Understanding Religious Anger

Essay by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 22 August 2006 0 Comments
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Question

I've wondered for a while about the definition of

theism and its implications. There seem to be three central

points you use most often. The God of theism is 1) external, 2)

supernatural, 3) intervenes in human lives. Does this statement

imply that God is the opposite of these three things?

Much of what you write suggests that this is clearly

true of point 3. You present God as not intervening and not

capable of intervening. The opposite of point 2 would seem to be

that God is natural. Is this a correct assumption and, if so,

how do you see God as manifest in the natural world? The

opposite of point 1 would seem to be that God is internal.

I'm very aware that I might be reading too much into

your words but the sense I get is that you suggest that God is

internal to human experience. This seems to fit with some modern

brain research that suggests that human beings are "hard-wired"

to believe in some higher power and to worship it. This research

suggests that belief in God is a natural part of being human

rather than a social construct imposed from without.

Is this the non-theistic understanding of God? Internal, natural

(thought not manifest outside of human consciousness) and unable

to intervene in the world (except perhaps through God's effects

on the consciousness of each believer?

Answer

Thank you for your penetrating and perceptive letter

that gives me an opportunity to think publicly once more about

the meaning of the word "God" in human experience.

Let me begin by making a distinction. I try not to

talk about the "God of theism." I regard theism as a human

definition of God. It is not who or what God is. Theism is a

human attempt to describe a God experience in pre-modern

language. Prior to Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, people

inevitably thought of God as a supernatural presence over the

natural world.

Before Isaac Newton, they thought of God as

setting aside the laws of the universe to do miracles or to

answer prayers. Before Darwin and Freud, they thought of God as

the external creator and portrayed God as a heavenly parent.

Prior to Einstein, they assumed that these perceptions were

objectively true and not subject to the relativity in which all

human thought dwells since both the time in which we live and the

space we occupy are relative, not absolute. So when I dismiss

theism, I am not dismissing God. I am dismissing one human image

of God that sought to define a human experience of the divine.

To suggest that if theism is not true then the

opposite of theism is true is to make the same mistake. Every

human attempt to define God is nothing more than a human attempt

to define the human experience of the divine. We can never tell

who God is or who God is not. We can only tell another of what

we believe our experience of God has been. Even then we have to

face the possibility that all of our God talk may be delusional.

When I try to talk of God, I am only talking of my

God experience. That is not what God is, that is only what I

believe my experience of God to be.

I do not experience God as a supernatural power,

external to life invading my world in supernatural power. I see

no evidence to think this definition is real. The problem is

that most people have most deeply identified this definition of

God with God that when this definition dies the victim of

expanded knowledge, we think that God has died.

I am not trying to form a new definition. I am only

trying to share an experience. In my human self-consciousness at

both the depth of life and on the edges of consciousness, I

believe I encounter a transcendent other. In that encounter, I

experience expanded life, the increased ability to love and a new

dimension of what it means to be. I call that experience God and

that experience leads me to say that if I meet God in expanded

life, God becomes for me the source of life. If I meet God in

the enhanced ability to love, God becomes for me the source of

love. If I meet God in an increased ability to be all that I am,

God becomes for me the ground of being.

I can talk about my experience. Having only a human

means of communication I cannot really talk about God. Horses

can experience a human being entering their horse consciousness,

but a horse could never tell another horse what it means to be

human. Somehow human beings have never quite embraced that fact

that this is also true about the human being's knowledge of God.

I do not know how God acts therefore I can never say

how God acts. For me to say God is unable to intervene would be

to say more than I know. For me to explain how God intervenes or

why God does not intervene is to claim knowledge of God that is

not mine.

I test my experience daily in the light of evolving

human language. The result of that is that every day I believe

in God more deeply, while at the same time, every day I seem to

have less and less beliefs about God. Human beings seem almost

incapable of embracing mystery, especially ultimate mystery. I

am content to walk daily with the mystery of God. I walk past

road maps, past religious systems, even my own but never beyond

the mystery of God. I suppose that makes me a mystic, but an

uncomfortable, never satisfied, always-evolving one.

I find great meaning and great power in this

approach. I commend it to you. Thank you for your super letter.

John Shelby Spong

 

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