2016-06-30
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.

My second definition of God, or of my God experience, is that God is the source of life. And if God is the source of life, the only way I can worship God is by living fully. And I've got to dedicate myself as a follower of this God to building a world where everybody has an opportunity to live fully. And again, you get to the same place. Whatever diminishes life is evil, and whatever enhances life is good.

And my third definition of my God experience is that I see God as the source of love. I think love is a transcendent power that I can receive but I can't generate. It can flow through me but I can't say, "OK, I'll now decide to be loving." I can only give away the love that I have received.

That's interesting.

So in some sense, the very existence of love means that we participate in transcendence. And if God is the source of love, the only way I can worship God is by loving wastefully. Not setting barriers and counting costs and that sort of thing. Not saying, "Do you deserve it or not?" But loving wastefully. Therefore to be a follower of this God means you have to try to enhance the love that's available in this world.

I start with that God definition and then I say, “OK, what about Jesus?” The claim historically is that somehow through Jesus, God has been experienced. Then you get to the theology that says he came out of heaven and had a virgin birth and went back to heaven--but that's the mythological framework that tries to make sense of whatever the experience was.

I can only look at him through the gospels, through the way the tradition has presented him. It seems to me that he is so fully alive that I can see the source of life in him. It seems to me he is so totally loving that no matter what they do to him, he responds by loving. They drive nails in him and he is portrayed as saying, "Father, forgive him for they do not know what they do." The portrait of Jesus is one whose love is totally giving, no matter what you do to him--betray him, deny him, forsake him, persecute him, crucify him--he responds by loving.

So it doesn't matter whether any of that or all of it happened specifically, it's that people experienced him that way. There had to have been an experience that people have tried to make sense out of.

I have no difficulty asserting the traditional Christian claim that somehow God was in this Christ. I don't know that Jesus is different from Debbie or Jack, except in degree. I think he's so fully human, that he can be a channel through which people can experience this transcendent God presence. That's a very different way of approaching the Christian story, but it's one that I think is the future, because the old mythology doesn't work.

In what way doesn't it work?

Take the virgin birth tradition, which is how we explained how God got from outside to inside Mary. The story hasn’t worked since 1724, when we discovered that women have an egg cell. So Jesus is half God and half human--not fully God and fully human--which is what the early church leaders were trying to say. And if God is really a biological father, then Jesus can't be human—he's got to be something different.

At the other end of the story, there is the issue of getting Jesus back up to God, which comes into the Christian tradition in the 9th decade, maybe the 10th decade, in the ascension story. It doesn't make sense in the space age. Carl Sagan once said that if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hadn't yet escaped our galaxy.

I spend my time, not rejecting the way the Christian story has been understood, but rejecting the literalism that has been imposed upon it. My secular humanist friends would reject the whole story. My fundamentalists friends will say it's got to be literally so. I'm in a strange position, where I've got to separate the experience from the explanation. I keep wanting to find a way to make the experience understandable for the 21st century.

Why are you Christian? Why not be Buddhist or Jewish?

The Christ path is the path I've walked all my life, so it's normal and natural. And I have no reason to abandon it because it leads to where I want to go. If I were a child of Tibet or of Arabia, I suspect the path I'd walk would be the Buddhist path or the Muslim path. And I don't mind saying that I don't invalidate any of those paths. But the path I walk is the Christ path. If God is God and if the Christ path leads me to God, then I will meet whomever has gone through whatever path they've come from.

 

All religion seems to need to prove that it's the only truth. And that's where it turns demonic. Because that's when you get religious wars and persecutions and burning heretics at the stake. But if you go back and look at the Jesus story, there are three texts in Mark, Matthew and Luke. They all came from the same source, but Matthew changes a word which makes it really crucial. Mark has Jesus say, "If you're not against me, you're for me." Luke has Jesus say, "If you're not against me, you're for me." Matthew changes that and says, "If you're not for me, you're against me." And that's the one that Christians have used over the centuries, but it's two to one against Matthew being authentic.

Now who can argue that the Buddhists are against the Christians? You could argue that they're not for the Christians, but you couldn't argue that they're against them, or the Jews or the Muslims. All of those are paths that humans have walked toward God. And they're not enemies, they're just different paths. But Matthew has turned that in such a way that you're either on my side or you're my enemy.

Is that because Matthew was Jewish and was writing to a Jewish audience?

I think there's a lot of truth in there. And by the time you get to the fourth gospel (John), all the "I am" sayings come into the tradition. For Jews, God's name was "I am." The orthodox Jewish party excommunicated the Jewish revisionists (the early Christians); the orthodox said "You no longer have any part of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses," and the revisionists (the new Christians) responded by saying, "Yes, we do, because the God we meet in Jesus is the 'I am' of Moses and the burning bush."

And so every time they could, they make Jesus say, "I am," "I am," "I am," "I am." One of them is "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." And that's the text that turns Christianity into being demonic--in the sense that we have the truth, and the rest of you have to come to God the way we have come to God. And we are justified in forcing you to come to God this way. And that's where you get religious wars.

People don't realize religion is never a search for truth. Religion is a search for security. Now, we have theological enterprises that try to shape truth. But the bedrock of our religion is a search for security. And that comes out of the very dawning of self-consciousness. I admire our ancestors, whoever they were. I think the first self-conscious person must have shaken in his boots. Because as he becomes self-conscious, he's no longer part of nature. He sees himself against nature. He looks at the vastness of the universe and it looks hostile. Mother Nature is not sweet.

