Christianity: Aesthetics: Spirituality: Life: Stuart and Moira Gray

Evolutionary Theology: Thoughts on a new concept of Theology
Not the time scale of Adam, but a much more relevant topic - whether Christian Theology itself should evolve!

Stuart Gray
Moira Gray
Thought for Month
Evolutionary Theology
The Nature of Theology
Dearth of Spirituality?
Christianity and the Arts
News and Events
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Holistic Living
Thoughts on Theology
Fundamentalism in Science and Religion
Conflict Resolution
Current Pictures
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In the 1990s I taught religious studies in a second level school in Ireland. Few of the pupils were interested in the subject. Together, we studied why - why the continuing denominational divide, especially in Ireland, why only the Bible to be read in churches, why was there no recognised scientific evaluation of Biblical events, why was everything based on events which happened almost 2,000 years ago, why only Christianity as 'the one true religion'? Gradually I developed a theology which took account of all these questions, and termed it "Evolutionary Theology". Born of personal conviction, it does not seek to replace the central role which Jesus should play within the lives of Christians. Rather, it attempts to make it more relevant, more personal, and so, more demanding.

Christianity is at a cross roads of its own making with falling church attendances and decline in its spiritual and moral influence on humanity, the perceived result of irrelevance to the spiritual needs of modern society, allegations of child abuse, and inner sectarian squabbling over the approach to women priests, the authority of the Bible, ecumenicism, and the role of gay and lesbian relationships. All Empires eventually fall through implosion, the start being such inner rot and squabbling. Is this the fate of Christianity? In reality the cause of decline centres not on Jesus but on the current relevance of the machinations of the Church some 1700 years ago when they, too, attempted to resolve centuries of internecine dispute at a place in southern Turkey called Nicea. Few realise that the theology and practice of the Christian Church is based not on the life of Jesus but on the Christianity of the 4th century when the dominant force in the Christianity of the day, the bishops, sought to fix theological truths and the application of them for all time by the formulation of creeds. The Emperor Constantine, having conquered the disparate parts of the Roman Empire, sought a moral and spiritual glue to weld the multitude of cultures and religions which now formed part of his domain. Christianity was the obvious choice, having permeated, despite persecution, the whole region. He summoned the bishops to Nicea and dangled before them the carrot of universal acceptance. The model of Christianity which these bishops laid down for all time included the Nicene Creed as a test of orthodoxy, the present hierarchy of bishop, priest and deacon and the books which should constitute the New Testament. It was an attempt to make Christianity an acceptable religion within the strict organisational discipline of the Roman Empire, an attempt which required Christianity to promote easy universal access through baptism, to separate Church from State by tacitly agreeing to the Divine Right of Emperors to rule (particularly Constantine), and to formalise permanent solutions to questions concerning the spiritual nature and mission of Jesus.

It was an honest, if coerced, attempt (Constantine locked up the bishops until they reached agreement!) to resolve the practical problems of the day but based on their limited appreciation of any scientific understanding of the Universe, humanity and its consciousness, let alone any cognisance of the efficacy of other religions which originated outside the Roman Empire (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern religions such as Confucianism), In short modern parlance Nicea was the event which lured Christianity from being a disparate persecuted religious sect within the Empire into being an accepted, even desirable, multinational organisation. This demanded organisation and structure and all the trappings of social acceptability within an Empire built on these precepts.

York Minster nave Nicea such earth-bound concepts as order, discipline and obedience to conformity became the modus operandi for Christianity. Control of spiritual destiny through the offices of bishop, priest and deacon was on offer by Constantine in exchange for acceptance of his control over the physical realm. Even as the survival of the Roman Empire depended on the survival of this empirical concept of authority and order so too Christianity became dependent for its survival on its mirror images of forms and structures. The individual must conform or die. So heralded in one of the most nefarious, and least related, episodes of Christian history - the persecution and death of those Christians who accepted not such ideas. The martyrdom of those, together with their books, who could not accept this 'new' Christianity was measured within the next 3 centuries in hundreds of thousands.

From our 21st century perspective these ideas of a religion based on acceptance of physical authority and structure are at variance with the ministry of Jesus who was content to operate on an individual spiritual basis. The bishops at Nicea, with however laudable an intent, sought to make Christianity accessible to the disparate nations and social groups which comprised the Roman Empire through universal solutions within a disciplined code. They were thus guilty of two facets which Jesus never exhibited during his ministry - the desire for power and the need for conformity. As a result, on these two concepts has Christianity eventually foundered. Jesus' open approach to belief was centred on the need to change, to amend one's lifestyle, but above all to take responsibility for personal development unhindered by the Jewish orthodoxy of the age. It was not a global permanent solution but a challenge to the individual.

