AN AMERICAN BISHOP’S SEARCH FOR A SPACE-AGE GOD (Feb, 1966)

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AN AMERICAN BISHOP’S SEARCH FOR A SPACE-AGE GOD

BY CHRISTOPHER S. WREN

LAST September, the Protestant Episcopal Bishop of California left on sabbatical for Cambridge University in England “to find . out what I really do believe.” The Rt. Rev. James A. Pike —m had just been cleared by his fellow bishops of heresy—the third such charge against him since 1961.

What he believes is hardly typical of a bishop. “I’ve jettisoned the Trinity, the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation,” he told Look in his Cambridge flat recently. These were the heresy accusations of last fall. Bishop Pike also rejects the accepted views of God and prayer. “Everything I’m saying has a question mark at the end,” he explains. Even his musings will be controversial when he comes home.

Jim Pike, as he likes to introduce himself, has spent a ministry rubbing people’s noses in their own piety. As dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, he celebrated a memorial service for Sigmund Freud on the atheist’s hundredth birthday. To the “negative fan mail” that flooded in, he replied: “Freud is not an atheist today, and besides, all truth is God’s truth; we should be grateful for it.”

In San Francisco, Bishop Pike pushed civil rights so hard in 1964 that contributions to his diocese dropped off. He has tried and failed to have Episcopal women ordained. No sooner did he arrive in Britain than he came under fire for letting one of his California priests assist at a Scottish Presbyterian Church in Edinburgh.

Ex-naval officer and ex-lawyer, ex-Roman Catholic and ex-agnostic, Bishop Pike believes in saying what he feels. (It got him deported from Rhodesia last December, only hours after he had arrived on a visit.) He argues so fast that he begins a new sentence without bothering to finish the old one. He beats against comfortable orthodoxy like a hummingbird against a windowpane.

The church keeps giving elaborate answers to questions no longer asked, says Bishop Pike. Christians today don’t take their religion as a package deal. Weaned on space satellites, antibiotics and computers, they can’t think about miracles or mysteries. Orthodoxy, he feels, forces them into hypocrisy or drives them out of church altogether.

He spoke out in 1964 in A Time for Christian Candor: “There are many people within the fold who have not really grasped the heart of the Christian message because they are bogged down by too many doctrines . . . customs, symbols and other traditions, with no sense of differentiation between the relative essentiality and nonessentiality of the respective items. For such Christians, the Faith has an air of unreality, and they have become rather numb to the whole thing.”

Convinced that the old-time religion was keeping more people out than in, Bishop Pike began housecleaning. He took authority not from the church, but from St. Paul’s second epistle to the Christians in Corinth: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the ex- cellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” Bishop Pike saw his task in salvaging the treasure from its outworn vessels.

His conclusion that the Trinity, Virgin Birth and Incarnation might be obsolete prompted the latest heresy charge, of which he was acquitted. The Episcopal Church has a flexible tolerance. But Bishop Pike had tired of repairing the theological furniture. He recalls thinking at the time, “If they only knew what I had in my briefcase.”

It was a manuscript, dictated like his other books onto tape, then typed and annotated in the Bishop’s tiny handwriting. But it was more radical. Bishop Pike took it alone: to England and crammed it with last-minute footnotes. What Is This Treasure?, to be published next month by Harper & Row, tries to recast the identity of Christ.

What does a maverick bishop believe? Space-age clerics, like space-age physicists, work in a shorthand that is hard to reduce to a few plain sentences. And Bishop Pike doesn’t expect to know all the answers. “If I could create a perfect image of God,” he told Look, “it would be blasphemous, for it would be another idolatry.”

Bishop Pike, like the late theologian Paul Tillich, believes God is not a Supreme Beins: over other beings, but Being itself: “God is not a passive God. He is like steam under a lid, and a person is the lid.

“I don’t believe in a God that tinkers,” he says, in dismissing special prayer. “God is there all right. He’s not wishful thinking, but we’vegeot to get open to Him. God is a moving, dynamic reality, not a passive one. Sometimes, He gets through in spite of our notions.

