The Origins of the New Testament, Part XXXII: Introducing the Johannine Material

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 5 August 2010 0 Comments
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Bert Knapp from Granbury, Texas, writes:

I have just finished reading your latest book, Eternal Life: A New Vision. I believe the thought you stated, but I have been afraid and almost ashamed to admit it. I am 81 years old and my journey of faith has involved many changes. I certainly enjoy reading your weekly columns and look forward each week to reading your latest series on "The Origins of the New Testament." After reading your book, however, I am curious about your position on prayer. I will appreciate receiving your thoughts.

A grateful reader.


Dear Bert,

Congratulations on reaching your 81st birthday. You are just a little ahead of me!

Thank you for your comments on my book and columns.

I think about prayer frequently. I write about it seldom. I can, however, refer you to two places. The first is in my first book, "Honest Prayer," originally published in 1973, but now back in print through St. Johan's Press in Haworth, New Jersey. It is a book that was inspired by conversations I had with a woman in the mountain town of Pearisburg, Virginia, named Cornelia Newton, who was in her early forties, married to a doctor and the mother of three young children. She was dying of an incurable malignancy. It is what I all "early Spong," that is, it represented my early attempts to make sense out of life's tragedies. I do not today disagree with anything I said there, but over the years I have moved beyond where I was when that book was written, not so much to a different place, but to a deeper place. In 2002, I dedicated two chapters to the subject of prayer in a book entitled, A New Christianity for a New World. That reflects much more my present understanding of prayer, but it is ever changing and ever growing.

To respond quickly, the way one thinks about prayer is determined almost 100% by how one understands the meaning of God. For most people, God is an external, supernatural presence, who can come to our aid, setting aside the laws of the universe to accomplish a divinely inspired purpose. It is that concept of God which, I believe, distorts human life again and again. That understanding presents us with a parent God who keeps us in the status of being perpetual, spiritual children. This is also an immoral God who has the power to influence events in the world and yet seldom uses it. This is a God who had the power to stop tragedy, but instead allows such things as the Holocaust, the Bubonic Plague, the devastation of hurricanes and Tsunamis and who even is said to use sickness to punish sinners. That definition of God results in a chaotic world run by a capricious, but not necessarily a loving, deity. I believe that this God has died in light of a new understanding of the universe brought about by Galileo and by our understanding of how the universe operates developed for us by Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur and many others. That idea of God is little more than a wish fulfillment deity, a supernatural being who lives above the sky ready to spring into action whenever we ask this God to do so. Such a God definition is no longer viable or believable. I do not believe in a God who will plug the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico in response to our prayers.

For many people, this recognition represents the end of religion. If the supernatural deity cannot come to our aid then why should we bother with religion at all? For me, however, this is nothing more than the recognition that we must find a new way to think about God and thus a new understanding of what it means to pray. To chart that new possibility is a major piece of why I wrote Eternal Life: A New Vision. It also requires a new Christology, which I sought to develop in my book, Jesus for the Non-Religious.

To say it briefly, prayer becomes something you are, not something you do. Your life and consciousness become the channel through which the meaning of God flows into human life. Prayer becomes the activity of opening your life to this deeper presence, this transcendent power we call God. Petition becomes the way you share life and love with others. Intercession becomes your willingness to be involved in causes of justice that help to build a world in which all people can live fully, love wastefully and be all they can be. Thanksgiving becomes the constant awareness of the way God changes lives. Meditation and contemplation become the means of spiritual growth and the development of a God consciousness and the praying person becomes deeply aware that God works through his or her life constantly. I think it is a beautiful vision. I am still living into it.

I hope this helps.

– John Shelby Spong




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