God Is No Longer a Working Number:
Rethinking Christianity for the Twenty-first Century
By Martin Thielen
A few years ago, my colorful friend John picked up his cell phone and said, “Siri, call God.” Siri responded, “I don’t see God in your contacts. Should I look for locations by that name?” “Yes,” John replied. Siri then listed nearby churches with “God” in their name. John instructed Siri to call the first one on the list. A moment later John heard a recording say, “The number you have called has been disconnected and is no longer a working number.”
For millions of people across the globe, God (as we have historically known God) is no longer a working number. Neither is traditional theology or the institutional church. In response, many of these spiritual skeptics have given up on religion altogether. However, plenty of them are still searching for a faith that can work in the modern world . They are asking the hard question, “How can I be an authentic thinking Christian in the modern era?” One day I hope to respond to this crucial question with a full-length book. Meanwhile, this article sketches out, in broad strokes, a three-part strategy for rethinking Christianity in the twenty-first century.
Part One: Reject Unhealthy Faith
Maintaining authentic faith in today’s world requires a rejection of many popular yet unhealthy traditional beliefs. Several examples follow.
- Biblical literalism. The claim that everything in the Bible must be taken literally is patently absurd. The earth is not six thousand years old. Nor is it flat. A talking serpent didn’t tempt Eve in a mythical garden of Eden. The God revealed in Jesus does not condone genocide, slavery, polygamy, subjugation of women, or the execution of gays. We must always remember that God did not write the Bible. People did. And they did so with all the scientific and theological limitations of their ancient time frame. Although we should take Scripture seriously, we don’t always have to take it literally . Doing so is theological malpractice.
- Blood atonement. Many congregations love to sing the old hymn “There Is a Fountain.” The first stanza says: “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins; and sinners, plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.” The traditional theology of substitutionary atonement that “Jesus died for our sins” needs to be jettisoned in the modern era. While that metaphor made sense to an ancient world that practiced animal sacrifice, it’s theologically offensive to think God required a bloody sacrifice of his Son in order to forgive humanity. That’s divine child abuse, not divine justice or love.
- Eternal hell. The belief that a loving God tortures people forever in unquenchable agonizing flames of hell is theological pornography. Sharon Baker is right. It’s time to “raze hell.” As Charles Templeton vividly articulated, “The idea of an endless hell is a monstrous concept. That a so-called loving Father would condemn his children . . . to be tortured forever, with no hope for reprieve, is barbarous beyond belief and can only be dismissed as ancient sadistic nonsense.”
- Exclusive salvation. Thirty percent of the world’s population is Christian. Twenty percent have no religion. The other 50 percent are non-Christian believers including Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews. To claim that Christianity is the only way to God and that 70 percent of the world’s non-Christian population is “lost” without any hope in this life (or the next) is intolerable theological arrogance. In today’s world, authentic believers must respect religious diversity, affirming value and beauty in all faiths and even no faith.
Other examples of unhealthy religion could be cited including partisan religion, nationalistic religion, self-righteous judgmental religion, anti-LGBTQ religion, prosperity religion, angry religion, absolutist religion, anti-science religion, end-times “rapture” religion, and religion that promises God providentially protects believers from harm —which is demonstrably false.
Part Two: Affirm Essential Faith
Although critiquing and rejecting unhealthy faith (often called “deconstruction”) is an important part of rethinking Christianity, it’s only part of the task. In order to create authentic faith for today’s world, it’s crucial that we affirm the essential foundations of Christianity. Of course, that begs the question, What is essential? My short and simple answer is Jesus .
- The centrality of Jesus. When I served as a pastor in Honolulu, Hawaii, a Jewish man regularly attended my congregation. One day he said, “Pastor, I enjoy coming to your church. But is all that talk about Jesus really necessary?” I said, “Well, we are a Christian church, and Jesus sort of goes with the territory.” We both laughed, and he said, “I guess you have a point there.” The essential, non-negotiable core of Christianity is Jesus. Therefore, authentic faith in the twenty-first century must be Jesus-centric.
