Significant Trends in Contemporary Christianity
Dr. Meredith J. Sprunger
I. A Continuing Enlargement of the Concept of God
II. A Deepening and Broading Realization of the Centrality of Christ
III. The Development of an Enhanced Appreciation of the Spiritual Understanding of Salvation
IV. A Continued Demythologizing of the Bible
V. A Conceptual Shift to the New Scientific-Spiritual Understanding of the Universe
VI. A Growing Realization of the Importance of Evolution and Growth which Appears to be Conditioned by the Overcontrol of Spiritual Reality.
VII. An Emerging Planetary Recognition that there can be Unity in the Midst of Diversity.
The prognosis of future events and trends has never achieved a high degree of validity. But such exercises of speculation are interesting and provide a basis for discussion. Each individual would visualize a different script; but, hopefully, the following outline will stimulate you to construct your own view of the future of the Christian faith.
- I. A Continuing Enlargement of the Concept of God.
- A. A growing realization that the universal God of philosophy and religion is also the experiential "ground of being" and the ultimate dimension of all life and existence. (Paul Tillich)
- B. An increasing appreciation of the infinite complexity of Deity Reality: masculine, feminine, personal, nonpersonal, matter, mind, spirit, time and apace related, timeless and spaceless, the absolute reservoir of all past, present, and future actuate and potentials. (Brahman)
- C. A deeper understanding of the importance of an evolving aspect of Deity. A growing appreciation for a Deity presence which is undergirding and actualizing along with finite mortals toward a great divine purpose and destiny. (Alfred Whitehead, Carl Jung)
- D. An expanding realization among all peoples that God's primary relationship with all beings who can perceive truth, beauty, and goodness is that of a personal and loving Universal Father. (Jesus)
- II. A Deepening and Broadening Realization of the Centrality of Christ.
- A. Christ will be increasingly recognized as Creator of our universe as well as Savior. (John 1:1-18, Col. 1:16, Deb. 1:2)
- B. Christ will eventually be acknowledged as the Controller and Administrator of our universe--"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." (Matt. 28:15) People of all faiths who seek God traverse our universe and go to the Father through the saving spiritual guidance of Christ, the spiritual head of our universe (John 12:32, 14:6)
- C. More and more the followers of Jesus will transcend the theologically limiting religion about Jesus and discover the spiritual liberation of the religion of Jesus--centering in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, interpreted by love.
- III. The Development of an Enhanced Appreciation of the Spiritual Understanding of Salvation.
- A. The demise of the blood atonement theory.
- 1. Theologians of mainline Christianity see salvation as the gift of God through faith in Jesus emphasizing God's love for humanity and full acceptance of them as his mortal sons and daughters. The theologians of Christian fundamentalism regard salvation as the gift of God through faith in Jesus because he gave himself as a blood sacrifice demanded by God as the price for forgiving the sins of mankind.
- 2. The blood atonement theory is incompatible with Jesus' teachings about the nature of God the Father, This doctrine had its origin in the conceptual language of Paul who used the symbolic idea of Jesus as the "final sacrifice" in the Jewish sacrificial system. It was a missionary attempt to relate to the thought patterns of the Jews. New Testament scholars today recognize that Paul did not hold a God concept which would be compatible with a literal blood atonement doctrine.
- 3. The Bible commentary most widely used in America today is The Interpreter's Bible published by Abingdon Press. In volume VIII, p. 510-11, the writer in commenting on John 3:16 says: "Some of the past explanations of the gospel are not over helpful to us now. Most of us are not at home in the Jewish sacrificial system; and metaphors drawn from it can be confusing rather than illuminating. And some of the interpretations, popular in the Middle Ages, are to us incredible, and even monstrous...So do many, with the Gospels in their hands, appear to see in them a lesser God giving himself to save us from the implacable fury and resentment of the great God, slow and hard to be appeased, and demanding his pound of flesh from someone. That is hideous heresy; and the blasphemy of blasphemies. It was in the eternal plan of God the Father that Jesus Christ lived out in fact: 'God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself' (II Cor. 5:19), not standing sullenly aside, and needing himself to be reconciled." Jesus is, indeed, the savior of mankind but not a redeemer. We should recognize that most of those who still accept a literal blood atonement theory in our day probably do so out of misunderstanding and with no intent to deny the loving nature of God the Father.