And so what this person did was to say, "I can't survive in this world, so I'll create a being more powerful than I am, and I'll relate to that being and that being will help me survive." So we started out by naming every tree and rock and shrub and bush and river and ocean...it had a spirit. And we worked out a way of accommodating that spirit. That's where religion starts--in a search for security in a radically insecure world.

Is religion man-made?

Yes. Religion is man-made, but God is not. Our ideas of God are man-made. The moment we explain it, the moment we say, “This is how I experience God” then you’ve captured God in the mindset of your time and history, your level of knowledge, your language, your prejudices, everything. So we didn’t understand about germs, we thought if you got sick God was punishing you. That made perfect sense. Then we discovered germs and then we developed antibiotics to deal with germs. And then we discovered that it didn’t make any difference if you were Adolf Hitler or Mother Teresa--penicillin works. It has nothing to do with your behavior.

I don’t know how to say that God is real anymore than say it. All I can say is that I am consumed with that reality. If I had to name what I really am, and this would really surprise my critics and my friends, but I really am a mystic. I really live in an awareness of a transcendent power that I cannot articulate, cannot explain. And yet, I never doubt. And I walk into that mystery more every day of my life. It’s not just that I’m getting older and cramming for finals. It’s that it becomes more and more real. And the closer you get into that experience, the less any words describing it make any sense. And so you’re finally reduced to silence, awe and wonder.

It sounds like you experience God on a molecular level--almost a Taoist approach.

Yes, Fritjof Capra (author of The Tao of Physics) used to be one of the authors I read most. I think all those paths are quite valid. And I think one of the great tragedies of religion is that we’ve made each path exclusive. It’s ludicrous.

Pope John Paul II made steps toward Muslims and made steps toward Jews. But that's about 500 years too late in my opinion. I welcome it, but it's irrelevant. If you don't learn to get along, human beings aren't going to survive.

And, ironically, that's the great thing that terrorism does for us. Terrorism is a whole new enemy. An all-out arsenal didn't save the World Trade Center. If they want to blow up the Holland Tunnel or the Lincoln Tunnel--you know, I could do that this afternoon if I wanted to--I could just load my car up with dynamite because nobody checks my car when I go through the tunnel. So we're constantly vulnerable to terrorists. And you learn that you either are going to have a police state where you don't have any freedom left, or you're going to build a world that doesn't create terrorists-and that means a whole different way of "getting along."

I hear a lot of people say they are fearful that if we don't get along then the world ends, because of terrorism. You seem to be saying the same thing, but the flipside. You're actually optimistic?

Yeah. I think I am. Because what terrorism finally winds up saying to us is that you can't live in a world that bends some people so totally out of shape that they want to destroy themselves and anybody who gets in their way. Terrorism is a real despair. These are people for whom life has been so negative that they're willing to die if they can take down some of their enemies.

You go back and read the Crusades history. The seeds of terrorism are being sowed as we butcher them and murder them in the name of the God of the West, and denigrated them and spat on them. You think that stuff doesn't come back to haunt you? It may be a thousand years, but it's still there. You don't diminish human life the way we have diminished human life with our power and not expect it at some point to rise up. They're not going to rise up with an army to come defeat our army. They're going to get at us the way they can get at us.

So why be optimistic?

Because someday we will realize that. Go back to the civil rights movement for a moment. By the mid-1960s people were rioting in the streets, and the first response was, "Let's suppress them. Let's move in the National Guard and let's stop these rioters, let's put these people in jail." Then somebody said, "There aren't enough policemen in the world to keep 20 percent of the population under control if they don't want to be under control. So maybe we'd better address the causes of the riots instead of just trying to suppress the riots."

And that's when you say, the problem is jobs, the problem is school, the problem is after-care programs, the problem is poverty. And you begin to develop programs that address the causes. And then people that were once the rioters run for president, like Jesse Jackson.

That's what's got to happen in the world-level. You can't have a world where 50 percent of the people are dieting and 50 percent of the people are starving if you want stability. Helplessness always manifests itself as terror. Because who gives a damn? I mean, what does it matter that I die? I'd rather be dead than alive. And if you could kill a few people who have ruined your life in the process..

But if you begin to give people hope that there is a brighter future, there is a new tomorrow, then the people who were yesterday's terrorists become tomorrow's elected officials and they're part of the system.

I don't believe my country will go the way of the righteous right, because I think my country is stronger than that. But it takes a long time. The way we stopped prejudice in the south was that prejudice got more expensive than non-prejudice because riots were going on, you couldn't trust anybody, you had to secure your home, you had to have a shotgun to save yourself. After a while that becomes very destructive to your own psyche. So then you begin to say, "What do we do to end this?"

Where's God in this process?

I see God not as a being up in the sky, but as the source of life, the source of love and the ground of being.

So I think that anything that begins to give people a sense of their own worth and dignity is God. I experience God as a life force that flows through the universe. I'm going to worship God I need to get on the side of the life force and enhance it instead of being opposed to it.

And that means you're going to live in a very different world. It's not a bad world. It means that those of us who have more of this world's goods are going to not have as much, because there's only a finite amount of this world's goods to go around. I always want to be on the side of the increasing life of the most people.

What do your audiences think of you these days?

When I go to the red states I'm considered a radical Christian, and when I go to the blue states I'm considered an old-fashioned religious man who is trying to call people back to something. I go where I'm invited. And all I can tell you is if we accepted every invitation we had, I'd be away every day of my life.

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