“That is why I reject the special Providence for Israel in the Old Testament, that they were supposed to knock the Canaanites out of Israel like we knocked the Mexicans out of California.

“God creates and breaks through us. and preeminently in Jesus Christ. I’ve abandoned ship on the Trinity because all we affirm in three persons is going on all the time, and we can say this is God.”

The Trinity—the concept of God as Father, Son and Holy Ghost-is misleading, says Bishop Pike. “Whatever one can affirm of the Trinity, one can affirm of God. The things we say of the Holy Ghost in our creed, the Old Testament says: ‘Thus spake the Lord God.’ One doesn’t want to lose sight of the prophetic in speaking of the Lord God.”

Bishop Pike argues that the Trinity, set forth by Greek-influenced Christians of the fourth century, becomes confused with polytheism. He quips: “The Moslems offer one God and three wives; we offer three Gods and one wife. No wonder Christianity is losing in Africa.”

The inquiry has inevitably led Bishop Pike to the enigma of Christ Himself. He sees Him not as Jesus among the lilies in a stained-glass window, but as a country carpenter turned itinerant preacher for three powerful years. Jesus, he says, bucked the existing power structure, pulled off a civil disobedience demonstration on Palm Sunday, and ended up a condemned criminal, with nails driven through His wrists and hoisted naked on a cross for execution. Yet even in very human suffering, Jesus was able to let God break forth as Love.

The earliest Gospel, St. Mark, did not mention the Virgin Birth, and St. Paul regarded Jesus as born of a woman under the law. Bishop Pike also notes the genealogy from David to Jesus comes down through Joseph. “If this is true,” he says, “the literal Virgin Birth isn’t.”

That Jesus was man, though so perfect that God adopted Him, is the heresy of “adoptionism,” for it denies that Jesus was God Incarnate. “My position,” says Bishop Pike, “is not even that traditional, for adoptionism presupposes a special act of God. I’ve rejected that God does special things. Jesus freely adopted the Messianic role. God was able to flow through because Jesus was more open.”

God didn’t choose Christ, says Bishop Pike. Christ chose God.

Then how does Jesus differ from other good but mortal men, like Socrates or Buddha? The Bishop’s distinction is in degree, not kind: “Jesus is still unique because God who breaks through Him is unique, and Jesus is the standard by which all others are measured.”

Of the Resurrection, Bishop Pike says, “The real Christ is not a revived corpse.” Though the Risen Christ was seen by different people on different occasions, whether He was actually there is not as important as whether His followers sensed He was there. “The phenomenon is real, though you can’t confirm the apparition is out there. St. Paul experienced a vision too. It was a reality, but you can’t affirm that Christ was there. You know only that the experience was there.”

Put so starkly, Bishop Pike’s conclusions would seem to place him in a far-out theological orbit. He isn’t. Though bold for a bishop, he is several laps behind the fast-wheeling pace of modern Protestant thought. That is why he went to England—to try to catch up.

Cambridge University, where Bishop Pike is staying, is the womb of what has been proclaimed—and condemned—as the “new theology.” (“I’m sorry my theological education was such that, at 52, I should be a novice,” he says.) Its innovators, mainly Cambridge dons, are reacting to a society throttled by secularism. Only ten percent of the English attend church. The working man, lost when the established church turned its back on him in the Industrial Revolution, prefers soccer or the “telly” on Sunday. Confirmations have dropped by a quarter in the last few years, candidates for ordination, by over a third in the last year. The 14,500 Anglican churches are more often relics of the past than signposts to the future. The everyday world, once reverent, has turned not hostile, only uninterested. Bishop Pike sees a forecast of what can happen in the United States.

For seven years, the new theology stayed inside damp university walls. The theologians talked to each other, and few others heard. In 1963, the Rt. Rev. John A. T. Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, while in bed with a slipped disk, spilled it out into a book, Honest to God.

“Our image of God must go!” headlined the London Observer. Conventional clerics, shocked by such effrontery, suggested Bishop Robinson, a former Cambridge don, might go instead. Rival theologians flogged him as unoriginal and, in long-winded polemics, “muddled.” Only the public, amazed that a bishop would voice its doubts, approved. His thin paperback has sold nearly a million copies.

