Confession of a 21st Century Christian

Arts & MusicPhilosophy / WisdomPractices & RitualCommunity

by Arthur G. Broadhurst


How did I arrive at this oddly unorthodox secular form of Christianity?  A bit of background might be useful.  Through the years I had intended to write an explanation to my now adult daughters about why I had stepped down as a minister of the United Church of Christ, why I did not encourage them to participate in Sunday school or church activities during their youth, why I did not participate actively in the life of a church. Business and other activities and interests claimed my time and so this writing project was assigned a relatively low priority.  Occasionally as time permitted and when I thought about it I made notes and set them aside in a folder to await the opportunity to write.

With the arrival of my fourth grandchild a few years ago I became aware of the rapid passing of time and that sudden awareness of the fragility and arbitrariness of life gave a new urgency to my intention to frame out clearly and concisely what is for me the essence of Christian faith and why I believe that my emerging view of a secular form of Christianity compelled me to leave the professional ministry.

When I sat down to organize my thoughts and review the notes I had made over many years and actually sat down to write a serious essay, the project seemed to take on a life of its own.  As I continued to write over several months this project is no longer an essay; it has grown lengthier than I had originally planned and is now a small book, confirming the judgment of some of my colleagues that if there was a way to turn a short speech into a long one, I would find that way.  However, this publication has taken form in a way that I hope and have been encouraged to believe will prove to be of interest to a somewhat larger audience than my own family and friends.

This is neither a defense nor an apology for failing to carry on with my intended career in the Christian ministry or, more precisely, to teach religious studies at the university level, which had been my objective since undergraduate days at the University of Richmond.  It is a description of the development of my evolving religious beliefs and a recital of events and circumstances that led me to decide finally that a professional career in religion, even teaching religious studies at a university, was not a career path that I should continue to pursue.

It is also not about why I am not a Christian.  I believe that my views fall within the boundary lines of Christianity, appropriately reinterpreted and understood in the context and language of the 21st Century.  What that means may become clearer later in this discussion.

I am aware that some readers, whether or not identifying themselves as “Christian” may object that my reductive view about the central core in Christianity, which I have interpreted in a way that I contend makes more sense to us today than the traditional orthodox formulation, is not sufficiently traditional to warrant my claim that it is a Christian view and they may wish to eject me from the Christian camp.  Some readers may find my outlook incomprehensible or troubling.  However I will not concede that the views I will argue for in the pages ahead are any less Christian than those of the traditional Christian who is not yet ready to give up the mythical language in which the Christianity of our fathers has been transmitted to us.

It is precisely this debate over the meaning and implications of Christianity for our time that led me to conclude that it would be better (or at least more comfortable for me and others) if I did not earn my living from the Church while explaining and defending an interpretation of Christianity that may be considered controversial by traditionalists in the Church.

Controversial or not, however, I believe a reinterpreted Christianity is necessary for many of our generation who wish to identify with the Christian community and to live by an essentially Christian ethic but are no longer able to live comfortably with the mythological world view of traditional Christianity.

I am aware that there are Christians who believe that there is still room in the Christian Church to have this conversation, and that the proper place to discuss a 21st Century non-theological non-mystical Christianity is within the Church.  Some will argue that such a dialogue would be helpful and necessary for the Church’s own good and growth, but I have not found any welcome within the Church for modern ideas (except perhaps in the conversation of academic theologians who are intrigued by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich and who discuss these esoteric ideas within the safety of academia).  It became apparent to me, as will become clearer in later pages of this volume, that attempts to have this conversation within the Church while I was employed in some capacity by the Church, were and would continue to be a difficult and awkward swim upstream.

This volume is necessarily autobiographical in character and structure because I arrived at my understanding of the meaning and relevance of Christian faith in and for our time gradually through practical experiences, many theological discussions and debates with clergy and lay people, long walks on the beach, and personal events and circumstances that became significant in the progressive development of my religious thought.  Knowing a bit about these events and experiences may help the reader understand how and why I reached my particular perspective on religion in general and Christian faith in particular.

In the paragraphs ahead I will state as clearly as I am able what I think it is possible for us to believe, what is no longer possible for us to believe in the 21st Century, and what is significant and essential in Christianity that we need to recover and restore to its rightful place as the essence of a viable Christian faith for the 21st Century.

