Naomi Klein & Scott Russell Sanders: Birds of a Feather, Two North American Prophets In Search of Wisdom and Right Action

Essay by Rev. Matthew Fox on 28 December 2017 2 Comments

In dark times like ours one takes delight in those who are still committed to a search for truth and are still busy hunting gathering for what matters. We are blessed still with such figures in our midst and I want to celebrate two in this essay. One, a citizen of Toronto and of Canada, Naomi Klein, described herself by phone one day to me as “Jewish, Feminist and Atheist.” She is a profound author, social activist and filmmaker. The other, Scott Russell Sanders, celebrates his small town existence in Methodist rooted rural Ohio and on this planet and in this universe in a number of wonderful books. The former’s two recent books, Capitalism vs. The Climate and No Is Not Enough, are as on target to our troubled times as any I know; and Sanders book Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, complements Klein’s in a profoundly mystical way.

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First let me tell you I am an atheist. Prior to this I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and was a member in good standing for approximately the first thirty years of my life at which time I left.

The journey I am on has led me in many directions and I have been comfortable lately with where I find myself. That is until I read a  column from Bishop Spong. What brings this uncomfortable feeling is the sentence that reads, "As optimism has died, human beings increasingly turned either to fundamentalist religion or to secular materialism in the constant search for meaning."

Because I value his  understanding of the human condition, I took the latter part of the above sentence as an indictment. I know that my search for meaning has often turned to secular materialism. I must tell you this disturbs me. I'm not sure where to go with this. I cannot return to religion, as it holds nothing for me. Yet I do not want to continue to define myself by what I buy and own. Any insights?


Dear John,

I respect where you’re at. Though I am a Christian, as a progressive Christian, we likely share much in common. If it weren’t for progressive Christianity, I’d likely be an atheist too. You were raised in a Christian denomination so I won’t overdo providing “the Christian” answer to your question – though it can be as simple as “You are a beloved child of God”. That something was stirred in you, however, upon reading those words of Bishop Spong is not surprising. His insights tend to be enigmatic and come at things from a non-conventional way that ruffles the feathers of believers and non-believers alike. It’s been said that a preacher's/journalist's job is to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” The good bishop has done his job. You are feeling some discomfort. Good. Now, what to do with it…

As a progressive Christian, I have no need for you to think as I do or to return to being a Christian – even as a progressive Christian. I feel that you are just fine as you are and I believe that Spirit feels the same. I will say that the way you frame things may be a bit limiting. You seem to suggest that it’s either continue to follow the vapid path of secular humanism – or – “return to religion.” I would suggest that there are other options for how you identify and define yourself. 

First, there are some practices/modalities that can help people self-identify. These include the Enneagram defense type and the Myers-Briggs personality type surveys/indicators. Highly helpful in understanding our spiritual tendencies. There is also much merit in exploring our “Love Languages” (how we tend to feel and express love), as well as Attachment Theory (massively helpful in understanding our relationship tendencies). I also invite people to write on 10 slips of paper – 10 things that define them. In my case it might be Trumpeter, Writer, Music Lover, Father, Pastor, Lover, Dancer, Liberal, Bald, Runner, Christian, United Methodist, Middle Class, Mystic, Male, White, etc. I then have people rank them in order of most importance, and then take the least important one, look at it, ponder how that is part of them, consider how that is part of their life, then crumple it up and drop it to the floor – imagining that no longer being part of who they are. And then repeat this process with each of the 6 least important slips of paper. Then, after feeling the weight of all of this, pick up all of the slips and re-order them in response to that exercise - with permission to write something else on a new slip of paper, replacing it for something else. 
This helps cut to the chase and really get at what’s most essential in our lives. 

I will also remind us one can be spiritual without being religious. A person alone on an island can have a very rich spiritual life and have a strong sense of meaning, connection, and purpose. That said, I am both spiritual and religious. Humans are social creatures and we thrive best in community. Here’s a link to something I wrote explaining why I’m “both/and” instead of either/or. 

