Unbelievable: Part II

Essay by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 11 January 2018 5 Comments

"Unbelievable" began its life years ago when my daughter, Jaquelin, who owns a Ph.D. degree in physics from Stanford University said to me: “Dad, the questions the church keeps trying to answer we don’t even ask anymore!” She was not hostile. It was just a matter of fact statement. The church keeps posing issues that the secular world has settled, or at least has decided to ignore. Questions such as: Who or what is God? What does original sin mean? What does it mean to say that Jesus died for my sins? Can one really believe in life after death? What does it mean to be born again? Why do we not try to grow up?

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There is a lot of political discussion these days about resisting Trump and other politicians that don’t seem to reflect the ways of Jesus. What do you think Jesus would do?


Dear Joy,
Very interesting question Joy. In my study of the ministry of Jesus, he seemed to be highly focused on what he desired, and not as much on what he didn’t want. The only times he tangled with the opposition was when they confronted him, or when he was telling a parable, or when he was defending a sick or oppressed person. His message was one of a fresh vision and an inspired path forward. And I think we can learn a lot from that. I would posit that Jesus would be talking a lot more about his own vision right now for spiritual and social sanity, and not mentioning Trump or the Republicans very much at all. But I must also caveat that this is only my opinion, and of course we can never know what anyone would do, much less the enigmatic Jesus of Nazareth.

My own personal view on your question parallels a saying that is often attributed to Socrates, “the secret of change is to not focus all your energy on fighting the old, but instead on building the new.” I think those who oppose Trump should be talking about why they are a better option right now, and not just reacting and resisting. Clear vision beats resistance every time.

So although I like the “resist” slogan, and I appreciate the point of it in a tactical sense, I tend to think Jesus would lean more toward what John Lennon said … “Imagine.”

I think the most successful politicians, parties, and policies of tomorrow are not going to be those that focus so much on resisting the other person or party, but rather those which are focused on building a better thing and inspiring others toward it. It will be won by those who can most effectively rally people toward a more hopeful vision of how the world can be. And therefore the resistance will just come naturally by default, because people will be inspired in a different direction.

~ Eric Alexander


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

Weeping Over the Grave of God

Part III of a series about the Tsunami


"If God is God, he is not good! If God is good, he is not God!" These words, from a 20th century adaptation of the Book of Job entitled "J.B.", were written by Archibald McLeish.

"God no longer has any work to do." A quotation from Michael Donald Goulder, Professor of New Testament Studies at the United Kingdom's University of Birmingham, when he announced in 1981 that he had become a "non-aggressive atheist."

Both the dramatist McLeish and the biblical theologian Goulder were stating that they no longer find significant meaning in the traditional way of understanding God. If God is a Being, supernatural in power, living somewhere external to this world, who invades this world periodically to answer their prayers, to accomplish the divine will, or to protect them from peril or their enemies, then God has, to these two gentlemen, become inoperative. They will no longer share in this human illusion. If there is nothing more to God than this, then they will choose to be atheists. They have articulated the religious crisis of our time. Unwillingness to believe in this theistic God seems to leave us with but the single option of embracing atheism. The theistic God, because of the great advances in human knowledge, has been rendered unbelievable. A natural catastrophe like the Tsunami brings these issues dramatically and urgently into full view.

The defenders of the traditional understanding of God try to make sense out of this tragedy by postulating a deserving guilt on the part of its victims or by telling us that the will of God in this tragedy will be made clear in time. These arguments are simply not convincing.

Let me, as a believing Christian, say it bluntly: the skies are empty. There is no supernatural parent figure waiting to come to our aid or to answer our prayers. The God, quoted as the final source of all authority, is no more. When we recognize these dimensions of our spiritual crisis, then much of the human behavior observable today becomes comprehensible.

Those in our world who are emotionally capable of laying aside the now outdated religious explanations of antiquity are called 'secular humanists.' They come in two varieties: some are stoical humanists who work for the common good and who are willing to serve the whole society. In them we see that idealism is not dead. Others, driven by their deep survival instincts, become corrupt, grasping specimens of humanity, looking out for themselves alone. If the judging God is gone, they reason, so is the ethical system that purported to reflect the will of God. They recognize no binding ethic so long as they do not get caught. They give us the Enrons, the WorldComs and the politics of greed that mark our recent history.

Those on the other hand, who are not capable of living without the security of their religious myths of antiquity, become the fundamentalists and the religious fanatics of out time. They vigorously deny their doubts and fears, and cover their insecurity by seeking to impose their particular form of religion on all others. Examples of this mentality abound in acts of terror and in the religious imperialism that we now observe in our own elections. Neither alternative offers much hope for the future. We cannot return to yesterday. We must enter the world that is being born before our eyes and engage the faith crisis of modernity.

