A Conversation in Grebenstein, Germany

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 17 January 2006 0 Comments
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Belief Net is currently offering a self-administered theological inventory.

You answer a series of theological questions and end with a score that

places you in one of five categories along a spectrum ranging from atheism

to fundamentalism. Each of the five categories is characterized by typical

beliefs, plus the name of a prominent American churchman whose teaching and

preaching are examples of that style of belief. You will be relieved to

learn that you are the poster boy for the most liberal category, next to

atheism at the end of the spectrum.


With all due respect to my friends at BeliefNet, that chart is both

misleading and profoundly inadequate to ascertain any data about anyone,

primarily because they do not define any of their terms. For example,

strictly speaking, atheism does not mean asserting that there is no God. It

is rather an assertion that the theistic understanding of God has become

unbelievable. That is a distinction that the people at BeliefNet do not


We are in our world today in a period of intense theological upheaval.

That upheaval is characterized by both a rise in fundamentalism and a

corresponding increase in the number of people who reject all religious

symbols as no longer meaningful. So we have religious fanaticism confronting

an increasingly secular society. In this divisive atmosphere, there are the

Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons on one side and the Richard Dawkins' and

Sam Harris' on the other.

I find myself generally in agreement with the criticisms of organized

religion, including Christianity, leveled by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

Their biggest problem is not their criticism, which I find quite accurate,

but that the Christianity they reject is a very poor representation of what

Christianity was meant to be. It is because they know no other Christianity

than this popular expression, they believe that atheism is the only viable

alternative to the Christianity they have known and rejected. They have

never explored the essence of Christianity because that essence lives in

such tiny and hidden places. I think the theism of popular Christianity is

dying and that is why many people think Christianity is dying. The idea that

God is a supernatural being, who inhabits outer space somewhere and who

occasionally intervenes in this world in miraculous ways, is not a credible

concept to me. Since this is the only concept of God that many people can

imagine, they see atheism as the only viable alternative. Nothing reveals

better the bleakness of so much of contemporary Christianity.

I am a believer who is not a theist. Some people mistakenly assume that

an atheist is the same thing as a non-theist. Nothing could be further from

the truth. If anything, I am a god-intoxicated human being, perhaps even a

mystic. I experience God as 'Other,' as 'Transcendence,' as 'Depth,' and as

the ultimate meaning of life. I believe that humanity and divinity are not

separate categories, but represent the eternal spectrum of human experience.

Divinity is the depth dimension of humanity. I see this God presence lived

out in the human life of Jesus of Nazareth. I search the Scriptures to find

images of God that transcend the theistic images of the childhood of our

humanity; the old man in the sky with the magic power that permeated

primitive religious thought. I find it in the unwillingness of the ancient

Jewish writers of our sacred story to have the name of God spoken by human

lips since no human mind can embrace the reality of God sufficiently to

speak the divine name. I see it in the Jewish commandment that we are never

to make an image of God since nothing made with human hands or constructed

by the human mind can finally be big enough to capture the Holy God. Yet

religious people constantly think that the human creations of scripture,

creeds and doctrines have somehow embraced the wonder of the holy. These

are nothing more, however, than verbal "graven images." I find the Bible

in some places is reduced to defining God in impersonal images because the

personal ones become so false when literalized. So God is defined in what I

call the minority voices of the Bible as like unto the wind, the rock and

even as the power and source of love.

When human beings talk about God, all they are really doing is talking

about their human experience of God. When that truth is faced, certainty of

expression disappears but the experience of God does not. I wish not only

that the people at BeliefNet, but also most religious reporters in our

newspapers and above all the radio preachers, were aware of and could

embrace that human limitation.

John Shelby Spong




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