The Origins of the Bible, Part XIX: Micah, the Prophet Who Turned Liturgy Into Life

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 15 January 2009 0 Comments
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I had the pleasure of shaking your hand during several book tours in New Zealand and Australia. I have always been moved and inspired by your sharing and teaching. I trained as a theologian before having "a road to Damascus" experience with homeopathic medicine while in Divinity School at St. Andrew's University in Scotland. I have devoted the last 25 years of my life to learning, practicing and teaching this marvelous approach to health and disease. My love of theology, however, never waned, though I counted myself as a believer in Exile for many years. In 2001, I returned to shared communal worship in the Anglican tradition in New Zealand (where I am lay representative to the General Synod from the Diocese of Waipu) and in the Balmain Uniting Church in Sydney (where I serve as an elder and occasional preacher). My professional and personal life is enjoyed in equal measure in Australia and New Zealand. I attended the Common Dreams Conference in Sydney in August 2007 and very much enjoyed your contributions. I am aware that you are engaged in a study about life beyond death. I hope you will continue this exploration and share your findings in a book! The biblical scholar in me was inspired to suggest to your particular consideration of the conclusion that the historical Jesus probably said, "Let the dead bury the dead!" I remember first discussing this potentially troubling phrase in an undergraduate religion class at William and Mary led by visiting professor E. (Ed) P. Sanders, who had just finished his great work, Jesus and Judaism. As a class we had just read Albert Schweitzer's Quest for the Historical Jesus and were discussing the historical bombshell that it created and the continuing impact of modern biblical criticisms upon the "red letter" attributions to Jesus in the gospels. The "dead bury the dead" phrase seems to suggest that Jesus was perhaps disrespectful of the honoring of the dead required in the Jewish Law, but also the fact that such a radical pronouncement meant that it was what Jesus had actually said. Maybe the gospel writers preserved one aspect of Jesus' radical insight. Perhaps it was a way of teaching us that death is not where our focus ought to be. Instead our focus is best placed on the "now" and, as you often say, to love wastefully. I support your inspiration to write a book on death and everlastingness! (I recently prepared a sermon that summarized some of the main points of process theology and re-visited Charles Hartshorne's ideas about immortality being not a subjunctive continuing presence of a single being but rather could be conceived of as an objective immortality in the all-encompassing/never lostness of the mind of God. So perhaps some food for thought there!) Yours with respect and gratitude.


Thank you for your letter and your thought. The book about which you write was submitted to my publisher, Harper-Collins, in late October of 2008. It will be published in the summer of 2009. I believe I have followed your advice, though I did not refer to Jesus' words, "Let the dead bury the dead."

I do think the focus can never be on death in such a study. It has to be on life. What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be human? What path have we journeyed in our billions of years of evolutionary unfolding to get to this point? What is the barrier between consciousness and self-consciousness, and what does it do to human beings who alone have been forced to cross that boundary?

I will argue in the book that it is only by exploring life that we can make any sense out of death. When life is driven to its very depths, I believe it then opens into transcendence. I will try to make that case. Life beyond death has nothing to do with endless time, but with perceiving new meaning. I admire Charles Hartshorne, but I will not make my case in his categories.

The hardest thing I had to do was to transcend the dimensions of time and space, to go beyond all religious systems including my own and to seek a new way to speak about God other than in the language of theism, which long ago lost its power for me.

I am confident that this book, whose title will be Eternal Life: Pious Dream or Realistic Hope? (a subtitle will be added, but that has not yet been determined), will confound my critics and confuse my friends. It was the hardest writing task I have ever undertaken. I worked with a science advisor, Dr. Daniel H. Gregory, because I wanted to go into the meaning of life from an evolutionary point of view as well as exploring the relationship of various parts of the brain to human behavior. I rewrote the book in its entirety three times. I have in my office 5000 rejected pages in my hand-written scrawl. Finally, however, it seemed to come together.

I will await the verdict of my readers when it appears on the bookstands late next summer. In the meantime, thank you for your interest, your encouragement and for taking the time to write.

~ John Shelby Spong



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