Lauren Elizabeth Failla 1985-2010

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 20 May 2010 0 Comments
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Anne Fox, via the Internet, writes:

I have recently read a lot of your work in my search for a Christianity that makes sense and doesn't involve blind faith ignoring the contradictions of the Bible. Although your books have helped me to finally have the courage to walk away from many of the "traditional" beliefs, without fearing retribution, I find myself searching for the meaning of our existence. I used to find comfort in believing that innocent people who had miserable lives would no longer suffer after death and go on to a new "chapter" in their spiritual existence in some form of life after death which was a positive experience, wherever and whatever that many be. Now I found myself struggling to find meaning in life when so many people suffer. I really want to believe there is something more to us that just the physical cells. What do you think happens to us when our bodies die?


Dear Anne,

You are wrestling not with some tangential idea, but with reality itself. I congratulate you on that and urge you not to give up your quest. You are just at the beginning of discovery.

Western religion has traditionally taught us to think of God as external to this world, but who is nonetheless the source of life's meaning. It was the assumption of this theological position that this God can and will invade this world to make things right. That is why the unfair world is so difficult for most people to understand and why we have traditionally invested our hope for fairness, not in this life, but in life after death.

Many things have shaken our confidence in these concepts. This God above the sky seemed far more real when we thought the earth was the center of a three tiered universe. The all-seeing God above the sky was then endowed with record-book-keeping efficiency so that the afterlife would be appropriately be used to reward or punish us based on our deeds and misdeeds. What does one do with these ideas in the light of Copernicus and Galileo and the field of astrophysics that has flowed from them, confronting us with a universe so vast that our minds boggle to embrace it? The universe seems to be empty of this kind of divine presence.

We once defined this God above the sky as a "being," maybe the "Supreme Being," who possessed supernatural power and we expected this God to intervene into history on our behalf to accomplish the divine will or to answer our sometimes very self-centered and immature prayers. The work of Isaac Newton challenged this supernatural world of miracles and magic and left it gasping for life.

We once defined human life as a special creation made in the image of God, endowed with an immortal soul and "just a little lower than the angels." Then came Charles Darwin who defined us instead as "just a little higher than the apes." We began to see ourselves not as fallen angels, but as highly developed animals linked by DNA to everything from the plankton of the sea, to the cabbages, to the chimpanzees. Suddenly we wondered if there was any meaning to life other than the biological processes of being born, maturing, mating, reproducing and dying.

So it is that faith wavers in the modern world and the external supernatural being we once thought of as God might just turn out to be little more than a stage in human development. Certainly the God who is the one who rewards and punishes is little more than the behavior controlling parental deity that immature children seek.

I urge you to turn your attention inward not outward, to go so deeply into your own humanity that you escape its limits and begin to experience that which is transcendent or the divine presence. That is the only doorway that in my experience enables me to contemplate life after death. At least that is the path I sought to develop in my recent book, Eternal Life: A New Vision.

– John Shelby Spong



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