Christianity is basically an epic mistake . . . and the time is right to correct it

In 2020, during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, I re-worked an earlier version of the piece you’ll find below. (Looking back at my blogger stats, I see that I published the first version of the piece in June 2018). But, for various reasons, I eventually decided to take it down in order to rework it. It was whilst reworking it yet again a couple of weeks ago that I realised its opening insight, gratefully borrowed (and slightly adapted) from a piece by Thomas Sheehan, had a place in my short “Thought for the Day” a couple of weeks ago
Anyway, having avoided catching COVID-19 throughout the official period of the pandemic, I have now been laid low by it along with Susanna, my wife, and there is no way I’m going to be able to conduct the service at the Cambridge Unitarian Church this Sunday. So, this has left me free, in those moments when I have felt up to it, to finish tinkering with this (still, highly imperfect) piece. 
Given the findings of the 2021 British Census published this week which reveal that England and Wales are now minority Christian countries, this piece seems, potentially at least, to have more public traction/relevance than it did when I first wrote it. 
(Click on this link to hear a recorded version of the following piece)


 Christianity is basically an epic mistake . . . and the time is right to correct it
“What comes after Christianity?” A God who gently but firmly pushes you away from himself in the direction of each other
This piece draws on the interpretation of Mark 1:15 found in a lecture called “What comes after Christianity?”  (delivered on April 15, 2012, at the First Congregational Church, San Jose, California) by the New Testament scholar, philosopher and interpreter of Heidegger, Thomas Sheehan. I should add that throughout his lecture Sheehan calls Jesus by his Jewish name, Yeshua, in order to keep us as far away as possible from our Christian pre-conceptions of him.

So, Sheehan begins by enumerating the verse from Mark as follows:

First, a twofold offer:

          The time is fulfilled.
          The kingdom of God is at hand.

Then a twofold response:

          Believe in the good news.

Sheehan feels this translation is not only “shopworn” but also “essentially incorrect” so here is how he re-presents it to us.

Instead of “the time is fulfilled” he thinks it is better to hear “Time’s up! The time of decision is now.” Sheehan reminds us that the Greek word in use for “time” is here kairos which has the sense of “a time fraught with significance, a turning point in time.”

OK, but what is it Sheehan thinks Yeshua is asking us to be deciding about? Well, it is something to do with the “kingdom of God” which is, somehow, “at hand.”  

However, before going on I think it is important here to return to a point I often make in my own ministry in connection with the word “God” and the problem many people have with it. It’s helpful to recall the mid-twentieth century Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman’s (1884-1975) words that:

“Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however, unknown, does certainly exist” (Religious Experience and Scientific Method [1926], Southern Illinois University Press, 1954, p. 9).

It is also helpful to recall the religious naturalist Michael Dowd’s way of putting the matter who insists that God should not be thought of as “an invisible friend or otherworldly entity” but, instead, as “a mythic personification of reality” — to borrow a phrase from the poet Wallace Stevens, a “supreme fiction”.

Minimally understood, then, the word “God” can be understood as simply gesturing poetically to that “Something”, that “Reality” upon which all things are aways-already dependent and which within our Greco-Roman, Judaeo-Christian influenced culture has been given various mythic forms over the millennia.

With this point made we can say with perhaps a cleaner heart and fuller belief (pathos) than a moment ago that God’s kingdom (Reality’s kingdom) would be a place where God’s power (Reality’s power) holds and Yeshua is saying that this power is available to us now. Importantly, however, this power of God is not to be conceived as coercive, with God “beating on his chest, calling attention to his almightiness so as to cow his enemies” but, instead, the kingdom of God — the power of God — “is entirely for human beings” and, we would add in our more ecologically attuned age, the kingdom of God is not just for human beings but for all beings/entities. Sheehan feels that here Yeshua is attempting to bring about nothing less than an existential new creation.

Next there follow the two conditions Yeshua thinks we must fulfil in order to receive this divine empowerment.

In the traditional religious language of our old Bibles, we are first told we must “Repent” but, as Sheehan makes clear, this “is a capital mistranslation.” In our culture, the word has become perhaps irredeemably tied to feelings of remorse and regret and to the need to reproach ourselves for what we have done or failed to do. But as I have pointed out to you in other pieces, the underlying Greek word is metanoeite. This is constructed from two elements. The first is meta, a word which indicates the idea of “turning completely around” (think of its use in a word like metamorphosis); the second is noē which “refers to the way you see the world, how you think and act.” Sheehan sums this up as follows:

Metanoeite does not mean “repent of your sins” and beat your breast. Rather it means: radically change who you are and how you live. It tells us to make a complete about-face in our lives and to start heading in a different direction.”