- B. Increasing recognition of the fallacious illusions of "chosen people" concepts and "special" religious institutions which have the power to give or take sway salvation.
- C. A growing awareness that only faith and the sincere desire to be a part of the family of God (sonship) are the sole determiners of salvation.
- D. A gradual dying of the myth that death suddenly transforms mortals from imperfect material beings into perfect spiritual beings, along with a concomitant realization that spiritual growth continues in the universe at higher levels. The road to spiritual status and perfection is probably a long, long pilgrimage of experiential achievement under the Father's guidance and care.
- IV. A Continued Demythologizing of the Bible.
- A. The Bible is a compilation of human documents which contain both human error and divine truth and wisdom.
- 1. The Old Testament evolved in three main stages over thousands of years of history. It was edited periodically by many scholars. The books which are officially recognized as the scriptures of Judaism were not given canonical status until 90 A. D. at the Council of Jamnia.
- 2. The New Testament began in the early Christian Church as a series of papers and letters written by numerous people. These papers were circulated among believers, edited, combined, and added to by many scholars and church leaders. The names of apostles were often attached to the better papers so that they would have more authority among church members. From around 144 A. D. to 367 A. D. various scholars and bishops drew up their own lists of books which they thought should be officially recognized books. Finally, Athanssius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote an Easter letter to the churches of his diocese in the year 367 in which he discusses the books which he considered canonical. This is the first list which includes all of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. At various church councils in the years that followed Athanasius' list was widely adopted.
- 3. Once one understands how the content of the Bible was accumulated, edited, adopted, and officially approved, one realizes that revelation is the product of many minds and is validated by centuries of experience. Periodically in the history of mankind such a process takes place. One also realizes that such scripture is of differential quality--the parables and discourses of Jesus, for instance, are superior to the writings of Paul.
- B. The story of the virgin birth will increasingly be recognized as an early Christian myth.
- 1. Christian theologians generally affirm that Jesus was both a human and a divine personality, but the majority of scholars in mainline churches have long recognized that the story of the virgin birth was added by the early church to make his divine nature more believable for the church members of those times. An interesting observation is that today this story is frequently a stumbling block to belief in the authenticity of the Biblical record of the divinity of Jesus.
- 2. The reason most mainline Christian theologians do not accept the virgin birth story is that only two of the four gospels record it and no where else in the New Testament is it referred to. The earliest gospel, Mark, and the latest gospel, John, do not mention it. One would expect all of the gospel writers to highlight such an important event. Secondly, there are many instances of supernatural conception and virgin birth recorded in the annals of religious history. This was the characteristic method by which ancient peoples designated the divine origin of their prophets and leaders. Paradoxically, the Biblical account traces the lineage of Jesus back to David through the ancestry of Joseph, not Mary. Finally, modern Christian scholars reject the virgin birth story because it is observed that God usually uses the natural laws of his creation to work his purposes in the world.
- C. The literal Biblical descriptions of heaven and hell will be increasingly recognized as early religious myths. (The theological definition of "myth" is that it is a story that communicates spiritual truth but is not a description of literal history or reality.)
- 1. The spiritual truth in the concept of heaven is that the future of our destiny beyond this life is great and awe-inspiring beyond our imaginations; but the simplistic "golden streets and pearly gates" description of heaven is a delightful myth.
- 2. The spiritual truth in the concept of hell is that judgment is real and the way of the transgressor is agonizing. Evil and sin do, indeed, lead to destruction but the literal "fire and brimstone" description of hell is a myth designed to control the behavior of ancient peoples through fear.
- D. We will come to recognize that revelation in the historical process is progressive and continuous. The spirit of God is always at work in our individual and planetary experience.
- 1. This progressive revelation of truth is seen in the Bible starting with an understanding of Jehovah as s vindictive tribal God, expanding through the great prophets to the beautiful and lofty conceptualization of God by Second Isaiah, and culminating in Jesus' revelation of God as a loving Heavenly Father.
- 2. As we examine the events of the past centuries in the light of the accumulated knowledge of science and the sharpened conceptual tools of philosophy, we will develop a greater understanding of God's activity on our planet and we will look expectantly for spiritual enlightenment and breakthroughs which will act as a catalyst to the new age which is struggling to be born.
