A Conversation with Bishop John Shelby Spong: Part 3 “On Conservatives, Liberals, and the Way Forward”

Essay by Rev. David M. Felten on 22 November 2018 3 Comments

David Felten: You’ve talked about how hard it is for people to grasp what is meant when we’re talking about atheism or non-theism. There’s another word that a lot of people aren’t completely happy with but it’s the one we’ve kind of been shackled with. Is there a word other than “progressive” we can use – another approach?

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Dear Friends,

Your letters come in such numbers that if I responded to each one I would need a full time staff. I can assure you that every one of them is read and I try to pick the most interesting ones for publication. Using only one each week, however, means that inevitably most of your questions do not get the response that they deserve. For that reason, periodically, I devote a whole column to a series of your letters and their questions. I am doing that this week.

The range of these questions is amazing. They go from trying to unload the hostility that has been associated with a particular biblical text, to a question about Mary Magdalene, to a quotation from the late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, to a question on sexuality. I thank all of you for your letters and hope that this column will continue to elicit them from you. Enjoy the “dog days of summer.”

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally Published August 16, 2006


Garnet and Douglas, Unity Ministers from Little Rock, Arkansas, write:

“We know that it is generally known that Mark 16:9 to the end of that final chapter was a much later addition to Mark’s Gospel.

Since the statement, ‘Go in to all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation’ is in that added segment and is USED as the excuse to ‘go into all the world and push certain religions on people.’ I am interested to know if there are any clues as to ‘who’ created this idea, when, and what was their real purpose?”

Dear Garnet and Douglas,

The quotation you cite is from one of two proposed endings that were attached to Mark in the early years of the second century. In the King James Version of the Bible they are still included in the text.

In both the Revised Standard Version and in the New Revised Standard Version, these additions are either separate from the text or footnoted to inform the reader that they are not part of the earliest Marcan documents that we possess. The verse you cite (Mark 16:15) is thus not regarded as authentic Marcan material. A close reading of these added verses makes it clear that a later editor was attempting to harmonize Mark with several of the later gospel accounts. The original “Go into all the world” text is found originally in the second resurrection story told by Matthew (Matthew 28: 16-20) so the person who wrote this new ending to Mark took it from there. Matthew’s version has come to be called “The Great Commission” or “The Divine Commission.” Since Matthew is the originator of this phrase, to answer your question we need to understand what it meant to Matthew. There is no doubt that these texts have been used throughout history to justify missionary and conversion activities that are less than edifying, to say nothing about being out of touch with the spirit of Jesus.

Matthew was the most Jewish of all the gospel writers. It is terribly important to him to show the Jewishness of Jesus. That is why he opens his narrative with a genealogy of Jesus that grounds Jesus’ very DNA in the line from Abraham to King David, to the Exile and finally through Joseph to Jesus.

That is also why Matthew wraps Jesus in the Scriptures of the Hebrew people. “This was done that it might be fulfilled that was spoken by the prophet,” is a regular refrain in Matthew’s gospel. This is also why even the Wise Men in Matthew’s gospel are forced to consult the Jewish Scriptures before they know that the new King of the Jews is to be born in Bethlehem.

However, this intensely Jewish Jesus is wrapped in an interpretive envelope that Matthew uses to show that although Jesus arose from the Jews and fulfilled the expectations of the Jews, his ultimate purpose was to bind the human community into one community in which there were no barriers of tribe, race, or national identity.

The first part of that envelope is the story of the Star of Bethlehem. Matthew, following a long time Jewish practice, says that a star announced the birth of Jesus. The unique thing about the star is that it shines not just on the land of the Jews but is seen across the world. That star draws the world, in the persons of the Magi, into the worship of this Jewish Jesus. Jesus called all people to step beyond their boundaries into a universal humanity. This vision also fulfilled the original call of the Jews. They were not the Chosen people as a sign of privilege, they were chosen to be the people through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed.

Matthew proceeds to tell the story of Jesus from his baptism to his crucifixion and resurrection. In this narrative, the barriers that divide human beings fall before Jesus. A new humanity bound together only by love is portrayed. The Jesus invitation is, “Come unto me all ye,” not, “some of ye.” A barrier separating anyone from the God met in Jesus would destroy all that Jesus stood for.

So Matthew comes to the very end, the last five verses of his gospel in which the first and only time he has the risen Christ speak. His message is simple, “Go into all the world!” Go to those who are different, who you previously have called gentiles, unclean, uncircumcised and proclaim to them the message of the universal love of God. Tell them about God’s love that transcends all human barriers and all human limitations.

That is still the purpose of the Christian Church – to proclaim the love of God for all that God has made.

Only when Christianity identified its message with particular beliefs about God and Jesus that needed to be imposed on others in order to be saved do we get the kind of missionary imperative about which you speak in your question. That attitude is about as far away from Jesus’ original meaning as one can get.

You cannot love a person when you say to them, “My religion is better than yours so I intend to impose my religion on you.” You cannot proclaim the love of God if you approach someone under the stance, “I’m OK, you’re not OK. And you will not be OK until you are just like me!” Unfortunately, that is what so much of the missionary activity of the Church has tended to do.

