A Conversation with John Shuck: Part 2 “All Shuck. No Jive.”

Essay by Rev. David M. Felten on 17 May 2018 9 Comments

What follows is the second part of an interview with the Rev. John Shuck. In this installment, Shuck offers perspectives on the risks of being honest in the “corporate church” and the struggle in dealing with other people’s worldviews when coping with personal tragedy.

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Dear Friends:

The volume of questions that this column elicits from its readers continues to amaze me. There is no doubt that this column connects with people all over the world who are seeking a new kind of spirituality that combines truth with empowerment. Sadly enough, these letters suggest that this searching, growing process is not welcomed by most institutional church leaders. It appears to threaten their sense of security and certainty. It does and they should welcome it. Is it not incredible to embrace the fact that the church so often appears to be the enemy of those who seek to develop their own spiritual dimensions?

In every area of life, growth requires the ability to question, to doubt, and to look at issues from a new perspective. So any attempt to suppress questions is the enemy of growth. Whenever the claim is made by any church that infallibility is its possession, or that its sacred scriptures are the source of the inerrant word of God, or that any church is the true church or any religious system possesses the only way to God, this is a manifestation of the presence of idolatry. That is also the source of the threat that they feel.

This column exists to enable questions to be raised, issues to be faced and new insights to be engaged. So your questions are its lifeblood. That is why approximately once a month I devote the entire column to the questions you have raised. At this point I am able to use about one out of every ten I receive. If you would like to pursue some of these issues further, I invite you to post your response, positive or negative, on this web site or enter one of the chat rooms limited to our subscribers and dedicated to the pursuit of religious knowledge.

I appreciate this chance to be in dialogue with you through this medium. So read on!

~ John Shelby Spong



Margaret from Salem, Oregon asks:

Our Roman Catholic Church has invited a visionary to speak to us to increase our faith. This visionary receives messages daily from the Virgin Mary. This disturbs my faith rather than enhancing it. Would you comment?

Dear Margaret,

Religious nuts are sometimes tolerated when they ought to be in mental hospitals! Sometimes an apparently religious framework will gain for people toleration that their behavior could never otherwise merit or command.

Why would God choose this means of communication? Would the message gained through this means be about something as yet unknown? Would the agenda be so self-serving as to assist in enforcing an already believed idea?

I think you are right to be disturbed. The priest who invited this man and the bishop who approved the invitation are guilty of being irresponsible charlatans. Superstition and ignorance are not transformed by pious language. That only changes them into being pious superstition and pious ignorance. I do not think that is an improvement.

~John Shelby Spong

Todd of Atlanta asks:

Do you believe in Christ's Resurrection? If not, what distinguishes you as a Christian vs. something else?

Dear Todd,

There is no Christianity apart from the resurrection. That is not the question. What you are really asking is, 'What was the Resurrection?' Was it a supernatural transformation of a three-days dead body into a resuscitated living being? It is interesting to me to note that this is not what Paul thought and Paul wrote all of his Epistles between 50 and 64 C.E., long before the story of the resurrection of Jesus achieved a narrative form. It is also noteworthy that in the first Gospel, Mark (70-75 C.E.) the risen Christ never appears. In this Gospel there is only the proclamation of the messenger to the women that Jesus had been raised, that the disciples are to be informed and that Jesus will go before them into Galilee.

It is not until the 9th decade of the Common Era that resurrection, understood as resuscitation to life in this world, entered the Christian tradition. That occurred in the writing of Matthew (80 to 85), who says that the women met the risen Jesus in the garden and there they grasped his feet. The implication is clear that these feet were physical. It is interesting that when Mark related this same episode a decade earlier, the women did not see the risen Christ in the garden. Scholars know that Matthew had Mark in front of him when he wrote, so we know that Matthew has deliberately changed Mark at this point. Luke, who also had Mark in front of him when he wrote, agrees with Mark and disagrees with Matthew stating that the women did not see the risen Christ at the tomb. That means the Bible registers a 2-1 vote against Matthew's story being authentic.

If you take that disputed Matthean account out of the debate, then only in the later Gospels of Luke (88-92) and John (95-100) does the definition of the Easter experience, as a resuscitated body, become the meaning of the resurrection. These data surprise people who have only heard the Easter story told simplistically for most of their lives.

In my book entitled Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop Rethinks the Origins of Christianity I took over 300 pages to dissect the meaning of Easter with what I hope is scholarly precision. I think Easter is real. I do not think that Easter originally had a thing to do with a deceased body walking out of a tomb alive. What it does mean is far more profound than that. But that is as far as a question and answer format will allow me to go. I hope this much intrigues you to pursue the subject much more deeply than your defensive sounding question suggests that you have done thus far.

~John Shelby Spong

Chuck from Northfield, Minnesota asks:

Why is Christianity growing in its fundamentalist forms and dying where it tries to engage the thought of the present world?

