Thursday, February 1, 2007
July 8, 2001
Bishop Spong: And thank you for coming out to share this evening with me, and with my wife Christine. It's my intention to try to introduce myself to you today, but not in terms of personality, in terms of thought processes. If my life and my writing have power, it is because I live in the midst of two very distinct tensions. The first one of these is that I am a Christian. I live my life in a very deep awareness of that which is holy. God is a presence that I can never define but I could never deny. Indeed I think of myself as a God intoxicated human being. And my doorway into this sense of the holy comes quite simply through the person that the church acknowledges as its Lord, Jesus of Nazareth. I cannot remember a time when he was not an important part of my life. I was baptized as an infant. I was confirmed as an adolescent, I was active in my church's youth group and in my university student group. I was married before the church's altar; trained at the church's seminaries, ordained deacon and priest at age 24. I served in those capacities for 21 years. I must have served well, for my church decided when I was 44 years of age that I would be elected one of its Bishops. And I was a Bishop for 24 years, retiring as the senior sitting Bishop in the Anglican Church in the United States of America. I cannot recall a time when this part of my life was not central to me. And everything that I have done in my life has come out of that very deep and very real conviction. That's part of my identity.
But there is a second part. I am a child of the 21st century. That is a very different time from the time in which my faith tradition was born - we think in very different ways. I live on the other side of Copernicus and Kepler and Galileo. I cannot possibly conceive of my planet earth as the centre of a three-tiered universe. I know rather that the sun, around which my planet earth revolves, is a middle sized star in a galaxy called the Milky Way that has over a hundred billion other suns or stars within it. And I know that my galaxy the Milky Way is only one of 125 billion galaxies in the visible universe, with distances that can only be measured in light years, beyond even our capacity to embrace. So I can no longer think of God as sitting somehow just above this earth; periodically invading this world to accomplish some miraculous thing, keeping record books on the likes of you and me, sending guilt, reward, sickness, weather patterns to punish. That's simply not a god that is a conceivable concept for me.
I also cannot imagine trying to suggest that there was once a literal star that was hung in the sky to announce the birth of a man named Jesus. Nor can I imagine that that star could be dragged across the sky, the roof of the earth or the floor of heaven, perhaps by one of the angels that apace so slowly that wise men could actually follow it. I cannot believe that there was a time when this Jesus of Nazareth, having completed his work, decided to return to where God is, and so he simply rose off this earth to go beyond the sky. I know that if Jesus rose off this earth and went far enough, he didn't get to heaven he got into orbit. I live in a very different kind of universe from the universe in which the bible was written, and I cannot pretend that that is not so.
I live on the other side of Isaac Newton, who helped us to understand the laws by which our physical universe operates; who helped to remove some of the mystery of life, and who dramatically narrowed the field in which people, our ancestors in faith once though that miracles and magic occurred. I do not live in a world where people can walk on water, or still a storm, or take five loaves of bread and feed 5000 men plus women and children. If that is a requirement of my commitment to Jesus, I find it difficult to stretch my mind outside the capacities of my world view.
I live on the other side of the year 1724. Maybe that's not a significant year to you, but in the western world medical science finally determined that every woman has an egg cell. Prior to that time they thought that the woman was simply the receptacle for the life of the new baby, not a contributor to the life of the new baby. And from that moment on we have had to face the fact that women are co-creators in equal dimensions of every life that has ever been born, including the life of Jesus of Nazareth. That is we now know that if Jesus has Mary for Jesus' mother, he has fifty per cent of his genetic code from his mother, so he is fifty per cent human. And if you literalise the birth stores of Matthew and Luke, you would have to say that he is fifty per cent divine. That is not exactly what the church has tried to teach about Jesus. A half human half divine creature, but you cannot live in the modern world of genetics and not come to that conclusion if you literalise the story of Jesus' birth. And so there's a real sense in which the discovery of the egg cell ended the literal biological understanding of the virgin birth forever. And I have to live in this 21st century.
I live on the other side of Charles Darwin. And Charles Darwin not only made us Christians face the fact that the literal creation story cannot be quite so literal, but he also destroyed the primary myth by which we had told the Jesus story for centuries. That myth suggested that there was a finished creation from which we human beings had fallen into sin, and therefore needed a rescuing divine presence to lift us back to what God had originally created us to be. But Charles Darwin says that there was no perfect creation because it is not yet finished. It is still unfolding. And there was no perfect human life which then corrupted itself and fell into sin, there was rather a single cell that emerged slowly over 4½ to 5 billion years, into increasingly complexity, into increasing consciousness.
And so the story of Jesus who comes to rescue us from the fall becomes a nonsensical story. So how can we tell the Jesus story with integrity and with power, against the background of a humanity that is not fallen but is simply unfinished?
I live on the other side of Sigmund Freud, and so I have to face the fact that my church has been exposed as keeping people in a state of perpetual dependency; playing control games, playing guilt games. Not calling people as St Paul once suggested, into the fullness of the statue of Christ Jesus that is within us, but keeping us docile and servile and dependent and childlike. Oh the Christian church has encouraged enormous immaturity among the peoples who are its primary adherence.
And I live on the other side of Albert Enstein. Albert Enstein who helped us see that everything is relative, not just time and space, but our perceptions of time and space. And so I can no longer believe that there is such a thing as an infallible authority or an inherent scripture or an unchanging tradition. I am a child of the 21st century. If in order to be a Christian in the 21st century I have to bend my mind into a first century pretzel so that I can say these words with some sort of honesty and integrity, that is too high a price to pay. The tension in my life is that I refuse to give up, either my commitment to the reality of God, my devotion to Jesus in whom I see the presence of God, and my citizenship in the 21st century. To the degree that I am able to communicate with the audiences of my world, it is because I bring both of these tensions present.
