The Origins of the Bible, Part VIII The Priestly Revision of the Jewish Sacred Story (B)

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 18 June 2008 0 Comments
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I've been much concerned over what seems to me great damage done
by those religious leaders who believe that they KNOW the mind and
will of God — usually based upon a literalistic and uncritical
bibliolatry. I wonder whether you would agree with, disagree with,
amend, or consign to oblivion the following line of thought.

As Immanuel Kant showed quite well, I think, we humans cannot claim
knowledge of anything that transcends the realm of our ordinary
spatio-temporal condition. I think this is so, and it helps to
explain why, in matters of theology having to do with gods or God,
there are so many different and conflicting views prevailing in
various human traditions — traditions of humans who are
obviously quite rational beings. On the other hand, I find it
interesting that, when it comes to basic moral rules, the major world
religions come up with rules or principles that are astonishingly
similar. They are not identical, but there is much overlap and
agreement, I believe, on the most important things. But our basic
moral principles are learned through ordinary human experience —
becoming aware of the consequences of this or that sort of behavior.
Even St. Thomas Aquinas believed that revelation was not required for
humans to learn what he called the "natural virtues." To conclude, as
I have, that one cannot claim to KNOW the nature, mind and will of
God, does not, however, mean that one may not EXPERIENCE a reality
that calls forth one's reverence and commitment. I have come to the
point of regarding much of what is in the Bible as myth, as legend, as
tribalistic propaganda — and, indeed, some passages that if
taken as God-inspired, would imply a God that is not worthy of our
devotion. There is in the Bible, however, a great deal that inspires
an awareness of that which is, indeed, worthy of our ultimate
commitment and devotion. I think in this connection of the basic
message of the great prophets, and of what Paul Tillich called "the
picture of Jesus Christ." A renunciation of absolute and dogmatic
claims of knowledge and an appeal to our ordinary experiences of what
makes life sublime might, I think, lead to greater tolerance —
and openness to the spiritual riches of other traditions.


You have hit the biggest issue in the contemporary theological
debate squarely on the head. I could not agree with you more.

The word God is a human construct. The attributes we
connect with the word God are human attributes. All of our
creeds and doctrines of God are human creations. It could not be
otherwise. We are human beings. We can only think with human minds.
Vocabulary is a human creation.

If God is real, as I believe God is, I can experience God but I
can never define God. I can never escape the limits of my human mind.
Try to imagine an insect, limited, as insects are, to the
consciousness of an insect, trying to describe what it means to be a
bird! Try to imagine a horse, limited as a horse is by the
consciousness of a horse, trying to describe what it means to be
human. Try to imagine a human being, limited as human beings are to
the consciousness of a human being, trying to describe what it means
to be God, then you will begin to understand this issue perfectly.
Unfortunately, great numbers of religious people, including religious
leaders, are not able to do this.

Human beings can discuss our God experience, but that does not equip
us to discuss who God is. When Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, Jews and
Christians meet together, they cannot debate the nature of God, since
none of them is privy to God's true nature. All they can do is to
debate the validity of their varied human experiences and the
conclusions to which they have arrived based on that experience. They
can wonder whether their experiences of God are real or are delusional
but that is as far as the human mind can go. If we realized just
that, then interfaith disagreements would not be about who God is, but
about how each believes he or she has experienced God. That would
make for a radically different conversation. It would be more humble
and less arrogant, more a search for truth than the claim of already
possessing it. I yearn for that level of honesty. I rejoice that you
see it so clearly.

John Shelby Spong




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