Three Spanish Citizens who are Changing the Culture of Spain

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 12 December 2013 0 Comments
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I have been searching for meaning for many years. I was brought up a Catholic and my immediate family still is, but I found it lacking. I have tried evangelical churches as it was very easy to just say, “The Bible is literal, God will take care of me if I say I believe.” That did not match up with my education and interest in the world. Soon conflicting information didn’t make sense anymore and since then I have come to the realization that God is not something to be understood, but something to be lived and felt. I believe Jesus and Buddha and others have given us insight to the true God, which I believe is part of all humanity.

With that background, I find it easy to read scripture without having a nagging that they are not true or, at the least, are discolored by having been written for people at their time. Maybe it is just the Catholic background that is obscuring my reading (“don’t question anything, it is just faith”), but if we are questioning what was written, why not question it all? Why say “the rising into heaven was metaphorical” but not question some other parts of the scripture? I used to subscribe to a daily gospel e-newsletter, but now find it all tainted. Yes, Jesus taught us how to live, how to get closer to God, the creator, but any human commentary on it seems hypocritical and most likely untrue. How do you read the Bible and decide that this part is probably true and this part is made up?



Dear Bernie,

Your letter reveals the truth that the way many people are taught in church to read the Bible as children makes it very difficult for them to make sense out of the Bible as adults. A major reason that I write this column each week is to provide an alternative to the way the Bible has been taught in our churches, which has had the effect of polluting the minds of many people. For some that pollution will last a lifetime.

Let me begin with some facts. The Bible was written over a period of about 1,000 years between approximately 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. It inevitably reflects the way people understood the world in that period of time. The earth to most of them was the center of a three-tiered universe. Sickness was not related to germs or infections, but was the instrument of God’s punishment for our sins. Mental illness and epilepsy were viewed as demon possession. Finally, whatever people did not understand was assumed to be a miracle. None of those assumptions are part of the world view in which any educated person lives today. No one I know would go to a doctor whose medical knowledge had not advanced beyond what was available to us 2,000-3,000 years ago. Yet many still treat the Bible in this literal way.

I approach the Bible with the assumption that none of it is to be read literally. The Bible is not the dictated “Word of God,” it is a chronicle of a people’s walk through history trying to make sense of their lives in the light of their understanding of God. I read the Bible as one who is engaged in exactly that same process. Behind the words of the Bible is a human experience of the divine. The Bible seeks to explain that experience. I study the Bible in order to get behind the explanations of antiquity so that I can discern the experience that led them to that particular explanation. The questions I ask are: What was there about Jesus that led people to attribute a miraculous birth to him? What caused people to suggest that Jesus was capable of supernatural acts called miracles? What was it that caused them to believe that Jesus could transcend the ultimate human boundary of mortality?

In my five-year long study of the Fourth Gospel, which I undertook before writing my book on that subject (The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic), I came to the conclusion that there is not a single word attributed to Jesus in that entire gospel that the Jesus of history ever spoke, nor is there a single sign attributed to him that the Jesus of history ever did. That includes everything from changing water into wine to raising Lazarus from the dead. Yet none of that stopped me from coming to the conclusion that this gospel reflects the meaning of Jesus better than any other written source in the Bible and that its insights can still speak directly to my world and to my questions. In that book, which was published just last June, I hope I can demonstrate to you and others why I believe this is so.

John Shelby Spong




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