Now how does one deal with that? Let me conclude this all too brief opening statement by telling you a story out of the biblical tradition. In the 6th century before the birth of Christ the little nation of Juda was overrun by the army of the Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar was victorious. And Nebuchadnezzar and his army roared into Jerusalem after they had breached the walls and they levelled the city and they destroyed the nation, and they lined up all of the citizens of that little state, except the lame, the old and the blind and they began a death march into captivity. And somewhere along the route as these Jewish men and women were being separated from everything that they knew and everything that they held holy; separated even from what they believed the sense of God was, who was so clearly identified with a particular place in their minds. One of their tormentors went to these Jewish pilgrims and said, 'come folks, sing us one of the holy songs of Zion'. To which the Jewish person was said to have responded, 'how can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?'
You and I have not been beset by the army of the Babylonians, but I would like to suggest that in the last 4 to 500 years of western thought, we have been buffeted rather realistically, and we are now at the place where we can no longer sing the Lord's song that was our traditional song, in the words that we once upon a time could sing it. We cannot act as if the passage of time has not taken place. We cannot act as if people like Copernicus and Galileo and Newton and Darwin and Freud and Enstein and so many others, we cannot act as if they didn't live and change the perceptions of reality with which we have to deal. And so the question that a modern Christian faces is quite similar to the question that that Jewish exiled person had to face. Our task is to sing the Lord's song, but our task is to sing the Lord's song in the strange world of the 21st century - for that's the world in which we live. And if we cannot sing the Lord's song in the 21st century, then the Lord's song will die. If we sing the Lord's song with a new accent and it has no connection with the song of the past, we have not helped in making our faith relevant to our world.
And so those are the tensions with which we live. Our belief system, deep and real and genuine, colliding every day with a world that is so radically different from the world in which our believe system was born. My home, my desire, and the absolute intention of my life in ministry is to sing the Lord's song in the accents of the 21st century, so that my children and my grandchildren can know the God that I know and can find the doorway of Jesus of Nazareth, a doorway through which they can enter to explore the mystery and the wonder of the holy.
If I could put it in just a thumbnail sketch, those are the two tensions that constantly tear at my soul, and I am not willing to give up either one of them. I shall wrestle with these two tensions until I can make them clear and relevant and real to the world in which I am privileged to live.
Thank you very much.
Geraldine Doogue: Ladies and gentlemen would you please welcome with me Bishop John Shelby Spong. (CLAPPING) Thank you ladies and gentlemen. You're a popular man clearly. You've been to Australia several times before. I wonder if you could just tell us, how to you find the spiritual mood of the place this time?
Bishop Spong: I find it wonderfully vibrant, uhh, Australia is a young - and I use these words positively not negatively - sort of arrogant sort of cocky can-do kind of place. I find them spiritually hungry and spiritually open. I find them, at least the audience that I seem to speak to, is not terribly attracted to institutional religion. But that does not mean that they are not attracted to the reality of God. I've been absolutely amazed at the experience and the reception that we've had.
Geraldine: Yes it's interesting because really it does seem as if this visit has created a great deal of interest; more than I can remember. I don't know what that's all about, what do you think it is.
Bishop Spong: Well I don't know either, but it's a very nice picture to see people queuing up to get into church; which happened in Melbourne on a Tuesday night at 7 o'clock. There was a line about a block long of people trying to get into church. That in itself is newsworthy. And the same thing happened in Brisbane at 2 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. We had a long line of people, and in both places they had to turn people away.
Q Now I'm glad you mentioned Brisbane though, because like it is interesting. In 1991 I think it was, on one of your previous visits, Archbishop Peter Hollingworth and his wife were I think in the second front row listening to you. This visit you weren't allowed or invited to speak in any of the Anglican churches in Brisbane - of which he of course was the Archbishop.
Bishop Spong: Well I must tell you the audience that I seek to reach is not normally in church anyway. I think that's what we need to recognise. I'm not terribly concerned about things like that. The audience that I try to reach, are members of what I call the church alumni association. Now they are people who have not found in institutional religion a god big enough to be god for their world. I'm embarrassed frankly when I find churches still wrestling with issues that I think we should have solved hundreds of years ago. I'm not interested in being part of a racist church, where all of god's people are not welcome. I'm not interested in being part of a church that is still debating whether or not women can have access to any position in the church that any other member of the church can have. And I'm not really interested in a church that continues out of what I regard as profound ignorance, to discriminate against and to oppress gay and lesbian people. So that I find a whole different audience that is somewhat turned off by the church. And I guess that it's a little bit unusual that I'm a Bishop speaking to that exiled audience.
Q Well, yes I appreciate you're going to try to dodge any questions about Archbishop Hollingworth, I can hear it. But nevertheless there's been obviously a big shift in his conduct shall we say, because you're not able to speak in Sydney Anglican churches either. You certainly were welcomed in Perth and Adelaide. But do you think that you have started to go even more out into your own territory, such that you're starting to really bother, even more than you did before, some of the people inside the Anglican church.
Bishop Spong: Oh I've always bothered traditional religious people, always. I like to think that Jesus did too. You know they put him to death. I haven't faced that quite yet. I know Peter Hollingworth well. He's always been a friend of mine. If you want to find out what's going on in his mind I would suggest you ask him. I'm not going to try to tell you what Peter thinks.
Q Of course it has also been said that as well as being a controversial man, you're a bit of a bomb thrower; that you have a take-no-prisoners approach. That you could be accused of arrogance, of not caring about the people whom you hurt along the way.
Bishop Spong: That's usually said by the people who lost the argument, so I'm not again very concerned about that. I'm only interested in bearing witness to what I think is truth. I find it fascinating that in religious disputes or religious debates, so often people are not capable of discussing ideas - they attack persons. I was in a situation in Sydney a couple of days ago when a person was supposed to be responding to one of my books and he spent the whole time in a very personal attack upon my integrity as a human being. I don't find that's terribly helpful, and I would not want to return the compliment to this person. I just think that there ought to be a place where we aren't so afraid. I remember the day when I suddenly discovered that God did not need Jack Spong to defend God. And I wish the church and some of its leaders would realise that God is not so fragile that when somebody articulates a different point of view from the traditional way, that somehow God needs the church to rush to God's defence. God can get along quite well, and it'd be a rather pitiful god I think if this god had to have certain ecclesiastical figures constantly defending God from the questions of modern men and women.
