John Shelby Spong, the former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, has long embraced a frontline position in culture battles over sexuality, gender, and the place of religion in public life. Spong has been both beloved and villified as an outspoken advocate of liberal Christian reforms, making one bold pronouncement after another, often in firey books with titles such as Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and The Sins of Scripture.

In Spong's latest book,
Jesus for the Non-Religious, he asks readers to see Jesus apart from the trappings of conventional Christianity. Beliefnet's Deborah Caldwell recently sat with Spong in his New Jersey home to discuss the divinity of Jesus, the purpose of prayer, and Spong's hopes for the future of faith.

Who is Jesus to you?

If you go back into the New Testament, you will discover there is something so unique about him that people assumed that they met God in the life of Jesus. The debate in the New Testament is how God got into Jesus. Paul writes in Romans that God made Jesus the Son of God at the time of the resurrection. That’s a very interesting idea. It would be called heresy in orthodox circles today.

And you come to Mark, who says that God entered Jesus in his baptism when the heavens opened and the Spirit descended. Mark assumes he’s fully human until he’s infused with the Holy Spirit. Then, by the time you get into the ninth decade [after Jesus’ death], they began to say, “No, God was actually his Father.” And that’s when you get the Virgin Birth story. That’s very late in Christian history.

Then, we get to the fourth Gospel [John] about the end of the first century, and the idea is that Jesus was the Word of God present in the moment of creation who was enfleshed in the life of Jesus.

What I try to do is to separate the experience from the explanation. Every explanation assumes the attitudes, the world view, the subjectivity, the presuppositions of the one doing the explaining. But what was the experience? What was there about Jesus that caused people to say these extraordinary things about him?

What is your answer to that? What did people see?

There’s something about Jesus that crosses every barrier and calls people into a deeper and fuller humanity. He crossed the tribal boundary that separated Jew from Gentile. He crossed the prejudice boundary that separated Jew from Samaritan. He crossed the male/female boundary where women were presumed to be subservient to and inferior to men. And the most important thing is, he crossed the religious boundary.
Time after time [Jesus] says, “Though my religion says that a woman caught in the act of adultery is to be stoned to death, I will stand between her and her accusers. There were lepers called unclean; I will embrace a leper. A menstruating woman is called unclean; I will allow the touch of a chronically menstruating woman.”

As we become more deeply and fully human,  we’ll have a different sense of who God is. And to me that’s the ultimate secret to the life of Jesus. I think he was so fully human that he became a channel through which God is manifested.

What is theism, and why do you reject it?

Theism is a dated definition of God. I love the quotation from Xenophanes, a Greek philosopher who said that if horses had gods, they would look like horses. Human beings have gods, and they all look like human beings. And so, what we’ve done is project our humanity into the sky.

I think we can experience God. I don’t think we can define God. And yet, we’ve drawn these magnificent portraits of God. We’ve made God a man, a supernatural being, a miracle-working deity, and sometimes that God is quite immoral, even in the Bible.

The God of the Bible chooses one people and, therefore, rejects all other people. He fights battles, he kills Egyptians because they’re opposed to the favorite people. He stops the sun in the sky so that you can kill more of your enemies. He even orders genocide in the book of Samuel.

Everything we’ve learned in the last 600 years has challenged the theistic definition of God. Copernicus and Galileo destroyed God’s dwelling place. Isaac Newton destroyed the arenas of miracle and magic where God works. Darwin destroyed the idea that we were all created in the image of God, and we began to see ourselves as an evolving process. Einstein says there’s no such thing as ultimate truth, that everything is relative because time and space are relative—and no human being I know escapes time and space. So, everything—-time and space, what people say and do—is relative truth and not ultimate truth.

In what ways are these ways of thinking in conflict with religion?

In the organized religious world, we’re far more concerned [with finding] security than truth. We’re always saying, “Oh, but we have a Pope who’s infallible, and we have a Bible that’s inerrant.” Well, that just doesn’t play in the world that you and I live in today.

People always want a parent God who will take care of them. But once you project that definition onto God, then you’ve got a lot of other questions to answer. If God is a supernatural power who can intervene in miraculous ways, then you’ve got to answer why God doesn’t do it more frequently. You know, if God can intervene to save the Jews at the Red Sea from the hated Egyptians, then why did God not intervene in the 1940’s and ‘50’s to save the Jews from the hated Germans? If God has the power to stop a tsunami, then why did God not do it before 350,000 people died? If God can direct the weather patterns, then why did God allow the hurricane to come into the poverty-stricken center of New Orleans and wreak such havoc with those people?