Rescuing Thanksgiving

Essay by Rev. Mark Sandlin on 23 November 2017 5 Comments

The warmth of the house on Thanksgiving day; the comforting aromas of a home-cooked meal; the thankfulness that felt like it filled the air as family gathered, embraced, and shared stories from the past year; all of it was a reflection of my mother to me. It was a celebration of comfort, abundance, gratitude, and love. It was a celebration of family. And mom was the linchpin of the family for us.

Secretly, Thanksgiving was probably my favorite holiday back then. Yes, even more than Christmas. I loved Thanksgiving!

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Would you comment from your Christian perspective on the Buddhist assertion that we have no separate self or separate existence because we cannot understand who we are without understanding who we aren't, and our separate existence is known only because of everything we are? Is the sense of self an illusion?


Dear John,

Sometimes in discussions between the distinctly rich and complex spiritual traditions of east and west conundrums are created by confusions in language. In broad brush strokes, one might say that whereas the east has focused greatly on the empty transcendent, the west has dwelt upon the fully immanent. The east has explored the emptiness of self and the west has mined the rich fullness of the self becoming divinized. There are important and notable exceptions to this oversimplification, but there is truth here as well.
If we take the concept of “self,” for example, and understand it to mean ego-identity, then we come upon a possibly shared experience and concept of both east and west. For the west, the sense of self in the 21st century is a psychological concept filled with meaning by Freudian psychology, ego-psychology, object-relations theory, and relational psychology, to name the predominant contributors. What these psychological sources often fail to incorporate, from a theological and spiritual perspective, is that the ultimate source of the self is the Absolute (what we also call “God” or “Being” or the “Beloved”). Once we recognize the true source of the self, we begin to use another term to conceive the human of Being, which is “soul.”
Since each and every creature is a manifestation of the Absolute, we can speak of each and every creature as a vibrant soul, the face of the Absolute in time and space. (Meister Eckhart preferred the language of each creature being a word of God.) The Absolute is another connecting concept between east and west, because in both traditions the spiritual masters recognize that the Absolute is empty of ego, which means, empty of any conventional self. And as we are called to realize here and now the truth of our ultimate nature, we are invited in the spiritual journey to realize our emptiness of egoic identity as the ultimate source of who we are.
And yet, to be empty, is also to be full of Being. Spiritual poverty makes space for the fullness of the empty Absolute. The west recognizes that Being is boundless and that Love is boundless. There is no boundary that separates one being of Being from any other. One way in which this truth finds expression is that all creation is the Cosmic Christ – all that is is the face of God continually manifesting moment-to-moment. And yet, the mysterious truth is that only you have your experience as you experience it. As you sit on a cushion in meditation and experience no-self, or boundless soul, it is as you (that human of Being in your location, as some say) that the experience is happening; not in the person beside you. We might say that what transpires in our lives are distinct, yet not separate, experiences of Being.
For the west, the egoic-self is an inevitable and necessary psychological structure on the path of human maturation. It is not evil, nor is it a mistake. What the east reminds the west is the truth that the ego is not the pinnacle of human spiritual maturation. Rather, the point of human existence is to realize that, essentially, we are to know directly for ourselves that we are full of nothing but Being.

~ Kevin G. Thew Forrester, Ph.D.


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Place of the Bible in the Right to Die Debate

SpongAlan Meisel is the Dickey, McCarey and Chicote Professor of Bioethics and Law at the University of Pittsburgh. I met him recently when we were both addressing a conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Death with Dignity organization. Professor Meisel had previously served on the Ethics Workings Group of the White House Task Force on Health Care Reform in 1993. Coming as we do from radically different perspectives, both of us have arrived at the firm conviction that the ability to choose the way we die should be a personal right, legally guaranteed, and recognized as reflective of our profound ethical convictions.

My task at this conference was to challenge the traditional belief, present among the representatives of organized religion that life and death decisions must remain in the hands of God. This belief regards life itself as a divine gift and denies that human beings have either the right or the competence ever to make the decision that it is time to die. To counter this thinking in my address I went through the Bible, painstakingly illustrating its rather convoluted logic on this great issue. The Bible portrays God, for example, as perfectly willing to kill. God kills as punishment for sin and evil in the story of the Flood. God kills the first-born male in every Egyptian home at the time of the Exodus. God stops the sun in the sky, for the sole purpose of allowing Joshua to kill more Ammonites. God directs King Saul through the prophet Samuel to go to war and to kill every man, woman, child, ox and ass in the land of the Amelakites.

Next I scanned the biblical text to see how many activities were regarded by both God and God’s people as capital crimes for which capital punishment was mandated. They were so numerous that few people would be safe from the zealous executioner. Among the biblical crimes for which execution was prescribed were: cursing, blasphemy, adultery, homosexuality, willful disobedience to one’s parents and worshiping a false god, just to name a few.

Finally, I outlined the biblical understanding of death. The early Hebrews did not view death as either a normal or a natural part of life. It was, rather, understood as a punishment inflicted by God on all living things, as a direct result of our violation of God’s perfect world. That is how the concept of ‘original sin’ developed. It was based on what theologians came to call ‘the fall.’ Saint Paul referred to death as the ‘last enemy’ that must be overcome. It is that biblical attitude, I asserted, that is just plain wrong.