From the other teachings and general example of Yeshua we get a real, if general, sense of what that looks like — at the very least it is to live a life wholly dedicated to justice and mercy and the well-being of the other. In connection with this point, it’s worth noting that in his 1986 book called “The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God became Christianity” Sheehan reminds us that in Yeshua’s teaching: “The doctrine of the kingdom meant that henceforth and forever God was present only in and as one’s neighbour” and this, in turn, meant that Yeshua “dissolved the fanciful speculations of apocalyptic eschatology into the call to justice and charity.”

And so now we come to the final part of Yeshua’s fourfold offer and response, which has traditionally been translated as “believe in the good news.” Sheehan re-presents this to us as: “Bet your life on it.” He thinks this is a better translation because the Greek word which underlies the English translation “believe” (pistis) has the sense of “casting in your lot existentially with a radical new way of living — trusting, without evidence, that it is the best way live.”

In a moment I’ll return to Sheehan’s point about “trusting, without evidence” but, firstly let’s sum up Yeshua’s twofold offer and the twofold response as Sheehan is encouraging us to understand it:
          Time’s up!
          God’s empowerment is yours for the asking.
          Change how you are and how you live.
          Bet your life on it.

But what about Sheehan’s point concerning the need to trust, without evidence? This suggestion is liable to put a cat among the pigeons in a rational church tradition like the one to which I belong which values good evidence highly. Well, Sheehan is here pointing to something more fundamental than empirical evidence. As Wittgenstein memorably noted:

“[T]he questions that we raise and our doubts depend upon the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those [questions and doubts] turn. [. . .] We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to run, the hinges must stay put” (On Certainty OC341).

At some point in any actual lived, moral and ethical form of life (such as the one Yeshua is encouraging us to live) we find we have to rest content with assumptions that we have no choice but to trust without full evidence. Again, as Wittgenstein memorably noted:

“If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do’” (Philosophical Investigations §217). 

Sheehan and Yeshua is not asking us to proceed without any evidence at all — let’s not forget Yeshua’s clarion call that “by their fruits ye shall know them” — but they are both saying that the final, existential decision to say “Yes, the time is up and God’s empowerment is mine for the asking and I can see that I must change how I am and how am to live and that I’m going to bet my life on it!” is always going to be made without the kind of cast-iron evidence we’d like to have. Alas, all such existential, moral and ethical decisions never come front-loaded with cast-iron guarantees that, without any doubt whatsoever, make this or that right decision to take, or the right bet to make. In the end, living in the manner taught by Yeshua is going to be simply something that you choose to say is (or is not) the best way live.

And so, Sheehan concludes his discussion of Yeshua’s call by calling our attention to the fact that nowhere in all this is there a single word “about believing in Yeshua as the Christ or God or about accepting him as your personal saviour, or loving him with your whole heart. . . . Nothing about King Jesus at all, much less about establishing a personal relationship with him.” Sheehan continues,

“Yeshua doesn’t even hold himself up as a model so that we might ask ‘What would Jesus do?’ Putting Yeshua himself at the centre of Yeshua’s message is Christianity, something that arose after the prophet was dead and couldn’t defend himself against it.”

This means that for Sheehan, and for me, Christianity is basically “an epic mistake.” As Sheehan notes:

“Yeshua preached the kingdom of God whereas Christianity preached that he was the kingdom of God in person. Christianity turned the messenger into the message by claiming that Yeshua preached himself as the centre of the good news. Yeshua’s proclamation of the kingdom of God was focussed on ordinary people and how they might live and die. Christianity, on the other hand, is focussed on an extraordinary individual and on how he lived and died. Yeshua preached a new way of life without a messiah, whereas Christianity turned Yeshua into the messiah who rules the world. In a word, turning the messenger into the message is the original sin of Christianity.”
What that basic message or gospel was, and still is, is summed up in the conclusion to Sheehan’s talk: 
It is to live with a God who “gently but firmly pushes you away from himself in the direction of each other.” 
Importantly, in our own skeptical age where belief in any kind of traditional understanding of God is for so many people impossible, Sheehan reminds us of a very basic truth which is that “if you believe in God fine” but that “if you don’t believe in God, no matter. The task remains the same.”

