An Author's Postpartum

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 13 April 2005 0 Comments
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The human race seems to need rituals. Christmas, Easter, Baptisms and Eucharist/Communion are times and events that attract the most people to the church and corporate worship. Yet these same rituals are the ones where the theistic God is most evident and reinforced. How can we address this paradox?


You are absolutely correct that human beings seem to need rituals. Since the primary way of understanding God for most of human beings over the last 10,000 years has been theistic, it should surprise no one that most human rituals involve a theistic deity. Is that inevitable? I do not think so. Please be aware that Christmas was set in the winter solstice as a way of seeing God as the Light of the World. Hanukkah was set in the winter solstice as a way of celebrating the return of the light of true worship to the Temple in the 2nd century BCE at the time of Judas Maccabeas. Prior to that every ancient worship tradition in the northern hemisphere celebrated the day on which the sun stopped its relentless retreat into darkness and began its return to the world it appeared to be leaving.

Similarly spring rites marking the return of life from the soil was the substratum on which Passover for the Jews and Easter for the Christians celebrate the transition from the death of slavery into the life of liberty for the Jews and the transition from the death of sin to the resurrected Christ for the Christians.

Baptism is a rite celebrating birth and thus the continuity of the human race. It certainly pre-dated Christianity and I think it will postdate traditional Christianity. Its content has changed over the years. Not many people think of it today as washing the stain of Adam's sin from the newborn baby, but that was a major theme earlier in Christian history. That is why people were taught to baptize the child quickly lest the child die unbaptized and thus still in the original sin of Adam and thus precluded from God's presence through all eternity. When we recognize that all life has emerged out of water, that birth occurs with the breaking of the maternal waters then it seems to me that water will always be used to celebrate birth. The content will change; the form will endure.

The Eucharist is now traditionally understood as the liturgical re-enactment of the death of Jesus on the cross that overcame the sin of the world. That makes little sense in a past-Darwinian world where there was neither a perfect creation, nor subsequent fall, but the emergence of life out of the evolutionary soup of antiquity. What does make sense, however, is that through the sharing of food in community humanity is enhanced. So a liturgical feeding experience might be exactly what the church of the future needs.

The experience found in the symbol is always more profound that the explanations imposed on the symbol. When we understand that we will know that one doesn't displace meaningless symbols, one displaces meaningless content that if not displaced will kill the symbol. I hope this helps.

--John Shelby Spong

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