Q Yes, but you know when I was watching in the 1990's at your visits and so on, I must say there were times when I thought to myself, that man's lost his faith. Now you may say I'm dead wrong on that, but I mean was your faith ever seriously challenged?
Bishop Spong: Not since I was about 12 years old and ceased being a fundamentalist. I was raised in an evangelical fundamentalist Anglican church. I was taught that the bible was the world of God, God had dictated it. And incidentally I was also taught that it was okay to be a racist, because my church was totally segregated. That it was okay to treat women as second class citizens, because no woman could serve in any capacity in our church, except to fix the flowers or to do work in the kitchen. I was also taught that Jews were evil people. That all they did was to kill Jesus. Nobody ever told me that Jesus was a Jew. That sort of escaped their notice.
And I was told that homosexual people were either mentally sick or morally depraved. And if I ever questioned any of those prejudices, the bible was quoted to prove that God was on the side of those prejudices.
Now I got over that, and it's been an interesting pilgrimage from that. I went from that into a sort of anglo Catholic security system. And then I went from that into recognising that God is bigger and more wondrous than I will ever be able to embrace with any of my creeds or any of my ideas or any of my thoughts. And the religious life to me is a journey into the mystery of God. I don't want a church that says we've got the answers; come and we will tell you what the answers are. I want a church that invites people to bring their questions, and to journey together into whatever the mystery of God is.
And I'll tell you a secret Geraldine. It seems to me that the closer we get to that mystery, the less any of our words have any mean whatsoever. You just sort of our struck with silence and you stand before the mystery and the awe and the wonder of the reality of God, and you wonder what all the debates were about in the past, where we played a game; my god is better than your god so I think I'll kill you. I don't want to play that kind of religious game ever again in my life.
Q But since you were 12, would you say you'd had a dark night of the soul, where despite what you say, that vision or image or notion was just too blurry, to indistinct to give you comfort?
Bishop Spong: The only problems I've really had is when I've run into definitions that the church has imposed upon the wonder of God, that no longer are adequate definitions. And so if I have identified the definition with the experience that the definition is trying to explain, then you have a sense that maybe you're having a faith crisis. My faith crisis is always with the narrow definitions of the church, and not with the wonder that lies behind it.
Take the story of Jesus' resurrection for example. I've written a book on the resurrection, and I am profoundly moved by the resurrection story. I don't think there'd be a Christian faith today had there not been a powerful experience after the crucifixion, that convinced the disciples that Jesus was still alive, available and present to them. Does that mean that it's a physical resuscitated body that gets up and walks out of the tomb. I find it fascinating that that idea doesn't even enter into the New Testament until you get to the ninth decade. The first sense of a physical of a resurrected Jesus is in a little vinuet(?) in Matthew which as a matter of fact he has taken from Mark and changed it to add the physicality. And the real presence of Jesus as a physically resuscitated body after death, is not until you get to Luke and John - the last two gospels to be written - during the last 9th and early 10th decades by that time. I think the power of the resurrection is real. I think the definition with which the church has tried to explain the resurrection, leave a great deal to be desired.
Q So obviously for you, every time you need a definition by the sound of it, you work through that and realise that it's bigger than the need to put boundaries around it. Am I hearing you correctly?
Bishop Spong: Yeah. The thing that I think we need to remember is that there's a tremendous difference between the experience of God, which I believe is real and eternal, and the way any human being at any time in history explains the experience; because no human explanation will ever be eternal. And what we've done as a church is to make idols out of our explanations. The second commandment suggests that we should have no idols. And it goes on to describe various kinds of idols. I don't know many modern men and women who build a statue out of gold or platinum and put it out in their yard and bow before it. But what we have historically done is to make images of God out of our words, and we've called them scripture and we've called them creeds. And then we've said these are not just images of God, these are the actual realities. And if you don't agree with our definition of God, we will burn you at the stake, or we will go to a religious war against you. I don't believe that's the way into the life that is holy.
Q But these days not many people are burned at the stake, not literally. So we seem to have another problem, a spiritual hunger that there isn't even a sense of the myth that you might describe from which to draw the understandings that you seek. Like, isn't that a bigger problem now?
Bishop Spong: Well I think it is, but you see I think that's because we have so literalised the way we have described our god experience in the past. And people are unable to connect with those literal explanations. And we've never suggested that there's something beyond that. The God experience can never be captured in words, it can only be pointed to. I value the scriptures. I read them every day of my life. I've studied them backwards and forwards and upside down. I think the scriptures point to the reality of God. I do not think they capture the reality of God. And I would say the same thing about the creeds. I value the creeds. They're a landmark to me in Christian development. They point to the reality of God. They do not capture the reality of God. Even the creeds have an escalator going up and down the three tiers of the universe that they thought was the way the world was. And you can't literalise that.
Q But you see you, what are the core beliefs from here on. You it seems to me feel comfortable saying what it's not, but what are they? What can I hang my hat on?
Bishop Spong: Well in the first place I think if you're trying to find something you can hang your hat on so that you'll feel secure you've misunderstood what the Christian message is. I don't believe that my religion makes me secure. I think if it does that it removes my humanity from me. I love the statement of the man that said if you can keep your head while everyone is losing their's, you probably don't understand the issues. What the Christian faith does for me is to give me a sense of the reality of God that enables me to embrace the radical insecurity of my life and to keep walking forward into what I believe is a meaningful existence. And that's very different from feeling secure. I think God is real. I meet God primarily through the person Jesus of Nazareth. There's no other way I could meet God. I am a child of this tradition, I am a child of the west. I would not ever want to say that Jesus is the only doorway that any other person could walk through to get to the mystery and wonder of God. That's God's business that's not my business.