The task remains the same — let’s really try to hear and internalise this — the task remains the same, namely, it is to see that everything connected with our old theologies, theories and beliefs about God must be dissolved into the call to justice and charity to one’s neighbour (which includes all other beings/entities), and that the doctrine of the kingdom taught by Yeshua means that henceforth and forever God was, is and will be present only in and as one’s neighbour.

Time’s up!
God’s [Reality’s] empowerment is yours for the asking.
Change how you are and how you live.
Bet your life on it.


Singer said…
As I was reading your writing about Sheehan and the epic mistake, I scratched a few sentences onto the bottom of a tear-off shopping list. At York chapel, I once talked about that statement, "The Kingdom of God is at hand." "Repent". I had no knowledge of Greek and so I re-imagined the first phrase something like this: "We could understand 'at hand' as 'close by', unseen because our eyes are closed to its presence. It's 'at hand' because if we stopped looking for it wills, we could reach out and there is the kingdom; the wholeness of life; the guidance; the living wholeness and completion." hHerefore, it is not a movement forward thing (any time soon), it's an ongoing reality. I think that's how you see it too. But I would not weigh it with Philosphical statements and head-scratching. The less words the better - she said, using words.
Dear Singer,

Thanks for your words which make sense, to me anyway!

So, re: words etc.. As the kind of creatures we are (i.e. ones with language) we cannot, of course, avoid the use of words, many of which are (or can be) "weighing" type of words. But not all of them are always weighing words for some of them (in the right contexts) seem able to carry with them (or allow through them) something more than the word alone. In the Shin Buddhist context there is a wonderful essay by Yasuda Rijin called “A Name but Not a Name Alone” (1960) which explores just this thought. Anyway, I think Wittgenstein's insights help us see clearly that there are momemnts when the weighing has to cease if the living is to begin.

All the best,


Dear Singer, and for all other interested readers, although the Yasuda Rijin essay is not available online this side of a paywall there is a helpful introductiory essay to it by Rev. Ken Yamada at the following link:

“A Name but Not a Name Alone”
Singer said…
Does the following experience I had in my teens mean that I understood the 'flower/name' business?
At home, the only movable object in the bathroom was a bentwood chair. While sat on the loo (TMI...) I contemplated that if I was not looking at it, the chair might not exist. In some realm or other, my looking at it meant it had substance.
Years later, I chucked out this thought as being arrogant, ego-centric nonsense. Of course the chair exists. Human-beings are not 'the centre'. Everything has life and therefore in its way, it may also be sentient - and now I see that ever more clearly: non-human life is a different level of life, or lives in its own dimension. So, both sides are true. Yet as you say (from Wittgestein), we have to stop thinking and working it all out, but start to live. That living is when we follow our individual life that is unfolding, while daring to see and sense another's persceptive and context. This is usually known as 'love'and which only happens if it works both ways. 'Charity begins at home' is true in a sense deeper than it is usually spoken.
Dear Singer,

Re: your chair. The concern with which you begin is, as I’m sure you already know, a version of the one that led Bishop Berkeley to develop his own version of Idealist philosophy which, in too small a nutshell, may be expressed as “esse est percipi” (to be is to be perceived). Berkeley’s initial concern and his solution (if solution it was/is) was humorously expressed by Ronald Knox in his very famous two-verse limerick:

There was a young man who said “God 
Must find it exceedingly odd 
To think that the tree 
Should continue to be 
When there’s no one about in the quad.” 


“Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd; 
I am always about in the quad. 
And that’s why the tree 
Will continue to be 
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”

The question is: is it the act of looking (by some a perceiving subject) that which makes a thing real, which gives it “substance.”

As you yourself say, you “chucked out this thought as being arrogant, ego-centric nonsense” and came to the conclusion that, “Of course the chair exists.” And, for what it’s worth, I think that’s absolutely right and what you go on to say certainly echoes to a great degree the way the world seems to show up to me. It’s also close to what I take Yasuda Rijin to be saying. However, one needs to be careful here because when he says (in one of the quotations used by Ken Yamada) “we cannot say an object called a flower exists unless we presuppose consciousness” that can sound at first a bit like Berkeley, but Yasuda isn’t thinking like Berkeley at all.

Throughout his essay, Yasuda is clearly employing the important Buddhist insight of “pratītyasamutpāda”, interdependent or intra-active co-arising”. This is the idea that everything that exists exists because other things are in existence. Yasuda knows intimately that reality is intra-active, everything is interconnected and affects everything else.

All of the foregoing (and the original post) is, in part, why I recently wrote “A gentle plea for a Buddhisto-Christian process religion”.

God knows if any of this helps but I hope it does, at least a little bit.

All the best,