The Origins of the New Testament, Part IV: The Oral Period

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 29 October 2009 0 Comments
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Mary Heins of Indianapolis, Indiana, writes:

As I read your description of the conference held in Porthmadog ("Wales: Where Visions of a Christian Future Are Being Born," June 25, 2009), I wondered if any mention was made of prayer. Do post-Christians, agnostics or even atheists pray? Is there acknowledgement of a higher being, perhaps a creator, a mind or consciousness? Prayer seems like such an important part of your life as well as many traditional Christians. The God I pray to these days is Spirit, the Spirit within which we live, move and have our being. This Spirit permeates all created life; it births life but also allows death, which is the passageway to the pure Spirit. Spirit is not all powerful, but is rather a guide, a way leading us. Spirit does not control natural forces of wind and water, etc., but I do not know Spirit's relationship to these elements. Clearly, this "image" is of my own conjuring, drawing from various sources, but for the purpose of directing, focusing and attaching my spiritual longings to "Another." What or who is the object of my prayer, if any, for such as those you describe in the Wales conference?


Dear Mary,

As I try to recollect the Porthmadog, Wales, conference, I do not recall a focus on prayer, and yet the conference itself was held in the context of and surrounded by the liturgies of the Church, all of which had prayer as part of them.

I do not think that prayer is the place to begin when trying to reform Christianity for the future. Prayer, at least as it is traditionally understood, is a byproduct of a particular theological understanding of God. The God to whom most people address their prayers is a being, supernatural in power, located somewhere outside this world and thus invoked to enter this world in some miraculous way to establish the divine will or to answer our prayers. If that definition of God dies then that understanding of prayer will die with it. So this conference was on the primary issue of how do we conceptualize God, not on the secondary issue of how do we pray to the God we have already defined.

What you have done in your letter is to recognize that the old God definition is no longer operative for you and so you have sought another definition. You try to enfold prayer into this new definition. I think you are on the right path and I encourage you to walk even more deeply into it.

I think "theism," which is the traditional definition of God as a supernatural, external being, who comes to our aid, is dying. I think this definition of God is the casualty of an expanded world view, but I do not think God is dying, so I seek to go beyond "theism" but not beyond God. Once the theistic God is no longer in view, a redefinition of prayer is mandatory. I have worked on this for many years. My first book published in 1973 was entitled Honest Prayer. In my book A New Christianity for a New World I devoted two chapters to this subject. One of my colleagues, Gretta Vosper, who heads the Progressive Christian Network of Canada, is working now on that subject in a book as yet untitled, which will be published by Harper/Collins, Toronto, sometime in the next two years. I have every reason to believe that Gretta's book will move the debate forward significantly.

John Shelby Spong




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