'I Am a Mystic'

'I never doubt,' says Bishop Spong. 'It's not that I'm getting older and cramming for finals. It's that God becomes more real.'

BY: Interview by Deborah Caldwell

 
John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, N.J., for 20 years before his retirement in 2000. Widely admired (and often scorned), Spong is a leader of the worldwide liberal Christianity movement. He has taught at Harvard, the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and has lectured in North America, Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific. He is the author of 15 books, including his latest, The Sins of Scripture.

Beliefnet senior editor Deborah Caldwell interviewed him at his New Jersey home, which features a wooden troll-like bishop, hand-carved in Africa, serving as a comic sentry by the front door. International art hung all over the sunny house, artifacts of Spong's travels abroad. He's still as opinionated as ever--but he seems mellower and downright happier. After all, he points out, he's hitting the stride of an older, wiser man. The conversation follows.


What is the worst verse in the Bible?

The one that has hurt the most people is a verse in Matthew when the Jewish crowd is made to say, "His blood be upon us and upon our children." Because that echoed and got quoted over and over and over through the centuries and justified anti-Semitism.

The background is important: the Jewish world had gotten more and more radical under the occupation of the Romans. And those that accommodated themselves throughout the occupation were looked at as traitors; those who fought the occupation were considered terrorists to the Romans, but freedom fighters to the Jews. By 66 C.E. this movement broke out into a full-scale war, the Galilean war. The Galilean guerillas fought well as long as they were in the hills of Galilee because they could do hit-and-run stuff. The Romans finally decided that they couldn't tolerate that so they matched their forces against Jerusalem and destroyed it in 70 C.E. What happened then was that you had incredible anti-Semitic feelings among the Romans. It would be like American feeling toward Osama bin Laden and the terrorists...in that they suffered at their hands. The Christians tried to separate themselves from the Jewish crowd so they wouldn't be the recipients of the persecution of the Romans. And the way they did it was to say, the Jews killed our hero too. And so Christians began to define themselves over against the orthodox party of the Jews as a way of surviving against the Roman onslaught.

And because nobody wanted to be identified with the crowd that brought Jewish destruction. If you put it in modern context-suppose Osama bin Laden destroys the World Trade Center and that creates enormous hostility, but lets assume for a minute that Osama bin Laden managed to conquer America. In order to survive, people would try to accommodate by saying, "We weren't the ones who hated the Muslims."

What's the best verse in the Bible?

The text with which I close most of my lectures is from John 10. They are words attributed to Jesus that members of the Jesus Seminar don't think he ever spoke. I don't mind accepting that. But to me, they are so true to who he is. And that's the phrase, "I've come that they might have life and have it abundantly."

The way that I see Christianity is that its role is to enhance the life of every person. My basis of morality is this: does this action enhance life, or does it denigrate life? Does it build up or does it tear down? And if that's your basis, then you can't possibly be a sexist because sexism diminishes women. You can't possibly be homophobic because it diminishes homosexuals. You can't possibly be a racist because you can't tell people they are lesser because their skin is black. Or any of the other things that have discriminated against people.

What is the basis for your faith?

I have to start at the basics, and that's God. And the thing that I think you have to say about God first is that nobody knows who God is, nobody knows what God is. I don't care what they say--all any human being knows is how they believe they have experienced God. They do not know what God is.

That would be like a horse saying they know what a human being is. A horse knows how a horse experiences a human being. And even when you say, this is my "God experience," there is always the possibility that you're deluded. And a lot of deluded people think that they have had "God experiences" and hear voices. So I start with that--I can't tell you who God is or what God is; I can only share what I believe my God experience is.

My primary theological teacher was Paul Tillich. Tillich defines God not in terms of a being, a supernatural power who lives somewhere outside the world, but as what he calls "the ground of being." If God is the "ground of being" then I worship God by having the courage to be. And if I am faithful in following that God, I try to build a world where other people have the freedom to be who they are. Anything that enhances being would be good, and anything that violates being would be bad.

Continued on page 2: »

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