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Conflicting Emotion: Pride in the President, Shame at the Response of Many Church Leaders

17 May 2012: 3 Comments »

When the President of the United States, announced his support for gay marriage, the political landscape began to roil and I was filled with two quite opposite sets of emotions. First, there were the positive feelings.  There was enormous joy when I thought of what this would mean to close friends of mine who have …

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Question & Answer

Fran from Yachats, Oregon, asks:


How do you get around the common requirement of calling yourself a Christian unless you believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead?  If you don’t believe that why don’t you call yourself a Unitarian-Universalist?


Dear Fran,

Your question makes so many presuppositions that I cannot respond to it adequately without addressing and unloading those presuppositions.

First, I do agree that the resurrection of Jesus is an essential ingredient for the Christian faith and for an individual to make the Christian claim.  I have written two books on the Resurrection. The last of which was entitled Resurrection: Myth or Reality? I believe it is both.

You seem to be asserting that resurrection means believing that the death process was reversed in some physical way in the life of Jesus and that he was resuscitated to life in this world after he died in some kind of physiological way.  That is a typical understanding of those who would be called fundamentalist Protestants or conservative Catholics.  That point of view, however, reveals enormous biblical ignorance and confuses the resurrection experience with a late first century explanation of that experience that has become literalized in traditional Christian circles.

A study of the New Testament will reveal that Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus as Jesus having been raised into the meaning and life of God, out of which he appeared in some visionary way to certain chosen witnesses.  To say it differently, resurrection for Paul was not physical resurrection back into the life of this world, but was much more like the ascension, even though the ascension itself came to be literalized by the 10th decade and began to be thought of as a physical rising into the sky by Jesus.

The first gospel, Mark, written in the 8th decade, includes in its pages no account of the risen Jesus appearing to anyone.  In the second gospel, Matthew, written in the 9th decade, there is the first hint that resurrection might be a physical thing, but that occurs in a discredited narrative where Matthew changes Mark’s original story line where in Mark there was no hint of physicality.

Seeing Resurrection as physical resuscitation is thus the primary addition first in Luke, who wrote in the latter years of the 9th decade or perhaps even in the early years of the 10th decade, and then in John, who wrote at the end of the 10th decade.  Affirming the reality of the resurrection experience is quite different from affirming a late first century explanation and interpretation of the resurrection.  So your assertion that I do not believe in the Resurrection is simply wrong.

Your other suggestion that I should belong in the Unitarian Universalist tradition since, in your opinion, they do not believe in the resurrection, is also misleading.  I have great admiration for the Unitarian-Universalist tradition.  They bring an intellectual openness to theological discussions that I admire.  Their commitment to social justice seems to me to be the deepest of any religious tradition.  So, if that comment was meant to be derogatory, it missed its mark. I can discuss the resurrection more easily with Unitarians that I can with traditionalists and once we get past resuscitation, the conversation explores resurrection easily.

So, let me sum up by saying I see in Jesus one who broke every boundary of human possibility, including the boundary of death.  I do not believe that what the disciples of Jesus called resurrection has anything to do with the resuscitation of a deceased body.  So I not only believe in the resurrection, but I claim my identity as a Christian with enthusiasm.  I hope what this answer does for you is to make you aware that simplistic religious clichés about profound attempts to explore the realm of the spirit are expressions of inadequate understanding and are therefore a very poor reason to be religiously judgmental.

~John Shelby Spong


Read what Bishop Spong has to say about A Joyful Path Progressive Christian Spiritual Curriculum for Young Hearts and Minds: "The great need in the Christian church is for a Sunday school curriculum for children that does not equate faith with having a pre-modern mind. The Center for Progressive Christianity has produced just that. Teachers can now teach children in Sunday school without crossing their fingers. I endorse it wholeheartedly."

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