- V. A Conceptual Shift to the New Scientific-Spiritual Understanding of the Universe.
- A. Our culture is slowly abandoning the traditional up-down, "three-story" (heaven-earth-hell) cosmology for the in-out, gravitational cosmology of science. In this cosmological language the geographical residence of God, traditionally referred to as Paradise, would be in, not up, et the center of all things.
- B. We are beginning to accept the fact that we live in a universe with millions of galaxies and very probably billions of inhabited planets. Living in such a universe will have a profound effect on the restructuring of our theological and religious frames of reference.
- C. This will result in the gradual structuring of a spiritual cosmology which parallels this gigantic astronomical (material) cosmology. This enlarged spiritual cosmology, we will realize, must be even greater than our well-nigh limitless material cosmology and is probably populated with myriads of spirit personalities and beings far transcending our imagination.
- VI. A Growing Realization of the Importance of Evolution and Growth which Appears to be Conditioned by the Overcontrol of Spiritual Reality.
- A. There will be an ever widening recognition that the key insight to understanding the dynamics of individual behavior, social development, and universe events is the evolutionary status (maturity) and development of such persons and phenomena.
- 1. Knowledge will continue to dominate magic and superstition.
- 2. The transcendence of wisdom over knowledge will follow the increasing control of science by a mature planetary philosophy.
- 3. We will develop a greater appreciation for the interrelationships of fact, meaning, and value. We will achieve a greater balance of matter, mind, and spirit through the harmonious working relationships of science, philosophy, and religion.
- 4. Mankind will become increasingly aware of both the necessity and danger of institutions, customs, usages, folkways, and traditions. We will gradually learn to control our institutions rather than being arbitrarily controlled by them.
- 5. We will learn to distinguish sharply between theoretical idealism and the realistic application of that idealism to current personal and planetary problems. As our culture matures we will more realistically and creatively adjust to the limitations and inevitabilities of human finitude.
- B. Our evolutionary development will gradually result in the domination of spiritual reality over all individual, planetary, and universe phenomena.
- 1. There will be an increasing spiritual mastery of material-mortal desires, attitudes, and actions through the mediation of enlightened mind-control ("Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus").
- 2. The future will see a growing domination of the spiritual over the intellectual in religion: living faith will triumph over mere intellectual belief; fellowship and service will transcend theology; and truth will be liberated from the myopic narrowness and arbitrary restrictions of dogma.
- 3. The evolving influence of spiritual unity and caring will bring about the transition from a materialistic, exploitative psychology to a conserving, interrelated planetary ecology. Everything from natural resources to human beings will be harmoniously integrated.
- C. There will be a growing emphasis of inner direction and determination over external controls. Gradually man will take responsibility for his own evolution and destiny in co-operation with the will and purposes of God.
- D. The traditional conceptualization of natural and supernatural realms of reality will be integrated into a holistic unity.
- VII. An Emerging Planetary Recognition that there can be Unity in the Midst of Diversity.
- A. We are learning that it is important to preserve and value both unity and diversity. We should make no attempt to get people to think alike but facilitate working together toward common goals and ideals.
- B. The realization of the brotherhood of mankind requires appreciating and valuing diversity. Sexism, racism, and nationalism thwart the growth of brotherhood with larger and larger unities. One day we will achieve one world with a world-wide educational, economic, legal, and governmental system which will be rich in diversities.
- C. There will be an increasing recognition of the importance of the family. Society will probably establish conditional qualifications for those who wish to be parents. The family concept and spirit will generalize to social groups, the world, and the entire universe. This family of God will, no doubt, have innumerable inhabited planets contributing to the richness of this fellowship.
- D. Although spiritual values will act as the catalyst in integrating society and its institutions, religious institutions will learn the wisdom of not trying to function as social, educational, economic, or political institutions or seek to control these secular institutions. Religious institutions will be of greatest service to society as they devote themselves to religion, values, and spiritual principles. Individual members of these religious institutions will apply these spiritual values and principles to the various institutions of society in which they are serving with specialized expertise.
- E. There will evolve a world-wide brotherhood of all people which will experience living love as the highest incorporation of truth, beauty, and goodness in human affairs. This brotherhood will teach that loving service is the key to happiness and the pathway to social and economic justice and human well-being.
A service of
The Urantia Book Fellowship