It was a Greek philosopher named Xenophanes, who wrote: "If horses had gods, they would look like horses." This was his way of urging us to recognize that the gods of human beings also and inevitably will look like human beings. Human beings are finite and mortal so we envision God as infinite and immortal. We are limited in knowledge, so God is omniscient. We are bound to a single place but God is omnipresent. We are limited in power, but God is omnipotent. We account for this similarity between God and ourselves by proclaiming that we were created in God's image. However, the reality is that God has been made in our image. If that is true, as it so obviously is, then perhaps it is not God but our very inadequate image of God that has died. That should be welcomed insight, for any God who can be killed ought to be killed. So the first step in building a new, authentic way to think about God is to cease trying to keep yesterday's image of God alive. Divine artificial respiration is a waste of time.

We understand this rationally, but the uniqueness of self-conscious humanity is to tremble at the vastness of space and our smallness in the scheme of things. That is why we invented the parent God in the first place. We needed a sense of divine security. We would rather be 'born again' into a continued child-like dependency than to be forced to grow up and take responsibility for ourselves. It was the theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who urged us to separate God from religion. "God would have us know," he said, "that we must live as those who manage our lives without God." That is quite a challenge but that is where we are today.

Much of western religion has been predicated on a definition of human weakness. We have portrayed ourselves religiously as broken, inadequate and fallen. Our angst has created in us a need to denigrate ourselves. For centuries the church taught us that God's greatness could best be seen in response to human depravity, exhorting us to gratitude for the "amazing grace that saved a wretch like me." We are told "there is no health in us" and "we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs" from the divine table. The first step in the quest to build an authentic spirituality is to banish this negativity and recognize how incredible human life really is or can be.

When human life first emerged into self-consciousness, a creature had finally evolved who was not bound by time and space. Our minds can soar beyond our boundaries. We live inside the flow of time remembering a past that is no more, and anticipating the future that is not yet. We know something about the life force that surges within us. We recognize the power of love that enhances our life. We are aware that we can receive love, and once received we can give love away, but none of us can originate love. Love is a power that flows into us from beyond ourselves. We contemplate what it means to be unique. We have both a sense of who we are and a vision of who we want to be, which is the source of our discontent. These are the authentic parts of a God experience, which no other creature can share. Yes, we have created our image of God, that miracle working supernatural one, but we are not the authors of our experience of God. God is the name of the life within us that opens us to the miracle of transcendence. God is the name of love that comes to us from beyond ourselves. God is the ground or source of being out of which our own sense of being has emerged. Those are the moments when we discover oneness, embrace eternity and know why it is that we call ourselves spiritual beings.

What a difference this new angle of vision makes. Instead of seeing God as our judge eliciting our guilt, we begin to see God as the source of our empowerment. Instead of seeing Jesus as a divine visitor who came to rescue sinful humanity, we see him as the fully human one inviting us into his divinity, which is nothing but humanity transformed by wholeness. Instead of seeing the Holy Spirit as the source of our piety, we see Spirit as the source of expanding life. Instead of blaming God for tragedy and pain, or seeking to exonerate God from blame in an unjust universe; we accept our responsibility for building a world where every person has a better chance to live, to love and to be all that each of us is capable of being. We will use our intelligence and our ingenuity not to defend our dying God images, but to understand our world so deeply that we, not some distant mythical God, can be the needed bulwark against the natural fury of earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and drought. Instead of being angry when we are victimized by evil or destruction that we cannot control, we will work together to build a safer world. Instead of seeing ethics as following some divinely established rules to please a parent God and avoid punishing wrath, we will learn to see goodness as those actions that enhance life making all of us more fully human. This means that we will also see evil as those actions which diminish our humanity making us more willing to hate than to love, more able to destroy than to build up. Instead of seeing life after death as a time to receive divine reward or punishment we will see it as humanity merging into divinity, and finitude entering into eternity.

This coming new spirituality will not promise us security, but it will give us the ability to live in a radically insecure world with hope and meaning. It will not promise reward to entice our self-centeredness, but it will invite us to risk discovering both life's heights and depths. It will not mean that our lives are safe, but it will mean that we do not die without meaning, without communing with that which is finally real. That is where God is found for me. Someday we will recognize that the God of our past could only be God for the weak and the lost, one who could only win our loyalty by keeping us in a state of emotional childishness. Perhaps the crisis in faith through which we are going today is nothing but the adolescent pangs of a new maturity being born. Surely the God of the past must die if this new day is to arrive.

Is this enough to make us capable of living in this frightening world? Do we not still need a supernatural protective Being out there somewhere? That is the question that each of us must answer. If we are still emotional children who need a protective parent, we will continue to create whatever illusions we require to survive and we will try to force all people into our religious mold. If on the other hand we are ready to grasp a new maturity and become a new creation, then we will find in this moment in history a freeing and awesome call to be the God bearers in this world, the co-creators of life; and we will eagerly enter the next stage of our human development. It is my hope that this will be the conclusion and the vocation to which the tragic earthquake and the terrifying tsunami will finally drive our world.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally posted January 19, 2005




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