Time for a New Spiritual (not Religious) Order?

Essay by Rev. Matthew Fox on 6 July 2017 17 Comments

Speaking of a need for a Reformation makes me question whether the time has arrived for a new religious order that is in fact not tied to a particular religion but is a Spiritual Order, one that might help people of various religious faiths and none to gather around a common value and focus. I think our times call for a focus on the sacredness of the Earth and all her creatures. Therefore I propose a new order called “The Order of the Sacred Earth.” Its members may come from any and all life-styles, married, single, celibate, gay, straight and from any and all occupations so long as their work mirrored the values of honoring and supporting the Earth and her creatures. Blue collar and white collar workers would be welcomed. People of all religious traditions and none would be welcome.

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I am choosing one of Rev. Spong's books for our newly formed group. Do you have a suggestion for a particular book?
Thank you for your help.


Dear Mary Ann,

Boy you are asking a tough question that begs for a good response. I suppose that is why this ended up on my desk. Frankly the choice would depend on the level of sophistication of your group. I believe two books would work if you are moving your group into a new way of thinking, I would start with Why Christianity Must Change or Die or a later book, A New Christianity for a New World written several year later.

If you think your group would like to tackle some specifics, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism or The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic would be terrific reads.

And finally for an overview of how the Bible is been misused, misinterpreted, misleading, Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. This book was first published in 2010 and reprinted in paper back in 2013. It is considered by some theologians as one of Spong’s best books.

I hope this is helpful. I did narrow it down a bit but it really depends on your audience.

~ Fred Plumer, President


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

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


"In Christ Jesus...there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:26,28)."

The apostle Paul was a man of great ability, passion, and energy and yet his writings reveal enormous turmoil. He comes out of a rigid, patriarchal background which he reflects again and again when giving instructions to his churches: Women are to keep quiet in church; men ought not to marry unless they cannot control their passion; women are to have their heads covered as a sign of respect; women are forbidden to hold authority over a man, etc. etc. As women have come increasingly into leadership roles in Christianity, they have vented their anger at this misogynist Paul. I know women clergy today who dismiss him as an enemy who had to be defeated before they could be accepted in the Church. Paul, however, was not single minded. In almost every area of his life, he lived in conflict. The prejudices that Paul possessed, the training he had undergone, the rigidity of his pious practices, all were countered by a conversion experience that kept him in internal tension. There was a war, he said, going on between his mind and his body, his past and his present, his tradition and his future. Luke described his conversion in Acts as "scales falling from his eyes." In many places Paul does not appear to be anti-female, expressing his appreciation to women like Priscilla, Lydia and Chloe, who were his colleagues and sending greetings to various women in his epistles.

The place where Paul's perceived negativity toward women is most overtly countered is found in Galatians, probably Paul's most passionate and revelatory epistle. Scholars date this work in the early fifties. In a rather strange way, it reveals an authentic unfiltered Paul, whose anger at those who wished to separate Jewish Christians from Gentile Christians prohibits the luxury of thinking about what he is saying. His Christ experience, he asserts, has removed all the boundaries inside which he once found security. He listed those boundaries as tribe, gender and economic bondage. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Please note that latter phrase. As a result of his Christ experience, he states, the power equation between men and women has been broken. That equation, presumably built on the will of God, as found in the story of creation, was the justification for the woman's second class citizenship, which historically had included periods in which women were considered to be property. Laws informed by this attitude enabled polygamy, wife beating, the right to put one's wife to death, and the refusal to allow divorce as an option for women. The assumptions were that women were neither educable nor intelligent enough to be full citizens. Paul was suggesting, however, that a new reality had broken into the world in Christ that had rendered these definitions no longer operative.

When we move to the Gospels evidence suggests that this new insight was present before the Church used the authority of the 'Terrible Texts' to suppress it. In Mark, the earliest Gospel, we read the story of a woman who, in the last week of Jesus' life, intruded herself on a dinner in Bethany at the home of one called Simon the Leper. First, she poured over his head an expensive perfume. This act was a violation of every Jewish patriarchal custom and if allowed, all norms would be forever broken. The men at the banquet thus moved quickly to condemn her behavior. Jesus, however, is portrayed as rebuking her tormentors. "She has done a beautiful thing to me," Jesus is quoted as saying, "She has anointed my body beforehand for burying (Mk. 14:3-9)."

