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Postmodern Liberalism: The Rev. Dr. John Shelby Spong
opposition to gay equality is religious.
We may conduct much of our liberation efforts in the political sphere or
even the ‘cultural’ sphere, but always undergirding those and slowing our
progress is the moral/religious sphere.
If we could hasten the pace of change there, our overall progress would
accelerate – in fact, it would be assured.[i]
Paul Varnell, Gay Columnist
If we perform
the radical surgery [on Christianity] that is required, not only will certain
traditional formulations of faith fall by the wayside, but also much of the
presumed content of Christianity, and rightly so. Our only consolation is that if we do not intervene radically and
soon the patient will die.[ii]
Thomas Sheehan, professor of religious studies, Stanford University
The Christian homosexual position when carefully
examined can be exposed for what it is at its very core: an attack upon the
integrity, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture, which for the Christian
church is an attack upon the very nature of our Holy God.[iii]
of the more prolific, if not controversial, liberal pro-gay theologians has
been the Episcopalian Bishop, John Shelby Spong. Although defining himself “first and foremost as a Christian
believer” who abhors “creedal” religions, he offers the following
I do not define God as a
supernatural being. I do not believe in
a deity who can help a nation win a war, intervene to cure a love one’s
sickness…Since I do not see God as a being, I cannot interpret Jesus as an
earthly incarnation of this supernatural deity…I do not believe that this Jesus
could or did in any literal way raise the dead, [or] overcome a medically
diagnosed paralysis…I do not believe that Jesus entered this world by miracle
of a virgin birth or that virgin births occur anywhere accept in mythology….I
do not believe that the experience Christians celebrate at Easter was the
physical resuscitation of the three-days-dead body of Jesus, nor do I believe
that anyone literally talked with Jesus after the resurrection moment…I do not
believe that Jesus, at the end of his earthly sojourn, returned to God by
ascending in any literal sense into a heaven located somewhere above the sky….I
do not believe that this Jesus founded a church or that he established an
ecclesiastical hierarchy beginning with twelve apostles and enduring to this
day….I do not believe that human beings are born in sin and that, unless
baptized or somehow saved, they will for ever be banished from God’s
presence….I regard the church’s traditional exclusion of women from positions
of leadership to be not a sacred tradition but a manifestation of the sin of
patriarchy….I do not believe that homosexual people are abnormal, mentally
sick, or morally depraved. Furthermore,
I regard any sacred text that suggests otherwise to be wrong and
ill-informed. My study has led me to
the conclusion that sexuality itself, including all sexual orientation, is
morally neutral and as such can be lived out either positively or
negatively. I regard the spectrum of
human sexual experience to be broad indeed.
On that spectrum, some percentage of the human population is at all
times oriented toward people of their own gender. This is simply the way life is.
I cannot imagine being part of a church that discriminates against gay
and lesbian people on the basis of their being….I do not believe that all
Christian ethics have been inscribed either on tablets of stone or in pages of
the Christian scriptures and are therefore set for all time.” I do not believe that the Bible is the ‘word
of God’ in any literal sense. I do not
regard it as the primary source of divine revelation. I do not believe that God dictated it or even inspired its
production in its entirety. I see the
Bible as a human book mixing the profound wisdom of sages through the centuries
with limitations of human perceptions of reality at a particular time in
in Spong’s line of thinking, is “a definition of God which has journeyed
with self-conscious human beings from primitive animism to complex modern
monotheism.” Moreover, says Spong:
every one of its evolving forms, theism has functioned as it was originally
designed to do. Theism was born as a
human coping device, created by traumatized self-conscious creatures to enable
them to deal with the anxiety of self-awareness. It was designed to discover or to postulate the existence of a
powerful divine ally in the quest for human survival and in the process to
assert both a purpose to existence and a meaning to life.[v]
human beings even accentuated our concept of God’s power by developing a
language of worship in which we groveled, as slaves might be expected to do
before a master….We acknowledged ourselves as deserving only condemnation, for
we are those ‘Who stand condemned before the throne of grace,’ clearly unable
to please our deity without divine aid.[vi]
Eastern, Masonic and Gnostic shadows are evident in the direction Spong
looks. He says, “Perhaps we can cast
the Christian experience in nonthesistic images. It is certainly worth a try.” He writes:
Many sources in human history encourage us to explore this
new avenue. The Buddhist tradition, for
example, is not a theistic religion.
