The Origins of the Bible, Part XXII: Malachi and the Dawn of Universalism

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 19 March 2009 0 Comments
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Thank you for the stimulation of your published works and weekly newsletter. My question concerns the pastoral care of those Christians who do not have the intellectual capacity or strength of character to tolerate the ambiguity of your message. Rightly or wrongly their "simple" faith sustains them and many would be fatally undermined should they be confronted by doubts concerning such issues as the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection. Is it right to leave their views unchallenged, or should gentle sensitivity necessitate a less direct approach? I am aware that I will appear patronizing in posing this question, but from your own pastoral experience how have you dealt with this matter?


Your question is a frequent one, but in my opinion it reveals things under the surface that I believe need to be faced.

First, is your concern really for those whose "simple" faith is being disturbed by developing knowledge? Frequently I find this question asked by one who is himself disturbed, but projects it on to others.

Second, are you really suggesting that truth should be compromised for the sake of those who might not be able to understand? Does that not make religion a bit of an opiate for the people?

Third, if truth is to be compromised in the realm of the church for the sake of those who might not understand or for those you call simple believers, has not the church become totalitarian? Is that not an example of control by giving people security when they cannot deal with truth? Is such a formula followed in any other discipline of human knowledge? Is religion somehow virtuous when it does what would be deplored in any other human arena?

Fourth, the pursuit of truth in religion is never imposed on people by force. That is not the nature of liberal education. The only people who seem to me to impose specific religious answers on anyone are those evangelical Protestants or conservative Catholics who believe that they possess the unchanging truth of God.

Fifth, the task of the Christian is to love "the least of these" our brothers and sisters. Seeking to protect them from uncomfortable truth is not just patronizing as your letter suggests, it is both demeaning and dehumanizing.

Finally, one of my professors once said, "Any God who can be killed ought to be killed." To which I would add, any faith that can be undermined should be undermined. A God or a faith that needs you or me to prop it up has already died long ago. You do not need to defend a living God. Only dead gods seem to require that.

John Shelby Spong




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