A central thesis of this short volume is that the failure of mainstream Christianity to come to terms with the world of the 21st Century has resulted in the loss of what is central and essential in Christianity.  My impression is that the Christian church, when faced with the fact and implications of 21st Century thought, lost its nerve and retreated backward into a theological fortress where it has tried unsuccessfully to defend a 19th Century world view that is incomprehensible to many of us.  By failing to interpret Christianity to our generation in terms and concepts that this generation could understand, Christianity lost its power to speak authoritatively and meaningfully to us, and that has resulted in a Christianity that is increasingly seen by many as irrelevant.

The world of the 21st Century is very different from the world of the 1st Century and even of the 19th Century.  We cannot “go back” to the time of the 1st Century or understand events or occurrences in the same way that made sense in the world view of an earlier generation.  We do not live in a world where the sun stands still in order that there be enough daylight for the army to win a war, or where our god walks in the garden in the cool of the day, or where voices speak to us out of flaming bushes, or where our army marches around a city three times, the soldiers blow their trumpets, and the walls come crashing down.

We see things differently than people of earlier generations.  This is true for philosophers, historians, scientists and theologians.  We no longer accept that there is a “religious” explanation of natural events and processes.   We understand a great deal about life and cells, about the laws of physics and of the atom, the origin of the universe and the movement of the stars, about space and time, about the evolution of life forms and the earth’s geological formations, about forces and matter, about causation and result.

We no longer use religion as an explanation to fill in the gaps of our knowledge of things we do not yet understand.  We do not see a “conflict” between the world of science and the world of religion that requires us to separate our experience into segments with “keep out” signs posted at the borderline between “scientific” knowledge and “religious” knowledge.   We do not try to harmonize the biblical seven days of creation with what we have learned from astrophysicists about the structure and sequence of the origins of our universe, as if both were descriptive accounts of process that need to be reconciled.  When we have questions about our physical world we rely on the principles of science for what we can know and how we know it, whether the subject is matter, forces, energy or the universe.  Whatever we mean by the “truth” of the creation story, we accept the premise that it is not intended to be a process description of an event in time.

I wrote this volume not just to explain my beliefs to others to whom I hope they matter, but also as a necessary mental and spiritual exercise to force me to frame out my understanding of Christianity in a coherent way that makes some sense to me if not to others.  The term Confessions in the title of this section is used deliberately in its core theological meaning as a statement of faith, as in confession of faith or The Confessions of St. Augustine.  It is not the sort of confession that is meant for the confessional booth. It is not about where I went wrong. It is a way of talking about religious faith and values that does not presume to make an absolute claim to ultimate truth, but merely states with humility that this credo is the best I can do with the theological fragments that have been left to me to work with.

The term theological fragments I owe to William Hamilton, a brilliantly creative theologian under whom I studied and from whom I learned much including the observation that in our day we cannot presume to certain truth or make grandiose religious claims or craft comprehensive systematic theologies. Sometimes the best we can do is to play humbly the cards we are dealt — and we have not been dealt very many theological cards.

This is a personal perspective.  It is the story of one man’s wrestling with the intellectual angels and demons on that most important journey to find the meaning of one’s life and to frame that meaning in a way that makes sense to oneself, if not to others.  That’s what we mean by faith. This search for the ‘holy grail’ is a journey that those who aspire to mature faith must take alone, although it may become apparent as the story unfolds that the journey for faith is a lot harder for some of us than it is for others.

Each generation receives the faith of the previous generation wrapped in the concepts and framed out in the language and style that made sense to that generation.   It is our job to locate that central core of truth in Christianity that must be discovered anew by each generation and which each generation must reformulate for itself and in its own words.

By failing to identify, understand and reinterpret the central core of Christian truth in a way that makes sense to us in the 21st Century, and by failing to separate that core truth from the language and the perspective of a previous generation in which it came to us, the Christian Church in our day (in both its Catholic and Protestant forms) has largely abandoned its duty of reinterpreting the Christian message, leaving it hidden behind archaic language and concepts that have rendered it increasingly incomprehensible to many of us who have struggled with it.

Some will object that I have overstated the case for the irrelevancy of much of what passes for contemporary Christianity.  Maybe.  But I believe it is true and I think the evidence for it comes from the observation that the “mainline” churches are less full than they used to be, as well as from the experience of some of us that the fragments of truth that are available to us are less often found in the church than in our experience in the world.

I do not pretend to write a new theology for modern man.  The purpose of this short volume is much less ambitious.  It is a modest attempt to explain what in Christian faith is valid and useful, expressed in a conceptual framework that acknowledges the intellectual difficulties that many in our generation have with the language, the style and the context in which Christianity has been handed down to us by our ancestors.  It is a personal vision of the essential meaning of Christianity for the 21st Century.


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Originally posted at The Christian Humanist.