Nowhere in classical Buddhism do the Buddhists posit the existence of an
external deity. When Buddhists
experience bliss or transcendence in meditation, they do not attribute this to
contact with the supernatural. They
assume that such states are natural to humanity and can be learned by anyone
who lives right and learns the proper spiritual techniques. Experiencing bliss involves emptying the
self so as to transcend the limits of both subjectivity and objectivity to be
one with Being itself, which Buddhists describe as timeless and uncreated. However, it hardly would be proper to assert
that the Buddhists of the world are atheists, unless atheism can be called
While visiting in China some years ago,…I stayed to pray in
that temple with its statues of Buddha and its magnificent and striking colors,
which called one into an intensity of consciousness. Of course I prayed to the God of my Christian experience, but in
the calm of that place…I was sure that I was on holy ground…Exploring the
levels of meaning that can be found in an Eastern faith tradition can help us
learn to see through such limited words as theism. It also reveals that our ancient Western definitions of God do
not exhaust the reality of God.[vii]
sees theism, “with its supernatural God ready to take care of us,” as a
delusion that “encourages worshipers to remain in a state of passive
dependency.” When he writes and
speaks publicly, he hopes to demonstrate, something deeply invigorating about
discovering a new maturity and realizing that God can be approached,
experienced, and entered in a radically different way, “…not a deity who is
‘a being,’ not even if we claim for God the status of the highest being.” He speaks rather of God, “as the ground
and Source of All Being” and therefore the presence that calls “to step
beyond every boundary,” inside which he has vainly been seeking dependent
security, and now “into the fullness of life with all of its exhilarating
insecurities.”[viii] Scoffs Spong:
for example, assert that God is a Holy Trinity, as if human beings could figure
out who or what God is. The Holy
Trinity is not now and never has been a description of the being of
God…Twenty-first century Christians must now come to understand that God does not
inhabit creeds or theological doctrines shaped with human words.[ix]
what source does Spong draw such conviction?
Spong agrees with his theological ally, Robert Funk, founder of the
Jesus Seminar, when Funk demands “Jesus
needs a demotion.”[x] Says Spong:
unusual and gifted scholar, Funk gives voice in this suggestion to the fact
that the theistic framework in which Jesus has been captured is no longer
either compelling or believable in our generation. For Christians not to face that fact is to be out of touch with
reality. However, like so many critics
of supernaturalism and theistic thinking, Funk also seems to assume that the
only alternative to supernaturalism is naturalism and the removal from Jesus of
any divine claim. If removing the
theistic interpretive material from around Jesus constitutes the demotion that
Funk feels to be necessary, than I am all for it. But the Jesus who remains when Funk has completed his task looks
to me not like a demoted Jesus but a court-martialed Jesus, a destroyed Jesus.
This approach never addresses the question of what there was about Jesus’ life
that caused the theistic interpretations to be thought appropriate in the first
to criticism, Spong contends he “seeks a Christianity that preserves
divinity but not supernatural theism.”
result will be a humanity so deeply and powerfully drawn that the artificially
imposed barrier between the human and the divine will fade and we can recognize
that these two words – human and divine – do not point to separate entities;
rather, they are like two poles on a continuum that appear to be separate and
distinct, yet when one travels from one to other, the discovery is made that
their shadows blend into and invade each other….I seek in Jesus a human being
who nonetheless makes known, visible, and compelling the Ground of All Being.[xii]
there was a profound experience that caused the theistic God-interpretation to
be laid upon Jesus. ‘What was it?’ [He warns his audience]: ‘The reformation I
am proposing may well kill Christianity.
This is a real and enormous risk.
