2016-06-30
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?


Do you believe in sin, or evil, or whatever the opposite of God is?

One of the great criticisms of liberal theologians is they don’t take evil seriously enough, and I don’t want to fall into that trap. Evil is very real. I think human beings are more capable of evil than any other creature in God’s world, and God’s universe. I can’t imagine dogs killing another dog because they don’t like the color of his fur, but human beings kill each other because they don’t like the color of their skin.

I’m not surprised that we have people like terrorists in the world who in the name of God go out and destroy somebody else. If you go back to the Middle Ages, Christians were the terrorists. We organized the Crusades to go kill the infidels in the Middle East. Today, Catholics and Protestants still kill each other in Ireland, and Palestinians and Jews still kill each other in the Middle East, all in the name of God. That’s what I call tribal religion.

You're a critic of religious institutions, so what do you say to people who continue to embrace those institutions?

I’m one of those people. I have no intention of giving up Christianity. What I want to do is to drive Christianity into its deepest meaning and into its deepest core. When you reach that point, you transcend the limits of religion.
My image of interfaith future is that the Christians will go so deeply into Christianity that we will transcend all of our limits and all of our ideas about who’s superior to whom, and all denominations will disappear.

But the Jews will also do that, the Muslims will do that, the Buddhists will do that, the Hindus and all the other religions. You go through your system as deeply as you can until you transcend your system. And then, we sit around in a circle, and in that circle I can say to Buddhists and Hindus and Jews and all the others, “This is the essence of Christianity. This is the pearl of great price that we don’t ever want to sacrifice, and I want to offer it to you,” and they can receive it. And then they can say, “And this is the pearl of great price from Judaism or Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism. And I want to offer it to you.”

And none of us has to give up anything of our religious past, but we all take on the riches of everyone else, and we become much greater.

Is it worth going to church?


It is to me, but that doesn’t mean that every Sunday morning when I go to church that I find it a fulfilling experience.

When I think about baptism, I think baptism’s a wonderful thing to inaugurate a new life. We’re water creatures. We grew out of the sea. Before a baby’s born, the maternal waters are broken, you’re born with a gush of water, so why not make water the symbol to celebrate a whole new generation being born? But it’s not to go back and pretend that this water’s going wash away the stain of Adam’s sin, which corrupted your humanity and turned you into the original sinner, which is the way we’ve interpreted baptism.

I find great meaning in the Eucharist, but I’m not interested in reenacting the sacrifice on the cross or envisioning some semi-cannibalistic act of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. What I’m interested in is that food is a tremendous symbol of life and love and, therefore, an appropriate symbol to talk about the God-human relationship.

What we need to do is not destroy the experience. We need to rethink some of the theological understandings.

Do you say prayers?

Yes, I pray. I pray every day of my life. But, prayer is not an adult letter addressed to Santa Claus, which is the way we’ve portrayed it. What prayer means to me now is that I sit consciously inside the experience of the divine, the holy, and then I begin to incorporate that into myself, and I’m able to live it out better than I would otherwise.

St. Paul said that we were to pray without ceasing. I don’t think he meant we were to say prayers without ceasing. That would be a pretty boring existence. I think what he was trying to say is that in the last analysis, prayer is not something you do, prayer is something you are.

How should Christian parents raise their children? How do they teach them who Jesus was?

I have wrestled those issues for a very long time. The way I did it as a parish priest was that I started with the adults, [not] with the children. You’ve got to bring the adults into a whole new understanding of what God is. You give them this vision, and they in turn will make that a possibility for their children, and it takes a long time.

You talk about the future of faith. What do you see happening 50 years from now?

My hope is that we’ll have a reformation, that [there will be a] different understanding of what Christianity is. I think the present stuff is going to die. If the future of my church is to debate whether or not gay people are welcomed in the body of Christ, I don’t want to be part of it. They won’t have any trouble getting rid of me. I’ll resign.

But that’s the battle that goes on in my church, and it’s the battle over a tribal mentality that is dying.
No prejudices have ever been debated in this human world, that are [not] already dying by the time they are debated. You don’t debate it until it starts to die, and then you debate it violently.

I’d probably be a sexist patriarchal bigot today if I hadn’t had daughters.  kept looking at life through the eyes of my daughters. I don’t want any church to tell me my daughter is disqualified from being Pope the moment she’s born because she’s a girl.

We debated [over] left-handed people—no left-handed person could be ordained because they were the children of the devil. Until the early years of the 20th century, we were still reprogramming kids in parochial schools by tying their left hand behind their back.

I'm embarrassed by the church today. And, yet, I deeply love it, and I don’t know what would happen if it ever disappears totally. I don’t know where else you’d get a sense of people’s holiness. If there isn’t some ultimate religious dimension to life, humanity will lose its value.


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