Christian Thought: Literal, Absolute or
“I am convinced that no human system, including Christianity itself,
can maintain the exclusive power-claims of its past. In this Christianity of the future I have also sought to escape the pseudo-security
that traditional Christianity has pretended to provide.”
Bishop John Shelby Spong makes the above statement in his newest book, A NEW CHRISTIANITY FOR A MODERN WORLD,
declaring himself prepared to lay “the literalness of traditional Christianity aside in order to chart a new Christian
Yet might we not ask whether or not the literalness of traditional Christianity is really the root cause of
what appears to be a divided and crumbling Christian influence in the world today? Those who take the greatest exception to
the influence of Fundamentalist Christian thinking focus often on the black/white and either/or aspects of Christian attitudes
as a reflection of literal thinking.
A literal reading of the Bible as an inerrant and absolute divine document that contains multiple references
to an ultimate judgment and divine wrath against sinners seems to lead inevitably to a highly judgmental and critical Christian
society. One is reminded of the televised dialogue between the Reverend Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the days immediately
following September 11, 2001.
Over 50 years ago Allan Watts made an impressive advocacy for a departure from devotion to a commanding and
punitive God. In his preface to the second edition of his book, Watts wrote that,
“the God of mystical experience may not be the ethically obstreperous and precisely defined
autocrat beloved of religious authoritarians; but as experience, not concept, as vividly real as indefinable, this God does
not violate the intellectual conscience, the aesthetic imagination, or the religious intuition. A Christianity which is not
basically mystical must become either a political ideology or a mindless fundamentalism.” –BEHOLD THE SPIRIT,
A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion, Vintage Books, 2nd Edition, 1971.
It seems as if Bishop Spong has agreed with Watts but is now willing to throw in the towel by laying the literalness
aside. Watts prescribed a more mystical approach to our religious practice.
Spong seems caught up in a sense of powerlessness against a contemporary Christian mind-set determined to
remain both blindly literal as well as opposed to anything other than a fixed literal interpretation of mystical subjects
-- even with the spectre of some vague and bitter end of Christianity as a way of life.
Christianity is already a generic name that has under its umbrella a wide assortment of forms of belief based
on the life of its Founder. Most of Christian history seems to have been a matter of competing power-claims that continue
to this day. On one hand, there is internal dispute and competition around issues of authority, true doctrines and what constitutes
a true Christian. Look up the religion topic on any Internet forum and you are bound to find lengthy debates on whether or
not Mormons and others are true Christians. Adversaries use the Bible as the ultimate justification for agreement or disagreement.
This is internal fighting at its most typical.
On the other hand, there is the issue of the power-claims of the past that are part and parcel of how many
Christians view the rest of the world yet today. The notion that there is only the Christian version of heaven and afterlife
complete with formulaic requirements for acceptance and entrance does little to enhance a global community of spirituality
and religious outlook.
Was Watts on the right track?
Is the true essence of Christianity more internal than external?
Does it matter more that one seeks good because seeking good is a commanded practice with the promise of happiness
and future reward?
Or does it matter that one seeks good for the sake of goodness itself.
The former, despite ministerial protests, amounts to "telling God what to do and the people how to behave",
as Watts wrote. Furthermore, from a literal perspective, one would have to assume that Jesus told his Apostles that it is
the divine will that they spend the rest of their lives telling everybody how to behave – rather than preaching the
Resurrected Lord. The latter suggests that the human will is of itself capable of perceiving the highest good of all concerned.
That such giftedness need be practiced in order to be obtained might very well be what human life is about.