Holy Wisdom

Over these past several weeks, I’ve been reflecting anew on what it means to be a wise person. This is due in part because in the congregations I serve, we describe the spiritual journey of Holy Week as “The Wisdom Way of Christ,” exploring the stories and experiencing the reformed liturgies as a holy path for 21st century seekers. As human beings, we long for wisdom and it is extolled in poetry, song, and art. But what is wisdom, particularly in the spiritual tradition and how does it differ from what we might describe as the “wisdom of the world”?

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As a recent evolving Progressive Christian I have started reading Marcus Borg’s “Evolution of the Word”. Wonderful book. But as I was reading I noticed many scriptures that made reference to Jesus dying/sacrifice for our sins. Where did all these scriptures come from and when were they written? How do we understand them?


Dear Albert,

Yes, the idea the Jesus died for our sins, or sinful nature, is really one of the causes for so many people turning their backs on Christianity today. The truth is that the word atonement was hijacked my Paul primarily from the Book of Leviticus where it is used 52 times.(It shows up briefly in seven other books in the Old Testament) The Book of Leviticus was in large part a guide for Leviticus Priest who were expected to be very pure. However atonement is clearly an opportunity to clear one’s name if you have broken one of their rules. Over the years the Conservative Jews have adopted the rules of Leviticus to live by and in my opinion, fail to understand how the Leviticus Priest followed the law and how it was to be used. (This is another story.)

Paul was a contemporary of Jesus but never knew him and frankly had huge battles with Jesus’ disciples. I suppose, Paul was trying to figure out why Jesus had to die and possibly came up with the idea that it was for the sins of society. This was a very different idea than the established use of atonement where only individuals could atone for breaking one of the Jewish laws. This could be satisfied by offering a sacrifice. But according to Paul, it was a done deal. Our sins are atoned when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord. He did not believe, however, in the physical Resurrection.

However, over the next 60-70 years as the other writers of the New Testament were developing their own versions of the Jesus story, all different by the way, some of them developed another idea. That was that we would “saved” by believing the Jesus story the way they told it. That included the bodily resurrection by a couple of writers. But none of the gospel writers believed that there was atonement of society or believers or for an unlawful act. You have to remember that the people of the Old Testament were living in a very different world than the people of the New Testament. Granted both had hard lives, however, Jesus does not speak of atonement nor was it part of Jewish life, except once a year during the holidays, for righting a wrong with a sacrifice in the Temple.

That is why you have to read the stories with an openness and understanding of how they were living, what did the people know and what did they believe. That is why I focus first on understanding their conditions, their wants, and what information they had. They were still living on a flat earth, walked or rode donkeys wherever they went, most of them were terribly poor and lived in a very small area. However, Jesus managed to see beyond all of that. He did not agree with the Leviticus Priest, was not a big fan of the Temple and lived far away from the city. And, he never mentions atonement, nor did he believe in it, certainly not as the reason for his death.

Now fast forward approximately 300 hundred years and the Catholic Church was born, under Constantine's watch. The Priests were masters of manipulation and battled to ultimately settle on something like the Nicene Creed or the Constantinopolitan Creed. Frankly, little has changed in “Rome.” Jesus dying for sins became the “law.”

~ Fred Plumer, President


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Terrible Texts: Be Fruitful and Multiply and Subdue the Earth

SpongWhen I was a young theological student, I was assigned the task of reading a book entitled "Ideas have Consequences." I do not recall the author but the title has always impressed me. History is full of episodes that demonstrate its truth.

The ideas in Adolph Hitler's "Mein Kampf" or Karl Marx's "Das Capital'surely had consequences. Ideas like those developed by Galileo opened frontiers in our ever-expanding world; while those arising in Osama Bin Laden' mind now terrorize the world.

One religious idea that has had both profound and, I believe, destructive consequences occurred when the first human being defined God in theistic terms. By theism I mean the assumption that God is a Being, sometimes called the Supreme Being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere outside this world and periodically intervening in human history to accomplish the divine will. This understanding of God informs our language, scriptures, liturgies and hymns, and is omnipresent in our theology. To challenge this concept of theism is so threatening that most people assume that the challenge must originate in the godlessness we call atheism, which has been thought of almost exclusively as theism's only alternative.

The way we human beings define ourselves has also been molded by this theistic definition of God. In the Judeo-Christian tradition it is stated that human beings were created in the "image of God." Interestingly enough, this reference is to a late developing idea in Jewish thought. Although found in Genesis 1:26-27, Genesis 5:1 and Genesis 9:16, these verses were all written during the Babylonian exile in the late 6th century as part of the priestly writer's editorial expansion of the Jewish Sacred Story. This means that they are among the last strands of Old Testament material to be woven into the Torah. Once this idea entered the text, however, it quickly won the day, and appears with frequency in the Psalms and the Wisdom literature. We defined ourselves as God's surrogates, God's stewards who were to exert dominion over all living things, both animate and inanimate. God was portrayed as handing over to those claiming the divine image, free reign to rule the earth that was created, we assumed, primarily for our benefit. We, who were but "a little lower than the angels," thus became radically anthropocentric. If it seemed to be in our best interests we could clear the forests, obliterate other species and use up the natural gifts of air and water because God had given us that right. If we destroyed the fragile ecosystem by over breeding, so be it.

We live today with the consequences of these ideas. The resources of this planet are strained to the breaking point. The environmental disaster that threatens to end human life has been fueled by the theistic claim that God is external to our world and that we, who think of ourselves as created in God's image, can act as if we are also external to that world. Our right to breed irresponsibly has been supported by major parts of western religion. We do not seem to recognize that the resources of this planet are finite. We appear not to comprehend that the air we pollute is the same air that we breathe or that the water supply that industrial wastes make toxic is the same water we drink. We deny global warming even as we watch the polar icecaps melt. We are not creatures who are like God, somehow external to the world; we are part of nature itself. If our goal is to restore a balance to nature, then perhaps our first step must be to redefine God in non-theistic terms. This means that we must jettison any sense that the God we worship is external to the world we inhabit. The supernatural invasive deity has got to go. That is a threatening path to walk for religious people, but there is no other.

To begin the process of overcoming that threat, we need to recognize that in the Judeo-Christian faith story, theism is the dominant but not the only definition of God. Perhaps it is fair to say that theism has been the more satisfying definition. It related us to a God who was our "all powerful protector." It helped us to develop our exalted sense of human importance. It built up our presumed security. There are, however, seldom-noticed images of God in the biblical story that portray God, not as an external supernatural creator, but as a divine presence in the midst of our world. This God image has never been as appealing because, rather than functioning a divine protector, this God is experienced as an immanent life force operating in and through us, calling us to take responsibility for our world, to be accountable for our actions, to exercise mature judgment and to escape our radical human self centeredness. This image produces for us a very different perspective on both God and ourselves but it might just be the idea we need to develop if we wish to escape the consequences of that potential genocide, which surely appears to be our destiny if the present pathway human beings walk is not altered dramatically and quickly.

Is it possible that we have misread our own sacred story when we used the theistic definition of God to exclude all other possible God understandings? Is it possible that we have also misread our scriptures when we pretended that the well-being of human life is all that matters in this anthropocentric universe? Perhaps it is now time to look at those sources again in search of alternative images of God that might lead us to different conclusions?

The creation story in Genesis portrays the creating presence of God as "Spirit".

~John Shelby Spong
Originally Published September 2003




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