Jesus was a catalyst for change, not a controller of destiny.

Increasingly, and thanks to our understanding of Science and the nature of Evolution, many thinking people are beginning to realise that there are no such permanent global solutions to the human dilemma of achieving spiritual certainty, only paths and questions for the individual. These change as humanity continues to obey one of the great principles on which all creation is based, that of evolution. Science has already learnt the lesson that formulae are often but transient solutions, effective only for the time in which they were developed. The 'unified theory of everything' continues to elude them, yet still they strive.

That is the inherent nature of humanity, to strive for the ultimate which lies always beyond our grasp. That should be the benchmark of Religion, always striving for spiritual fulfilment integrated into our physical and emotional lives, always looking beyond our present capabilities to reach greater understanding, knowledge and fulfilment. Anyone who has practised meditation will know what I mean! For better or worse humanity is condemned to the processes of evolution in all its activities. Evolution is a law of the Universe. As such it is God's law. Too often this is thought of merely in terms of technology, communication, transport, human rights and social responsibilities, rarely in relation to spiritual appreciation and development.

When applied to theology it is feasible to say that concepts of Eternal Truths may exist but to be eternal these should exist purely in philosophical terms and not in permanent and unalterable practical dictates. Too often evolution of human thought and knowledge makes a lie of past realities. For example the Christian concept of the Trinity is a fourth century philosophical attempt to both define and relate the Divine to the human and vice versa. It is a concept essentially of separation and inherent alienation, with earthbound humanity limited to its three score years and ten and spiritually helpless but for the intervention of God in Jesus. Born of a 4th century consciousness it was an attempt to crystallise for all time, in the creeds, not only the unknowable but also the predicament of and solution to human frailty in terms understood at that time. Such a simplistic approach unfortunately and inevitably has led to problems of exclusivity of faith (Christianity is the one true Faith and Jesus the only saviour of mankind), arguments of interpretation, and straightforward and unnecessary rejection.

Humanity of the 21st century faces a different and more complex reality. Not only have other religions made a great impact on the knowledge and practice of spirituality. The pilot of a 4 year study in America into the value of prayer on sick people indicates that it does work no matter who is praying, Christian, Hindu, Moslem, Jew, Buddhist, or even atheist. Further, modern cosmology and consciousness studies raise interesting questions as to what it is to be human and what Divine. We now know that, far from possessing a lifespan and consciousness of some 70 years, we are made from star dust and can trace our origins and energy back to the point of Creation, the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago and that some form of awareness/consciousness exists in all things, i.e. we were all part of the Big Bang, there at the point of creation in some form or other. And what of the consciousness of animals, birds etc.? We are not alone in this capability. Equally we know that a Scottish University has, through controlled experiments with the use of sound, identified over 30 states of consciousness. In the final stages comes a sublime awareness of the universe and all created things and an awareness of the inter-relationship of all things. Finally we now know that at least part of our consciousness is not bound by time or space. We are not the limited creatures encapsulated in the creeds by 4th century consciousness. (Even our Judaeo/Christian presumption of being superior 'Lords of the earth' is under threat as it becomes increasingly apparent that we are not alone in possessing self-awareness or the knowledge of right and wrong.)

Couple this with John Robinson's concept of the 'God within' (in his book 'Honest to God') and we reach the possibility of a humanity not alienated from its creator but in partnership with it if only the right techniques are learnt and used. For some the technique is simple - unconditional acceptance of what is on offer, hence the rise of fundamentalism in all religions in questioning and troublesome times. For others, more in tune with the evolution of scientific and human thought, an open quest suits their psychological make up. Both should be able to coexist yet this rarely occurs because of the inherent closed approach of fundamentalism which sees not the goodness in other religious systems, or the integrity of other more open approaches.