Dear Chuck,

Statistics can lead to fascinating conclusions. Conservative churches do appear to be growing and the main line churches, or those churches that are open to engaging today's world, do seem to be shrinking. A more accurate statistic, however, is that behind these shifts Christianity itself is a declining reality in the 21st century in every developed nation of the world. Increasingly, modern, educated people abandon the church because its message no longer makes sense to them. Those who remain become more and more narrowly focused on a smaller and smaller piece of reality. They claim certainty and thus attract those in search of security. That is their primary appeal. Some of them have also developed positive public relation campaigns to promote growth

Where churches engage reality and confront the thought processes of the modern world, they can no longer talk in terms of the traditional religious language of miracles, divine intervention, answered prayers and Jesus as the sacrifice that paid for their sins. They become more certain about what they do not believe than they are about what they do believe. Negative messages are never appealing. That is why the main line churches are dying.

Certainty and security are, however, not gifts that conservative or fundamentalist Christian Churches can finally deliver even when they traffic in them. So eventually reality will puncture these fantasies. An organization in New York City called "Fundamentalists Anonymous" once existed to assist those who had been Protestant fundamentalists but who had become disillusioned with a certainty that is not real. Others, not dissimilar, refer to themselves as "Recovering Catholics." There are some Christian communities in all denominations, Catholic and Protestant that have begun to define themselves positively not negatively. They stand for openness, for engagement, for breaking boundaries for journeying beyond the familiar signposts into the mystery of God. They are marked by the ability to honor people's questions rather than pretending to have all the answers. These churches are also growing. An international organization called The Center for Progressive Christianity (know in the U.K. as "The Progressive Christianity Network") acts as a central office that links them loosely together. You can contact this organization in the U.S.A. by writing to JADAMS@TCPC.org, in the U.K. by writing to info@pcnbritain.org.uk, or in Australia by writing to pcnet@effectiveliving.org . It might be worth your while. Perhaps one of these congregations is located near you.

~ John Shelby Spong

Christine in Leicester, UK asks:

What do you mean when you say that we can no longer envision God in theistic terms?

Dear Christine,

Theism is the primary way human beings have understood God throughout history. By theism, I mean defining God as "a being, perhaps the supreme being, supernatural in power, external to life, dwelling somewhere beyond the sky and periodically intervening in history to accomplish the divine will." This is the majority but not the exclusive view of God in the Bible.

In that Book God is portrayed as controlling the weather to bring about the flood in which only Noah's family was saved and all others were killed. Would those victims feel like worshipping such a God? This theistic God was also said to have killed the first born in every Egyptian household as a prelude to the Exodus. This God was pictured as splitting the Red Sea to allow the Hebrews to escape but then to have closing the Red Sea to drown the Egyptians. Could the Egyptians worship such a God? Can we? Is this not the portrait of a tribal deity that we surely have outgrown?

I do not think that atheism is the only alternative to theism. I believe, however, that theism is a very inadequate way to envision the holy. I prefer to think of God as the Source of the life that flows in all of us, as the Source of the love that humanizes us and as the Ground of Being that calls us and empowers us to be all that we can be. These are not theistic images. They are words that are designed to carry us beyond the sterile debate between atheism and theism and into a new way to make sense out of our experiences of the transcendent, the holy, God.

I am confident that a radical revision of the way God is conceived is the first essential ingredient in keeping Christianity alive in the future. I welcome you to the New Reformation.

~ John Shelby Spong

Craig from Boston, Mass asks:

Do you believe that same sex couples should be allowed to adopt children or to have children through artificial insemination or surrogate mothers?

Dear Craig,

There are many dimensions to your question not the least of which is the way homosexuality is still shrouded in irrational fear and ongoing prejudice. What we have to keep our focus on is the goal. Every baby whether conceived naturally or by artificial means, whether raised by his or her parents or by adoptive parents should be guaranteed proper parenting.

The fact is that much parenting is ineffective and some parenting is destructive. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that sexual orientation has anything to do with making one a more or less competent parent. Overwhelming data, for example, suggest that a higher percentage of heterosexual people abuse children than do homosexual people.

There is surely something to be said for every child having two parents but death, divorce, and pregnancies outside of wedlock make that ideal not universally available.

If you pose the question: Would you prefer to see children raised by a heterosexual couple rather than by a homosexual couple, I suspect, given the depth of our cultural homophobia, that a large majority would vote for the heterosexual alternative. But if the question is posed: Would you rather see a child raised by an abusive heterosexual couple or a loving homosexual couple, the answer would be quite different.

However, we still live in a free society so prospective parents do not need government approval to conceive. There will always be some risk to children in the fact that they are born. There is no evidence that being a gay or lesbian person adds to that risk.

Perhaps my feelings about this emerge out of my own experience. I was raised by my mother, who did not complete the 9th grade, in a single parent family. She was 35 and I was 12 when my father died. My father's alcoholism and early death put the whole family into economic straits that I would not wish on any child. Yet there is no doubt that both of my parents were heterosexual.

My point is that good people make good parents. Some of those good people are gay and lesbian, some are heterosexual. I favor encouraging good people who will make good parents to do so.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published June 4, 2003




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