Q But if another person said to you: 'well I want to enter that doorway via a fabulous tree, via an environmental theology - the wonder of nature'. What would you say to them?
Bishop Spong: Well I would say that anybody ought to seek the holy through whatever means they know how to seek the holy. But ultimately you get to the place where you have to say is this leading me to where I want it to go. You see I believe that the Christian life is not a religious life, I think it's a whole life. My basic creed is to say that since God is the source of life I worship by living. Since God is the source of love, I worship I love him. Since God is the ground of all being I worship by having the courage to be everything that I can be. And my discipleship of the Jesus who gives me this understanding of God is not to make everybody think like I think. My discipleship is to live my life in such a way as to build a world where every human being, every human being regardless of race or colour or gender or sexual orientation, every human being can live fully and love wastefully, and be all that they were created to be in the infinite variety of God's humanity, and I'm tired of having the church try to say: 'humanity is only this, humanity is only that, religion is only this, religion is only that'.
Q But what do you do if you are deeply insecure. All of us at some point in our lives are deeply insecure. What do we do with that?
Bishop Spong: That's true. I don't think you'll ever escape that. I would say that those people who decide to get rid of their insecurity by wrapping themselves inside an authority system of religion, don't become very loving. It's really right interesting, that isn't full humanity when you're just sort of blocking yourself. Sometimes when I have nothing better to do in the United States, I will turn on one of our television evangelist - we have a number of them - and I'll turn off the sound, and I'll just watch their body language. They have pointing fingers and snarling faces. I've gotten 16 death threats in my life but none has ever come from a Buddhist or an atheist or an agnostic, they've all come from bible quoting true believers. What I want to know is what is there about religion that causes people to become so mean and so hostile and so rejecting of anybody that might have a different point of view. I think that's because they have a very slender hold on their version of truth. And they feel like if they let go, they're over a bottomless pit, and so they cling with desperation. That's not what faith is. Faith is having the confidence that God is always in front of you and so you boldly walk in to meet the future. You don't cling to yesterday as if there is no tomorrow.
Q Finally before I call on our audience to put some questions to you. You love to stress that the gospels are fundamentally Jewish books, that we ignore that at our peril. Well there's a famous Jewish character Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and there's that lovely line "without our traditions our lives are as shaky as a fiddler on the roof."
Bishop Spong: That's correct.
Q Now are you sure that you're not inviting people to that very shaky place?
Bishop Spong: Well I think it is shaky, but I think that the truth of religious faith is always evolving. There is no such thing as the faith once delivered to the saints. You know I talk to some people and they act as if Christian theology dropped from heaven, already in paragraphs with footnotes. That's not quite the way it happened; it's a living tradition. Early in the life of the Christian faith, we debated whether or not Adam & Eve had navels. Now I don't know anybody that debates that today.
Early in the Christian story we said that if you're really a Christian you can't gain interest on your money - that was usual. Well I think we've sort of changed our point of view on that. And the primary reason that Jewish people went into the banking industry is because Christians wouldn't allow them to own land, and Christians felt it was un-Christian to lend money at interest. And so then we opened this opportunity for our Jewish brothers and sisters to become bankers and jewellers. They had to deal with things that were available, that they could by the prejudice of Christians they still had an opportunity to make livings then. And I think it's an evolving story and I think it's a wonderful story, and there are no fixed points. Religion is not designed to make people secure, it's designed to make people know that God is real and to invite them into their own humanity. I wish the church were an institution where we offered to people the invitation, 'come as you are and journey with us together, sharing whatever it is you have to share, as we walk into the mystery and wonder of God.' We don't have answers. We pretend we have answers. We only have a vision, and I want us to make that vision real for as many people as possible.
Q You're sure you're not preaching to saints and not sinners. That's a big ask in a way.
Bishop Spong: Well I'm sure that there would be people that say there are some people who never escape childlike immaturity. There are some people that act as if God is sort of the adult version of Santa Claus. They no longer have Santa Claus to cling to so they created a sort of Santa Claus god. There are a lot of prayers that I talk about with people. And when they tell me about what their prayer life sounds like, it sounds to me like adult letters written to Santa Claus. 'Dear God I've been a very good boy, please do a, b, c and d for me.' I think there's a level of life that's beyond that.
Again, to go back to my basic creed; I think if God is the source of life, the job of the church is to help people live fully. If God is the source of love, the job of the church is to help people love wastefully. And you've got to be loved into being a loving person. You've got to receive it first. And if God is the ground of all being, and that's a favourite phrase of mine - not original obviously. I take it from the writings of Paul Tillich who was sort of my shaping theologian. If God is the ground of all being, we worship by enabling people to be all that they are. We don't play games of behaviour control and judgment and guilt, and trying to keep people childlike and dependent. I think the church will have a lot to answer to for its inability to call people into the fullness of life.
And if I could put a text on that, and every priest or preacher needs a text. My favourite text are words attributed to Jesus in the 10th chapter of St John. "I have come he says that you might have light." He didn't say, I have come that you might be religious, or orthodox, or proper or righteous or moral or all of those things which the church has sort of gotten itself involved with. He said I have come that you might have life. The job of the church is to help people live fully and love wastefully, and be all that they can be, and show them God and Christ in the process. And I think that's a faith tradition that will connect with this generation, and I think that will open the door to a reformation and a renaissance in the Christian faith. That is my hope, indeed that is my prayer.
Q Well look thank you very much Bishop Spong. While I try not to cough I might invite others. I can hear various common souls among us. And as I said, if you would indicate please, who would like to ask a question.
Anne Henderson down here, can we have a microphone right down here please, and if you'd stand Ann, and identify yourself please.
