The Connection between the Crucifixion and the Passover, Part V

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 2 March 2005 0 Comments
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First let me tell you I am an atheist. Prior to this I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and was a member in good standing for approximately the first thirty years of my life at which time I left. The journey I am on has led me in many directions and I have been comfortable lately with where I find myself. That is until I read your recent column. What brings this uncomfortable feeling is your sentence that reads, "As optimism has died, human beings increasingly turned either to fundamentalist religion or to secular materialism in the constant search for meaning." Because I value your understanding of the human condition, I took the latter part of the above sentence as an indictment. I know that my search for meaning has often turned to secular materialism. I must tell you this disturbs me. I'm not sure where to go with this. I cannot return to religion, as it holds nothing for me. Yet I do not want to continue to define myself by what I buy and own. Any insights?


I do not regard the claim that one is an atheist as anything different from a religious claim. An atheist seems to me to be saying, "The God I meet in organized religion is simply not big enough to be God in the world I now inhabit. Since no one offers a different understanding of God, I will reject the only God who has been presented to me." I believe it is the Church's responsibility to hear that criticism and not to reject it as faithless but faithful.

No one knows who God is or what God is. All any of us know is how we believe we have experienced God. Even then we must face the possibility that our experience is delusional. When the Church says, "This is God and we have this God defined in our creeds and spelled out in our doctrines and dogmas," what you really have is an absolute expression of idolatry. Some Christians believe the Bible has defined God. Other Christians believe the sacred teaching of their church has defined God. Both have inevitably been forced to distort the reality and the mystery of God to come to those conclusions.

As I understand human life, the nature of self-consciousness is to search for meaning and to accept radical insecurity as that part of life that makes us searching creatures. To search is to admit a sense of incompleteness. Religion is one prong of that search but that human sense of insecurity plagues us until we are driven to assert that in our particular religious pathway certainty has been achieved. The witness of history is that when religion claims certainty it turns demonic. That is when you get persecution, excommunication, burning heretics at the stake, religious wars and finally religious acts of terrorism. When religion dies, people turn to material comfort hiding from life's meaninglessness in extensive possessions. I have never met a person, however, who feels that he or she finally has enough things not to seek more.

A third possibility that I commend to you is to see the search for meaning as a journey without end, a walk into the mystery of God. On that walk there are no road maps or directional signs. It is a walk that needs to be taken in the company of fellow seekers. On that journey questions are shared and all answers are challenged. That I believe is what the future of the Church will look like.

For you and those like you, I hope you will find this kind of community somewhere and in it learn that the gift you have to offer the church is the criticism that arises from your atheist perspective. The church should welcome that gift for its own sake and should honor it as a worthy gift that the church needs to receive.

I wish you well on your journey.

-- John Shelby Spong




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