Friday, August 3, 2007

Either/Or: The Gospel or Episcopaganism [1999]

“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…”

“…and he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

These two phrases capture in a nutshell the amazing challenge faced by early Christians. Christianity was born into an overwhelmingly powerful pagan empire. Nevertheless the apostles preached an in-your-face Gospel that a crucified Roman criminal was Lord of history and all worlds to come. Three hundred years later, the last pagan emperor Julian died, reportedly cursing “Thou hast conquered, O Galilean.”

In fact, paganism never really died, it just went underground. Then it reappeared full-grown with the 18th century “Enlightenment.” Modern “neo-paganism” takes as its starting point a conscious rejection of the distinctives of the Christian Gospel, as represented, for instance, in the Prayer Book (Eucharistic Prayer A).

Holy and gracious Father [transcendent, righteous and personal God]: In your infinite love [flowing from God’s grace not need] you made us for yourself [created persons in his image]; and when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death [original sin], you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only [no other Saviors] and eternal Son, to share our human nature [as the God/Man], to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you [through his vicarious death] the God and Father of all [universal Lord of history and eternity].

Neo-paganism, since it takes Enlightenment skepticism as its starting point, has no colorful, living gods – no Zeus, no Venus – to worship; hence it tends to venerate attitudes and abstractions instead. Here are a few:

Religious pluralism, or syncretism. All religions, it says, are equivalent, different roads up the same mountain. In fact, one can even be religious without believing in God. But pluralism has its limits: it cannot tolerate “fundamentalistic,” (i.e., biblical) faiths that make exclusive truth claims. Such intolerant faiths are the reason religion has such bad name (Remember the Inquisition!).

Pantheism, or monism. Because God is a part or the sum of the world, s/he cannot be a divine Person. Monism seeks to dissolve the “dualisms” of good and evil, soul and body, life and death. Hence Satan is “seated at the left hand of God”; death is a mere absorption of beings into Being; and, finally, God and the Void are indistinguishable.

Psychologized mysticism. Faith, it teaches, is essentially irrational, not knowledge of revealed truth. Furthermore, sexual ecstasy, rather than renunciation, is the doorway to spiritual ecstasy. Thus gurus and spiritual directors are the priests and monks of the neo-pagan temple.

Self-divinization. Since God is one with the world, each of us is a little Christ. Salvation is self-realization, and evangelism is consciousness-raising. The eschatology of the New Age holds that, with a little help from world government and population control, history is evolving a more eco-sensitive humanity and society.

Now what does neo-paganism have to do wit the Episcopal Church? During the past decade, it has become clear that Episcopalianism includes “two Religions in one Church.” One religion, I am convinced, is recognizably in continuity with the apostolic faith of the New Testament. The other, I am equally convinced, is a modern version of the pagan religion the apostles went out to convert. I dub this latter religion Episcopaganism.

Contemporary Episcopaganism has bi-coastal apostles, Bishops Spong and Swing. Bishop John Spong of Newark is the terminator, who systematically denies all the classic teachings and practices of Christianity. Bishop William Swing of California is kinder and gentler, saving Christianity a seat in the Parliament of Religions. True to his Enlightenment heritage, Bishop Spong has little constructive to say about religion other than its open-ended invitations “to live, to love, to be.” Bishop Swing, on the other hand, represents the Romantic-mystical attempt to find a substitute for “true religion and virtue.”

Swing is the founder of the “United Religious Initiative” (URI), whose purpose is the development of a “global soul.” URI includes representatives of Eastern religions, theosophists, “New Agers,” and liberal Protestants. Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelical Protestants don’t fit. Contrary to its claim to be simply a spiritual United Nations, URI has the makings of a neo-pagan cult, promoting syncretism, pantheism, mysticism, and self-divinization. And many of its key leaders, like the ex-Roman Catholic guru Matthew Fox, are Episcopalians.

The Episcopagans will assure us they can incorporate their new religion within the framework of classic Anglicanism. Bishop Spong claimed for many years that he could “sing the Creed” while denying its contents. Revisionists now say that the “Prayer Book Unbound” will enrich rather than undermine traditional Anglican worship with eco-feminist liturgies. Unisex marriage rites, they say, in no way threaten traditional marriage. If the early Christians had only known the secret of having it both ways, they would have been spared the blood of all those martyrs!

The Evangelical theologian Carl Henry has posed the following question for Christians at the end of the second millennium: “The barbarians are coming. The Lord Jesus Christ is coming. Christians are here and now: do they know whether they are coming or going?” For Episcopalians, this means recognizing the pagans outside and inside the gates. It also calls us to recover an urgency to speak the Gospel to the “principalities and powers of this age” (Ephesians 3:10), knowing that the decisive battle has already been found and won in the heavenly places “under Pontius Pilate.”

This article appeared as an editorial in the February 1999 issue of Encompass, the newsletter of the American Anglican Council. The title is a paraphrase of Either/Or: the Gospel or Neopaganism, ed. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (Eerdmans, 1995).

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