Thank you for your question and for your friendship that I treasure. Blessings on your ministry.

Henrietta writes:

“I am currently reading a book about Mary Magdalene written by Bruce Chilton that has a map in the beginning of the book that clearly shows a town of Magdala that is in Galilee. He states that Mary Magdala is from that village of about 3000 people. It is an extremely interesting book. Can you please explain your reason for not believing in a village of Magdala? (you might find a lot of food for thought in this book as well.) Thank you.”

Dear Henrietta,

Bruce Chilton is a good friend and admired colleague.

He has accepted common wisdom and common maps on the subject of Magdala. There is no evidence that there was ever such a place but because Magdalene was interpreted to be Magdala, efforts have been made to find a town that might have been called by a different name. Dalmanutha is the favorite candidate. Truth was not served in that enterprise but the tourist industry was.

I wonder why people would not have said Mary of Magdala in the New Testament if ‘Magdalene’ meant her place of origin. They knew how to say Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, and Peter of Bethsaida. Why not say, Mary of Magdala? They did not, I am convinced, because that was not what Magdalene meant.

Only two names have words attached to them in the New Testament that are written as if those words are part of their names. They are Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene. Once people argued that “Iscariot” meant that Judas came from the village of Kerioth and that Magdalene meant Mary came from the village of Magdala. I do not believe that either claim can be substantiated.

So I think Bruce is wrong – so are most of the sources I looked at on the Internet that struggle to identify the location of the mythical Magdala. To pretend that Magdalene means she hails from Magdala hides something of the true meaning of Mary Magdalene that I think comes from the Hebrew word, Migdal, which originally meant a large tower which shepherds climbed to keep watch over their sheep. In time the word came to mean large in the sense of being great. I think the attaching of Magdalene to Mary was an affectionate way the early disciples referred to her and it meant ‘Mary the great’ or the great Mary. Her place in the early Christian movement was far higher than that assigned to her by the later church that invented the idea that she was a prostitute. Thankfully we are just now beginning to recover something of her original stature.

Bill from Norfolk, VA, asks:

“Would you please comment on the late Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s comment that, ‘Since God is just, I believe there is a hell; since God is merciful, I believe there is no one in it’.”

Dear Bill,

Fulton Sheen was expressing his hope in such a way so as not to contradict the teaching authority of his Church. It was a good compromise.

Yet the idea that either hell or heaven is a place to which people go is a part of the human experience of limited language. We are beings, God is Being itself but in human language we conceptualize God as a Being, for that is all we understand.

We are creatures bound by time and place and so we describe life beyond this life in terms of linear, spatial concepts. We have no other language. The problem arises when we assume our language is literally true. It isn’t. If God is life then heaven is life in God, Hell is life apart from God. It is about relationships not about space.

Is anyone apart from God? That is not for me to say.

Do we have the capacity to say a final and ultimate “No” to God?

I suppose that is theoretically possible.

The Church has always used both heaven and hell as promise and threat in the task of behavior control. Bishop Sheen’s answer comes out of that mindset. I find those categories meaningless.

If we would stop worrying about other people and concentrate on our own relationship with God and others, we would have a better world.

S. M. Cornwall of Exeter, England, writes:

“In your recent talk in Exeter, the implication seemed to be that homosexuality is either a chosen path (and thus undesirable/reprehensible) or unchosen (and thus not reprehensible). Is it not possible that, for some individuals, homosexuality is chosen but not thereby inherently reprehensible?

To say otherwise risks the implication that homosexuals are only homosexual because they have no choice and that if they had a choice, they would probably choose heterosexuality. ‘Nature’ as a category is highly problematic but there do appear other ‘unchosen’ human impulses (e.g. exploitative sexual activity), which are still not viewed as ‘desirable.’

Dear S. M. Cornwall,

It seems to me that your letter misunderstands two things. First, if sexual orientation is a given then it cannot be something judged as evil simply because it is a minority expression of our humanity.
Homosexuality/heterosexuality is like skin color, racial characteristics and lefthandedness/ righthandedness. It is a given in life, something to be accepted as that which is. It is true that the boundary between the genders in all of nature is not near as severe as we once thought it was but none of that is now seen as unnatural or abnormal.

When you then move on to exploitative sexual behavior or, as some have argued to an innate propensity for alcoholism that they suggest is also “unchosen,” you have introduced a whole new element and confused the discussion. Exploitative sexual behavior and alcoholism both have a victim. Someone’s humanity is diminished by this behavior including certainly the humanity of the sexual exploiter or the alcoholic. Homosexuality surely can be acted out in such a way as to produce a victim but it may also be acted out in such a way as to enhance life for both partners. What we forget in our prejudice is that the same thing can be said for heterosexuality. Both sexual orientations are morally neutral. Both can be expressed in moral and in immoral ways. It is harder to do that when society condemns one that is the minority orientation and says that no expression of that orientation is ever good. No exploitative behavior is ever desirable. No self-destructive behavior is ever desirable. Sexual orientation is not, per se, exploitative. That is a difference not to be confused.

~ John Shelby Spong




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