The Church's Crisis of Identity

by Stephen M. Smith

The Church faces a crisis of identity possibly unmatched since the second century. An alternative worldview contends with classical orthodoxy for the mind and heart of our Church. This alternative worldview is the source of most of the causes and proposals that threaten to divide the Episcopal Church.

The Church's crisis of identity is rooted in a contest between "dualistic" theism and religious monism. The two worldviews are engaged on many fronts or issues, among them the questions of the authority of Scripture and the uniqueness of Christ, sexual morality, and the nature of language for God.


A worldview is a vision that defines reality, identity, morality, and destiny. In other words, it deals with the ultimate issues: it asks who or what God is, who we are, what are we to do, and where are we going.

In the terms of this four-fold outline of worldviews, classical theism affirms a transcendent Creator who created the world "from nothing" and Jesus as the incarnate Son of God who died for sinners and rose again (reality), a valued but fallen humanity (identity), a transcendent, transcultural moral structure (morality), and a hope of Heaven and danger of Hell (destiny).

Religious monism affirms an eternal unity of creator with creation and Jesus as at most the best perfectly full-illed human (reality), a humanity not fallen but ignorant and unfulfilled (identity), a relativistic, situational ethic (morality), and a hope of self-actualization (destiny).

Central to any worldview is the act of naming. Names express worldviews and worldviews determine names. Naming shapes an event, phenomena, or practice by determining its meaning and value.

Is homosexuality, for example, an "alternative" along the "spectrum" of sexual expressions? Is cohabitation a "natural" response to "new social realities"? Is abortion a "private" act of women exercising their "reproductive freedom"? Are those who see abortion as the killing of human life pro-life or anti-choice or anti-abortion? Is the Fatherhood of God a patriarchal, sexist projection or the gift of divine self-naming? Naming shapes our perception of reality. Much is thus at stake.

There is a profound, albeit mysterious, connection between language and worldview. In the present conflict in the Church, the right or authority or power to name God is crucial. Different worldviews generate different names. These determine whether the God of the Bible is believed to be good or bad, desirable or undesirable, relevant or irrelevant.

The monist worldview will eventually require a renaming of God to bring the names used in prayer, worship, and theology into line with the God of monism. Four books - Bishop J. A. T. Robinson's Honest to God, Bishop John Spong's Honest Prayer and Living in Sin?, and Professor Sallie McFague's Models of God - are widely influential presentations of the monist perspective and demonstrate the magnitude of the clash of worldviews.

Honest to God

Though the monist movement is an ancient one, let us begin with its entry into the consciousness of average churchpeople. In 1963, Bishop J. A. T. Robinson published Honest To God, perhaps the most widely read work of theology in our century. Three years after publication, it had sold nearly one million copies. The book is quite attractive because the bishop sought to reach the modern skeptic. He was honest enough to ask the "big question": is the orthodox worldview a necessary component of Christianity?

He pulled no punches, He claimed that the orthodox "way of thinking is the greatest obstacle to an intelligent faith" and that something "should [be] put in its place." He claimed that belief in a transcendent God is "a projection, an idol" which was no longer persuasive or even believable. In its place, Robinson constructed a religious worldview recognizably Christian yet without a transcendent God.

From Rudolph Bultmann he got his hermeneutical strategy: to see behind the Bible's "prescientiric mythology" (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus in space and time) to existential truths of self-understanding. From Paul Tillich he got his alternative worldview. God, called the "ground of being," is no longer to be conceived of as transcendent, as "wholly other" from the creation, but monistically as "the 'ecstatic' character of this world." Thus God is "encountered in his fullness only between man and man. . . . God, the unconditional, is to be found only in, with and under the conditional relations of this life."

In the terms of our outline of worldviews, God is "the ground of being" and Jesus is a "man for others" and a "window into Being" (reality), but he cannot be God the Son except in the sense that we all are sons of God (identity). Certainly there is a morality, indeed a "new morality" that we can all intuit, but we have been "delivered" from transcendent, transcultural norms (morality). Heaven and Hell are merely metaphors for knowledge or ignorance of our union with Being (destiny).

Some naturalist and skeptical philosophers understood Robinson's "paradigm shift" more clearly then he did. Alasdair Maclntyre claimed that Bishop Robinson was an atheist with a thin (and desperate) coating of religious verbiage. Logical Positivist A. J. Ayer observed that Robinson "is coming round to a position a number of us have held for some time."

