An Audacious Institution

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 14 February 2007 0 Comments
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I am a 63-year-old man who was raised in the Pentecostal Church until I

rebelled and forced my way out at about age 14. I subsequently have lived

my life with the existence of God as an open philosophical question to me

and with utter contempt for all religious structures and teachings. I have

always thought they were self-serving as institutions and for the people who

wrap themselves in those teachings.

I once had a conversation with two doctors who were both raised in the

same Muslim faith. One remains devout in the most human way. The other has

drifted from the religion of his birth. He now believes that "democracy"

is the best religion. I have thought about his concept and your teachings

as I have read them in your newsletter and several of your books.

Democracy, in its purest form, and the Christ experience as you ponder and

teach it. What a marvelous concept. In a pure democracy there would be

neither "man nor woman" nor any other of the differences that exist now in

our world and religions. For me, my recent reading of your teaching on Paul

and the scripture quoted above seems to make "democracy" and humanity the

best religion. As for the Christ experience and your teachings not just of

faith but humanity in the Christ experience, it is something I have started

to think about. I must thank you for a lifetime of faith, work and all that

goes into it so that one day I might pick up your writings, read them, and



BELIEVE THEY ARE RIGHT?? Maybe there is a new Christianity that would

reveal itself in me, but perhaps not in my lifetime. Thank you for

reaching out to people like me. I look forward to each newsletter.


Thank you for your letter and a description of your pilgrimage. You

are certainly traveling in the same direction that I find myself walking. I

think faith is a journey to be undertaken not a set of propositions to be


Religion always seems to begin in childlike immaturity in which God is

portrayed as a being, supernatural in power, eager to bless, protect and

care for us in our childlike fear. As we mature, the need for the parent

God fades and the divine, as being itself or as that experience of

transcendence, comes into focus. The boundary between humanity and divinity

also fades and the two seem to penetrate each other, making the way into the

divine and the journey into self-awareness quite similar. The goal of the

Christian life then becomes not rescue from the bondage of sin, but

expansion into a deeper sense of what it means to be human.

This approach represents, I believe, a significant shift in

consciousness. It also makes it clear that the content of the traditional

religious myths is no longer operative. Facing the end of traditional

religious systems, we fear that nothingness dwells at the heart of life and

that drives us to create security systems to protect us from our fear. Some

are religious and they always claim to possess inerrant truth or to be

guided by an infallible authority. Others seek to lose themselves in the

pursuit of the idols of alcohol, drugs, sex, wealth and pleasure. Still

others sink into the despair of being alone in an impersonal universe. I

believe there is a better option.

My sense is that the Christianity of the future must be willing to let

go the content of yesterday in a far more radical way than people have yet

imagined, but to do so without sacrificing the experience that created

yesterday's content. Only then can we begin the slow and laborious task of

developing new content to make sense of the eternal experience of being


Long after fundamentalist churches have moved away from their excessive

but uninformed zeal and long after Benedict XVI has discovered that no one

can return to the Middle Ages without committing intellectual suicide, a

still, small voice will speak and a new reformation will begin on the edges

of yesterday's religious systems and slowly begin to make its way into the

center of our reality. I live for that day.

John Shelby Spong




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