A New Dark Age Begins
John Shelby Spong
July 27th, 2005
Several years ago, in a column about the harassment, removal and silencing of Roman Catholic scholars like Hans
Kung, Leonardo Boff, Charles Curran and Edward Schillebeeckx by that church, I referred to the leader of this
"Inquisitional" mentality, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as "the pit bull of the Vatican." Little did I realize that this church's
leadership would elect this man Pope and install him as Benedict XVI. That action sent a signal throughout the world
that we are entering a new "Dark Age." On many fronts this mentality, which has been building inside religion for at
least forty years, has finally broken into our full awareness.
We saw it in a document published a few years ago, written by the same Cardinal Ratzinger, in which the Vatican
declared there to be only one true religion, namely Christianity, and only one true expression of Christianity, namely
the Roman Catholic Church. The gentle Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), who opened that church to the accents of the
20th Century, must have turned in his grave. Ratzinger's document went on to counsel Roman Catholic ecumenical
representatives never to refer to other Christian bodies as "sister" churches for that implied some tacit recognition of
their legitimacy. This attitude, the hallmark of authoritarian anti-intellectualism that historically has produced religious
wars and persecution, is now installed in the Papacy itself. It signals the dimming of reason and suggests that Catholic
Christianity has returned to the mindset of the Inquisition.
Rome is not alone. A Danish Lutheran bishop has recently removed one of its most creative clergy, Pastor Thorkild
Grosboell, from his parish near Copenhagen by charging him with heresy. To charge one with heresy implies that the
charging authority possesses the truth of God. Another Danish bishop, seeing this as a public relations disaster,
sought to smooth over the conflict by offering Pastor Grosboell another chance to resume his ministry, but only after
a public interrogation in which the bishop read parts of the Creed developed in the fourth century and demanded that
Pastor Grosboell declare, with a "yes" or "no" answer that he believes that these words have captured the eternal
truth of God. That is "Dark Age" theology.
We see the same mentality almost every day when various evangelical spokespersons, such as Jerry Falwell, Pat
Robertson or R. Albert Mohler go on national television to express their opinion that the words of Scripture are the
inerrant word of God. Their comments are frequently in the service of opposing evolution. All of these gentlemen
either ignore the last two hundred years of biblical scholarship or they are not aware of it. Their rhetoric does little
more than give aid and comfort to uninformed members of local school boards in the less well educated and less
cosmopolitan parts of our nation who thrive on a lack of knowledge and who want to carry us back intellectually to the
1920's, so that once again we might put learning on trial and convict it as we did in the Scopes Trial in Tennessee.
One wonders when the historicity of Adam and Eve might begin to be defended again by the current ecclesiastical
mentality. The Bible is so often used to perfume both ignorance and prejudice.
If one had any doubt about this developing religious darkness, an op-ed piece that appeared on July 7, 2005 in the
New York Times removed any lingering questions. This article, written by the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna,
Christoph Schoenborn, suggested that evolution was "not compatible with Catholic doctrine." This author, no
secondary figure in the Roman Catholic Church, served as the editor of the official 1992 Catechism of that Church.
Earlier in his career this man had actually defended the literal historicity of the Book of Genesis. Adam and Eve here
we come! Though the Vatican did not officially authorize this editorial, it is well known that Cardinal Schoenborn and
Benedict XVI are very close friends and in that Church such events are never unplanned or accidental.
Cardinal Schoenborn's argument was intriguing as he first tried to undermine John Paul II's words spoken in 1996 that
"Evolution is more than a theory." Secondly, he sought to drive a wedge between what he called the Theory of
Evolution articulated by Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution that is held by those he called "The
Neo-Darwinians." According to the Cardinal, the distinction was that evolution "in the sense of a common ancestry
might be true," but evolution as "an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection is not."
Perhaps he does not recognize that the full title of Charles Darwin's 1859 book was "The Origin of the Species by
Natural Selection." The implication was that anything that disagrees with or challenges the true faith of the Catholic
Church could not be truth ipso facto. That is the typical claim found in all imperialistic religious systems. Clearly an
alliance is emerging between the Vatican and the "creationist" wing of Protestant fundamentalism.
