Making Friends with Silence

Essay by Rev. Roger Wolsey on 29 June 2017 7 Comments

Most of my attempts to connect and relate to God – involve silence.

And most frequently, not much more than that.

I sometimes wonder if there’s really much difference between seeking to connect to God – and not seeking to. Similar experience and results.

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I am interested in your thoughts about Atheism, God, Religion as an Institution and Reincarnation.


Dear Reader,

Why does an atheist need God? 
I don't think an atheist does need God. My colleagues who identify as non-theists or post-theists or panentheists need the word ‘god’, but not the traditional understanding. They need the word because, as the late scholar Marcus Borg believed, if we lose our exclusive Christian language, we will lose Christianity. Clergy who continue to use a word that is understood by most people in church pews and beyond to mean “a supernatural, theistic being who can intervene in human affairs if it wants to” may well be working to preserve Christianity but are already, I believe, far outside what that is generally assumed to mean. Indeed, I think if we had been required to come up with a new word to describe what we believed each time our understandings evolved, we may have a stronger church today for our efforts and those who have left because they think we are still talking about that interventionist god we call God may not have needed to do so.

I am willing to lose Christianity if it means saving the future for our children. Because of that, I am willing to sacrifice traditional language to transfer the ethos of my denomination – its ground-breaking justice work and its compassionate call to honour the dignity inherent in all living beings – to generations excluded by that language. It is the ethos of the progressive and liberal churches that defines us, not our language, and it is our ethos that most needs to be shared with the wider world and the world to come.
What is your definition of God? 
The definition of god that got me through my theological education and the first several years of my ministry was more about what we create when we build relationships of respect and love with ourselves, others, and the world and less about the stereotypical god of the Bible. Much as Martin Buber wrote in his I, Thou, we have the opportunity to desecrate the relationships we build or to make them beautiful. When we make them beautiful, I believe we create a bond that offers us strength, courage, dignity and invites us to act compassionately in a broken and hurting world. That is what I once called god. But I no longer use the term as I found it terribly confusing for people. They usually thought I meant the Wikipedia definition of a supernatural being with interventionist capabilities in whom moral authority was grounded. I don't believe that and I believe that is a very dangerous premise. 
Why should religion be institutionalized?
I wish it weren't, actually. I once argued that a spiritual experience, no matter what it was or how described, once transmitted becomes religion. We are, unfortunately, only able to share our experiences with others through our own interpretation of them. As soon as we interpret, the experience is no longer pure; it is confined by our limited perspective. Institutionalized religion is the hardening of those shared experiences. It is as though the ones who had the experience insist upon everyone having it and that they will be able to, or should be able to barring any failings on the recipient's part, to recreate the experience. Other than for the reason of our meagre attempts to share uplifting moments with one another, the only reason I can think religion needs to be institutionalized is to manage the power associated with claims to truth. And that, too, is a very dangerous premise. 

Do you believe in reincarnation?
I do not believe in reincarnation but I am an agnostic when it comes to the nature of reality. I may be pleasantly, or horribly surprised! 


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Terrible Texts: The Attitude of the Bible Toward Women – Part V


The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate as even the Law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (I Cor. 14:34-36)

The head of the woman is her husband. (I Cor. 11:3)

Much of my professional life as a priest and a bishop has been spent watching my church respond to the evil that has been done to women by quoting such terrible texts as these above. Somehow the fact that these words were found in the Bible gave them legitimacy, so to work for the full emancipation of women meant that you were opposing "the Word of God!" The result of this has been that both the Church and the Bible have been a force in encouraging a subhuman status for half of the human race. The time has surely come to oppose this vigorously and to refuse to listen to those who continue to defend the sins of sexism and patriarchy with appeals to Holy Scripture. "The sacred tradition of the Church" must no longer be identified with practices that issue in the abuse or diminution of women.