Equally, as a result of scientific discovery, we need to consider the question of the nature of Jesus, human or divine, or a mixture of both. Possibly we should regard Jesus not as God but as a human who was more in tune with or at one with God than the rest of humanity. In a way this is not to deny his divinity, more to redefine it. His period in the wilderness, for example, indicates a time for learning the techniques of developing a oneness with God (or universal creative consciousness), a oneness which enabled him subsequently to express through his healing and teaching ministry, i.e. to help others to reach this state where being in tune with the eternal spirit of the universe brings with it the powers of that spirit. It speaks of an interdependence between humanity and God. Each need the other. The Creator can express itself only through the created things while the created need constant contact with the will of the creator or that well of consciousness which caused the universe into existence for spiritual nourishment and fulfilment. Equally, and controversially, time was made part of the equation. For time to have any value and the concept of freewill to have any meaning the future must always remain uncertain, even to God. It is a limiting and exciting process for both sides of the equation demanding harmony through partnership. That is the essence of creation - interconnected harmony and unpredictability. Indeed, scientifically, the latter is built into the universe in what we understand by such as Chaos Theory and the Uncertainty Principle. True there are those who have premonitions or can see into the future, but again experiments indicate that they are seeing but possibilities or, at best, probabilities.

(Incidentally you will notice that I always talk in terms of possibilities and probabilities. Anyone who has studied even the basic elements of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Chaos Theory or Quantum Mechanics will appreciate that the whole Universe is built on these principles. This is as true of the weather as it is of stock exchange investment! Investigations are continuing into its effect on or relationship to consciousness)

Where does this leave us? First with a sense of great respect for those who struggled in the fourth century to understand human and divine capacities and relationships. They were travelling in unknown territory, pushing the boundaries of the human consciousness of the time to the limit using such Greek concepts as 'Substance' to describe the relationship of Jesus to God in the Nicene Creed. In a way it was one of the first scientific statements and bears the hallmarks of logical formula with universal application but with little practical content.

For Jesus the issue of human spirituality was simple and of more practical import, and still pertains today in the summary of the Law. It was for the individual first to enter into a right relationship with God and then through this into a right and caring relationship with all human beings of whatever persuasion. It really was that simple - in theory! In an age which seeks practical solutions to its spiritual dimension I find it curious that Christianity, in its membership requirements, still adheres to the outmoded scientific 4th century view of humanity and God rather than the practical and demanding commands of Jesus to consider spiritual and human relationships as the core belief and practice of Religion.

But human consciousness does not stand still. Who among us is content to go to work by horseback or in a chariot? Who among us still believes that the earth is flat with the whole universe revolving round its centre - Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. More to the point who among us accept the Pauline view that women are a subordinate species because Eve was the first to introduce sin into the world when she tempted Adam, or that slavery is a condition of humanity ordained by God. These are concepts which were regarded as commonplace by those who formulated the Christian Creeds, but not any more. Then there remains the ultimate question as to whether death and sin were conquered by Jesus on the cross. Who, outside Christianity (which amounts to a large majority of the world), consider this a possibility? None. Increasingly many Christians, as a result of the innumerable and serious conflicts which consumed the world in the 20th century, are looking for alternative and more individual solutions to the fulfilment of their spiritual nature. With the global rise of individual human rights, witnessed by successive United Nations Charters, has come the search for individual and practical solutions to individual spiritual needs. (It remains a source of annoyance to me that far less emphasis is placed on the United Nations' statements on social responsibility, but that is a different issue which I shall look at in some future edition of 'Thought for the Month.)

Consequently modern consciousness indicates a need to be both open-minded and questioning, both social and inclusive, and alive to the discoveries in science, world government, and in the spiritual disciplines of other religions. It is unfortunate that the United Nations' Charters on human rights and social responsibilities lies beyond Religion because their lobbying managed to obtain opt out clauses. Meanwhile in business many have discovered the benefit of the 'Chinese contract' and loose liaisons whereby all parties gain and are equal, rather than by competition or authoritarian control. Translated into Christianity we find a great need for a theology which can encompass the results of modern research in all dimensions and which is prepared to experiment to test its own validity.

Theology, hitherto, has tended to be purely a philosophical discipline divorced from the reality of Christian living or, more often, swept under the carpet by orthodoxy. Few, for example, have considered the real implications of Robinson's 'Honest to God' and its adverse impact on the concept of sin and alienation from God or the inherent abolition of the idea of Jesus dying to reconcile humanity to God. Vidler's 'Soundings' with its concept of a moral theory of the Atonement (whereby Jesus died not for the sins of the world but through the reaction of Evil to Goodness), seems also to have passed into oblivion. In our present time few, outside Church circles, have considered the implications of Bishop Jenkins' denial of a physical resurrection in favour of a spiritual one with its severe implications for the Creed's concept of the resurrection of the dead. Perhaps the most unbelievable moment came in the late 90s with the Church of England's Doctrinal Commission report and recommendation that the concept of Hell should be abolished in favour of a state of oblivion. This was voted out by General Synod. From this it is evident that Protestant Christianity has no real interest in reform, only restatement.

