On Hearing Him Speak in Las Vegas September 3, 2003, at Christ Episcopal Church on Maryland Parkway.
Even though he does not believe in any of the supernatural events depicted in the Bible, John Shelby Spong will not let them label him as an atheist. He is a Christian through and through and especially an Episcopalian, even being born in an Episcopalian Hospital. His church is leading the way into the future, first by accepting women as priests and now by accepting a Gay Bishop–even at the risk of alienating half its members. Many of us credit the leadership of Bishop Spong for this progress.
As a devoted fan, I got there early so he could sign my two favorite books of his: Resurrection: Myth or Reality? and Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. I was pleasantly surprised at how much younger and energetic he was. His pictures don’t do him justice. He radiates a personal charm in a humble fashion.
Bishop Katherine Schori, the female Bishop of Nevada, was there assisting with the preparations. Spong asked her for a lapel mike. He hates standing behind a pulpit.
The church filled and hushed as he began to speak.
“We need another Reformation,” he said. “One that will make the first Reformation seem like a tea party. After all the first one was only over lines of authority and fine doctrine. This one must redefine God. The theistic idea of God is not only in this day and age unbelievable, it is immoral.”
Quoting scripture he proves his point. The Old Testament God killed all the Egyptian first-born sons, no matter innocent or not. And the Israelites had to mark their doors with the blood of the sacrificial lamb because God’s Angel of Death was too stupid to tell Israelites from Egyptians without a sign. I am pleased to discover his subtle sense of humor. But then when you drop bombshells, you need humor to lighten the mood.
“What kind of mean-tempered, spoiled creature kills everyone in the world except his favorite family, with a flood to get rid of evil? You’d think that being so all-powerful he could have thought of a nicer way to accomplish his goal.” I could hear some people behind me gasping, but he was just getting started.
Next he discussed those sacred icons, the Ten Commandments. “I don’t believe in them because they consider women to be the property of men,” he says. “How moral is that? The tenth commandment states that you must not covet your neighbor’s wife or his ox. It doesn’t say ‘don’t covet your neighbor’ cause we’re talking about property here.”
“And what about the Sixth commandment, about adultery? How do we interpret adultery when Solomon had a thousand wives and when a man could have as many wives as he could afford? Clearly it means that you should respect your fellow tribesman’s property. Obviously the commandments needed updating. Which, incidentally, Jesus did when he said that a more important commandment was to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.'”
On a roll the bishop continues to disparage the Biblical God and the Fawellian Mentality. “And then there’s prayer and God’s power. If God has the power to intervene in human affairs and yet lets six million Jews be slaughtered, lets Africans suffer and die of AIDS, if he has the power to intervene and doesn’t–then He is immoral.”
In fact, he suggests, the God of the old testament seems mostly to be an accountant keeping record books. A bit like Santa Claus, he’s making a list and checking it twice. He rules by guilt, fear, reward, and punishment.
And then there are the ridiculous miracles of the Bible. Joshua holds up his hands to the heavens and the sun stands still. He is the first user of daylight-saving time. God performs this miracle for Joshua so that the Israelites can go on slaughtering their enemies. But in the light of today’s knowledge we know this is impossible. We also know that stars can’t wander through the heavens leading people to a manger. These were the ancient miracles necessary for earlier, more-ignorant believers.
Touching briefly on the second commandment (one that he believes in) about not making any graven image of god, he comments strongly about people who “create God in an image of their own choosing, to enhance their own power and privilege. To do so is idolatry,” he says, and my neighbor whispers “amen!”
THE HUMANISTIC GOD
Then the Bishop describes his God. (It’s the first time I’ve heard him do this.) As usual, he goes to Hebrew History where these ancients first attempted to explain that which could not be explained.
God was so holy that they would not even write His name, using initials instead. But they often used the word Ruhch which means ‘wind,’ the Wind of God.
They felt the force of the wind but could not see it, so Ruhch became their metaphor for God. In their creation story, God fashions man from clay but man just lies there. Then God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being.”[Genesis 2:7] The Wind of God was in each human, and as long as humans had that Wind they lived. When the breath left them they died. Then again in Ezekiel 37, when Israel has been conquered, the prophet dreamed of a valley filled with dead, dry bones, (a metaphor for Israel), and asks, “Can Israel ever rise again?” And God says, “Sure, I’ll just breath the breath of life into them.” And when He did, the bones rattled, came together, and became flesh: the toe bone connected to the foot bone and the foot bone connected to–but you get the idea.
“Clearly,” the Bishop says, “This means that God is not out there somewhere.” He gestures to the heavens. “But he is here where life is.” He gestures to his audience. “God is life. God is where life is.”
