The Origins of the New Testament, Part I: Introduction

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 17 September 2009 0 Comments
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Deb McCollister from Nebraska writes:

Militant fundamentalism in any family of faith seems to threaten our world. Readers of your newsletter are aware of Christian scholars who examine long-held assumptions. Can you tell us about penetrating scholarship in other faith walks, study that examines history while seeking meaning and deeper truths?


Dear Deb,

A very good question. The intellectual revolution that started with Copernicus and traveled through Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and many others has had an enormous impact on the religious tradition of the west in both Judaism and Christianity. We have also in both traditions been dealing with critical biblical scholarship for about 200 years. That scholarship, while welcomed by many, has also served to create a fundamentalist backlash in parts of Christianity and Judaism. We have certainly seen evidence of this in the political arena, where the religious right has been very vocal in America in the fight to restore prayer to the classrooms of public schools, to resist the teaching of evolution, to oppose sex education and to keep people like Terri Schiavo alive well after anything resembling real life had long departed.

In the less developed and less well educated parts of the world, religion serves a variety of purposes. It gives hope to the hopelessness of the poor and downtrodden. It links people with their ancestral past. It helps them deal with the radical insecurity of human existence. When threatened by challenging insights into the origins of these faith traditions, many religious people who are unable to embrace or to process new religious ideas turn defensive and become both rejecting and fundamentalist. There is not as yet a tradition of radical religious scholarship in Islam that would call into question the way fundamentalist Muslims today use the Koran to justify violence. In the world of Buddhism and Hinduism I find today that the intellectually elite simply walk out of religion into secularism. Religion therefore becomes more and more the activity of the unlearned. It is therefore more and more likely to resist change, which makes modernizing that religious system all but impossible.

I am convinced that my religious heritage points me to truth that no religion in and of itself can envision. I do not believe that secular non-belief is the only alternative to being religious, but it takes hard work, deep understanding, rich dialogue and a willingness to embrace vast amounts of fear and insecurity to reach this conclusion. I can testify, however, that to me it has been well worthwhile. As a witness to this truth let me quote a retired bishop who said, "The older I get the more deeply I believe, but the fewer beliefs I have." I think that is where I am and I believe that is where all religious systems will have to go if they want to live in our 21st century world.

Change must come, however, from within the religious system itself. It can never be imposed from outside. So you and I, Deb, must work within the faith of our fathers and mothers. I have found my journey into the depths of Christianity to be the most exciting adventure and the most affirming experience of my life. I invite others to journey with me into the unfathomable mystery of God and life and being.

John Shelby Spong



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