That same story echoes three more times in other gospels, but with interesting variations. In Matthew, it is recounted almost identically (Mt. 26:6-12). In Luke, however, there is a dramatic shift (Lk. 7:36-50). This episode does not occur in the last week of Jesus' life and it is not a prelude to his burial. Luke locates it, rather, in the early Galilean phase of Jesus' ministry, and not at the home of Simon the Leper but at the home of Simon the Pharisee, that is, one who is known for upholding the moral norms and taboos of the tradition. The woman's character has also been heightened, but in a very negative direction. She is "a woman of the city," a prostitute. As such, she is unclean and unwelcome. Her actions, according to Luke, are much more bizarre than those recorded by any other gospel writer. They are overtly sensual and clearly violate the social norms for women. Only in Luke does this woman wash Jesus' feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. One cannot perform such acts without fondling the feet of the recipient. In a society where a woman would never touch a man in public, this was an act of dramatic challenge. Once again, the value systems of the past emerged in the emotional responses of the male dinner guests, who condemn her roundly. They also condemned Jesus for allowing this outrage to happen to him. "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him." Because Jesus did not condemn her, his credentials as a holy man were obviously compromised. Since he had allowed this 'intimacy' at the hands of an unclean woman, he was now ceremonially unclean. But again Jesus sets aside the patriarchal rules with its doctrines of cleanliness and affirms the woman, accepts her action and tears down the barrier that would cause her to be rejected. He was acting out the Pauline insight that in Christ there was neither male nor female. A new humanity, transcending ancient definitions, ancient rules and ancient religious barriers, was being born. The 'terrible texts' of the past that had relegated women to a position of inferiority were being set aside.

The same story was also told in John (Jno. 12:1-8). This time the anointing of Jesus, while still in Bethany, occurs at the home of Mary and Martha. All of Jesus' disciples are present as well as the family of Mary and Martha, including a brother named Lazarus, who had been, this Gospel alone asserts, recently raised from the dead. In this very public setting Mary is the woman who anoints Jesus' feet. There is no sense here of scandal and certainly there is no rebuke. How very strange, one thinks. Where did the patriarchal rules go? Why was this action suddenly acceptable? The only thing that in that day would have allowed this act to occur in a public setting without rebuke, would be that everybody present at this gathering knew that Mary was Jesus' wife! Is this a new insight? Maybe. But I suggest it is merely the lifting into the open of a long repressed gospel tradition, which contradicted later Church teaching that Jesus' anti-female bias led to his commitment to celibacy.

In another revealing story, told by Luke, the ability of Jesus to break open the negative definitions that had always surrounded women is once again related, but in an enigmatic way. Jesus is again a dinner guest at the home of Mary and Martha. Martha is busily engaged in the work of preparing the meal. Mary is sitting at Jesus' feet listening to him teach. This means that Luke has cast this woman in the role of a learner, a pupil, perhaps even a rabbinic student. These, obviously, were roles that in first century Jewish society, women were not allowed to play. Martha enters the room and rebukes Mary, demanding that Jesus order her to help in the kitchen. Jesus refuses, going so far as to suggest that Mary has chosen the "higher way." He was asserting that a woman could be a student. Nothing can rule this possibility out since in Christ "there is neither male nor female." The suppression of truth regarding Jesus' relationship to Mary is again present in this narrative. Please note that Martha asked Jesus to order Mary to the kitchen. Why did Martha not speak directly to her sister? Her demands of Jesus would be appropriate only if, as Mary's husband, he had the authority to command and Mary had the duty to obey.

Now, suppose this Mary was the same woman who came to be called Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was portrayed in the gospels as the leader of the female disciples who had followed Jesus all the way from Galilee (see Mk. 15:41, Mt. 27:55, and Lk. 23:49). What kind of women would accompany an itinerant band of men in the first century Jewish world? They would have to be either wives or prostitutes. There were no other options. Mary Magdalene was both the flesh and blood woman at Jesus' side during his life, and the chief mourner at his tomb in his death. Magdalene was portrayed in the Fourth Gospel's resurrection narrative as calling him both "my Lord." and "Rabboni," intimate titles, appropriate in Jewish society to be used by a woman for a respected teacher only if he was also her revered husband. She was the same Mary who demanded access to his deceased body from the one she thought was the gardener, an act appropriate only if she were the nearest of kin.

Finally, suppose the word "Magdalene" has no reference whatsoever to a village of Magdala, a village that no one has yet been able to locate in any ancient source, but was, rather, a play on the Hebrew word "Migdal" - which means "large" or "great." Migdal was once a word that referred to a tower from which shepherds could view the fields in which their flocks were grazing. This would suggest that by calling this Mary "Magdalene," the earliest Christian community was asserting that this was "the great Mary," the female partner and wife of Jesus, to whom he gave a dignity and an honor that broke the barriers of the sexist definitions of the past. For those who live 'in Christ,' Paul was suggesting, no barrier can be erected against women, and no definition of the past can be used to suggest that women are somehow less than fully human. Jesus called and empowered people to step beyond every debilitating definition of our survival-oriented humanity to claim the new humanity that lies beyond the gender boundaries of the past. The Church, once the enemy of this new day, quoting and acting upon the basis of these 'terrible texts' might yet, through this vision, become the ally of the oppressed and the community in which a new humanity is lived out. That is my dream!

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published February 4, 2004