- The story of Jesus. Several years ago, I visited a sanctuary full of stained-glass windows depicting the story of Jesus from birth to resurrection. It deeply moved me, bringing me to tears. I realized again that the Jesus story is the heartbeat of the Christian faith and the defining story of my life. The stories of Jesus, regardless of their precise historical accuracy, provide us direction, meaning, purpose, and hope. In the midst of all our complex theological deconstruction and reconstruction efforts, it’s imperative that we keep the Jesus narrative at the heart of our faith.
- The teachings of Jesus. In spite of popular opinion, Christianity is not primarily (or even secondarily) about doctrinal beliefs. The Apostles’ and Nicene creeds and other theological affirmations are not the point. Neither is sustaining the institutional church. Instead, at its core, the Christian faith is about following Jesus. That includes living out the ethics of Jesus, incorporating the values of Jesus, following the teachings of Jesus, emulating the spirit of Jesus, and engaging in the practices of Jesus. In short, it means living a life of love.
- The mission of Jesus. Jesus’s mission was not to start a new religion, encourage people to accept him as “their personal Lord and Savior,” get people to worship him, or to build a religious institution. Instead, Jesus’s mission was to promote love of God and neighbor and advance the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Therefore, modern believers and faith communities must engage in kingdom-building endeavors including earth care, ending systemic racism, and seeking justice.
Part Three: Embrace Ambiguous Faith
For a growing number of thinking Christians in the modern era, large swaths of traditional beliefs are no longer viable. For people in this camp, maintaining faith requires a large dose of theological modesty and a high tolerance for theological ambiguity. Several examples follow.
- Embracing ambiguity about “God the Father Almighty.” Most Christians across the globe still affirm belief in a personal, all-powerful, loving God who providentially cares for the world, supernaturally intervenes, answers prayers, and performs miracles. But for a growing number of people, these ancient concepts about God have become difficult if not impossible to believe. In the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong, “The heart cannot worship what the mind cannot believe.” In response, some of them have given up belief in God altogether. Others, however, have developed a nontraditional alternative . Instead of conceptualizing God as a humanlike deity, they envision God as the evolutionary life force, energy force, and love force of the universe. They resonate with Paul Tillich’s concept of “The Ground of Being,” and the words of Acts 17 that affirm faith in the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” In short, they are comfortable embracing great mystery and ambiguity about God.
- Embracing ambiguity about “Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” Most Christians today still believe in a divine Christ who was born of a virgin, walked on water, healed the blind, physically rose from the dead, and ascended into the sky. But a growing number of people are no longer confident about these beliefs. They know the Gospels were written four to seven decades after Jesus’s death during a prescientific age with a massive supernatural bias. They suspect many of the miraculous claims about Jesus became exaggerated over time and then became enshrined in fourth-century creeds. However, in spite of their skepticism about the divine Christ, they feel affinity for the human Jesus. They believe in his love, service, compassion, inclusion, grace, and call to justice. Regardless of their doubts about orthodox Christology, they still find significant meaning and purpose following the example, spirit, and teachings of Jesus. Some of them follow Jesus outside the constraints of organized religion, while others remain in the church.
- Embracing ambiguity about “the Holy Catholic Church.” It’s no secret that organized religion is in steep decline in the Western world. However, that doesn’t mean all the people leaving church are disinterested in spiritual matters. They’ve just given up on institutional religion for many good reasons. Of course, plenty of people still remain in church, in spite of its significant failures and flaws. And some are seeking to create new faith communities more in tune with the modern ethos, including an embrace of theological and ecclesiastical ambiguity. Since the Christian faith is a “we” faith rather than a “me” faith, fresh expressions of Christian community are sorely needed in the modern world. A Doubter’s Parish reader recently asked me, “Where are you finding church these days?” My honest response was that my most meaningful experience of “church” is found in a group of six mainline retired clergypersons who gather regularly to honestly, transparently, and vulnerably discuss spiritual matters and support one another on the journey. After the pandemic is over, I’ll have to make a decision about my relationship with a traditional congregation. But one way or another, I’ll find a way to experience Christian community, even if I need to do so through nontraditional means.
From the beginning of the Christian movement, every generation has felt the need to rethink and reconstruct faith in ways that make sense to them during their particular time in history. For many of us, at this moment in time, that means (1) rejecting unhealthy faith, (2) affirming essential faith, and (3) embracing ambiguous faith. And the journey continues.