Israel: A Secular State Erected on a Religious Base

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 7 May 2009 0 Comments
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I struggle with reconciling my "personal" experience of God when I can no longer hold to a personal God. How do you, or would you, help a member of a congregation you are serving understand the dichotomy of progressive religion?


Dear Pastor,

Thank you for your question. I know the mindset of the state and community in which you live and work and I know the struggle that goes on in many clergy between their integrity and their desire not to offend the common wisdom of the world in which they live.

The first thing you need to do is to recognize that for most people religion is not a search for truth, but a search for security. Security is not well served by opening up questions for which there are no answers. You must begin by accepting people where they are. A good pastor, however, does not leave them there forever, for that means they will never grow.

I would avoid a frontal assault on religious ignorance from the pulpit. Remember that a sermon in church does not offer people time to process or space to disagree. They cannot talk back and so they must absorb, resist or close their minds.

There are other activities that do not have these shortcomings. Study groups, where the standard is that there is no such thing as a "dumb question," allow dialogue and growth to take place. A book study group allows the author of the book to be the one raising the issues and thus allows the minister to facilitate the discussion. In newsletters to their congregations I think clergy should write think pieces that invite dialogue and that say, "Tell me what you think of these ideas." People will actually read such pieces and they can be the means for opening up deep conversations and significant personal interaction.

Of course, when we say God is personal, we are not describing God; we are describing our experience of God. Since we are persons, we can receive the transcendent power of life, love and being only as "personal." There is nothing wrong with that. To move from these to a statement about what God's being actually is, however, is more than any of us should claim.

I have never known an honest and open theological attempt to probe the mystery of God to be destructive.

I wish you well in your ministry.

~John Shelby Spong



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