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Introduction to religious change

Quotes, ethics and truth,
dynamics of change, examples

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Key quotations (repeated from the religious change menu)

bullet"We are in a transition between a new consciousness and old definitions. The new consciousness will win but as with every human struggle to emerge from ignorance, there will be casualties long after the issue is decided." Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong speaking about same-sex marriage. 1
bullet"On each of these issues, at one point the church had near unanimity of opinion and then, over time and painfully, changed its mind to almost the exact opposite view." Jack Rogers, referring to Christian beliefs on human slavery, roles of women, and homosexuality 2

The need for revised ethical policies and understanding of truth:

Western countries have experienced Increasingly rapid social change since before the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century CE. Challenges to traditional Christian beliefs have arisen from other world religions, anti-religious sources, secular forces, and from science -- including astronomy, medicine, social sciences, geology, biology, human sexuality research, biblical research, etc. As each new ethical or religious "hot topic" comes to the fore, Christian denominations are forced to respond to the challenge. Liberal denominations tend be the first to change; mainline faith groups follow; conservative groups are often the last to alter. The process sometimes takes a century or more to complete on each topic.

Faith groups have developed many new policies or modified old ones over the past 200 years. For example:

bulletA century and a half ago, the main "hot religious topic" of the day was human human slavery. One illustration of this was a debate in 1844 among the American Baptists: should slave owners be eligible to be appointed as missionaries? Many Baptists in the southern US thought that they should, and broke away to form the Southern Baptist Convention. Many other denominations split on north-south lines as various Christian denominations took either an abolitionist or pro-slavery stance.
bulletFifteen years later, in 1859, Charles Darwin published "Origin of Species." This eventually touched off a firestorm of controversy over the authority of the book of Genesis in the Bible. The debate between evolution and creation science seemed to be temporarily settled in 1925 after the John Scopes trial. However, it simply went underground. It has since been reactivated, with the addition of a new belief system based on the existence of a supernatural entity or entities: intelligent design.
bulletStarting in the late 19th century, major ethical topics of the day were related to the status of women:
bulletDo they actually have souls?
bulletShould they be allowed to receive anesthesia during childbirth in apparent violation of a curse from God in Genesis?
bulletAre they really "persons"?
bulletShould they be able to vote?
bulletShould they be allowed to join various professions?
bulletEventually, should they be considered for positions of power within churches, including being eligible for ordination as clergy and consecration as bishops (in those denominations that have bishops.)?

A quarter century ago, in late 1969-JUN, a Stonewall riot in a New York bar caused "the hairpin drop heard around the world" and triggered a concerted drive for equal rights by GLBTs -- gays. lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals, -- including the right of same-sex couples to marry, the right to be considered for ordination, and have their unions recognized by church ceremonies. 1 Religions have responded in various ways.

The dynamics of religious change:

As noted in the above quotation by Jack Rogers, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), at least some Christian denominations have extensively modified or even reversed their teachings on a wide variety of social topics including Sabbath observance, human slavery, racial segregation, the role and status of women, divorce, remarriage, equal rights for homosexuals, etc. They have also altered their teachings on such theological matters as salvation, the afterlife, Hell, end of the world, etc. It is important that people understand how Christian denominations have been able to change their teachings over time.

Many religious do not readily accept change. In the larger world religions, religious beliefs are grounded in a holy book -- e.g. the Torah for Jews, the Holy Bible for Christians, the Qur'an for Muslims, etc. Religious beliefs evolve only as the interpretation of their holy book(s) change. However, many people resist change; they specifically seek out faith groups because they need constancy in life -- an fixed anchor that they can count on. Sometimes change involves great agony, internal conflict, and even schism and violence.

If the general public realized how how extensively faith groups have changed and even reversed their teachings over time, they might develop a different understanding of currently "hot" religious topics. They might anticipate future changes and be able to adapt more easily to them.

In contrast to religiously-based beliefs, all scientific beliefs are open to falsification. Scientists know that their beliefs only approximate reality. Their beliefs are grounded in observations. New data is continually becoming available. Scientists expect and aggressively search out change. Fame and grants come to those scientists who are on the cutting edge of new discoveries. As a result, change comes rapidly.

Some examples of religious change:

Many denominations pride themselves in maintaining "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" 3 unchanged to the present day. In spite of this, major changes in beliefs and practices have occurred over the past two centuries :

bulletPremillennialism, declared a heresy in ancient times, was reintroduced in the 19th century, and is now the most popular belief about end times among conservative Protestants.
bulletThe idea of the rapture also first surfaced in the 19th century.  It involves the beliefs that saved individuals -- both dead and alive -- rising from the Earth to meet Jesus in the sky.
bulletMost denominations have abandoned the teaching of Hell as a place of eternal torture as described in the Bible. When mentioned at all today, it is often presented as being in a state of isolation from God.
bulletHuman slavery was once widely considered totally compatible with the Bible, and a normal, natural cultural institution. It is now recognized as a profound evil by essentially all religions.
bulletOrdination of qualified female candidates was rarely allowed in the past. Severe restrictions on women's roles in the church, family and society have largely been lifted by liberal, mainline, and some conservative denominations.
bulletHomosexuals were once universally despised as sexual perverts and criminals for whom the appropriate response was the death penalty. Today, some liberal denominations have accepted gays and lesbians for ordination, have fought instances of discrimination against them, have fought for the right of loving, committed same-sex couples to marry, have blessed their unions and have married them. Mainline denominations are now conducting sometimes destructive debates over these issues and may well experience schism. Conservative denominations have generally not begun the transition and have no intention to start anytime soon.

"Dr. Phil" often says that the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. If this is true, then Christian denominations may well go through the same agonizing processes to change their beliefs and practices about gender, sexual orientation and gender identity as they did during the 19th century over human slavery. They may try to hold the line on change. But that leads to a loss of the church youth and damage to the denomination's future.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Bishop Spong Q & A on Origins of Homosexuality," 2006-MAY-31 weekly newsletter. You can subscribe at: http://secure.agoramedia.com/
  2. Jack Rogers, "Jesus, the Bible, and homosexuality: Explode the myths, heal the church," Westminister John Knox Press, (2006), Page 17. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  3. From Jude 1:3: "Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints." (King James Version).Joan Ryan, "A partial confession from the pope," San Francisco Chronicle, 2000-MAR-14, at: http://www.sfgate.com/

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Copyright © 2006 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-MAY-29
Latest update: 2009-MAY-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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