I sense that something happened to you after those “first 30 years of your life” – some trauma, some wounding, that led you to be estranged from your Church. I’m sorry about whatever that was that you experienced. Whatever it was – either an overt action or a felt sense of lacking, it wasn’t the Church being at its best, it was an outlier, an exception, not the religion operating at peak performance. There are numerous religions and numerous kinds and varieties of each religion. Just because one congregation/priest/pastor in one denomination or religion got it wrong, doesn’t mean it’s all wrong. There is a place for religion, good religion, in the world. There’s a place for you in the world too. The world needs both you and religion at your best – and both you and religion can help bring that about.

John, it feels true to me that you are still curious about Christianity and “a Jesus way” to connect to the Divine. You read the Bishop Spong newsletter and you are reaching out to this forum for insight. You wouldn’t be doing those things if you were fully allergic to this Way. It seems to me that Spirit is actively at work in your life in many ways and that you are awakening and blooming in some new and exciting ways. 

I wish you well on your journey of discovering and re-claiming who you really are. 

P.S., If you’d like to converse further and go deeper, please feel free to send me a private message. You can reach me through the Wesley Foundation at CU Boulder.

~ Rev. Roger Wolsey


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Theological Message in the Destructive Tsunami


The earthquake near Sumatra and the resulting tidal wave that have wreaked devastation in many nations on two separate continents was the final major event in the tumultuous year of 2004. The people of the world watched in stunned disbelief as television footage showed us mountains of bodies, some 30 percent of them children, and massive destruction of property caused by gigantic waves that swept over the land far beyond the beaches. Imagine the psychological impact of this event on such nations as Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. To put this trauma into perspective recall the numbing pain inflicted on the psyche of America on 9/11 when this nation of almost 300,000,000 people lost about 3,000 lives in a terrorist attack. The healing of these wounds is still unfinished. Yet a single town in Indonesia or Sri Lanka lost ten times that many in this Tsunami. The estimate of lives lost has climbed quickly each day until it has now reached a staggering total beyond 150,000. I doubt the exact number of deaths will be known for some time, but surely most of those now listed as missing will ultimately come to rest in the deaths column. This event, like all natural disasters, forces upon the people of the world a new and scary consciousness. Once the trauma has passed that new consciousness will frame new, ultimate and very human questions that will be unavoidable.

This planet, our scientists tell us, is some four and a half billion years old. In its life span it has often not been a safe place for any living thing. During its first billion or so years, no life existed on this planet. Instead a constant barrage of meteorites and other particles of an exploding universe relentlessly pounded the earth's surface. Nature's raw violence was visible in the liquefied rock boiling near the center of the earth.

As recently as 200 million years ago, the landmass on this planet formed a single continent. What is now North and South America nestled into Europe and Africa. Australia was the underbelly of India and Antarctica was the southern edge of this single landmass. Over a vast span of time violent earthquakes miles beneath the sea have broken up that landmass into the continents that we identify today. Those calamitous events, however, occurred before there was an inhabitant who could knowingly record or be victimized by them.

No sense of tragedy was associated with the force of nature until some 50,000 to 100,000 years ago when our earliest, self-conscious ancestors finally emerged through the evolutionary process. Only then were there living beings whose minds enabled them to embrace time as a connected flowing whole. They could remember the past and anticipate the future, which meant that the uniquely human dimension of chronic anxiety entered the life of this world. Expanded knowledge enables us to know that yesterday's violence might well return again tomorrow. The natural forces of storm, hurricane and earthquake were so intense that these creatures trembled in fear before their power and sought to placate whoever or whatever was in control of these forces that appeared to victimize them. Human survival required that we become aware of nature's power without being immobilized by it. Had we not been able to make that adjustment the evolutionary step that brought us self-consciousness would have been aborted and life would have devolved back to the beasts of the field existing in a world of unknowing.

Finding a way to deal with this trauma was the catalyst that caused primitive religion to be born. Our vulnerable ancestors survived by envisioning a powerful supernatural being, who was big enough to control the forces of nature and who was our ally. That was when human beings assumed that those devastating forces of nature were either expressions of this God's power or events that occurred at the divine bidding. So, a contract with God, sometimes called a covenant, was formed. Human beings were compelled by their need for security to discern and obey the divine will and to please this supernatural being with respectful liturgies. That is why every human religious system has developed codes of conduct that are said to have been dictated by God. That is also why every human religious system has produced traditions of worship that must be adhered to in the minutest detail. Natural disasters were inevitably understood as to be expressions of divine wrath. Primitive religious leaders devoted their efforts to determining exactly what human beings had done to provoke the divine anger. A consensus would be formed around some conclusions and a reformation would be instituted designed to express both penitence and new resolve to please God in the future. Fortunately, for these human interpreters, natural disasters were widely scattered in time so that the illusion could be preserved, that the adopted changes were successful and God was pleased to be their protector once again.