My name is Anne Henderson. I was at the meeting two months ago that you referred to, and I asked you a similar question which I want to ask again tonight, having listened. You speak mostly to the unchurched, or to those who have become alienated by organised religion. But what are you offering those people? The tradition of Christianity began with Christ who is I suppose challenging the views of his own organised religion. Umm he went from the Jews. His disciples went out and founded the Christian religion. We've had other Christian leaders, we've had Luther we've had Calvin, we've had John Wesley. All those movements ended up founding another form of Christianity. Are you for or against organised religion? Because it seems the things you are reacting against are really from that organised church. Whereas you said two nights ago the minority inevitably take over the majority. Or are you advocating a completely individual faith, where people read your books and that's their church.
Bishop Spong: I'm like the person who said, I'm not a member of any organised religion, I'm an Anglican. There's something profoundly wonderful about the Anglican communion, in that we're probably the messiest most disorganised church in Christianity. The reason for that is that our church was born as the religious expression of a whole nation, and it had to be broad enough to embrace everybody within that nation. And then through the accidents of history, the United Kingdom was developed and the British Empire was developed, and the Anglican church h ad to stretch to embrace much more than just England. So there's something sort of wonderful about it. We don't have a Pope who is the final authority. We don't have a bible that we invest with in errantcy, so we sort of live, we live sort of like an amoeba, we sort of stick out a pseudopod here and if it works you let it stay. But if it doesn't we pull it back and stick another one out here, and that's the way we make progress. But it means that our church has been able to move with the times. We had an enormous battle in our church in the United States about whether black people were part of the body of Christ. We've solved that battle.
We had an enormous struggle about whether women could be priest and bishops. We now have nine Anglican Bishops who are women in my church. We've solved that problem.
We had an enormous battle, it lasted for about 25 years, about whether gay and lesbian people could be part of this tradition. And ultimately we've solved that battle too. We're on the other side of that battle.
I think the Christian faith is always a growing and evolving tradition. I think that's true of all religions. I don't think anybody founds a new church. Christianity was born in the womb of Judaism. Judaism is our mother. We ought to never spit upon our mother the way we have done in our history. But even Judaism was shaped by Egypt and Kaynin(?) and Syria and Persia. All religions are constantly going between their understanding of God and the world in which they live, and that's all I'm trying to do. I want to keep my roots, but I want the tradition to keep growing a thousand years from now. I think that Christians who are living then will look back and see that we today were their ancestors in faith, no matter what the church looks like a thousand years from now. But I don't think I can look forward and tell you what it's going to be.
I remind people that the Christian church in the 2nd and 3rd century was under persecution in catacombs. I don't believe for a moment they could have envisioned the great Gothic cathedrals of the 13th century as growing out of their life. And so I think you leave that up to God and you walk by faith, and you continue to evolve between your commitment and your world, and you hold these things together in tension.
Yes please down here.
I'm Glenn Davies, I'm not sure if I should confess I'm an Anglican minister in Sydney. Sydney Anglicans have been called many things but not disorganised. I appreciate the candour of your conversation this evening and your books. You speak a lot about the God experience in Jesus, and you quoted John XX about Jesus, saying he'd come that they might have life and have it abundantly to complete the text. In the context of John's gospel that's speaking of eternal life. Could you tell me, or explain to me, what happens after this life? You talk a lot about the God experience in this life and Jesus as a model of some sort for you. Where are we after death, and for those who put their faith in Jesus, if that is a phrase you are happy with?
Bishop Spong: I am happy to respond to that. I am not sure I would agree with your statement that John XX is only a reference to eternal life, because I don't think John makes that distinction quite as firmly as you are making it.
I get asked frequently about life after death. And for about three years of my life it was the primary study, it was the thing I was most deeply engaged in, and I actually hoped to write a book about it once upon a time. But I gave that up. I gave that up only because I never could narrow the subject down. The more I got into it the more it just kept expanding. And I, you know, it was thousands of pages I couldn't imagine what a book like that would look like. And the reason it's so long and so difficult is that nobody really knows. I happen to believe in life after death. I believe in life after death for a very specific reason; I don't think it's got a thing to do with reward and punishment, and I do wish we could get that element out. If my motivation for leading the Christian life is so that I'll get a reward or avoid a punishment, I think I have not escaped the radical self-centredness of my still evolving and not yet finished humanity.
I believe in life after death because I believe is real, and I believe God is eternal, and because I am in a living relationship with that eternal God. And because God is eternal and because I am in a relationship with that God, then I believe I will share in God's eternity. And I don't want to paint pictures any more than that because I don't know and neither does anybody else. I simply trust that. I live with God in this life, I will trust God when my life comes to an end, and I think that means that I will live. And God is the reason because God is eternal. I will share in God's eternity.
That's as far as I want to go. The idea that we would use heaven and hell to try to scare people into conforming to our standards here on this earth, I think there's very little difference between the god who's keeping record books so that this god can give our rewards and punishment, and Santa Claus who's making a list and checking it twice and he's going to find out who's naughty and nice. I think we've gotten those two things pretty deeply confused.
Yes, over here please.
It was interesting to me when you said you're a child of the west and therefore Jesus Christ is the portal to your experience of God. And my question relates to the way the church might meet the needs (AGAIN)
My name is Stuart Vietch. You identified yourself as a child of the west and as such Jesus Christ was the way in which you would experience God, or the portal through which you would experience God. And I am interested in hearing how you see the church might meet the spiritual needs of people in the west who have this great heritage of Christian stories and Christian ways of expressing belief through Christianity. And I wonder, do you see the church as playing an important role in meeting the spiritual needs, say by maintaining the truth of the scriptures. And when I say the truth I mean maybe the truth in the stories of the scriptures, not necessarily the literal truth.
Bishop Spong: I find it difficult when there's that much preamble to the question to identify what the question is. I treasure the bible. I don't know how I can say that any differently. I was raised in the fundamentalist evangelical tradition and I've memorized great chunks of the scripture. And then when I get into a discussion with a fundamentalist I discover that I know the bible a lot better than the fundamentalist, and that's very disconvolulating(?) to the fundamentalist. Because he's identified me as some kind of liberal, and he assumes that if I'm a liberal I don't know anything about the bible, because that's what happens to most liberals.
