Miracles in the Bible, Part II

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 6 September 2006 0 Comments
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First of all, let me say that, if I can still consider myself a

Christian, it is thanks to you and your work. As a former

Catholic, I can only contrast your message of the God of Love

with the God of Judgment that we find in virtually all the modern

popes with the (miraculous?) exception of John XXIII. But I

sometimes find myself wondering: why not just do as I have done

and identify oneself primarily as a Buddhist? The Buddha isn't

God, he's just another human being who, like Jesus, pointed the

way for his fellow humans to find peace and liberation from

suffering. Scholars like Marcus Borg have indicated the

similarities between Jesus and the Buddha; and indeed, great and

inspiring people like Thich Nhat Hahn have indicated this in

their work as well.

Both Jesus and the Buddha point to the transforming power of

love/compassion that there is to be found in all of us. I think

that the traditional teachings on what has happened to Jesus

(sitting at the right hand of God) and the Buddha (becoming one

with the universe) are basically the same myths trying to capture

something that, so far, lies beyond the experience of most of us.

(Similarly, on a recent trip to Vietnam, I was struck by the

function that the bodhissatva of compassion Quan Am plays in

Vietnamese Buddhism - much the role of the Virgin Mary has in

Catholicism.) Part of me suspects that the reason why such

writers as you and Thich Nhat Hahn do NOT advocate Westerners

becoming Buddhists is because we have been raised in a culture

that, if it supports any spirituality, does so from a Christian


But for some of us, it is precisely the distortion of these

cultural aspects of the Christian message that makes it so hard

to see Jesus without what I call "spiritual interference." For

Catholics such as myself, it might be the spectre of the church

cover-ups of the abuse of so many children by its shepherds, or

the appalling cost wrought by Paul VI with his encyclical on

birth control. Maybe it is the reluctance of bishops to permit

women to even serve as altar girls, let alone priests and

bishops. Maybe some members of the Church Alumni Club have been

so worn out trying to see Jesus past the figures of Pat Robertson

and Jerry Falwell that they have forgotten how God's power shines

through such contemporary figures as Martin Luther King, William

Sloane Coffin, John Dear, Daniel Berrigan, Joan Chittester and

yourself. Am I on to something here? Basically my question is,

since the Church is so in need of reform, and since conservative

power is so entrenched, why not become a Buddhist? Or is there

really a difference I am missing?


You raise a fascinating issue. I have read Thich

Nhat Hahn with great pleasure and admire the Buddhism that I

know. I have a friend in England who, though still an Anglican

priest, describes himself as a Christian Buddhist Atheist. I'm

not sure I know what that means but it certainly combines some

interesting words not normally associated with each other.

I have had the privilege of engaging in an afternoon

long dialogue with a Buddhist monk in China and with a group of

three Hindu scholars in a daylong event in India. Out of these

two experiences, I came to an awareness that there is great

similarity in the religions of the world in the questions that

they all seek to answer. They are, after all, profound human

questions. The differences appeared in the ways the various

traditions sought to answer these human questions. Answers come

out of culture, environment, and circumstances and reflect the

worldview of the area in which those religious systems arose. I

do not know why that surprises anyone. There is no such thing as

God language. We have only human language to use and that is

always a reflection of the tribe, the culture and the history

that produced the language. I find little value in suggesting

that people change religions unless they also change cultures. I

doubt if a westerner could ever really plumb the depths of an

eastern religion although some certainly try to do so. I much

prefer to have people search out all that their own religious

tradition offers, purging the distortions, abandoning the things

that have become literalized and separating out all the political

compromises that every religious tradition has made on its walk

through history. I seek the essence of Christianity beyond the

Scriptures that were written well after the life of Jesus, beyond

the creeds that are third and fourth century creations or even

beyond the familiar words of our liturgies that were shaped most

dramatically by the 13th century. Our search for truth must

always go beyond our own religious tradition unless we assume

that 'the Holy' can be bound by the words of a 2000-3000 year old

religious system. I do not believe that God is a Christian or a

Buddhist. Yet both Christianity and Buddhism have pointed

hundreds of millions of people toward the mystery of God.

I walk the Christ path with both joy and expectation.

My sense is that I have only just begun to explore the depths of

Christianity. I would not want to stop this wonderful pilgrimage

to start over in another tradition.

Thank you for your question.

John Shelby Spong




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