Because of definitions imposed on women in antiquity, the pursuit of education, entry into the professions and the inability both to divorce and to prosecute abusive husbands has been denied to them. In the darkest moments of Christian history women have even had to endure periodic witch-hunts. These texts can no longer be spared because embarrassed Church leaders claim that the Bible has been misunderstood. If a tree produces evil fruit, we must stop pretending that the tree is not itself actually evil.

I remember hearing Dr. Phyllis Trible, former Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Union Seminary in New York, argue that Adam was not actually a man until God took the woman out of him, so that the man and the woman were created together and, of course, equal. She defended this exegesis as "not a literal but a close reading of the text."

I appreciate what this great lady was trying to do but find it to be an unhelpful attempt to defend the indefensible. One cannot escape the fact that the creation story has God seek to create a proper friend for Adam by making all of the animals. Only when the animals do not satisfy the male does God resort to plan B and create a human-like, but not fully human, creature out of the man. Nor can one expunge from this Bible the definition "helpmeet," imposed by this text on that woman.

Second class status has plagued the woman from that moment to this. In the sacred Torah women are regarded as property even in that quintessential part of the law that we call the Ten Commandments. The last commandment enjoins the males of Israel, to whom the Torah is addressed, "Not to covet your neighbor's house nor his wife, nor his slave, nor his ox nor his ass, nor anything that is your neighbor's." It even lists the male neighbor's possessions in order of value: the house first and only then the wife, followed by the slave, ox, ass and other 'things.'

The seventh commandment, designed to govern sexual behavior in a polygamous society, enjoined the males not to violate the woman who is the property, i.e., the wife of another male. To violate sexually an unmarried woman in this time was not adultery but the crime of diminishing her father's net worth. The unmarried woman was her father's property until some man paid the bride price and became her husband and new owner. If the woman was no longer a virgin, the bride price was lowered. Terrible texts need to be exposed and defeated and, when that is done, the claim that the book, in which these terrible texts are included, is somehow the "Word of God" needs to be countermanded in the name of truth, dignity and humanity.

One has only to listen to the irrational claims that ecclesiastical males have made over the centuries in the attempt to keep their sexist prejudices intact, to know that anything less than a revolutionary approach to defeat this biblical claim will never work.

I recall well the words of a former Episcopal Presiding Bishop, the Right Reverend John Maury Allin, speaking out of his emotional opposition to women becoming priests in the Episcopal Church in the mid seventies. "Women," he said, "can no more be priests than they can be fathers." It was a fascinating claim, a version of which is still offered by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox branches of the Christian Church to support an all-male priesthood. Perhaps that claim should be examined outside ecclesiastical circles for its irrationality.

Women are certainly not equipped physiologically to be fathers. Women's bodies do not produce sperm nor possess the equipment necessary to inject that sperm into the fertile womb of a potential mother. But does it follow that this means that women cannot be priests? That leap in the argument makes the mind blink with astonishment. What does the male organ have to do with ordination to the priesthood? The traditional answer, given time after time through the centuries, has been that the ordained person must reflect the image of God, the assumption being that a woman's body is somehow deficient and cannot do that. People, from the Pope on down, have repeated that argument so frequently that we have become immune to its irrationality. What part of a male body is so essential that without it the image of God is not present? To expose this strange argument, I propose a simple test to illumine this hypothesis.

To determine where the woman's is deficient, one needs only to stand a man and a woman in front of you. Then strip away from that man's body everything he has in common with the woman physiologically. Remove his hair, eyes, nose, ears, mouth, esophagus, vocal chords, heart, lungs, intestines, kidneys, pancreas, liver, stomach, hips, thighs, kneecaps, legs, ankles, heels and finally his toes. When everything the man has in common with the woman is removed, am I supposed to conclude that the image of God lies in the male organs that remain? That is what this strange argument implies. The claim being made by the Church's hierarchy is that one cannot be ordained if one does not possess the "godlike" organs of scrotum, testicles and penis! It surely becomes obvious that something strange is at work here, something beneath the level of consciousness, since this argument enters the world of the absurd. An all male priesthood is not a sacred tradition of the Church; it is an expression of the Church's sexist oppression. Ending it is not to counter the expressed will of God, ending it is to counter 2000 years of sexist violence against women. There is no more time for debate. Irrationality is never ended by rational debate.