Evolution, let it be said clearly, is no longer a debatable theory. DNA evidence has made it very clear that all of life is
deeply and historically interconnected. Medical science assumes the truth of evolution in all that it does. The vast
majority of the scientific world no longer salutes the primitive idea that a supernatural deity who lives above the sky
has guided evolution to the glorious end of humankind and that it will go no further. Yet frightened religious leaders
now interpret that to be an assault on their image of God. These leaders are unable or unwilling to embrace the fact
that God for most Christians is a human creation that got frozen in a pre-modern form. The religious anxiety of our
day stems from the fact that this definition of God is dying. Conservative Roman Catholics and fundamentalist
Protestants appear to know that in the depths of their souls and so they seek to use authority in the task of divine
artificial respiration. Former Christians also appear to know that much more consciously. That is why the fastest
growing religious movement in the western world is the Church Alumni Association.
The crisis to which these data point is real. I, for one, am not interested in being a part of a Christian Church that has
to defend its faith against the insights of new knowledge. Any God who has to be protected from new truth cannot
possibly be God. If the only alternative to the traditional view of God, that portrayed the deity as a supernatural
theistic Being who invades the world periodically in miraculous ways to accomplish the divine purpose, is to say that
there is no God, then I find that a healthier solution. That, however, is not the only alternative. I seek the God beyond
the gods of men and women, beyond the gods of church and religious systems. I seek the God who is not bound by
those antiquated creeds and dogmas that were hammered out in a world that no longer exists. If Cardinal Schoenborn
wants to assert that anything that conflicts with Catholic doctrine cannot be true, or if Protestants insist that all truth is
ultimately defined by the inerrant words of a 3000 year old book, then we are back to the time when the Christian
Church condemned Galileo. Christianity lost that battle and it will lose this one as it marches headlong into the
marginalized existence that leads to an inevitable death.
What the fundamentalists, both Catholic and Protestant, do not appear to embrace is that evolution by natural
selection is only the tip of the iceberg that threatens their narrowly defined religious system. Once the Darwinian
principle of evolving life is fully understood, the old idea of an original creation that is both good and finished is
doomed. The post-Darwinian scientific world almost unanimously views creation as an ongoing, unfinished process.
Therefore the suggestion that there ever was a "fall into sin," becomes nonsense, and the doctrine of 'original sin'
collapses. The story of Jesus as God's invasion of the world to rescue us from this fall becomes inoperative. One
cannot fall from a perfection one never had. One cannot be rescued from a fall that never happened. One cannot be
restored to a status one has never possessed. Inevitably, as this theological house of cards falls, we become aware
that the traditional way of understanding baptism as the washing away the sin of the fall, or the Eucharist as a
reenactment of the moment when the divine rescue was accomplished on the cross also become meaningless. The
idea that salvation was accomplished in the shedding of Jesus' blood becomes barbaric. Neither Cardinal Schoenborn
nor the Protestant "creationists" appear to understand any of these implications in their shallow analysis of Darwinian
thought. It is a sad day for enlightened people when the leaders of major parts of the Christian Church seek to
reassert Catholic authority or scriptural certainty by herding us back into the ignorance of yesterday.
The Christian Church has a choice to make. It will either engage the thought of the contemporary world or it will die.
The early signs are that this Pope and the Church he represents have decided to cast their lot with the mindless
fundamentalism, which is today the public voice of Protestant Christianity. This means that they are willing to allow
their children to be shielded from truth and insight because the God they worship is simply too small to be God for the
21st century. A Christian Church ushering in a new Dark Age has no future.
This frightening specter becomes very real when we recognize that this is the kind of Christianity encouraged by
members of the Bush administration. They too are engaged in an assault on both intelligence and learning. They
deny global warming, they oppose stem cell research, they are closed-mindedness about end of life issues, they
express uninformed negativity about homosexual persons and they attempt to blur the line between church and state.
The clouds are darkening. The fundamentalists are now allied with the Vatican and the present administration has
given this mentality credibility by embracing it. Is it any wonder that I fear for the Christianity that has long nurtured me
and for the country that I love.
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