The Origins of the New Testament, Part XXV: Concluding Luke and the Synoptic Gospels

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 3 June 2010 0 Comments
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I am interested in your theology of love when speaking about God loving creation, humans loving God, and even loving the neighbor. Understanding that love transcends human emotion, how does love manifest in these areas? If God, as you say, is not a being, how does God love the world, the universe? If God is not an entity, what does it mean to love God? Doesn't one need an object to express love? And if one doesn't know or is interested in the neighbor, whoever that might be, how does one love the neighbor? We religious people throw words around so carelessly, therefore I would appreciate your being as specific as possible.


Dear Barbara,

I am not sure that the problem is that people throw around words so carelessly, but that the only words we humans have to use are human words, bound by time, space and human experience. Whatever God is, God is surely beyond the boundaries of human life. So the more specific we are about God, the less accurate we probably are. Let me repeat my favorite analogy. Horses cannot escape the boundaries of what it means to be a horse, nor can a horse view life from any other lens or perspective save that of a horse. Therefore a horse could never describe what it means to be human. In a similar manner, a human being cannot escape the boundaries or perspective of what it means to be human and therefore can never define or describe what it means to be God. I wonder why it is that we not only continue to try to do the impossible, but even continue to persecute those who disagree with our definition or description.

So what are our realistic possibilities? We can describe just how it is that we experience God. We can always describe a human experience since that is within the realm of our competence. We do need to face the fact, in the name of honesty and to escape the most destructive elements of religion, that some human experiences are delusional.

By the word God I mean that which calls me beyond the limits of humanity, that which empowers me to live to love and to be. When someone asked the author of the First Epistle of John to define God, he did so by saying that "God is love." I think that what he meant by that was that it is the unanimous human experience that love expands life. Love is not something any human being can create. We must receive love before we can give it. We cannot hoard love once we have received it. Love that is not shared always dies. So love is a power that appears to relate us to something beyond ourselves. Love is thus a power that enables us to journey beyond the boundaries of the human and to embrace that which is transcendent. Love always manifests itself in enhanced life. Perhaps we should stop talking about God loving us or our loving God, since that kind of language turns God into a being. The proper language would be to relate the experience of love to the experience of God. We would then recognize that the word "God" is a human construction that seeks to define the experience of transcendence, which calls us more deeply into what it means to be human.

If one has identified God with the love that enhances life then the way we love our neighbor, both known and unknown, is to act toward them in such a way as to enhance their humanity. Once we break this language barrier and begin to think through the dimensions of speaking not about God, but about our experience of God, then I believe we could reconstruct the Jesus story on this basis and be within the context of Jesus' purpose as St. John defines it, "That they may have life and have it abundantly."

Thank you for your question and for forcing me to put new words into this equation.

~John Shelby Spong



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