Yet when Archbishop Michael Ramsey noted that Robinson "appears to reject the concept of a personal God as expressed in the Bible and the Creed," Robinson responded by saying, "I reject emphatically any suggestion that what I have written is contrary to the Catholic Faith"! (It is difficult to be sure if he understood the radical nature of his own project.)

Honest to God gave the Church a persuasive, popular case for religious monism legitimated by a scholarly bishop. Let us go back to the question of naming. If Robinson is correct, then the Trinitarian names are products of an ancient, now unbelievable projection and God must be renamed, even though he himself remained comfortable with the Biblical language. If he is correct, we cannot believe that God has named Himself. We must name God. Theology is still projection, but now it has become self-conscious projection.

It is the theologians' task to do the naming. No longer will they simply clarify the faith given in Bible and Creeds and apply it to the challenges of the age. Now they have the truly significant task of naming God, of constructing visions of reality that can aid us in our social projects or our quests for "wholeness." The only price monism asks is that one set aside the "archaic" concept of a transcendent God who names and reveals Himself.

Even better, no longer need we obey a transcendent morality and meaning. To stay in the Church, all we need do is to find some connection with the "historical Jesus," if only as the first example of the truly selfactualized person we may all one day become.

Honest Prayer

Taken together, Bishops John Robinson and John Spong form an historical parable of religious monism working itself out in the life of the Church. Bishop Spong began to implement the monist vision which Bishop Robinson had introduced.

Bishop Spong published Honest Prayer in 1973, expressing many of the same ideas as Honest to God. According to him, God is greater than but not separate from the world and Heaven is God's earthly presence. God "does not live in some other worldly place called heaven," He is "the Ground of Being. . . . the Depth of Life." He "is not a superperson . . . but he is the Power of Love. He is the Meaning of Life." What is prayer? "The life of prayer is for me the responsibility to open myself in love to the transcendent in everyone I meet."

Clear enough? This is a consistent monist redefinition of prayer. Prayer is a "quality" relationship with another, not a relationship with a transcendent, personal CreatorRedeemer God. The bishop's final comments on the Lord's Prayer are a remarkable exercise in monist redefinition. To hallow God's name is to become "our deepest and truest selves." To affirm God's glory is to be "fully alive." The Lord's Prayer becomes almost a soliloquy for selfactualization.

Recently the Bishop took a brief sabbatical at Harvard engaging "the challenge of science." fie returned with this new creed: "I believe that the word 'God' points to that which is ultimately real. I believe that humanity itself represents the emerging of consciousness within this many billion year old universe. I believe that this emerging consciousness will someday be seen as nothing less than that which we now call spirit and divinity."

Earlier I noted that a monist within the Church had simply to tie his view to Jesus to justify the claim to be Christian. The bishop's next line is, "I believe that Jesus, whom I call Lord, is that unique life where humanity and divinity flow together." Since he also believes that "divinity" flows through all of us, Jesus can be no more than our guru, the exemplar of God-consciousness or divinity for western Christians (other people may have other exemplars).

Here again a monist vision renames God, as the "ultimately real," and humanity, as the divine incarnation of evolutionary consciousness.

Living in Sin?

Bishop Spong's recent book Living in Sin? shows what monism looks like as applied to sexual ethics. Because God does not speak an eternal, transcendent word to us, he argues that we cannot reverse the "tide of history" and so must have the "courage" to stabilize the new situation by affirming what people are going to do with or without the Church's blessing. Any sexual behavior is allowable if it is "mutual" and leads us to a more authentic existence. The Church is thus encouraged to bless people who live together in trial liaisons, homosexual unions, and the elderly who live together rather than marry and lose part of their Social Security payments.

But this is only the beginning. The bishop wishes not only to revise sexual morality to meet changed circumstances, but drastically revise "the authority of Scripture and the role of both Scripture and the church." He attempts to show why the Scriptures are a thin reed to rely upon for guidance in these areas. First, the Scriptures are awash with contradictions, but the second and real problem is that the Bible is a patriarchal projection created by males to serve their interests and help them dominate women and indeed all of creation. The Bishop even contends that "every page" of the Bible is permeated with an "antifemale bias."