The greater risk, which motivates me, however, is the realization that a
refusal to enter the reformation will certainly kill Christianity. Even though, by traveling the route I am
proposing, we may not arrive at a living Christian future, I see no
aim at the heart of orthodox Christianity, Spong argues:
liturgical interpretation of Jesus’ death has resulted in a fetish in
Christianity connected with the saving blood of Jesus….Believers sing of being
‘washed in the blood’ or ‘saved by the blood’ of Jesus….I have always found
these images to be repulsive.[xiv]
deepest problem created for the doctrine of the atonement, according to Spong,
is not even this, but the fact that “we” are post-Darwinian men and women. He writes:
‘as post-Darwinians’ we are in possession of a very different image of the
origins of human life; and it’s quite obvious that the Darwinian view, not the
traditional Christian myth, has prevailed in the life of our civilization. The
post-Darwinian world also recognizes that there never was a perfect man or a
perfect woman who fell into sin in an act of disobedience. That account is not true either historically
or metaphorically. Human beings are
emerging creatures; they are a work in progress. Neither perfect nor fallen, they are simply incomplete.[xv]
a separate path from Christ, Spong calls:
in invitation to enter the ‘New Being’ about which Tillich speaks – a humanity
without barriers, a humanity without the defensive claims of tribal fear, a
transformed humanity so full and so free that God is perceived to be present in
stretch the boundaries once more. To
the extent that the Buddha, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Krishna, Mohammed,
Confucius, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Genoa, Hildegrad of Bingen, Rosa
Parks, Florence Nightengale, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Buber, Thich Nhat Hanhn,
Dag Hammarskjöld, or any other holy person brings life, love, and being to
another, then to that degree that person is to me the word of God
incarnate. No fence can be placed
around the Being of God. The suggestion
that Jesus is of a different kind of substance and therefore different from
every other human being in kind instead of in degree will ultimately have to be
abandoned. Then the realization will
surely begin to dawn that to perceive Jesus as different from others only in
degree is to open all people to divine potential found in the
Christ-figure. It is to invite all
people to step into power of living fully, loving wastefully, and having the
courage to be all that any one of us can be – a self-whole, free, real, and
expanding, a participant in a humanity without boundaries.[xvii]
cannot miss a huge cognitive discrepancy, after all that has been said. Spong proclaims, “Jesus will always be
for me the standard by which I measure the God-presence of any other. I can view him in no other way.” However, after reading many of his books, I
must again ask what is the basis for his conviction, indeed, opinion? [Note: This question should be directed at
all liberal-minded Christians.]
First, he says he has no
positive experiential witness. Rather,
after a self-declared futile life waiting for contact with the “supernatural
Christian God,” in resignation he chose to slide into a worldview described
by science, secularism, Darwinism and Gnostic cognitions. He explains his descent:
I have always wanted to be a person of prayer. I have yearned to have that sense of
immediate contact with the divine. Yet
for longer than I have been willing to admit, even to myself, prayers addressed
to an external supreme being have had little or no meaning for me. My first presumption was that this
represented the lack of some essential aspect in my own spiritual development
and that all I needed to do was work harder and harder to overcome this
deficiency….In the course of my life I have read every prayer manual or book on
prayer on which I could lay my hands.
My personal library has a shelf dedicated to once-beckoning, but now
discarded books on prayer. I created a
prayer corner in my study…I once even printed a cross on my watch face so that
every time I glanced to establish the time of the day I would be reminded to
send a prayer darting heavenward to keep me connected with the God whom I hoped
might be an external compass point by which my life would be guided. My great ambition was to be one who lived in
a significant awareness of the divine and could thus know the peace that comes
from communing with God, the heavenly one.
I really did believe that discipline and perseverance would lead me to
…despite this sometimes frenzied, but at least persistent,
effort I could not make prayer, as it has been traditionally understood, have
meaning for me. The reason, I now
believe, was not my spiritual ineptitude, but rather that the God to whom I had
been taught to pray was in fact fading from my view. I suppose that I would not have been able to admit that even if I
had been conscious of it. This was
before I was ready to enter exile….Before one is able to raise new theological
questions, one must become convinced enough of the bankruptcy of old
theological solutions. I, for example,
had to come to the conclusion that I could never again pray in the same manner
that my ancestors in faith believed they could pray. ‘Yet there must be another way,’ I would say to myself again and
deduction, Spong has declared all Christian prayer deception, trivializing the
experiences witnessed in Scripture and throughout history. Jesus Himself maintained a continuous
relationship with God through prayer.
