by R. Kirby Godsey
Mercer University Press, 2011
Review by Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California
In 1996, R. Kirby Godsey was president of Mercer University in Georgia, which was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. He had just published a book called “When We Talk About God, Let’s Be Honest”, which declared that the Bible was not inerrant. For this he was hauled before 3,000 members of the Georgia Baptist Convention of the SBC and condemned and censured. Shortly after that, Mercer University and the SBC severed their ties.
Godsey remains a thorn in the side of fundamentalists, as is evidenced by the reaction by Albert Mohler, head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, against Godsey’s new book, “Is God a Christian?” “This book is an unmitigated theological disaster,” says Mohler on his website. Albert Mohler was part of the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC: he is now effectively the Pope of the Southern Baptists. The old Baptist principle of individual interpretation of scripture, dating back to Roger Williams, was thrown out and replaced with a fixed dogma, which all SBC institutions were forced to endorse.
Godsey offers a strikingly different definition of Christianity than Mohler’s. “We do not become Christians by adopting certain beliefs or following certain moral prescriptions. Christianity is not a formula for getting to heaven… The Christian faith transforms our understanding and relationship with God, enabling us to experience that our being bears the imprint of God…” (p 109)
The book is a beautifully-written essay promoting religious pluralism from a Christian perspective. Much of it is an argument against fundamentalism in all religions, and an argument for openness, toleration, and compassion within and among the world’s faiths. The book offers brief introductions to the world’s religions, praising their positive contributions, and pointing out the limitations of some of their expressions.
Kirby Godsey speaks for and to Christians who are in recovery from doctrines that do not reflect the compassion of the Christ. He is committed to Jesus Christ and to the Christian church. He explains that he’s not a “relativist”: “…rejecting exclusivity does not require abandoning our commitments.” (p 25) His faith itself has led him to embrace religious pluralism. “As we recover from our proclivity to be exclusive and arrogant, we can begin a new journey of learning and growing in our spiritual lives.” (p 29) He puts his own awakening to the fact that “all religion is human religion” (p 27) in the context of his upbringing, listening to fire-and-brimstone sermons in the South. His account of his childhood summers with his beloved grandmother in rural northern Alabama, absorbing her natural faithfulness, grounds the book in experience that touches the heart.
"Progressive Christianity" is a term he doesn’t use in the book, but his writing reflects both its theological and social senses. He makes accessible a humbler, kinder, open-hearted and open-minded theology, particularly for readers who share his Southern Baptist background.