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The Need for the Christian to Journey Beyond Scripture, Creed and Church

22 August 2013: 4 Comments »

Theology is a rational, deeply human, attempt to explain our experience with God. Theology is, therefore, never primary; it is always secondary to experience. Theological explanations can thus never be eternal. All explanations not only will change, but must change when knowledge grows and by so doing will always invalidate previous conclusions. Theology can never …

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Question & Answer

Ken Austin from Maroubra, Australia, writes:

Question:

I heard Bishop Spong speaking recently on Radio Australia about his book on the Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. The Bishop said he was a Christian, but he also said that he did not believe in the historical interpretation of scripture. He pointed out how “Christians” in history were not acting as God would have it. He said he would like to meet with people of other religions who had “experienced God” in their own faiths and to explain to them his experience of God from the Christian perspective and then to listen to their explanations of their religious experience with a view to getting a dialogue going and not saying “my version of God is right and yours is not.” He said that this is in the interest of having a peaceful world. But how can “religions” or “faiths,” if you like, agree on the nature of God when their doctrines are so opposite (actually Christianity is not a religion, it is about having a relationship with God, through the Savior Jesus, the Christ). Jews, Muslims and Buddhists don’t have this aspect going on at all. But he did not say in this interview that Jesus has said that the only way to the Father (God) is through him, I am the gate, etc. The Bishop also didn’t mention that Jesus came to take away the penalty for sin (which all humans have as part of their natures) and that the thing that separates humankind from God is sin. (God cannot be related to sin in any way and Jesus removes that barrier – other religions don’t do this at all.) Bishop Spong is clearly an intellectual type, who apparently ignores some of the most important parts of scripture in order to promote his own version of God. For what reason or purpose he does this is not clear to me. I hope I can have these questions put to him for an answer. I don’t see how Jesus’ words agree with his, especially about having a holy relationship, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, with the true and living God.

 

Answer:

Dear Ken,

Thank you for your letter even though it reveals a deeply fundamentalist version of Christianity that lives only in those communities that have not engaged the intellectual revolution of the last 500 years. I associate your viewpoint with that which I encountered constantly when I was in Sydney, which religiously, at least, seems to me to be little more than a hotbed of pre-modern thinking. Perhaps that is why Sydney is known primarily as a secular non-religious city. This was especially true of those who called themselves “Sydney Anglicans,” who were among the most uninformed, the most imperialistic, the most deeply prejudiced and the most ungracious people I have ever met who still call themselves Christians. This was true from the Archbishop on down, excluding only that tiny minority in that archdiocese who secretly communicated to me their embarrassment over what has happened to their church in that beautiful city. If by your question you want to be in dialogue with a different perspective then I am happy to respond.

What you call the “historical interpretation of scripture” is shorthand for evangelical fundamentalism. For the past 200 years in the Christian academies of the developed world the literal view of the Bible that you espouse has been shattered. Moses did not write the Torah. It was the product of about 500 years and the merging together of traditions from at least four schools of thought arising in the circumstances of four different periods of Jewish History. Not a word of what are called the “Books of Moses” or the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was actually written until about 300 years after Moses’ death. Moses thus did not write it down while God dictated the Ten Commandments. There are in fact three versions of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament and they do not agree with each other. From your perspective we would have to believe that God was confused or perhaps that God did not quite get the commandments right the first time so God kept trying.

You appear not to be aware that miracles do not come into the story of Jesus until the 8th decade of the Common Era. The Virgin Birth does not enter the gospel tradition until the 9th decade; neither does the understanding of resurrection as the physical resuscitation of a deceased body. The story of Jesus’ ascension is a 10th decade addition to a growing and developing tradition.

The Christian movement did not separate itself completely from the Synagogue and Judaism until 55-60 years after the crucifixion, so the imperialistic idea that only Christians have the truth was a late developing idea when Christians finally achieved institutional and political power.

Can you imagine a God so limited that this God would only welcome into the divine presence those who agree with you or other fundamentalists? If Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Christians all worship the one True God as I believe we do, since there is ultimately only one God, then no one’s understanding of God can ever be identified with absolute truth. As the apostle Paul once wrote: “We see through a glass darkly.”

The claim that no one comes to God but by Jesus is a saying attributed to Jesus only in the Fourth Gospel, a book that did not appear in Christian history until the latter years of the 10th decade, or some 65 – 70 years after the end of Jesus’ earthly life. The earlier gospels portray Jesus as saying those who are not against him are for him and inviting all who are weary and heavily laden to come unto him. The only standard of divine judgment according to Matthew said nothing about proper believing, but spoke only of the ability to see the presence of God in every person including those he called “the least of those who are our brothers and sisters.”

The idea that human nature is fallen and that Jesus had to die for our sins is a result, not of some divine revelation, but of literalizing the ancient Jewish creation stories that stressed an original and perfect creation, followed by a fall into sin created by human disobedience, which in turn necessitated a rescue operation that portrays Jesus as being punished for our sins on the cross. This is a 4th century misreading of the ancient Jewish folktales and, if literalized, turn God into a vindictive, punitive monster. They would also turn Jesus into being the prime victim of divine abuse and would turn you and me into guilt-laden Christ killers. Besides that, we now know that these ancient stories are simply not literally true. Modern studies of the origin of our universe tell us that there never was a perfect creation, just an evolving process that went from physical matter, to life, to consciousness and finally to self-consciousness over a period of about 13.8 billion years. Evolution is an established scientific understanding of the origins of life that renders “original sin” as nonsense. If there was no fall into sin, there is no need for a savior, so that way of telling the Christ story is simply a product of an uninformed mentality.

All versions of God are the ideas of someone. The idea of God changes dramatically in the Bible itself. It is a long journey from the God who sent plagues into Egypt, ordered the murder of the first born male in every Egyptian household on the night of the Passover and who drowned the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, to the God who enjoins us to love our enemies.

I guess what I really want to communicate to you is that true Christianity is vastly different from any one’s idea of Christianity and is certainly different from the type of Christianity that you seem to have experienced and unless you can step away from the narrow and even punitive understanding that you reflect, you will never be able to grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ Jesus, which Paul says is in each of us.

I have been all over Australia on many occasions. I assure you there is more to Christianity in that wonderful country than what you appear to know about. My books actually sell on a per capita basis there better than they sell anywhere else in the world. That would not happen unless someone is listening and someone is reading. As a matter of fact in September in Canberra an international gathering of progressive Christians will come together in a conference known as “Common Dreams III.” I commend it to all Australians who want to try to build what I have called “A New Christianity for a New World.”

I wish you well.

John Shelby Spong

Announcements

Common Dreams 3 Conference

Midwives of Change:Progressives Shaping Religious Communities

From: September 19, 2013 to September 22, 2013

Manning Clark Centre, Australian National University Canberra, AUSTRALIA

Common Dreams

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