The Study of Life, Part 5: Galapagos II — My Search for the Meaning of Life as I Walked in Darwin's Footsteps

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 27 August 2009 0 Comments
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Hans Jørgen Danielsen from Norway writes:

With great enthusiasm I've just finished your book Jesus for the Non-Religious. Among your other writings, your continuous search and consistent campaign in this book for a new reformation within the Christian Church is truly among the deepest and most honest I have come across!

You touch a string deep within me. For years I have questioned the path Christianity has taken — a path that leads nowhere. While "everybody" sees it, they keep these things to themselves, not daring to speak up. The clergy look elsewhere — towards scripture and the "immortal" dogmas. They flee a situation because they don't want to get involved in it. Instead their stubborn attitude just reinforces a situation that gives no answers to the ever-increasing gap between knowledge and religious dogmas.

We see signs of Christian fundamentalism in certain circles in the United States, where a movement presented by Philip Johnson has launched the "wedge of truth" strategy, a wedge that is supposed to be forced through all new discoveries in evolution or in astronomy. This wedge is supposed to break up our acceptance to new findings by pointing to the ever-important Bible. This is no less than religious despotism! By cutting out humanity's quest for knowledge, we cut out what it means to be human beings. Evolution will never end. Humankind will develop further into something we don't see today. And we shall all disappear someday — either self-conflicted or through earthly conditions being too harsh on us.

Christian dogmas have historically limited the human quest. No better can we witness this by studying the enlightenment that followed the middle ages. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo — they all went forward against the oppression from the Church, facing grave consequences. For Kepler this meant he had to abandon his astronomical studies, having been ordered to return to the university in T


Dear Hans,

Thank you for your letter and your enthusiasm for my work. I was recently in Stockholm addressing a conference on "Rethinking the Christian Faith" attended by people from Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Poland. I mention this so that you will know that you are not alone and that there are some in the church who wrestle with the things that you describe. Among the senior leaders at this conference were two Norwegian pastors, both from Oslo, Grete Haugen and Helge Hognestad. You might want to be in touch with them. Both are wonderful people.

We need to understand the role organized religion plays in the lives of most people. It is part of the human security system. Most people seek security, not truth, in their religious pilgrimage. The trouble with security is that it never lasts. In the words of the poet James Russell Lowell, "Time makes ancient good uncouth." Yet we continue to make idols out of yesterday's consensus. This is true in science, as Niels Bohr discovered when Albert Einstein could not embrace quantum weirdness. It is true in politics and was quite visible when both the Roosevelt revolution on the left and the Reagan revolution on the right disturbed the status quo. It is also true in religion when we constantly define religious truth as unchanging, infallible, inerrant or external. It is the nature of self-conscious human life to be insecure. Religion, when it seeks security or peace of mind, is actually violating our humanity. So religion and religious leaders will always be conservative, resistant to change and highly critical of those who have new insights or who walk to the beat of a different drummer.

There will, however, also always be those in the church who see a bit further. They will be an uncomfortable presence. People will call them heretics and their thought revolutionary, but if it is true it cannot be denied. The history of the Church reveals that yesterday's heresy is tomorrow's orthodoxy. The Vatican admitted in 1991 that Galileo was right. The Church is still making peace with Darwin and Freud. We have not yet begun to wrestle with Einstein and Hawking, but we will.

In such a church I believe people like you have a great role to play. You need to challenge regularly the idea that truth can ever be captured in a Bible, a creed, a doctrine or a dogma. You need to support those people in the Church who press the edges, create the controversy and think outside the traditional boxes. Above all, you must never abandon this institution to the small minds that content themselves with the task of preserving the dated truth of yesterday as if God could ever be captured in human words.

Such a vocation will not win you popularity, but about 25 years after you have died, appreciation for you will begin to grow. If you have any doubts about the truth of which I speak ask Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, John A. T. Robinson or even Jesus of Nazareth.

I hope our paths cross some day.

John Shelby Spong




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