[This book review is a slightly modified version of a review originally published on the author’s Versteht blog.]
Review: John Shelby Spong. 2010. Eternal Life: A New Vision. New York, NY: HarperOne. 288 pp.
The fear of death has been a major struggle for human beings all throughout history, and we have found a variety of ways to cope with this uncomfortable fact. Religion is perhaps one of the most intricate and potent of these ways. Our world religions are man-made institutions designed to give comfort from this fear in the form of purpose, meaning, and life that transcend death. Embracing these realizations, Eternal Life: A New Vision argues for the necessity of abandoning traditional theistic religion for the adoption of a more humanist, life-centered perspective. Moving beyond religion, beyond theism, and beyond Heaven and Hell, a new paradigm is proposed for understanding death, life after death, and eternity.
John Shelby Spong is the retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark and one of the leading voices in progressive Christianity. He has been a visiting lecturer at many churches and universities throughout the English-speaking world, a frequent critic of fundamentalist doctrines like those of literalism and inerrancy, and he is a strong proponent of equality in gender, race, and orientation as well. Eternal Life: A New Vision is Spong’s 20th book, published in 2009, and some of his other writings are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (1991), Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1999), The Sins of Scripture (2005), and Jesus for the Non-Religious (2007).
I. The Foundations of Religion
Throughout the book we are given Spong’s thoughts and observations amidst the narratives of his personal journey and the greater journey of the human species. Spong identifies self-consciousness as the primary struggle that has led us into religious explanations. Although we do not (or cannot) know for certain what the evolution of self-consciousness was like for our distant ancestors, it was likely a confusing and perhaps even disturbing experience. Prior to such an awareness, we operated exclusively by instinct—a “survival mentality,” as Spong calls it. We had no conception of time, space, or mortality, so when our ancestors developed self-consciousness, they were thrown headfirst into a strange alien world of feelings and experiences they had never had before. Suddenly they were able to have memories, to anticipate the future, to feel loneliness, and much more.
With this newfound perception came new questions. Conceiving of mortality, we began to ask, what am I? What happens when I die? Conceiving of space, we began to ask, where am I? Why am I here? Conceiving of time, we began to ask, where did I come from? Where am I going? These are questions of no small significance, capable of producing enough anxiety in us that we have even coined a term for this inner battle: an existential crisis. To manage our anxiety, we developed ways of coping with our new sensation of self-consciousness. The most powerful of these ways was religion, which claimed to offer answers for all of our existential questions. Anything we did not understand was explained by positing the involvement of other self-conscious beings—ones more mighty than ourselves—the gods.
Religion, Spong contends, is nothing more than a human construct. We designed the gods to explain what we could not understand. We created them in our image, accounting for the wide variety of deities in their different habitats today. Our systems of religion are an attempt at manipulating the divine to achieve what we could not understand and could not achieve ourselves. This traditional theistic brand of religion is dead, according to Spong:
There is no supernatural God who lives above the sky or beyond the universe. There is no supernatural God who can be understood as animating spirit, Earth Mother, masculine tribal deity or external monotheistic being. There is no deity whom we can flatter into acting favorably or manipulate by being good. There are no record books and no heavenly judge keeping them to serve as the basis on which human beings will be rewarded or punished.
II. Out With the Old
Spong pronounces the death of traditional theism on the grounds of the discoveries of science, the insight of Nietzsche, and the revelations of higher criticism. While most Christians today do not hold to the idea of God as being literally above the sky, a strong case can be made that this is nonetheless what the god of the Bible is. What sense does it make, our author asks, for Jesus to descend from the sky to give the Great Commission? How could one build a tower tall enough to reach God in Heaven except under the old three-tiered cosmological model? How could God pour down manna on the Israelites unless he existed just above the sky? What was the point of Jesus’ ascension aside from returning to the God beyond the clouds?
First in the scientific discoveries to undermine this was Galileo’s theory of heliocentrism. With only empty space surrounding our planet, not even located at the center of the universe, there was no longer an ‘up there’ where God could be. Believers reinterpreted their scripture, however, changing their tune to declare that God is not ‘up there,’ but still ‘out there’ somewhere, wherever there may be. The next blow came from Newton, Spong states, who explained all the operations of the universe as natural laws, leaving God with nothing to do. Once again, though, some believers reinterpreted their views to say that God governs the natural laws by which things operate, even if he does allow for miracles to interrupt those laws from time to time. Here the author makes a great point in noting that a God who governs the laws of the universe cannot rightly be discharged from responsibility for the natural disasters those laws often entail. Finally, Spong argues that Darwin disrupted the view of humans as exalted creations of an external God. As just another species in the animal kingdom, questions of souls and sinful behavior would become troubling topics.
Nietzsche declared the death of God as a way of expressing the collapse of Christian values and theistic absolutes. Spong also takes this to imply that an external, supernatural and intervening deity does not exist. As a result, he believes we must find a new approach to purpose, meaning, and eternity that is divorced from traditional religion and the theistic paradigm. All of this would be further solidified with the rise of higher criticism, as the scriptures themselves came to be revealed not as the infallible and inspired word of God, but as the work of human authors prone to human errors.