I just think that my doorway into God is through that story, and I find eternal truths in that story but I don't literalise it. Someone asked me what parts of the bible I take literally and what parts I don't take literally. I take all of it seriously. I take none of it literally. And I don't know how you keep that clear, but I think it's important. The gospels as we know them were written somewhere between 40 and 70 years after the earthly life of Jesus came to an end. They are written in a language Jesus did not speak. So between 40 and 70 years passed before these things are written down, and a translation from Aramaic into Greek took place, I don't see how anybody can claim they've captured the literal words of Jesus. But I'm not concerned about that. I think what you have in the gospels are portraits painted by Jewish artists. And I think that a portrait might tell you far more about a man and his life and his meaning and his values than a great collection of photographs that actually caught his objective image in that photograph, but just for a moment. I think the gospel writers are interpreters of Jesus. I think the way to read the gospels and to read the bible is to stand in front of it the way one stands in front of a portrait, until the message and the meaning of the author or the artist hoped to capture in that light begins to communicate with who you are.
I find Jesus a life fully lived. I find Jesus a love wastefully given. If I could take the Christian story, the Jesus story, and reduce it to one sentence, it would be 'there is nothing you can do and nothing you can be that will ever place you outside the boundaries of the love of God.' And when you look at the Jesus story, they betrayed him and he loved them. They denied him and he loved them. They persecuted him and he loved them. They foresook him and he loved them. They tortured him and he loved them. They killed him and he loved them. That's why I believe God was in Christ, because I don't see human beings having the capacity to love with the incredible love of God. That's why Jesus is the sinner of my religious tradition. I see the love of God incarnate in him and I respond to that.
Geraldine: Could I just interpose because I think that if I may interpret. It seems to me that what Stewart was asking was related to whether modern non-churched people in the western world who are seeking a code that makes sense to them, can usefully look to the tradition. You've just outlined very eloquently say a tradition of love, but let's say the sort of dilemma that might face a modern person who's got to decide whether to sack half his workforce, because he's being told by his bank or his partner that that's the only way to run a business. Like what's the morality there, the thawny real issues that people have to live with.
Bishop Spong: Well it's not easy. Our life is terribly complicated and there aren't easy answers to anything. If the business goes bankrupt everybody is unemployed. So you have to quarterize the wounds from time to time and that hurts a lot of people. All I can say is that my understanding of the ethic of my tradition is that I would ask myself the question: How can I enhance the life of the person affected by whatever it is I do? In the life of my society, how can I act in such a way as to enhance the life of all the people?
I think we need to accept responsibility for the corporate life, for the environment for example. Because if our environment is finally destroyed all human life is going to be destroyed. I think we've got to accept some responsibility for the fact that homo sapiens are in danger I think, of breeding themselves to death. Now we have no natural enemies any more and the population doubles in the whole world every 35 or 40 years. The environment cannot sustain that kind of growth forever.
So you ask yourself the question, does this action enhance the life of my world individually and corporately? Does it increase the love that's available? Does it enhance the being? Not every decision we make is going to help every person, but the whole society ought to be organised so that those who are not helped in one area of life might find an undergirding of support to enable them to start in a different direction. I think you can judge the value of the society by how well it treats its poorest and least powerful citizens.
Thank you. And now we have a questioner over here please.
Chris McGillion, and I write on religious issues for the Sydney Morning Herald. You talk about Christianity as being your passage to truth and to God, and I understand what you mean by that in both a personal and a cultural sense. But I detect in a lot of what you say and a lot of your writings that you're engaged in a process of detribalizing Christianity in a sociological sense, and also in reducing its message to a set of universal precepts in a theological sense. Now if the history of religion suggests anything to me, it is that it's quite likely as the world becomes a global village and more conscious of its vulnerabilities, that will be a necessary process in any event, whether we like it or not. So my question to you is - you make the statement, Christianity must change or die - my question to you is, why not let it die?
Bishop Spong: Well it's a good question, and certainly one that I hear frequently. I don't want to let Christianity die because I think it brings three things to our world that our world will be infinitely poorer if it ceases to have. The first is that it brings us a sense that human life bears God's image, and therefore must be respected, regardless of race, creed, colour, gender or sexual orientation. And I don't want us to get to a society where we don't value and honour the sacredness of human life. I think the 20th century has been very dangerous in that area. The 20th century has given us two words that I think we ought to listen to very carefully. One is the word holocaust, and the other is the word ethnic cleansing. You can't do a holocaust and you can't engage in ethnic cleansing unless you have decided that some people are not bearers of God's image, and therefore some people are expendable. I don't want to think that.
The second thing that I think Christianity gives us that it would be terribly important to lose, is that God's love is available to us all. God isn't bound by my tradition. God is not an Anglican, God is not a Christian. God is the source of love calling all people into the fullness of what that love means. I see that love particularly illustrated in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and so he is for me my doorway into the holy. But I want all people to know of the infinite love of God, and I don't want anybody to be outside the boundaries of that love.
And the third thing that I think Christianity gives us is that the goal of the Christian life is not that we become religious or conformist; the goal of the Christian life is that each of us becomes who we are. So I have a sense that our journey into God is also a journey into our selfhood. And I'd like to offer those three gifts to my world from within my Christian perspective.
But let me say one final thing, I could never be anything but a Christian. I journey into the mystery of God through the doorway that I call Jesus of Nazareth. But my responsibility I think is to go into that tradition as deeply as possible. To transcend its limits that we human beings have placed upon it. The primary difference between a Presbyterian and Anglican, a Roman Catholic - and well what other traditional - a Lutheran lets say, is which country in Europe did we get filtered through. Jesus didn't know there was a Germany or a Scandinavia or a Scotland or an England, or a southern Europe or an Ireland. Those are our distinctions. Now I want to journey so deeply into the tradition that I lose those human barriers that we have placed upon the boundaries of our tradition. And I want to transcend the limits of Christianity, but no on its edges at its core, I want to find its essence and I want to come out of that, able to offer that essence to the world. My hope is that those who grow up in a Buddhist world or a Hindu world or an Islamic world or a Jewish world will also go so deeply into their traditions that they will find their pearl of great price. And transcending their limits some day by God's grace we can sit down as brothers and sisters of the human race and share with one another the treasures and receive and give so that we will be mutually enriched. And I think that will be a whole different understanding, and that's what I hope we evolve into.
