When I read John Shelby Spong’s Jesus for the Non-Religious, I declared him an honorary atheist.Â Here was a retired Episcopal bishop, free of any obligation to a flock, secure in the fact that he could speak his mind without fear of professional reprisal, saying that there was no Virgin Birth, no Three Wise Men, no Flight to Egypt, no Slaughter of the Innocents,Â no Sharing of Loaves and Fishes (or any other miracles), no Resurrection, and no Ascension to Heaven.Â Still, Spong made it obvious that he had a deep reverence for the person and example of Jesus, and promised (should he live long enough) that he would write one more book to detail his views on what Christianity might look like in the absence of all the supernatural foolishness.
That new book–Eternal Life: A New Vision (pub. by HarperOne, Sep 2009, 268 pp hdcvr, $24.99)–has just been published, and after reading it I think Spong’s place as an honorary atheist is still secure, to the extent that Spong disavows any kind of Creator God who takes a personal interest in the lives of mere mortals, and rewards or punishes us based on our actions in this life.Â But being an atheist doesn’t necessarily preclude a belief in supernatural phenomenon other than God, and what Spong proposes will discombobulate hardcore anti-theists and traditional Christians alike.
Spong, who turned 78 in June, is acutely aware of his (presumably) imminent death, and wryly notes that in his role as a priest he was often perceived as an expert in death, although he secretly felt entirely inadequate to address “the deep yearning that we human beings feel to have contact with those we love who have departed this life.”
To set the stage, Spong offers a remarkably compact summary of both the history of the universe and the progress of human society.Â He admires the “insights of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein,” and states flatly that if Christianity is to flourish in the 21st century, it must align itself with the undeniable truths uncovered by science.Â He even gives a shout-out to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris!Â (Later on, he gives a shout-out to Deepak Chopra, so don’t get too excited.)
There are a couple of facts Spong gets wrong, however.Â He states that the “giant comet” that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago was “as large as the planet Mars”–obviously Spong is conflating the Chixculub Impact (which involved a meteor perhaps six miles across) with the theoretical Mars-sized body that may have collided with the young earth 4.5 billion years ago to form the moon.Â Later in the book, Spong states that Creationism and Intelligent Design “were declared violations of America’s constitutionally mandated separation of church and state by the Supreme Court.”Â Actually, while the Supreme Court did strike down Creationism in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), it has never yet ruled on Intelligent Design (the infamous Kitzmiller v. Dover case, which was decided at the District Court level, was never appealed).Â These are forgivable errors, which don’t substantively change the overall correctness of his accounts, but they are errors nonetheless.
Spong has a dim view of Christianity as it is practiced by 99% of its followers.Â He sees 21st century Christianity as stubbornly literalistic and shamelessly sycophantic (praying to God, Spong points out, is nothing more than a “liturgical flattery” to sway the deity to grant favors).Â “Truth,” says Spong, “is not religion’s ultimate agenda; security is…Religion is not divinely inspired; it is sometimes quite manipulatively human.”
Spong comes across as a bit naive with respect to the state of religion and especially the public acceptance of science.Â “Few people today regard Darwin as wrong…No one today really thinks that the religions of miracle and magic and of supernatural beings who manipulate the world of cause and effect for some ulterior purpose will long enjoy the confidence of the people…”Â Spong sees mainstream religion as irredeemably defunct: “One cannot restore life by doing a facelift on a corpse.”Â One wonders if Spong has read the latest polls.
In any event, having confirmed the validity of science and its insights into the nature of reality, and having dismissed religion as worthless and degrading to self-respecting human beings, Spong finally gets to the heart of his “New Vision.”Â Here he both surprises and disappoints.