Why allow religion to die? As previously explained, religion is constructed on gaps in our understanding, it’s constructed on fear, and it is used for control. Nothing about the common theisms like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism is life-affirming, as they all endorse some degree of denial of our human nature in favor of conformity with an external, non-natural being. Religion cannot be the truth if enough of the edifice crumbles and several of its claims are found untrue. We must move beyond the God of theism because, as Spong explains,
Religion in the past was a search for security…. I must seek to embrace insecurity as one of the essential marks of our humanity and strive to help people understand that it is no longer a vice, but a doorway into a new understanding of our humanity. The religion of the past sought to locate meaning and purpose in an external deity. That effort succeeded only in robbing life here and now of its own intrinsic worth, meaning and purpose. The religion of the past sought an answer to the unique human awareness of death by postulating a realm in which death is overcome. I seek to find a doorway into the eternal by going deeply into this life. (p. 143)
Spong does not declare that the end of religion spells the end of meaning or purpose. The reality of a religionless world, he states, is to conclude “that purpose is what we give to life, meaning is what we invest in life and the hope of something beyond the grave is only the pious dream of the childhood of our humanity, a dream that we must now abandon in our new maturity.” However, our author does not seem content to leave things here, but pursues a “new possibility” instead.
III. In With the New
The first twelve chapters of Eternal Life I did not find disagreeable practically at all. There is much to relate to, even for an atheist, in Spong’s telling of his own life experiences, as well as his paraphrasing of the human journey. He appears to know a great deal of science, theology, philosophy, and history, and his discussion of the evolution of self-consciousness, its probable impact on our ancestors, and the role this played in the formation of religion is quite insightful. I find myself sympathetic even to his interpretations of scripture and his deep desire to gather something meaningful from the ashes of religion. Even so, what Spong proposes in place of theism is not nearly as strong as his initial arguments and conclusions.
Chapter thirteen begins with a description of the unity in our universe. We are all stardust, as Spong points out, made up of elements forged from the explosions of stars. DNA is common to all living things. From such realizations, he asks, “is it not possible to postulate that consciousness is also a single whole, which emerged within the universe, and which can be accessed on a variety of levels by creatures of varying capacities?” (p. 146) Spong does go on to postulate this ten pages later, where he surmises, “‘God’ is more a glimpse into the meaning of the totality of human experiences, where we recognize that we are part of an ultimate grasping after a universal consciousness with which we are one and in which we are whole.”
Spong’s new vision of God sounds a bit like the description of The Force in the Star Wars movies. “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Where Jesus fits into this is also somewhat obtuse: “Jesus was a human being who was so whole, so free and so loving that he transcended all human limits, and that transcendence helped us to understand and even to declare that we had met God in him.” (p. 208) In other words, God may be thought of as transcendent universal consciousness, and Jesus is responsible for showing us this path to God.
Firstly, I have to take issue with Spong’s comments leading up to his question of a single and whole consciousness. In neither example is there evidence of a real connection between beings. We may have all began as stardust, loosely speaking, but evolution gradually produced very different and distinctive beings from that stardust. Spong accepts so much of what science tells us about ourselves, except for what it tells us of consciousness. He seems to hold a dualistic position, that mind (consciousness) and brain are separate, yet I believe this is like suggesting that one can run a computer program without the use of any hardware. We have all heard of how physical trauma to the brain can cause a person to lose consciousness, and neuroscience has revealed how certain emotions and thoughts correlate to certain regions of the brain, thus it is likely that consciousness is a product of the brain, confined to the brain.
Secondly, I find it interesting that Spong spends an entire chapter arguing for the meaning of Jesus and the resurrection under his new vision, after going through various criticisms of the New Testament passages that cast Christ in a supernatural light. If the miracle stories are all hogwash, what makes Spong so sure that his interpretation is the accurate reading of the New Testament? It seems that he simply wants to view Jesus as a peaceful and loving liberator of sorts, which is supported by the Bible about as much as the Bible supports the opposite view.
In the final chapter, Spong discusses life beyond death. Eternity is reimagined into “embracing the finite” and being “held in the bonds of love” with family, friends, and others. Intriguingly, Spong professes a belief that this life is not the end of life, but expresses an inability to articulate the concept, leaving it at that. The book concludes with a wonderful benediction to “live fully, to love wastefully, to be all that you can be and to dedicate yourselves to building a world in which everyone has a better opportunity to do the same.”
There is a lot I admire in Eternal Life, and many sentiments I share with Spong. His understanding of faith as “the task of living, loving and being” (p. 203) is something I cannot and would not argue with in principle. However, I believe that the labels applied by Spong to numerous concepts are often pointless and sometimes even confused. If the divine is fully experiencing the human, why call it the divine in the first place? What stands to be gained from calling the totality of human experience, and the sense of transcendent unity, God? Of course, Spong’s goal is to radically change Christianity, which will mean radically changing Christianity’s core concepts, yet I see this merely as an attempt to ease the transition out of a system which is already in the process of collapsing—to salvage something of worth from a long devotion to it, if only as a memento. As Spong notes of religion, “It becomes clear that we believe these things not because we are convinced that they are true, but because we have a deep need for them to be true.” The same might be said for his new vision.
Eternal Life is an eloquent and interesting read, though not likely to persuade atheists or committed fundamentalists.
Copyright ©2011 by Taylor Carr. The electronic version is copyright ©2022 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Taylor Carr. All rights reserved.