To whom did He pray? Or was He deceived too? Although, upholding Christ as his standard, Spong offers
no witness to a personal relationship with God through the saving grace of
Jesus Christ. Now he is convinced that
God is impersonal and Jesus is not divine.
So why does Spong wish to claim membership in a Christian camp which he
would level? A possible answer comes from
how he describes his exile:
As a believer, I am not prepared to deny the reality of the
underlying Christian experience…So while claiming to be a believer, and still
asserting my deeply held commitment to Jesus as Lord and Christ, I also
recognize that I live in a state of exile from the presuppositions of my own
religious past. I am exiled from the
literal understandings that shaped the creed at its creation. I am exiled from the worldview in which the
creed was formed. The only thing I know
to do in this moment of Christian history is to enter this exile, to feel its
anxiety and discomfort, but to continue to be a believer. That is now my self-definition. I am a believer who increasingly lives in
exile from the traditional way in which Christianity has heretofore been
proclaimed. ‘A believer in exile’ is a
new status in religious circles, but I am convinced that countless numbers of
people who either still inhabit religious institutions or who did will resonate
with that designation.
I see in this moment of Christian history a new vocation for
me as a religious leader and a new vocation for the Christian Church in all its
manifestations. That vocation is to
legitimize the questions, the probings, and, in whatever form, the faith of the
believer in exile…I think the time has come for the Church to invite its people
into a frightening journey into the mystery of God and to stop proclaiming that
somehow the truth of God is still bound by either our literal scriptures or our
A savior who restores us to our pre-fallen status is
therefore pre-Darwinian superstition and post-Darwinian nonsense….the Jesus
portrayed in the creedal statement ‘as one who, for us and for our salvation,
came down from heaven simply no longer communicates to our world. Those concepts must be uprooted and
that personal experience is not the basis for Spong’s claim to Christ, what can
be left but an image taken from the Scriptural record? Yet, he sees the Bible as “a human book
mixing the profound wisdom of sages through the centuries with limitations of
human perceptions of reality at a particular time.” How does he sift the sage advice from the
chaff and false testimony? If Christ,
the disciples, and the Apostle Paul, received a large dose of the so-called
“God presence,” who is Spong to overturn their recorded Scripture? [I confess I must hold my tongue and
“calmly” take you through the next few paragraphs] I believe Rev. Spong has no defendable basis to alter
Christianity, only a deep-rooted wish to liberate unrepentant gays, bisexuals,
lesbians, transsexuals and queers from Christian judgment.
On one hand Spong argues that the Gospel authors did
not know what is now known of the “homosexual orientation.” In this line of thinking he refutes the
Apostle Paul’s assertion in 2 Timothy 3:16 that Scripture is God inspired. If this is not inappropriate enough, Spong
actually advocates that Paul himself was a closet homosexual. The thorn in Paul’s side, according to
Spong, is not epilepsy, nor poor eye sight, but rather a sexual desire for
other men. In Rescuing The Bible From Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning
of Scripture, he writes:
The apostles, including Paul, had been sent to proclaim this
faith and none else…He drew, through love and grace, all people to himself as
he restored them to themselves, building finally that inclusive community in
which there is neither Jew nor gentile, bond nor free, male nor female. For all are one in Christ, whose love can
embrace even outcasts in society, even the one pronounced depraved and called
an abomination, the one who by the mandate of the Law stood under the sentence
This is the way my thesis would suggest that the gospel of
Jesus Christ was experienced by Paul, the man from Tarsus. To me it is a beautiful idea that a
homosexual male, scorned then as well as now, living with both the
self-judgment and social judgments that a fearful society has so often
unknowingly pronounced upon the very being of its citizens, could nonetheless,
not in spite of this but because of this, be one who would define grace for
Christian people. For two thousand
years of Christian history this Pauline definition has been at the very core of
the Christian experience. Grace was the
love of God, an unconditional love that loved Paul just as he was. A rigidly controlled gay male, I believe,
taught the Christian church what the love of God means and what, therefore,
Christ means as God’s agent. Finally,