Bishop Robinson’s wife Ruth remembers, “People on one hand were saying: ‘This is new. Why hasn’t the church said this before?’ The theologians on the other were saying: ‘The church has been saying this all along.’ ”

Bishop Robinson blended the thought of three modern German theologians. Paul Tillich had said God was Being itself, in fact, “the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being.”

Rudolf Bultmann had urged “demythologization,” abandoning the imagery of the Gospel writers to find what they were really saying, “freeing the Word of God from a bygone world view.” , Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an anti-Nazi pastor hanged by the Gestapo just before the war ended, said in letters smuggled from prison: “Man has learned to cope with all questions of importance without recourse to God as a working hypothesis. … As in the scientific field, so in human affairs, generally what we call God is being more and more edged out of life, losing more and more ground.” Bonhoeffer proposed “religionless Christianity,” a paradox he never lived to clarify.

Bishop Robinson summed it all up. He said that God was not up there or out there, “a sophisticated version of the Old Man in the sky,” but was the basis of our very existence. He did not believe Jesus “was God for a limited period, taking part in a charade.. .. God dressed up like Father Christmas.” Jesus was human, and because He lived and suffered for others, taught Christians to live and suffer for others too.

Bishop Pike had nearly finished writing A Time for Christian Candor when he read Honest to God. Impressed by its frankness, he threw out all but his first chapter and started again, this time, without hedging. Bishop Pike was delighted to be tagged “that American Bishop of Woolwich” in England. He has periodically visited Bishop Robinson at his London home. As unanswered ecclesiastical mail piles up in a washbasin on the study floor, the Bishop of Woolwich patiently listens to each new speculation of his visitor from California.

Bishop Robinson makes a distinction between himself and his guest: “We’re moving in the same direction, but from different points. Bishop Pike says: ‘Why don’t we say what we mean, in creed, language, and liturgy? Why don’t we cut down on the packaging?’ “I am asking, ‘What do we really mean by what we say? When we use a word like God, what realities are we talking about?’ I feel we don’t know what we mean. We are being compelled to an agonizing reappraisal. My concern is to ask what is most real to us in our experience, what is the ground of our relationships? It is much more about the fundamental reality of these words than the images and language we use to define them that my questions have arisen.”

Man’s anxiety about God has taken a radical new tack. The Rev. Canon Hugh Montefiore, vicar of Great St. Mary’s Church, where Bishop Pike attends in Cambridge, says: “The old theology starts with the divinity of Christ and tries to explain how God became man. The new theology starts with the only indisputable fact—that Christ was man—and tries to show how God acted through Him uniquely.”

A London publisher says more bluntly: “The new theology implies a rejection of any picture of God as Father, with no clear picture of God replacing the old. God, as encountered, is the God inside people. In Christian terms, this amounts to the abandonment of teaching about God the Father, a reemphasis of teaching about God as Holy Spirit, and a great uncertainty about the identity of Jesus.”

To orthodox Christians, it sounds like a plot to reduce the church to rubble. They resent someone rearranging the most private corner of their lives. “It’s not true,” says Bishop Pike, “that if we reform the church, we do away with the external beauty. Tradition should be de-absolutized, but not scrapped. We’re in a two-thousand-year continuity, and that which expresses continuity is invaluable. In a state of flux on doctrine, continuity of tradition has even more value.”

The idiom of the new theologians has scraped the misunderstanding raw. Bishop Robinson says: “The ordinary man thinks ‘myth’ is unreal. In Honest to God, I was using ‘myth’ in a more technical sense of theology as a profound form of truth, not to say it isn’t true, but to say it is profoundly true at a deeper level than mere occurrence. A myth is using traditional poetic language to depict a profound truth.

“Take the Virgin Birth. I should have thought the purpose of this was to ask ‘Who was this man Jesus?’ The New Testament writers tried to cite what was for them the significance of this event. And they expressed this as a miraculous intervention of a supernatural power into the course of history. The literal detail of something like the Virgin Birth is secondary. You have to ask ‘What were the writers trying to say?’ I fully subscribe to what they were trying to say.”