What is it then to be an evolutionary Christian theologian? First it is to accept the validity of the healing and teaching ministry of Jesus as being uncontroversial (even most mainstream religions accept it) and of supreme and universal importance to modern humanity. Developing right relationships with 'God' and all humanity is both the basis of all true religion and moreover conforms to the scientific view of the universe that there is an interconnectedness, consciousness and 'social' cohesion which flows through all things.

Here we need, also, to accept the inherent priorities of Jesus' commandments. The first is to love God, i.e. to seek to enter into a right relationship, or oneness, with the Creator. In other words we have to look first outside our human physical envelope to attain some form of spiritual awareness/enlightenment. Only then should we look at the need to promote physical harmony within our earthly existence by loving our 'neighbour'. Our consciousness can embrace both these states of existence but how often has the Church ignored the former in its search to be a relevant player on the world stage in terms of social empathy?

Yet human consciousness has not stopped there. Physical stimuli can often produce profound effects on humanity. Individual meditation is the most commonly accepted way of approaching the spiritual 'otherness' of our existence and our universal being, yet this need not be the only path, or should I say trigger for entering this timeless environment. What did Jesus say, for example, about the effect on the human psyche of music, of art, architecture and literature, let alone manifest a scientific appreciation of the universe? Nothing, and yet such profound artistic statements have a beneficial spiritual impact on many, while scientific investigation, particularly into consciousness studies, has opened the world of meditation to many. In a way evolutionary theology has to find solutions to the human spiritual dilemma by departing from orthodox theology which has too often become bound purely by the texts and history of Christianity and the power struggles which has beset its history. Because of these constrictions Christianity has failed to take on board Jesus' first commandment or the research conducted by other disciplines or to give due regard to the impact which other artistic disciplines can have on the development of human spirituality.

Is this a battle between Christianity and Science, one waged ever since the time of Galileo? I discern that this rather sterile battle between Religion and Science is ceasing to exist. There are indeed fundamentalist positions on both sides and in this science is as guilty as religion. Here one will not find true debate but argument from fixed positions. As such it makes for good media presentation and it is unfortunate that it is this which often makes the headlines.

Yet even though real dialogue between the 2 disciplines is very much alive it has yet to reach the public consciousness. I do detect a growing middle ground in 3 main areas. The first is with such organisations as the Templeton Foundation which regularly sponsors work in this area and true exploration of the sacred/scientific. The second is through International Organisations such as the Scientific and Medical Network whose members are concerned with the development of an holistic approach to life in all its aspects - physical, conscious and spiritual, and who regularly sponsor international conventions on the sacred/secular debate. Here is where one finds the modern theologians, members of all religions, and of none, united in common concern for the holistic and spiritual development of all humanity.

The third is the curious, as yet largely unquantified, impact of sound and space on the spiritual aspect of the individual. Why, for example, do great medieval liturgies as Advent strike such a chord in humanity that their services are often over-subscribed? The Advent candlelit procession of carols and readings in Limerick was not alone in being the major service of the year in terms of attendance. The combination of timeless and devotional music, the ambience of a medieval cathedral which has witnessed worship for over 800 years, the complete otherness of the occasion, all contributed to feelings which fed our spiritual nature. Statistically, more seem to be seeking out these forms of 'spiritual enablers'.

Do we need a conclusion to all these thoughts? I think not. They are but the passing reflections of a 21st century consciousness, relevant only for this moment. If there is one then it is that we need a theology which does not argue over the divisive past but which translates into action, into cooperation with all, to both think and to experiment and thus go beyond our present boundaries. For our time we need to build on what works for the development of human spirituality, and what contributes to our understanding of what it is to be human in all its aspects. In this there can be no boundaries of race, religion or dogma.

Cathedrals, for example, should present unique opportunities in this respect. Alone in Christianity they have the resources, the stability, architecture and ambience, and professional expertise to develop the spiritual, theological, human and liturgical implications of evolutionary theology. Christianity should be a sounding board for all human endeavour with Cathedrals (and churches wherever possible) becoming centres of open debate, drama and literature, exhibition, education, meditation and healing, scientific controversy and religious reconciliation, as well as liturgy and music. But then, as a former Cathedral Organist, I would say that. We are all biased. That is one of humanity's greatest dilemmas!