2016-06-30
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.

You use the word ecstasy-I find it interesting that Pentecostalists also talk about their experience of God that way. But obviously, you don't hold the same theology that they do.

There's a fine line between having a religious experience and being psychotic. We need to face that. And sometimes, what passes as an ecstatic experience is, in fact, a psychological break. The issue is that it doesn't bring you into being a self-centered person. Oftentimes with Pentecostalists, they act as if they've got the truth, and they want to impose it on everyone. That makes ecstasy one more deity you worship.

I want to have an ecstatic experience that lifts me out of my boundaries and enables me to say, I am more fully human today because of that experience, and therefore I have to live out of that experience in a more inclusive way because my humanity touches other lives. I want to be a follower of Jesus, not by converting people to my understanding of Jesus, but I want to be a follower of Jesus by helping to build a world where every human being has an opportunity to live in a way they've never lived before.

How, then, do you deal with rituals and sacraments, such as the Eucharist, if they represent beliefs that you're not really buying?

There's a lot more to the Eucharist than traditionally has been understood. The Eucharist didn't drop out of heaven fully written, any more than the Bible did. The Eucharist grew out of the Jewish Passover, and what the Passover celebrated was that God had the power to push back the boundaries of death. Remember, the blood of the lamb on the door post caused the angel of death to avoid that house. Now, Jesus got interpreted in terms of the Passover lamb. Paul started that when he said, "Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us."

And early Christians knew they had another lamb in their liturgy--the Yom Kippur lamb, the lamb of the Day of Atonement. And that lamb was killed in order to make a perfect offering to God for the people. And that was the lamb whose blood was sprinkled on the people.

There was also a goat in the liturgy of Yom Kippur. The high priest bowed over the goat and confessed the sins of the people, and all the sins of the people came out of the people and landed on the head and back of the goat, and then they cursed the goat and they called for the goat's death--but they don't kill the goat. They let the goat out into the wilderness. The sense was that the goat carried the sins of the people away.

And Jesus got interpreted as both of those parts of the liturgy. That is why we say in church, "Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." We've combined the goat and the lamb of Yom Kippur into our liturgy.

Now, that's a first-century explanation of what the death of Jesus meant. But I'm not bound by first-century explanations.

Now, how do I go through the Eucharist? I think of liturgy as a love song. And if you think of it as not as what actually happened, but as an ecstatic love song that the beloved sings to the lover- to me, that's what liturgy is. So I don't get tied up with whether this is literally accurate or not. I only try to understand that the excessive language of liturgy makes sense to people who have been deeply touched by a God experience.

I think the most important symbol in the Eucharist is food, because it is a powerful symbol of love. The first time I ever was loved, my mother attached my little mouth to her breast and fed me and cradled me in the moment shortly after I was born. And from that moment on in human experience, love and eating have been combined in our minds. That's why no relationship grows unless you eat together. So I think Jesus takes this intimate human experience and invests it with the whole meaning of his life. What we did was to interpret it sacrificially, primarily because the interpreters were first-century Jews.

When Christianity moved out of the Jewish world, we interpreted this experience in terms of Western ideas of justice. We took Roman law and said, "Jesus paid the price" for our sins. Paul began it by writing in I Corinthians, in about 57 A.D., that Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scripture. Then, when Mark writes in the early 70s A.D., he writes that Jesus gave his life as a "ransom." And so when the crucifixion story is written, Jesus is clearly the lamb and the goat of Yom Kippur.

People think the crucifixion story was written by eyewitnesses. There wasn't an eyewitness around to watch it. The disciples had all fled. These stories of the crucifixion are written as liturgies, 40 to 70 years after Jesus' life, and they're designed to interpret not how he died, but who he was.

Knowing all of that is in some ways liberating, but I would think it's also difficult. Christians seem to need Good Friday, for instance. They want to go through the stations of the cross and have the cathartic experience. How do you do it?

I wear a cross around my neck. It's a powerful symbol to me. It's not a symbol of God sacrificing his son. I don't believe in divine child abuse. I think we've told the Jesus story as if God is some Middle Eastern ogre who requires a human sacrifice before God is able to forgive. I think Jesus is a human being in whom God's presence is abundantly clear. And the God presence in him enabled him to give his life away. To me, that's what the cross is all about.

Now, I love Christine (my wife) and I would be willing to die for Christine. And I believe I would be willing to die for my children. But if I'm honest, there's nobody else I'd be willing to die for. And yet, when I see the God presence in Jesus, that is so profound, and I find in him a willingness to give his life for the least of his brothers and sisters to demonstrate to them that love is more powerful than hatred. I think the cross is a great symbol. It's a symbol of a human life that was so full and free, that even when people executed him they couldn't kill him.

What I hope I've done is to say that all the symbols we've developed to help us understand the Christian faith still feed our humanity. But they look different. The crucifixion is not atonement in the sense of God coming down and rescuing the fallen. It's God empowering us to be so fully human that we can be agents of the divine--and that's a very different way to look at Jesus.

My critics say I will never be able to bring people back to the church with the kind of Christianity I'm proclaiming. Well, that's exactly right. The church has got to change. Why should anybody who gets a new vision want to come back to a church that tells him he's a wretched, fallen, miserable sinner not worthy to gather up the crumbs that have fallen under the table--and God had to rescue him, and motivates him by guilt? Why would anybody want to come back to that?

On some level you've relished all your battles over the years. But do you ever feel lonely? Do you ever wonder, why isn't anyone else saying this?

First of all, I'm not alone. I'm just vocal. The academic world of Christian scholarship has been dealing with these issues for at least 50 years and maybe longer. But it takes a lot of hard work to break through to a new understanding, and most people in church are there because they're seeking security. Now, I think that's an idol. I don't think Christianity will ever give anybody security. I think all Christianity will ever give us is the courage to embrace the fact that we're always going to be insecure. I don't think Christianity is the peace that passes Prozac.

In my 46 years in the priesthood I saw my church get away from segregation, and today we have a black bishop elected by the people of the diocese of North Carolina. I don't think racism is dead in America, but I think its back is broken.

I've been on the winning side of the fight for women. We have nine woman bishops in the Episcopal Church today. When I retired from the diocese, 40% of my clergy were women; 60% of my seminarians were women. That battle is over. The Roman Catholic church will ordain women within 25 years, in my opinion.

Our daughter is a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, and she has authority over men. She's posted at this moment to be moved to Afghanistan. If that war lasts another six months my Rachel will be there.

What is the church saying to people when they say the Bible says women can't have authority over men? That's not the world my daughter lives in, nor would she want to live in that world. So if that's what Christianity has become, it's irrelevant for her life.

So what does Christianity's future look like?

I'm not sure the church is not going to die. I'm not sure we can save it. But I'm sure people are religious, and whether the church lives or dies is not a great issue for me. Whether we find a way to celebrate the God who stands at the heart of our humanity is the primary issue for me. I'm still conservative enough that I think the Christian symbols can be translated into that world. I'm not going to say the path to wholeness traveled by a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist or any other person is somehow evil, but I am saying I want to claim as my ally any religious system that enhances our humanity, because the real enemy is our inhumanity to one another.

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