it was a gay male, tortured and rejected, who came to understand what
resurrection means as God’s vindicating act…[xxii]
When people consider scandalous this idea that a homosexual
male might have made the grace of God clear to the church, I reply, ‘Yes, it is
scandalous, but is that not precisely how the God of the Bible seems to
work?’ It is as scandalous as the idea
that the Messiah could be crucified as a common criminal. It is as scandalous as the idea that a birth
without acknowledged paternity could inaugurate the life that made known to us
the love and grace of God. It also
suggests that heterosexual people might be deeply indebted to homosexual people
for many spiritual gifts that arise out of the very being of their unique life
experience. Indeed, I have been the
recipient of just that kind of gift from the gay and lesbian people who have
shared with me their journeys with God through Christ.[xxiii]
Here is the crux of one problem with regard to the
liberal stand on homosexuality and the associated struggle for truth. If we assume Paul was not gay, the orthodox
analysis of his writings on homosexuality stands. On the other hand, accepting for an instant, Spong’s thesis, one
must raise two issues. First, if Paul
knew personally of gay desire, he would therefore have intimate understanding
of the nature that we label today as “homosexual orientation.” Why would the Holy Spirit give him such
conviction against homosexual acts and thoughts, if homosexuality was to be
understood as a gift from God. Given a
premise that Paul was gay, the argument that his writings on sexuality and
immorality need re-interpretation because he did not have sufficient knowledge
of the subject matter seems incredibly unwise.
Second, he refers to his thorn as “a messenger of Satan”:
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these
surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a
messenger of Satan, to torment me.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient
for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)
In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul writes of handing a
sexually immoral man over to Satan, so that his “sinful nature may be destroyed
and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.”
To expel him was to put him out in the devil’s territory, so that being
officially ostracized from the church would cause such anguish that he would
repent and forsake his wicked ways.
Another view is that Satan is allowed to bring physical affliction on
the man, which would bring him to repentance.
In this latter context, if homosexual orientation is to be seen as God’s
will, it needs to be seen as sinful behavior, for which repentance can bring
the power and saving grace of Jesus Christ.
Paul sees Christ as the source of power over this “thorn;” this
“messenger of Satan.”
To the orthodox Christian, Spong has insulted the
third person of the Trinity, by claiming the Holy Spirit was ignorant of the
human homosexual condition. Joseph
Gudel, writing in the Christian Research Journal, underscores this
ludicrous to believe that the Creator of the universe, in guiding the biblical
authors, was ignorant concerning the things we know about homosexuality through
modern biology, psychology, sociology, and so forth. To deny scriptural statements about homosexuality on these
grounds is to completely deny God’s superintendence in the authorship of
Lutheran pastor who had attended one of Spong’s lectures wrote to him:
suggesting that evil is not real? That
it does not have an existence in and of itself? You do not seem to me to take the reality of evil seriously
enough. The old story that you seem
eager to reject, said that evil was so real and so deep that only God could
root it out. That story went on to say
that even for God it was costly, demanding the death of the divine son. You may well dismiss that story as
mythological theistic thinking, but you also appear to have dismissed the
reality of human evil. I do not believe
that human life can be defined adequately until human evil is faced.[xxv]
acknowledged that “the biggest weakness in liberal theological thought is
that it minimizes the human capacity for evil.”[xxvi] However, he explained his
views drawing on the Darwinian foundations of his faith. Humankind is a “work-in-progress” and
until the process is finished evil will abound. He writes:
I start with
the recognition that the cruelest things we human beings do to each other are
direct byproducts of our struggle to survive the evolutionary process, and
these actions are what drive us toward the distorted understanding that winning
is the road to fulfillment.[xxvii]
the wrong committed upon homosexuals, Spong writes:
The fear in
the noncomprehending early days of human history, then, was that if
homosexuality were ever culturally accepted, it might prove attractive to a
