On Death With Dignity

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 23 August 2005 0 Comments
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"I wonder if fiddling around on the periphery on the issues
of gay and lesbian rights can ever yield what the Church
lacks: a compelling vision which, if received and fulfilled,
would improve humanity as a whole. Christianity has no
unique truth and its claims, like those of all various
religions, is that it must rest upon a "Thus saith the Lord."
My own view, an ever-changing one I admit, is that the
Church has no transcendent truth to offer and knows it full
well. If nothing you offer has self-evident merit and you
can't admit the truth and survive as an organization, then
you resort to either intimidating everyone within into an
orthodoxy no one sees the sense or benefit in obeying any
longer or you wander aimlessly about preaching inoffensive
feel-good messages that everyone agrees with anyway without
getting out of bed early on a Sunday AM. Both directions
lead to irrelevance and that is the crux of the matter. The
Church is irrelevant because truth is irrelevant to the
Church and it has nothing to offer that I can't get elsewhere
without having to abandon my common sense or individual
autonomy. It either demands orthodoxy in matters even school
children should know are primitivistic and silly or it
demands orthodoxy toward a nameless Care Bear worldview that
scarcely needs a Church to propose it. Primitive tribal
codes or anomie. Not much to choose between and not much to
justify buildings, clergy, tax exemptions, satellite
channels, etc. Jesus was either a deity or a lay preacher.
Either there is a Christian God whose moral judgment is
somehow clearer than our own and should be accepted, assuming
it will provide a better result than a life of our own
devising, or the religion is simply one of many religious
delusions and a childish self-indulgence that intelligent
modern humanity should leave behind. I don't see a middle
ground that withstands rational examination. Even ER
physicians know there is a time to stop trying to resuscitate
a corpse."


You raise fascinating and challenging issues for which I
am grateful. You articulate well basic questions that the
Church's leadership tends so often to ignore. Let me

Human beings are responsible for the creation of every
doctrine of God, every creed and every religious system.
Since that it true then we should expect to see our religious
ideas be constantly corrupted by the human need to control
and to build power. Truth is always perceived subjectively
which means that truth is perceived differently in every
generation. There may well be objective and eternal truth but
no human being possesses it, no human being can perceive it
and no human being can articulate it. The assumption that
one can is the place where destructive religious arrogance
and the sin of idolatry always begin. How one understands
reality, the level of knowledge that one possesses, and the
time in which one lives are always factors in processing what
religious people mistakenly call "Revealed Truth." That is
when we make claims such as "our Pope is infallible," or "our
Bible is inerrant," or my religion possesses the only pathway
to God. Most religious systems never escape this mentality
since certainty, even a pretended certainty, seems to bring a
much-desired security to its adherents. However, human
history reveals that when a religious group claims certainty,
it also becomes demonic and tries to kill anyone who
disagrees, challenges or threatens their claim to truth.
Your criticism of Christianity seems to be a criticism of
what the Church has done to and with Christians and others
over the centuries. I think that is a valid criticism and
one that must be heard.

At the same time, however, we need to recognize that while
human beings certainly create their explanations of God, they
do not, I am persuaded, create the experience of
transcendence, the holy, and the Other that we have come to
call God. So while I am willing to challenge any human
explanation of God, I do not think that I can challenge
either effectively or ultimately the reality of the
experience of God.

Religious systems grow out of that experience. I live
within the Christian religious system. I walk the Christ
path into the mystery and wonder of God. I make no claim
that my path is the only path or that my truth is the only
truth. I regard God alone as Truth and I know that I do not
possess God. I only journey toward God.

When I look at the life of Jesus, I see one who is fully
alive, one who is totally and wastefully loving, one who has
the courage and the ability to be all that he can be.
Because I define my experience of God as that reality in
which I find the fullness of life, the totality of love and
the Ground of Being, I have no difficulty saying that in the
life of Jesus, I believe I confront the presence of God.
That is why I am committed to walking the Christ path.

Finally, I take seriously the words that the author of the
Fourth Gospel put into the mouth of Jesus. Attempting to
describe his purpose, Jesus is made to say, "I have come that
they may have life and have it abundantly." If that is a
statement of the purpose of Christ then I believe that must
also be the purpose of the Church. That is where I find
Christianity's compelling vision. The task of the Church is
to build a world in which every person has a better chance to
live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that that person
has the capability of being. So anything that diminishes
life for anyone, whether on the basis of race, ethnic origin,
gender, sexual orientation or even religion is evil and must
be confronted. Anything that enhances life, increases love
and calls others into being is good and must be encouraged.

It seems so simple to me. My work for justice for gay and
lesbian people, that is the issue that prompted your letter,
is not to me tangential to Christianity. It is rather the
very heart of what it means to be a Christian. I hope this
will help to clarify the issue. Thank you for forcing me to
think this through again.

— John Shelby Spong

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