My name's Paul Whitfield, I'm an apprentice to a minister, an Anglican minister here in Sydney. My question is, what's your understanding of the purpose of Jesus' death? Why do you believe he died?
Bishop Spong: That's a question that's profound and worthwhile but it is very difficult to answer in a very few minutes. So let me sort of just talk about the parameters of that. I'd like for the Christian church to get away from the idea that Jesus is a sacrifice to pay the price of the sins of the world. I'd like first to get away from that idea because I don't think that gives us a very good image of God.
As a blood offering and a human sacrifice before this god can reach out in forgiveness to God's own creation, strikes me as a strange god indeed. I'm not even excited about animal sacrifice, to say nothing of human sacrifice. And so this whole image I find a bit repelling. I find it strange that in the Christian tradition we have made a fetish out of Jesus blood. In the Protestant tradition we sing hymns to the blood of Jesus. We sing hymns about being washed in the blood and saved by the blood and there's a fountain filled with blood. And in the Catholic tradition we talk about drinking the blood, to sort of make ourselves become the recipients of the saving gift of Christ.
I think the purpose of the life and indeed of the death of Jesus is to help us to become more fully human. To touch us, to call us to empower us to step beyond our boundaries. And our boundaries are the things that we have wrapped around ourselves so that we could survive the evolutionary process. We are all products of this evolutionary process. We are all survivors of this evolutionary process, and we have survived by wrapping security systems around us, tribe and prejudice and gender superiority, and even our religion. And I think as long as those are our security systems we will not touch the essence of life that I think Jesus came to bring and to empower.
So I look for a different way to tell the Christ story. And I think we've got to find a different way. The Christ calls me to be human. He doesn't rescue me from my sin, he enables me to become something I've never been able to be before. I do not define human life as fallen sinner, I define human life as incomplete and therefore threatening everybody else with the fears that rise out of my incompleteness. How you treat the death of Jesus in terms of that becomes something that would take us a long time to try to develop. I seek to do that in a book that will be coming out next year. But it would be chapters to try to put it down into a simple solution.
Thank you. Yes sir.
Bishop Spong, Peter Bolt. Also Sydney Anglican too. Can I give my question then and do the preamble after the question, just so that you don't get lost or anything. My question, I want to pick up on a phrase that was used in one of your writings that Jesus broke the boundary of death, as your explanation to the resurrection. One of the marks of Christianity has been that it's a historical religion, that is that it's based on some events in history and of course the resurrection has been the key one. Now I'm just wondering what to break the boundary of death means, and more importantly what would it have meant to first century people if the tomb was not empty. In what possible way would they have ever been convinced that Jesus had broken the boundary of death if his body was still there?
Bishop Spong: I regard the tomb tradition as part of what I would call the Jerusalem tradition, I think it's quite secondary. I think it develops later, and I'm not sure it has a thing to do with the resurrection. And I'm joined in that by an awful lot of contemporary scripture scholars, including John Dominic Person who is probably the leading Jesus scholar in America today. How I can make that case briefly enough is again the difficulty. When I wrote a book on the resurrection I identified things that I thought the scriptures point to that are fairly clear. I think they point to the fact that Galilee is the locale in which resurrection occurs, not Jerusalem. I find it rather interesting that the first gospel that has Jesus appear to his disciples, he appears in Galilee. The first gospel to be written where Jesus never appears at all is Mark, but the messenger says he will appear in Galilee. I find it fascinating that when Luke writes his story in the late 80's or early 90's, that he says it was never in Galilee, it was only in Jerusalem. And then when John comes along in the middle of the 10th decade, John says it was in Jerusalem first but it happened much later in Galilee. But I think if you search the scriptures carefully you will find that Galilee is the primary setting in which whatever the resurrection experience was that transformed the disciples, when Jesus says, is said to predict what the disciples would do he says you will all forsake me, each to his own home. Their home was Galilee. So if they forsook Jesus for their own home, they went back to Galilee.
The power of the resurrection to me is the disciples who had forsaken Jesus when he was arrested and had fled in fear, get reconstituted with enormous power and enormous integrity and they die for the vision that they believe is absolutely real. They also were Jewish men. The twelve disciples were all Jewish men. We've been taught from the moment they were rocked in the cradle that God was one and there was no other god and nothing other than God could be acknowledged as sacred. And yet something happened to these Jewish men, following the crucifixion of Jesus, that so deeply convinced them that God and Jesus were intimately related. That they could no longer think of Jesus without thinking of God with Jesus. They could no longer think of God without thinking of Jesus with God. I don't think that's got a thing to do with empty tombs. I think that's a powerful life-changing experience.
And finally, the earliest record we have of the resurrection is Paul's letter to the Corinthians which is written in the mid 50's, 55/56. And Paul gives a list of the people to whom the appearances have taken place. I don't think those are physical appearances but that would have taken a little longer to go back in Napoleon Corpus and try to document that. But what he says is, that the list of people to whom this god experience has come, this living Jesus has been made manifest, are first Cephas, that's Peter, then the twelve. I think that's interesting because Paul doesn't seem to know that one of the twelve was the traitor. Paul has the twelve there to receive the risen Lord; presumably including Juda…. And then he says it was to 500 brethren at once, and then he says it was to James. And there's a lot of debate as to which of the three James' that is. The consensus is that's James the brother of Jesus. And then to the apostles, and there's a lot of funny debate about that because he's already named the twelve, so we're not really sure who the apostles are.
