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This book by John Shelby Spong, the retired Bishop of Newark. raises many questions about the meaning of religion and its place in society. Some of the things that Spong appears to believe would seem to indicate that if he is a Christian then all other Christians are wrong about what being a member of that faith means and entails. I would have thought that at least belief in the Resurrection and the divinity of Jesus would be minimal requirements for anyone claiming to be a Christian, but I am not a theologian. Spong's thesis is that Christianity (however defined) has to detach itself from the absurdities, contradictions and outright bad things in the Bible and reinvent itself based on the good parts. Even atheists like me can agree with him on that. But would it then be Christianity?
Spong has been telling people for a long time that the time for believing in miracles is over, and in this book he goes further and looks at the stories, rules and commandments which he feels are no longer appropriate for a modern society. Restrictions on homosexuality and same-sex marriages, resistance in the churches to the ordination of women, the seeming approval of the destruction of the world's ecosystems which can be found in the Bible, the idiocy of literal, young earth creationism, and many others. Spong is not the first person to point out the absurdities in the commandments given in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and no thinking person could disagree with his view that giving any credence at all to this nonsense can only bring religion into ridicule. This is the twenty-first century, and nobody should do anything except laugh at suggestions that the death penalty should be applied for things like wearing mixed-fibre clothes or talking back to parents.
(It is interesting to note that during a debate with creationists in 2005 I asked them why they believed some parts of the Bible to be the literal word of God but ignored other parts. I was more than a little surprised to be told that some parts of the Bible couldn't be trusted because they were incorrect translations, but I was stunned to be told that the mad commandments in Deuteronomy did not apply today as the book was no longer part of the official Bible but was just included because of tradition and nostalgia. Remember – these people say that the Bible is inerrant.)
I get a similar feeling about Bishop Spong as I the one I had about the late Pope John Paul II. There is an enormous intellect in there which causes dissonance between faith and reality. Reconciling these without giving up either is a very difficult task to achieve, maybe impossible, but the intelligence compels its owner to try. The Pope made a valiant attempt in his 1998 Encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), but the restrictions of his job would never allow him the freedom that Spong has to favour one side over the other. What Spong is calling for is a revolution in Christian thinking which would have caused Martin Luther to back away slowly while looking for the exit.
The following passage shows something of the flavour of the book. Spong is talking about the responsibility that a Christian has towards nature and the environment, but his comments about theism are a long way from orthodox Christian thinking. I could not have put the last paragraph better if I had written it myself
In the Noah story saving the animals was part of the plan of salvation (Gen. 6:20). In Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, the Preacher, reminds his readers that "the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. . . . They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts". In contemplating death this writer asks, "Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?" (Eccles. 3:19,21). This is not the portrait of a supreme being living beyond the sky, separate from the earth; this is the portrait of a divine presence that permeates all of life, that binds all creatures into the mutuality of interdependency These images are beyond theism, but they are not beyond God. Surely we can now see that we have created the theistic God in our image, even as we asserted that it was the other way around. We then used this God to justify the dreadful things we were and are doing to our world. Theism is a false notion, a human idol that must die, and when it does, God – seen as the sacred dimension in all of life – must replace it. The minority voices in our religious past must become the majority voices of our religious future.
So who is God? No one can finally say. That is not within human competence. All we can ever say is how we believe we have experienced God, doing our best to dispel our human delusions. Let me try to do just that. I experience God as the source of life calling me to live fully and thus to respect life in every form as embodying the holy. I experience God as the source of love calling me to love wastefully all that God has made including the earth with its plants and animals. I experience God, in the words of Paul Tilhch, as the "Ground of Being" calling me to be all that I can be and to affirm the sacred being of all that is. The worship of such a God could never result in the destruction of the planet that has produced us.
We have looked upward for a God above the sky for centuries, but we now know that this infinite universe is empty of supernatural invasive deities. We need to shift our vision to look within – at life, at love, at being.
This book is a useful and good read for both believers and non-believers. For believers, it highlights the sorts of things that they are expected to believe not only without evidence but without good reason, and provides cogent arguments for abandoning the bad and useless ideas of their faith. For non-believers, it shows that even a committed Christian can see that things need to change. Whether such change is possible and whether it would still leave anything of Christianity behind are questions which still await an answer.
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