When I had finished this address, Dr. Meisel asked me the question that so many members of our secular society ask, “Why do you bother with the Bible at all? Why don’t you just abandon this dated book and start the religious journey all over? Why do people like you have to spend so much time disengaging yourself from a book that has arguably been the source of as much evil as it has been good?” They were all good questions and they demanded then, as they do now, careful and thoughtful answers.

I began by suggesting that my learned questioner was reflecting a cultural attitude toward the Bible that had been encouraged by religious teaching. It is this attitude and not the Bible itself that needs to be abandoned. The Bible is not inerrant as so many believers pretend. God did not dictate it, thus it is not in any literal sense ‘the word of God.’ Everything that is in the Bible is not correct; much of it is not even moral. The Bible, like all ancient literature, is rooted in the tribal history of a particular people and as such reflects a tribal god and tribal values. In tribal history it is always clear that god has chosen this tribe to be the favored ones, that this god hates all who are the enemies of the favored ones and this god prescribes the behavior and worship patterns that are said to be essential to maintain this god’s continued blessing on their tribal life.

The themes found in the Bible are thus not essentially different from those found in the Iliad and the Odyssey of the Greek people, Beowulf of the Anglo-Saxon people or any other peoples’ tribal history. The only difference is that no one today would take seriously the suggestion that these other epics represent the ‘unchanging revelation of God.’ The identification of the words of the Bible as an expression of the divine will is always the place where ‘the sacred literature’ of any people turns demonic and begins its inevitable descent into destructiveness. The question Dr. Meisel was posing was “should we not abandon or even destroy our ancestral folk tales because our moral consciousness has now outgrown them?” My answer was and is that I do not think so, but what we do need to abandon are the excessive claims we have made for either the inspiration or the accuracy of the stories found in our religious tradition. That needs to be said loudly and powerfully.

The history of human spiritual development reveals that our religious understanding, like every other part of the human experience, is constantly evolving. All religions and religious people are on a pilgrimage into truth. No one ever possesses either truth or God.

The issue before the religious establishment today is not the need to reject the ancient traditions of our religious journey but to learn how to transcend them. The power of the Bible is not located in denying its evil or in trying to cover biblical horror with piety. It comes rather in the conscious recognition that the biblical story keeps growing and developing. The Bible was written over a period of at least a thousand years, and as such represents a long journey from our tribal origins into the experience of the limitless love of God. It began with tribal messages that justify xenophobic hostility toward those deemed to be different and dangerous and grows to the place where it teaches that God requires all people to love their enemies, bless those who persecute them and pray for those who abuse them. That is quite a journey but it is exactly the journey that justifies my continued unwillingness to abandon the primitive roots of my faith story.

Watching the people of the Bible grow is one of the great rewards of biblical study. The same tradition that suggested that God seeks to destroy those with whom the people are in conflict also began to perceive God as not bound by tribal barriers. The realization dawned that God caused the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. It was the prophet Hosea who helped his people see that the nature of God is love and love does not repay evil for evil. It was the prophet known as II Isaiah who seemed to understand that even suffering could be redemptive and who called a defeated nation to practice it as a vocation. It was the prophet Micah who understood that God did not glory in human offerings of “rivers of oil” or even in the sacrificing of one’s first born, “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul.” God requires only, said the prophet, that God’s people “love mercy, do justice and walk humbly” with their God. It was that nameless prophet we call “My Messenger,” or Malachi, who helped the people understand the universal scope of divine grace that stretched “from the rising of the sun to its setting” and who proclaimed that the name of God must also be great “among the Gentiles.”

It was, at least in part, because of the insights of these prophets that Jesus of Nazareth could emerge among these people and be grafted so powerfully into this faith story. His call was to go into “all the world,” that is, to go beyond tribal boundaries and there to tell the story of the unbounded love of God. That is what it means to “preach the gospel.” That is the moment when the Bible ceases to be about a defining religion and becomes the story about human life.

Tribal religion is an ever-present chasm into which the human race seems to sink periodically. That becomes both clear and obvious when we sing “God Bless America,” and our political leaders begin to divide the world into us the good people, and the others, who are our enemies, “the evil empire.” It is present when we claim to possess ultimate virtue and speak of our opponents as the “axis of evil.” It is present when religious people justify their prejudices by quoting the Bible to oppress gay and lesbian people or to justify the killing of those despairing people whom we define as terrorists because they combine religious zeal with violent hatred. It is present when we identify our cause with righteousness and excuse, as only ‘the excesses of a few,’ the horrors of war from Mai Lai to Abu Ghraib and Najaf. Finally, it is a tribal mentality that makes us quote the Bible to demonstrate that no new possibilities ought to be entertained, when we have to make end of life decisions, in the face of the enormous new breakthroughs in scientific knowledge about disease and the development of medical technology that enables us to manage sickness in ways that our grandparents could never have imagined.

“New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,” wrote the poet James Russell Lowell in 1845. That insight also needs to be appreciated by those who seek to make the literal Bible the final source of truth. It is not the Professor Meisels of the world who threaten the Bible’s continued life and influence with their pointed questions. It is those religious folk who have identified the Bible with unchanging truth and who thus turn it into a weapon of oppression that is used to justify numerous evils including war.

The Bible will never survive if religious people continue to claim that these ancient words are truth’s final arbiter. The Bible is, however, a valued chapter in the human quest for both God and the meaning of life’s deepest treasures. When the Bible is approached this way, it is still, I believe, a wonder to behold. That is what I hope that people like Alan Meisel, who are my allies not my enemies, can some day grasp.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published September 29, 2004




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