large number of people, threatening marriage, weakening society, and thus
diminishing the potential for the tribe’s survival.[xxviii]
using his “work-in-progress” model in application to Nazi persecution of Jews,
Southern lynch mobs and riots at sports matches, Spong concedes he has no
answers for the evil of AIDS:
There is yet
another form of destructive behavior that I have experienced that I am not able
to explain by reference to the human urge for survival. I recall being the guest speaker at the
Metropolitan Community Church’s Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, a mostly
gay and lesbian congregation. There I
listened to their male choral group, ‘The Positive Singers,’ perform memorably
and masterfully. The name of this group
comes from the fact that every one of its members is HIV-positive, victimized
by a potent virus that has terrorized the homosexual community. From where comes this evil? It surely cannot be located in our human
incompleteness. Everything I know about
both science and medicine tells me that these young gay adults did not choose
their sexual orientation, and yet because they dared to practice their being in
what was for them a natural way, they now live under a cloud that may
ultimately be a death sentence. What
sense does life make when what is a natural drive for people toward fulfillment
or wholeness becomes the avenue of death for some?[xxix]
These are the experiences, the realities that make evil real
and yet do not fit easily into my definition, which locates evil primarily in
the incompleteness of humanity….How do we understand these things that seem to
attack even our survival? [xxx]
Here Spong has neither faced the “scientific” ecology
of the gay lifestyle, nor the “Scriptural” consequences of breaking the
Leviticus Codes. In concluding his
thinking on evil, Spong decided he had no final answers:
Perhaps there will someday be a completely adequate
explanation for evil, but we have not found it.[xxxi]
In closing this article on the arch activist for
liberal theology, the following summarizes Spong’s boundariless faith:
Those who once called themselves Catholic and Protestant,
orthodox and heretic, liberal and evangelical, Jew and Muslim, Buddhist and
Hindu, will all find a place in the ecclesia of the future….In the ecclesia of
tomorrow we will also find a way to take note of other special moments in life
that have not in the past been thought of in the same breath as liturgy. I think of the decision, difficult as it
surely is, to abort a fetus or to terminate a life on artificial support
systems. I believe that both of these
human decisions, when made responsibly, should be the subject of a liturgical act. So should the many other moments in life
that cry out for a liturgical rite to wrap them into the meaning of
worship. These would include such
things as…divorce…loss of employment…retirement…[xxxii]
Spong asks himself a rhetorical question and then
why does it matter that we reformulate the tenets of traditional Christianity
or attempt to redefine God in non-theistic terms? What is the answer to the ‘So what?’ question from my critical
We reimage God to keep the world from enduring the pain of a
continuing reliance on a theistic deity….That same theistic God is quoted by
people who want to impose their definitions of homosexuality or their values in
the right-to-life movement on everyone else.
So it matters how one thinks of God.[xxxiii]
In 1999, the New York chapter of a humanist organization presented Reverend Doctor John Shelby Spong with their “Humanist of the Year” award.[xxxiv]
[i] Joe Dallas, A Strong Delusion: Confronting the “Gay Christian” Movement (Eugene Oregon: Harvest House, 1996), p.29.
[ii] John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity For a New World (San Franciso: Harher, 2001), p.57.
[iii] Dallas, p.171.
[iv] Spong, A New Christianity For a New World, pp.3-6.
[v] Ibid., p.49.
[vi] Ibid., p.51.
[vii]John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (San Francisco: Harper, 1998),pp.57 and 58.
[viii] Spong, A New Christianity For a New World, pp.59 and 60.
[ix] Ibid., p.61.
[x] Ibid., p.82.
[xi] Ibid., p.83.
[xii] Ibid., p.84.
[xiii] Ibid., p.115.
[xiv] Ibid., p.123.
[xv] Ibid., pp.123 and 124.
[xvi] Ibid., p.133.
[xvii] Ibid., p.147.
[xviii] Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, p.136.
[xix] Ibid., p.137.
[xx] Ibid., pp.20 and 21.
[xxi] Ibid., p.99.
[xxii] John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), p.125.
[xxiii] Ibid, p.126.
[xxiv] Dallas, p.174.
[xxv] Spong, A New Christianity For a New World, p.149.
[xxvi] Ibid., p.148.
[xxvii] Ibid., pp.153 and 154.
[xxviii] Ibid., p.157.
[xxix] Ibid., p.164.
[xxx] Ibid., p.165.
[xxxii] Ibid., pp.214 and 215.
[xxxiii] Ibid., p.230.
[xxxiv] Spong, A New Christianity For a New World, p.150