Quite a lot of the video material is snippets from existing teaching and broadcasting than have been accessed for this course. The trouble is, such existing material is not always totally relevant; hence the divergence from the reading matter. A number of us are also finding the ‘potter’s wheel’ segment that each session ends with somewhat tedious and irrelevant.

Another general comment that came from tonight’s moderator: this being an American course casts things either in the fundamentalist / literalist / (terrorist?) camp, or in the liberal / sensible camp. There is no room for middle ground thinking. We suspect Canadians are less extreme in the first group than the target Bible beltists, and this is a reason why the statements made are often easy to criticize.

This session is partly a dig against end-times prophecy, clearly seen as symptomatic of fundamentalists. Instead, prophecy is given a social face and at one point Borg argues strongly for communist ideology (not in so many words) and suggesting that our nations’ ills are caused by the results of capitalisms’ tendency to place the wealth in the hands of the few. Most groups found themselves discussing the distribution of wealth, which seems to me borderline irrelevant. The role of modern-day prophets in speaking out against social injustice was applauded – and rightly so. However, I was uncomfortable by Bell’s asking when will the church begin to sing about injustice to those who are not heterosexual. Somehow I suspect that such songs when they come will attempt to justify homosexual relations and not just tell us that we should love one another.

...This was my last attendance before I will be running my next Alpha course on the same night. I yearn to return to the loving and spirit-filled atmosphere of Alpha.

More Spong behaviour

My course questionaire - feedback

Matters of faith