The Origins of the Bible, Part XXV: The Book of Psalms

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 30 April 2009 0 Comments
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I lead two study groups that have covered several of your books, and we are currently reading The Sins of Scripture. I would like to know about your new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. Both groups have expressed an interest in reading this book next, after we finish The Sins of Scripture in April. Both groups, mostly seniors, all life-long Christians and representing three denominations, have found The Sins of the Scripture fascinating, raising many questions and challenges. I think I've read all of your books, and I think this is your best. I have studied and taught theology for more than 40 years, but even I am learning things I did not know. Although I am mostly in complete agreement with your position (some of the group members are not so sure), it has been most exciting for me to see things in scripture I had not seen before. Or perhaps more accurately realized things are not there that I thought were.
Yesterday we were discussing the section on the Bible and Children. I was amazed at how little actual reference there is to hell, sin, guilt and punishment in the New Testament. All I could think of was the library at the college where I taught, which is filled with theological books about sin, salvation and redemption. You are making vast collections in theological libraries literally out of date. But as a process theologian I believe that every word that we utter is in a sense out of date by the time it s uttered as reality has changed in that split second. It was in process theology that I first met the ideas of a non-interventionist God and a Jesus who was human, albeit a very special human being. My faith journey has been a long, rich and very fruitful one, which I have tried to share as a religious educator with anyone who was interested. Thank you for the many years you have been doing the same in a much more public way. I just hope the church is listening, though as you point out from time to time it is a mixed reaction of relieved understanding for moving into the future and a fearful, defensive declaration of past beliefs. Thank you for saying we do not need to create the church of the future, just take steps toward helping that church to be a possibility. My little group yesterday found that very comforting.


Dear Professor Goggin,

Thank you for your letter. I am glad that your group has found The Sins of the Scripture helpful. Jesus for the Non-Religious came out in hardcover in September of 2007 and in paperback in the summer of 2008. It has had an interesting history.

For years I have sought to find a way to talk about the God Presence experienced in Jesus without using the language of traditional theology. That language lost its meaning for me when the understanding of God that I call "theism" lost its meaning. The theistic God forms the backbone of traditional theology. By "theism" I mean that view of God as a being, supernatural in power, external to life who invades life periodically in miraculous ways to accomplish the divine will or to answer prayers. Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo expanded the universe to such dimensions that this theistic God became homeless. Isaac Newton described the mathematically precise ways in which the natural laws of the world operated and the theistic God became unemployed. Charles Darwin destroyed the boundary between the animal world and human beings and the theistic God became uninvolved.

Yet the God experience continued to be real, and the affirmation that lies at the heart of Christianity (that in some way God had been encountered in a new way in the person of Jesus) drove me to find a new language in which to talk about Jesus that preserved the integrity of the God experience in him. Jesus for the Non-Religious was the result. It was the culmination of about forty years of theological wrestling. This book therefore became my favorite of all my titles and remains in that position to this day. It will be interesting to see whether my book on Eternal Life, scheduled for publication late next summer, will supplant it.

My interpretative clue in Jesus for the Non-Religious was to look at Jesus as his disciples and the gospel writers did, through a Jewish lens, and to see at least the synoptic gospels as liturgical books produced in and influenced by the synagogue. From that perspective the "supernatural" elements looked very different.

We get to Toronto from time to time. I would love to meet you and your class some time.

My thanks,
John Shelby Spong



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