Our religious traditions still reflect this mindset. God, according to the Bible, controlled the rain, wind, lightning, thunder and all natural disasters, using them to punish sin and to reward righteousness. The psalmists reminded their readers that God set the boundaries for the oceans and rivers. The waters escaped those boundaries only at God's instigation. Even as our ancestors in faith died in the great disasters of history, their deaths had meaning since God had a divine purpose in each tragedy. It was a comforting thought. Our forebears used the structures of their supernatural religion to keep their debilitating fears in check. This idea no longer works for modern people, which means that when tragedy strikes, our peculiar destiny is to wrestle with the new issue of potential meaninglessness.

Nothing reveals this modern dilemma more clearly than the way this current tragedy has been interpreted by the public media. God has not been mentioned once as a causative factor of the Tsunami. This means that far more than we recognize consciously, God understood as the supernatural, controlling presence, is no longer a working hypothesis in our increasingly secular world. Richard Norton Smith on PBS did refer to "the almost biblical proportions" of this disaster. He did not tell us to what he was referring by his use of the word "biblical" but I suspect his reference was either to the flood story at the time of Noah or to the destruction that shall accompany the end of the world that the Bible has projected into the future.

Instead of God being discussed as a factor in this disaster the media introduced us to geological explanations. Earthquakes are caused by the collisions of tectonic plates far below the sea. We learned that this particular tragedy occurred when the displacement initiated by the thrusting of the Indian plate beneath the Burma plate created waves so powerful that they devastated nearby nations and sent 30-foot surges to pound the east coast of Africa half a globe away. We were informed that there is today an active fault line under the Canary Islands off West Africa that has the potential to erupt, sending half a trillion tons of rock into the Atlantic Ocean that could create tidal waves capable of pounding America's shores with water heights larger than the skyscrapers of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Miami. Only human beings are equipped to live with the knowledge of their own potential destruction. The sheep will not worry about this pending tragedy. The cows will continue to chew their cuds and the rabbits will keep on breeding. To be human is to embrace our frightening world and to know that we cannot make it secure. Our assertion that God is in charge is little more than another attempt to keep the delusion of our security in tact.

One cannot appeal to the idea of a supernatural deity who controls our destinies in the face of the raw and indiscriminate power of the Tsunami that hurls bodies into a watery grave without rhyme or reason. The modern conclusion is that there is no sky God directing the affairs of nature. So desperate is our anxiety, so deep is our need to believe that such a protector is there that we say astonishingly naïve things about this God. We talk as if we have actually captured the will of God, through an 'infallible Pope or an inerrant Bible.' We know, however, that these relics from the childhood of our humanity do not hold water, that they are nothing but pathetic coping devices to shield us from the terror of being aware that we are at the mercy of forces over which we know that we have no control.

This event, happening west of Sumatra - miles beneath the oceans, makes it very clear that no angry God decided to victimize the world. There is only impersonal, natural power, oblivious to human concerns. This natural disaster reminds us that the military might of a single nation, even one with vast nuclear capacity, is like fools' gold when it comes to protecting the world from nature's fury. It also confronts us with the frightening necessity of abandoning the supernatural God of yesterday, who allowed bad things to happen only if we deserved them. Suddenly all of our attempts to build security are revealed as little more than superstitions. All we can finally depend on in this world is our own fragile humanity and human life is inextricably bound together in a common destiny. The theological challenge that rises inevitably in this crisis is the awareness that we alone are our neighbor's keeper.

Can human life survive without the security of a divine protector? Or will that realization prove to be our Achilles' heel as we turn out to be like the dinosaurs that bloomed for but a moment in cosmic time and then disappeared when they could not adapt to a new environment? The only alternative to this bleak picture is that this tragedy will drive us into a new consciousness that will produce a radically different way to view both God and our own humanity. Those are the issues posed as Mother Nature sends us reeling into the year 2005. I will seek to address these issues in my column next week.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published January 5, 2005




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