Spong accepts the truth that DNA reveals, that there is “a deep interrelated unity” of life on earth.Â But from there, Spong speculates that human self-consciousness is also part of “a single whole, which emerged within the universe, and which can be accessed on a variety of levels by creatures of varying capacities.”Â Later he says that there is “an essential oneness within the universe, a oneness that binds together the material and immaterial things, and even our bodies and our minds, perhaps as a universal consciousness.”Â Honestly, in reading some of these passages, I couldn’t help but think of Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, describing the nature of the Force: “It’s an energy field created by all living things.Â It surrounds us and penetrates us.Â It binds the galaxy together.” For that matter, Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed something very similar to what Spong proposes:
“That Unity, that OVER-SOUL, within every man’s particular being is contained and made with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that over-powering Reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character; and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and becomes wisdom, and virtue, and power and the whole; and wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.”
Spong goes on to speculate that the emergence of self-consciousness from mere consciousness led to the state of “personhood,” which in turn leads to a feeling of separation from the rest of existence.Â Further, Spong believes that “individuation is just another step in the creation of a wholeness that enables the individuated one to be unique and part of the whole simultaneously.”
But wait!Â God isn’t entirely out of the picture, at least not semantically.Â Spong still uses the term “God,” but God is no longer in any way a person, outside entity, or overseeing deity, but rather “the depth dimension of being itself, which is present in every living thing but comes to self-consciousness only in the human life.”
So where does this leave Jesus–the actual, real-life teacher who died nearly 2,000 years ago?Â In a nutshell, Spong believes that Jesus “was a human life so deeply lived, a human life through which love flowed without barrier or interception, a being so courageously present that he was open to the ultimate ground of all being.Â He…stepped from self-consciousness into a universal consciousness that brings us into a profound oneness with all there is.Â He [became] one with God.”
I know, I know: it all sounds crazy.Â Spong is a man who has spent decades trying to get his coreligionists to embrace the facts of science, to dismiss the superstitious gobbledygook of ancient texts, and to embrace an enlightened humanity that sees beyond class, gender, race and sexual preference.Â Spong sees Jesus as a spiritual liberator who tried to make us see that we’re all the same deep down inside.Â That’s certainly one way to look at it.Â One reading of the New Testament reveals an attempt to break down religious, ethnic and cultural barriers.Â Another reading reveals the condemnation of homosexuals, second-class status for women, and a tacit endorsement of slavery.Â But we have to ask the question: what makes Spong think we can believe ANY of the New Testament?Â If the loaves and fishes are pure Hollywood, why isn’t this group-hug Jesus also just a mouthpiece for one of the early Christian writers?Â I’m not one who thinks there wasn’t a Jesus, but it’s not hard to see that the competing worldviews of the various writers of the New Testament led not just to contradictory details about the supernatural events in the life of Christ, but also in the teachings of Christ.Â The Jesus of the New Testament is a schizophrenic.Â He urges us to forgive our neighbors seventy times seven, but he also claims to “bring a sword.”Â It just seems like wishful thinking to cherry-pick, out of all the noise, a Buddha-like Jesus who tapped into the root of consciousness and universal love.Â It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not logical and not supported by any evidence.Â It’s also not really actionable–Spong leaves us no hints or advice on how we might also tap into this deep well of the Over-soul.
As much as I respect Spong’s wit, sensitivity, intelligence, and untiring attempts to liberalize hidebound Christianity, I can’t help thinking that Eternal Life is nothing more than an attempt to salvage some kernel of truth from a decades-long commitment to a religious system that the Bishop himself admits was mostly a farce.Â More than once while reading this book, I felt like shouting, “Come on–you’re this close!Â Just admit it was all a sham, shed this nonsense about universal consciousness, and finish your days knowing that you finally, finally, finally embraced rationalism!Â Be as much a skeptic toward the Over-soul as you were about burning bushes, reanimated corpses, and eternal reward and punishment!”Â As poetic and attractive as I might find Spong’s spiritual notions, I can’t help but feel a profound disappointment at the second half of what is likely his last book.Â I can’t help but repeat the Bishop’s own words about religion and point out to him that they apply equally as well to his New Vision: “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.”
Of course, the Bishop might only shake his head and good-naturedly declare that I just don’t get it–yet.
Visit Bishop John Shelby Spong‘s Official Website.