The outcry might have been worse. Says Canon Montefiore: “The clergy have little idea how lightly the laity sit with orthodoxy.” Bishop Pike thinks his support has come from “the inside of the edge of the church and the outside of the edge.” He defines the insiders as those who felt hypocritical, but hesitated to voice their objections. The outsiders wanted Christianity, but couldn’t buy the whole package.

Together, they challenge the church to join in the world. The Rev. Ernest Southcutt, provost of Southwark Cathedral, in Bishop Robinson’s diocese, says: “I don’t think God is very interested in church attendance. The church’s business isn’t to tuck God into bed once a week. The trouble with the church is it has made God small.”

Bishop Robinson predicts: “The structure of the church as a religious club will inevitably find itself being squeezed out. If the efforts of the church are put into keeping it, it will survive as a museum piece, doomed to frustration. As the walls begin to fall, we’ll discover whether this will find us exposed for death or stripped for action.

“I welcome this. It is in fact a liberation. It will be a great release of power and energy. Not many people today are interested in a religious club. I’m more concerned that the church be there as a witness of love and service at the points of real need, and be agents of reconciliation doing the work of the servant church in the world.”

The search for a space-age God was bound to lead Bishop Pike to kindred thought. Next month, he will be bringing it all back home. The prospect will not please his critics, who feel he wields his massive episcopal ring like brass knuckles. (“You know,” he jokes, “a lot of them were never interested in the Trinity until I got involved in civil rights.”) Bishop Pike could well tempt another heresy hearing, but he looks pallid beside the “God is dead” theologians who have caught attention in his absence. Their premise: that God has ceased to be real, having died in Christ, and we must get along without Him. The Bishop is still orthodox enough to recoil at their “Christocentric atheism.”

When you discard beliefs, Bishop Pike knows, you may end up with unbelief: “Once you’ve gone through, you ask if something is true at all. You come full circle and find yourself talking and acting like the person who didn’t have these beliefs in the first place. I’m not abandoning anything until I’m sure.”

But in accepting less, Bishop Pike thinks, you may also find yourself believing in more. “This kind of thinking has enabled quite a few people to stay in the ministry,” he says. “You can get out of the church, but you lose the chance to work creatively from within.”

The thinkers of the new theology share little but their faith. They chart their own courses past the boundaries of orthodoxy. “We are in a period where new structures and the forms they will take are by no means clear,” suggests Bishop Robinson. “One has to be open to the Spirit and respond without any knowledge where it will lead and whether it will provide a new pattern. If one knew the answers, the search would be bogus. If one follows the truth, one must trust it.”

“Anything we create will not be God,” Bishop Pike adds. “Not the finality. But that which lies beyond it will be.” As he puzzles it, he remythologizes a little: “We will have seen through a glass darkly. We will have reached out and touched the face of the Almighty.”

6 comments
  1. Sean O'Brien says: August 14, 20085:16 am

    Wow. I knew that the Episcopal church had been disintegrating for quite a while, but I didn’t realize it started this long ago. Hard to imagine a church that allowed a man in such a prominent position of authority to continue preaching things so blatently against their beliefs for so long. It must have made for some strained conversation with Reverend King, an orthodox Christian clergyman.

  2. Charlene says: August 14, 20086:02 am

    It’s hard to have a firm church foundation when your church exists basically because Henry VIII couldn’t keep it in his pants.

  3. Jerry says: August 14, 20087:22 am

    I wish American churches today had even an ounce of Bishop Pike’s honesty and intellectual courage. Submitting to a rigid orthodoxy does not make one a better or more ethical person.

  4. Michael Patrick says: August 15, 20087:24 am

    I just wonder why you would want to remain a Bishop of something you really belive in any more….. good pension plan?

  5. Sean O'Brien says: August 22, 20085:08 am

    Submitting to a system of rules which one has determined, through thought and study, to be the correct answers to how the universe is run, Who is in charge, and how we should respond to that does make one an ethical person, assuming that those rules are correct.

  6. james clements says: August 24, 20087:07 pm

    Please un-subscribe me from your mailing list. I cannot find the link to do so on your website.
    thank you

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