The second characteristic of God, he explains, comes from John the Beloved Disciple and Micah the old Testament prophet who say simply, “God is the light” and “God is love.” So if you add love and light to life, we’re beginning to see the formation of a life well-lived, lived to the fullest.
“Throughout the Gospels,” the Bishop says, “Jesus makes clear that he has not come for earthly power; nor to make his people religious, righteous or moral; nor to give them power or authority. He came to give them life. He came that they ‘might live’ and help others live.”
Jesus, then, is the God of the fulfilled life. The God of the loving, living, nurturing person. “Anyone who hates or considers themselves to be superior to those of another race, sex, culture or sexual orientation is not a person of God. God’s people do not hate or condemn.” Amen, I whisper with my neighbor.
After his talk, the Bishop walks the aisles and takes questions and this is where his genius and sincerity wins people over. When questioned about prayer, he speaks of his first wife who died six years ago. When it was announced that she had a fatal disease, letters poured in from people saying they were praying for her. And when she lived longer than the doctors predicted they took credit saying, “See how our prayers are working.” But then she died. Did the prayers fail then? Gently he explains that prayers probably help those who are praying for others. But has God got a switchboard where he checks for prayers each day? The Bishop doesn’t think so. Yet, he was grateful for the prayers because it means people care about you and are thinking about you.
When a person questions him about missionaries he goes back to history. After each war of conquest, the British sent in their missionaries to convert and subdue the people, as the Baptists are doing today in Iraq. The basic belief of the missionary is, “I have the only truth and you are in error and I can only love and respect you if you believe as I do.” The chauvinism of this philosophy is disgusting and immoral, he says firmly.
A question about God and the Bible. He answers, “Don’t blame God for what’s in the Bible.”
Another question from a young man who clearly wants to debate the Bishop. He talks about a miracle that happened to him and for him, and asks the Bishop what he thinks about it. The Bishop says simply that he won’t go there, and goes on to the next question.
A woman asks about Jesus dying for our sins. He explained, again from Hebrew history, how the sacrificial lamb was offered to God to erase the sins of the tribe. The lamb was innocent morally and had to be pure, “without blemish” physically. After the lamb was killed, it’s blood was flicked on the sinners to get rid of their sins. They were “washed in the blood of the lamb” and their sins were forgiven. It was easy then to take the pure Jesus and make him the same kind of sacrifice. Just a continuation of an ongoing myth. The dying Savior is familiar in many ancient myths.
“No one can forgive you for your sins but yourself,” he says. “Neither do I believe that babies are ‘born into sin.'”
“Then you don’t believe in the Bible?” someone asks.
“I do,” he states defiantly but gently. “I have studied it all my life. I take it seriously but not literally. The more you study it the more you know it’s not meant to be taken literally but it has a moral and a story to tell. Jesus was a follower. He was the Way, the Truth and the Light. We should follow in his footsteps.”
“Besides,” he adds, “What kind of Father lets his beloved son be tortured and killed? If the crucifixion happened, then it was divine child-abuse” (Immediately the image comes to me as a bumper sticker. Christ on the cross and the words, DIVINE CHILD ABUSE.) Again some laugh, some gasp. The Bishop goes on, “The important part of the death scene is that even at the time of his death, Jesus is not bitter. He comforts his mother, he reassures his disciples, he pardons the thief that hangs beside him. He still extrudes love and caring. That is a death we can all strive for.”
As a fan of the Bishops, I have followed his words and interviews over the years. I know he has studied comparative religion and knows that perhaps Jesus did not exist but was given the best attributes of many of the saviors over the ages. I’ve heard him discuss the “parable of the fig tree” and like most scholars he believes it refers to Mithraism, a religion that thrived at the same time as Christianity. The fig tree was the symbol of Mithras. As a child, he hid in the fig tree and it fed and clothed him. When Jesus asked the fig tree to bear fruit out of season and then killed it when it couldn’t, it was the church fathers heralding Christianity as superior to Mithraism. But wisely the Bishop doesn’t bring this into his arguments. He stays focused. His ministry is to his fellow Christians and they probably still need to hold on to Jesus.
I firmly believe that if the Christians are to be brought into the twenty-first century it can only be done by an insider like Bishop Spong: a loving, honest, understanding and knowledgeable insider who simply stands there and explains things to them gently. He is sincere, he cares for them and he burns with his message.
“Christianity must change or die! How long can we go on teaching 3000-year-old myths as literal truths without looking ridiculous? How long can we ignore the great truths of Newton, Einstein and the scientific knowledge of today without becoming irrelevant? How long will we follow men who want to subject women to their will? Who want to exclude homosexuals from the Church? How long will we follow men who hate instead of love? We must change or die!”
I wish the Bishop well. He has my support and admiration. Live long and prosper, John Shelby Spong. May the force be with you.