"Human beings always form their understanding of God out of their own values, needs, and self-understanding. We do make God in our own image. We deify whatever we perceive to be the source of security and awe." Here again is Bishop Robinson's assertion that classical Christian theism is a projection, but now, when understood in the light of radical feminism, the projection is declared not just irrelevant but evil.

But the bishop has good news. We are leaving the dark night of sexism and patriarchy and entering a new age with a new consciousness: a return to monism, mutuality, and the affirmation that all is good. Indeed the very function of the bishop's Christ is to "make that goodness [of creation] real and apparent. That is what salvation is all about."

In the Bible, this self-contradictory, sexist projection, written by ill informed and biased males, there is nevertheless (!) a Word behind the twisted word: All is good. All is united to the "ground of all being." Jesus connects us with our "original goodness," giving us "courage" to be all we are created to be. Now we can follow the Bishop, who is "willing to live fully, freely, and openly, scaling the barriers that inhibit life."

In Bishop Robinson we saw the proposal of a new, monist worldview without a clear understanding of the changes it would require. In Bishop Spong we see the application of the monistic worldview to prayer, the creed, and sexual morality, which clearly lead to the renaming of God.

Models of God

In Honest to God we saw the classic theistic worldview abolished and replaced with a monistic worldview. Calling God Father is still acceptable if one knows what all that sort of language "really means" as we move beyond such primitive anthropomorphic projections.

In Living in Sin? the theistic projection with its language is no longer seen as benign or irrelevant -- it now represents the male will to power. But Bishop Spong did not make the next move and call the Church to rename God, although he tells us that part of a bishop's job description is "defining God." lie made no explicit linguistic proposals. But if God has not named Himself, we must do the naming. Naming is merely the linguistic component of the theological task of constructing alternative worldviews and models.

This is what leading feminist theologian Sallie McFague, a Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt University, argues for in her recent prize-winning book Models of God. She argues for a worldview which she describes as "monist," in which "the world does not exist outside or apart from God." She affirms "the basic oneness of all reality, including the unity of God and the world." The cosmos is God's "body."

Since the old model of God and its supporting worldview is "monarchical" and hierarchical, she argues that it is the cause of oppression. To encourage that way of thinking is "pernicious." Classical theism is "idolatrous" and "opposed to life."

Thus she would not only overthrow classical theism ir, favor of nionism (as did Bishops Robinson and Spong) but advance beyond it to a new, monistic language. To move people to act, personal metaphors are needed; Bishops Robinson and Spong's impersonal language for God as "the ground of being" will not do. McFague proposes we call God ,'mother, lover and friend," a more appropriate "metaphor" for a divinity monastically identified with the cosmos.

Other theological ideas and doctrines must also be reconceptualized. Jesus is now "a paradigm of God's way with the world." He was "radically egalitarian," a religious monist " opposed to hierarchies and dualisms." The cosmos is "God's body" which is "bodied forth from God, it is expressive of God's very being," in principle eternally begotten of God, God of God, of one being with the Mother. McFague logically concludes that the best "metaphor" for God is Mother.

In McFague's proposal, we see the logical outworking in language of the monist vision, a radical proposal beyond what Bishops Robinson and Spong were willing or able to propose.

Monism come of age

The worldviews clashing in the Church differ radically. Monism is quite simply a total rejection of classical theism.

To use our outline of worldviews, in monism, God is most properly named Mother, in whose body and being we share and who does not, cannot speak a word to us from outside ourselves. If lie enters into the matter at all, Jesus is merely the first or best example of someone in tune with the cosmos and the Mother (reality).

My identity is as an incarnation of the God-cosmos connection at the level of consciousness. Morality is relative in that it is essentially selfderived as that which enhances the fulfillment of the self or cosmos. Our destiny is that we will be "remembered" by "the ground of being" or perhaps live on in some undefined form in process to fuller selfactualization,

The monist has to see the Bible's exclusive references to a personal Triune God as either pre-scientific and mythological or an oppressive, patriarchal projection. Biblical faith is thus either naive or evil.

The ultimate tragedy of the monist challenge to classical orthodoxy is that the entire enterprise is selfdefeating. How can intelligent men and women really take Christianity seriously when its fundamental reality is a vague, undefined, impersonal "force" or "ground" that is being "named" by a skeptical elite in such a way as to advance their social and moral projects?

