The Origins of the New Testament, Part XXVI: The Book of Acts

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 17 June 2010 0 Comments
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Dr. Lennart Peterson of Gainesville, Florida, writes:

I am professor of physics, emeritus, from the University of Florida and I am a Unitarian. Several years ago, I had a conversation with a man who was doing some carpentry work for me and this conversation made a deep and frustrating impression on me. He asked me if I believed in the Bible. I gave the usual Unitarian type of "no" as a reply and proceeded to give an example. I related to him the story of the rainbow that God supposedly made as a promise never again to destroy mankind by a flood. I explained that, as a physicist, I can very easily deduce everything about a rainbow just by applying very basic physical principles. Therefore, if the story was true, then it follows that the laws of physics must have been different after the flood than before the flood. Since this makes no sense to me, the story can not be true. The man had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. This leads me to my question. Fundamentalism requires one to suspend logical thinking. But logical thinking, especially as it pertains to scientific knowledge, is a weakness in the U.S. and in underdeveloped areas. How can people who do not have this scientific knowledge and who cannot apply the logic of science be helped to understand the narrowness of their point of view? How do I as a scientist talk to them in a mutually constructive and humane way?


Dear Len,

Thank you for your questions. I enjoyed meeting you at the lecture series that I gave last August at the Highlands Institute for American Religious and Philosophical Thought (HIARPT) in the mountains of western North Carolina.

As a child of fundamentalism, I think the thing that you do not fully grasp is that fundamentalism is designed to enhance security rather than to engage truth. The tragedy is that its tenacious hold on peoples' lives exerts political pressure that keeps education in some parts of this country captive to the religious power structure. The idea that any school board in the developed world would allow "creation science" to be discussed or taught in a science classroom in America only shows how deep this distortion is. This past year, a group of Texas Conservatives objected to the President of the United States speaking in a Texas school because they did not want their children subjected to "socialist propaganda." That is simply another illustration of the same phenomenon.

In my recently published book, Eternal Life: A New Vision, I sought to show how all human religion was developed to help frightened self-conscious human beings cope with the trauma of self-consciousness. Until we understand that connection, we will continue to see fundamentalism as the "suspension of logical thinking."

The cure for this tragedy in education is twofold. One side is that science, in all its persuasive power, must be taught in every classroom in America without compromise. That is the responsibility of the secular world of education. Not to do that is to relegate our children to lives of non-competitive ignorance.

The second aspect to the dilemma is for organized religion in general, and for the Christian Church in particular, to rediscover the necessity for educating their people about faith issues. That is simply not done in the vast majority of congregations. Part of the reason is that we do not know how to do it, but another part of the reason is that we fear the consequences of truth. Until we wake up to this challenge, however, we will force the Christian world to confront the ever-expanding learning of the scientific world with a fourth grade Sunday school Christian education. This will mean that our children will grow up thinking they have to choose between science and religion, not between science and bad religion. As long as churches don't understand these issues and refuse to undertake competent education in our churches, the problem will continue. Because of our inability to confront this problem, we allow bad theology and dated religious concepts to continue to vie for people's loyalty in the public arena. That is not a winning formula and the church will inevitably lose that fight. Indeed, if the Christian Church continues to choose that tactic, it will almost certainly mortally wound itself.

The Unitarian tradition does this better than most. The other parts of the Christian faith need to move quickly into this arena.

Thanks for your question.

– John Shelby Spong



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