Beliefnet
Few figures in current American Christiandom have been more controversial than John Shelby Spong, who retired two years ago as Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Newark. His unorthodox views for a Bishop -- the "theistic God is dead" and the bodily resurrection didn't happen -- have prompted attacks and a common, derisive question: why do you even call yourself a Christian? In an interview with religion producer Deborah Caldwell he answers.

Are there essential beliefs you hold to as a Christian in the 21st Century?

Any time a human being articulates a concept of God, it is articulated in time and space by a human mind. The people who wrote the Bible wrote during a particular time period, a time when people thought the Earth was flat, slavery was legitimate, epileptics were possessed by demons, and women were the property of men. The God experience got captured in terms of a cultural point of view that time has moved past. That creates tension. And if you stay in that world, you become irrelevant to the world we're living in.

So I start with a basic distinction. I think God is real. I think we can only experience God, we can't explain God. I want to separate the experience of God that is the essential part of the Christian message and find a new way to talk about it.

Christians have constantly told the Jesus story in terms of a God who created the perfect world and created humans who fell into sin. Then God had to come and rescue his fallen creation. But we live on the other side of Charles Darwin. There has been no moment in human history when we were created in a state of perfection and then fell into sin. We started as a single cell perhaps 3.5 billion years ago. That single cell has been growing in complexity from that time on. What we human beings are is the winner of the evolution struggle. We aren't fallen people. If anything, we're incomplete people. We're still evolving.

And what we need is not to be rescued from our fall. What we need is to be empowered to be more fully human and get beyond our need for security. I think you can tell the Jesus story in that context. Jesus stepped beyond the boundaries of Jews and gentiles, male and female. So the question then becomes, what does it mean to have a savior figure who empowers me to be more than I have ever been before? The old way of telling it is to constantly insult human life. I don't think it's psychologically healthy.

The whole symbolism of the Christian story just dies in the light in the realities of our knowledge. You have three choices. You can close your mind to modern thinking and become a screaming fundamentalist--and there are people who say my mind is made up and I don't want to be confused by facts. The other alternative is to say those symbols come out of world that I don't have any sense about and that world is no good to me anymore. So those people become members of what I call the church alumni association--and that's a very rapidly growing organization in the West today. And the third group-it's a tiny little group and sometimes I feel like I'm the only one in it-says, I want to take the experience that they tried to explain in the Bible, but I want to find a way to talk about it in the language of the 21st century.

There have been attempts over the years to give Jesus a more modern feel. I'm thinking of the political Jesus, the liberationist Jesus, who became a popular figure among liberal Christians last century. But I don't think that's exactly what you're thinking about. You seem to be talking about something more mystical.

I'm a closet mystic. I'm a rationalist who uses my rationality to help me understand why the old symbols don't make any sense. But when I try to explain what I'm talking about, words just fail me. Now, Jesus the liberator was important to me. I went through the civil rights movement and the women's movement and the gay rights movement, and I approve and affirm all those things. But Jesus the liberator is not near enough. That's not where it ends.

Where it ends is: I have a new humanity. The only experience I know to talk about is to ask people if they've ever been in love. Now, they're always startled when you ask them about it. It sounds so personal. I ask them to try to remember how they felt in that first flush of being in love. What happens is, you're no longer self-centered. You would die for your beloved. There's this sense that you've touched a new dimension of humanity. In some sense, the human experience of Jack Spong being in love with Christine Spong is multiplied 100-fold in the life of Jesus. That's what his disciples experienced from him. They experienced an empowering gift of the love of God that allowed them to step outside their boundaries and become something they had never been before. That's why they said God was in this Christ. And then they tried to explain it.

All I want to do is get people back to the ecstasy of that experience and the ecstasy of living as a full and free human being and not as a self-centered survival-oriented, xenophobic, tribally identified, deeply prejudiced person. Because that's the kind of Christianity we've developed. We have a Christianity that says it's OK to kill if you're in Ireland. Or even spit on one another's children. That's a strange god. That's a tribal god. That's not a God who calls us into a new level of humanity.

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