Intelligent skeptics will look at all monist revisionism much the way A. J. Ayer did decades ago and rightly observe, "You are finally coming around. Just be a bit more honest and admit you're an atheist like me.

The worldview clash

In two areas in the life of the Church the worldview clash is especially evident. Sexual ethics is the most public. From a monist perspective, sex is not only good but part of the quest for self-fulfillment, provided the relations are "mutual" and not exploitative. As then-Roman Catholic monist Matthew Fox declares, "love beds are altars" since sex is "an encounter with the living God."

The other area in which the clash of worldviews is evident is worship and liturgy. Language expresses worldview. Change the worldview and the language must follow. Change the language and a new worldview can enter into the life of the Church.

In the Book of Common Prayer the "dualistic" worldview of classical Christian theism is expressed consistently and coherently. It celebrates a living God who "created everything that is, [by whose] will they were created and have their being." The Nicene Creed, which must be said at every Sunday service, celebrates "the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen."

To the monist in the Episcopal Church -- and there are many "soft" monists for every "hard" monist like Bishop Spong -- this liturgy is a serious hindrance, and must be replaced. In 1987, the Episcopal Standing Liturgical Commission published Liturgical Texts for Evaluation. In its Eucharist for "The Nurturing God" we were clearly on the way to a monist liturgy. Trinitarian language was dropped wherever possible and male pronouns for God and hierarchical terms like Lord were rigorously excluded.

One option for replacing the traditional opening acclamation to the Eucharist, "Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" was "Blessed be the One, Holy, and Living God." In creation, God's Spirit "issued forth and brooded over the deep, bringing to birth heaven and earth."

Perhaps we cannot claim that in these texts we have an explicit monism, but the sharp reduction of traditional Trinitarian language and terms like the "birth" of the cosmos from the Spirit of God are congenial only with that worldview. These texts certainly seem to be an attempt to create a monistic liturgy and ultimately to enshrine the monist worldview as the worship of the Church, where it will have the deepest effect.

Two Profound Results

For the Church this battle of worldviews has two profound results. The first is that no Church infected by monism can be a real community. Community is built upon a shared language and a shared mission, which are generated by a shared worldview. If different worldviews are allowed equal status, in the name of inclusiveness or pluralism or provisionality, such shared meanings and mission cannot arise. This is the cause of great pain for those of us who constantly experience it.

Without community, a Church can only be a collection of different interest or advocacy groups with much deep misunderstanding and conflict. It cannot be a communion. Since worldviews are "imperialistic," in that they claim to be true (even when they claim we can know no truth), the Church will be a place of contention, pain, and confusion.

The second result is that with the monistic alternative widely established in the denominational leadership and in the clergy through seminary indoctrination, and in the worship of at least some parishes, we will see more battles of the two worldviews. There will be movements to write a new creed, since the Nicene Creed defends and reflects the theistic Trinitarian worldview. We will see new hermencutical proposals to get at the monistic "Word behind the words" and indeed proposals to change or expand the canon of Scripture.

There will be proposals for uniting not only with other Churches, but with other religions, since their faiths are so similar. There will be attempts to show that monism is the true basis for all enlightened ecological action. Finally, since monism is really a form of nature religion, some may attempt to make Christianity a nature religion.

A Crisis of Identity

The crisis of identity reflected in the issues now dividing the Church is rooted in the clash of two irreconcilable worldviews.

Either God has named Himself and given us a true vision of reality that answers life's ultimate questions and sets us on a path to real virtue and eternal life or we really don't know what to make of the ground of being and must name he/she/it as best we can. To understand the struggle in sexual morality and liturgical language for God is to understand this worldview clash.

The issue is finally who or Who is at the center of our world. If we are, then the divine must be named in impersonal or in feminine terms, and we must continually rename he/she/it as we "scale barriers" in our quest to "be all that we can be."

If God is, the Triune transcendent Creator Redeemer has named Himself once for all and given us a great Story to enter, a morality to live out in real faithfulness, and a real hope to press towards. We are back on Mt. Carmel with Elijah.

Dr. Smith is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. This article is reprinted from the "Joys of Orthodoxy" issue of Trinity's quarterly magazine Mission & Ministry. It is a shortened version of an essay that appeared in Speaking the Christian God: The Triune God and the Challenge of Feminism, (Eerdmans).