When John Paul II, defending sexism in the Catholic Church's all male priesthood said, "Jesus did not choose any women to be his disciples," the irrationality was once again present. It is an absurd argument. I want to reply, with all the respect that prejudiced rhetoric deserves, " I notice, Holy Father, that Jesus did not choose any Poles to be disciples either! Somehow that did not close the door to your distinguished career in the life of the Church's ordained! Jesus did not choose any Irish or Italians either. I have not noticed that the Roman Catholic priesthood has been limited to Jewish fishermen with an occasional tax collector thrown in!"

This claim is incompetent on another level. Scholars today are not certain who Jesus' disciples actually were. Perhaps the Pope's advisors are not aware of this. The earliest list of the Twelve comes from Mark's Gospel, which was not written until the early years of the 8th decade or some forty years after the earthly life of Jesus had come to an end. Almost half of those on Mark's list, even in the text of this Gospel, carry no biographical detail other than their names.

Matthew copies Mark's list with no changes. Luke's list of 12 disciples, however, differs. To complicate the picture even more, John never lists the names of the twelve disciples at any point. Key figures like Nathaniel, who appear to be at the center of the Jesus movement in John's Gospel, are never mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament as part of the Twelve. To destabilize this data even more, both John and Luke refer to a disciple of Jesus who is named Judas, but who is not Iscariot. This person is apparently unknown or at least he is not mentioned in either Matthew or Mark. So to argue about who Jesus picked to be his disciples is a shaky argument at best since even the Gospels do not appear to agree on who Jesus' disciples were. The number twelve might indeed be a literary rather than a literal number read back into the Jesus story by those who were intent on seeing the Christian Church as the new Israel thus making it necessary to have twelve disciples to be reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Israel.

There is also evidence suggesting that female disciples were indeed part of the Jesus story. These women disciples are all but invisible until we come to the final episodes of crucifixion and resurrection. Why is that? One reason might be that, according to Mark, when Jesus was arrested all of his male disciples forsook him and fled. The women were the only ones left. But when we read the texts of each of the Synoptic Gospels closely, we discover that every writer records that these female disciples were with Jesus all the way from Galilee (see Mk. 15:41, Mt. 27:58 and Lk. 23:55). They were always part of the Jesus movement.

The image of Jesus wandering around Galilee with twelve male disciples is an erroneous assumption based on a patriarchal prejudice. The accurate biblical picture is that Jesus roamed through Galilee supported by both a band of men and a band of women. Peter seems to be the leader of the male band because his name is normally written first. But the women also seem to have had a leader; whose name is Magdalene, for her name is also normally written first. She is a flesh and blood person at Jesus' side, during his life, a far more significant figure in the Jesus movement than the Virgin Mary ever was, as a brief look at a Bible Concordance will quickly reveal. She is also portrayed as the chief mourner at his tomb in his death. According to John's Gospel, she meets the test of apostleship in that she is said to be a witness of the Resurrection.

The Church cannot continue to claim to be the body of Christ, while still denigrating fifty percent of the human race. Debilitating prejudices can no be sustained on the basis that change will destroy the "Unity of the Church." Unity built in the service of prejudice is a vice not a virtue. It is no longer acceptable to argue that the preservation of sexist prejudices is necessary to further ecumenical cooperation. Ecumenical cooperation in continued oppression cannot be squared with the definition of discipleship that proclaims, "By this shall people know that you are my disciples, that you love one another." Let no one suggest that love can ever be present where the Church's prevailing definitions of any human being cast him or her by nature into the role of a second-class citizen or an inferior Christian. The time for patience is over!

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally posted January 28, 2004




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