But then he says, last of all he appeared to me. I don't know anybody that thinks that the appearance of the risen Christ to Jesus, I mean to Paul was a physical resuscitated body. Even Luke, making that story in the book of Acts which he didn't write until the 10th decade and Paul had been dead for 30/35 years and had no chance to sort of correct Luke if Luke was wrong. But even Luke at that point describes the resurrection experience that Paul says he had, as a sort of theophanis vision of the living Christ as part of who God is. That's where I'd like to put the emphasis. When Paul says, if you then are risen with Christ you will seek those things which are above where Christ is part of who God is, sitting at the right hand he said. Please recognise that that verse in Paul was written 35 years before the story of the ascension of Jesus actually entered the Christian story. So that he's not referring to that. He's referring to what he thought was the resurrection. Paul's resurrection concept I believe is that God raised Jesus from death into part of who God is, and it was out of God that he appeared to certain chosen witnesses. So I'm not concerned about empty tombs or any of what I call secondary late developing evidence for the resurrection.
I think we have one up here, is that right and then two down here and then a third or a fourth over there. Go ahead please.
Yes my name is Julie Bow. I am wondering what you can say to those of us who have actually been separated from the root ball. You are saying that the roots of our tradition are so very important and some of us agree that it's very important to us. But in a sense we've been made exiles. So I felt in here I stand there was a lack of hope, and I'm wondering what you could say to those of us who are in exile and now organised religion isn't an option for us.
I must say I had trouble hearing that and I'm not sure whether it's my inability to hear the Australian accent properly. I've worked on that but the best I've come out is to be able to say beer. Would you repeat it, just the question part for me?
Julie Bow: What hope is there for those of us who are in exile?
Bishop Spong: Oh, okay. Thank you. Well I've been called the Bishop for the exile. And I do want to claim that as a congregation of faithful people who are searching within everything(?) (cough). I don't know that I can tell you that there's an answer. You see I think faith means that you journey into the unknown. The absence of faith I think is the clinging to the artifacts of yesterday because you are afraid if you let them go there will be no God in the tomorrow. I think God is real and my understanding of God constantly evolves.
I have a close friend who is a physicist, who told me once upon a time that though he was raised in an Anglican church he had long gotten away from that. But when he was working in the field of theoretical physics at the University of London he got into the structure of matter. He got into the subatomic levels, he got into quantum weirdness, and he got into the relationship of the observer with the observed, and it was a whole new world for him. And he said I was so taken by this reality that I found myself filled with what I could only call awe and wonder, and I wanted to express this awe and this wonder. And I said to myself well that means I want to worship. And he said I don't know where to go to worship. The only place I've ever heard of going to worship is a church. And so he said I think I'll go back and try the church again. And he went back and he said it lasted for about six weeks. He said the god I met in church was so trivial. It was a god who had little answers to great big complex human questions. The creeds were not road maps that help us walk into the mystery of God they were straight jackets into which I had to force my mind to reside. And he said I finally couldn't stand it and I left and returned to my laboratory where I continue to be a worshipper of the god that I find in the subatomic realm of matter, and I wish I could find a community where I could go and share this faith with.
Well what I want the church to be is not a congregation of all those who have the answers. I want it to be a pilgrimage of people who raise questions, and who don't have their hands slapped by the church saying but the church teaches or but the bible says, as if that's where all truth is finally located. I want us to honour the questions and to walk into the mystery of God together; hopefully saying that yes the people who are alienated from my religious tradition but who find wonder and mystery and awe in the world of physics or chemistry or astronomy, have also a great deal to teach us. Our god is so much bigger than most of us think our god is.
Now J B Phillips wrote a book many years ago that I thought the book was terrible but the title was wonderful. And the title was Your God is too Small. I wish I could sort of put that on the front door of every church in the world, because I think all of us have narrowed god down to something that we feel we can somehow get control of, and I think God is so much more than that.
I'm Ann McElligott, I'm the Principal of St John's College in Morpath and have duel citizenship in both the Episcopal church and the Anglican church. I share your passion for formation and teaching. I'm privileged to work with a group of people; half of the students are in their late 20's and 30's. Half of the candidates for ministry are women. They're struggling with questions, they are risking to give their lives away to serve the church. And I guess I'd like to know what you would want to say to them as they move out into the real struggles that we who seek to be faithful to live out our Anglicanness, our faithfulness, what would you want to say to them as they move into beginning ministry?
Bishop Spong: Well the first thing I would say to them is that if I had the opportunity to live my life all over again, I would live it exactly the same way and I would follow the same path, and I have revelled in it. I went into the priesthood for a lot of wrong reasons, as I suspect most of us did if we would be honest with ourselves. I was a terribly insecure young lad. My father had died when I was 12. We lived in something that was - I know what it is to have bill collectors at the door and have the electricity turned off and that sort of thing. My mother did not finish age 14 in school. Her father pulled her out of school so that she could earn a living for her family, because he said girls don't need to be educated, they only need to cook and sew and her mother can teach her how to do that. She was a victim of the sort of male chauvinism that the church has perpetrated through the centuries.
So I went into the priesthood I think looking for security. I didn't find it. What I found was the glorious liberty of the children of God, to quote St Paul. I found a doorway into life. I embraced my radical insecurity and I've loved exhilarating in it. And I do not have the answers, and I do not have security to offer people. I do have the ability to stand beside people in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness and any other adversity as our prayer book says, and to walk with them into either life or death. I've done that many a time as I expect you have, and I expect all of us who are ordained are privileged to do. And I wouldn't take anything for that experience.
I've even treasured being a Bishop, though I must tell you being a Bishop is not near as satisfying a personal life as being a Pastor. You sort of move out of the real lives of real people into a kind of bureaucracy. And I think the great besetting sin of Bishops is that they take themselves far too seriously.
In any event you can still find ways to do the things that I think are important. And all I would ask them to do is to be honest. Don't try to pretend. If you don't know the answers, say I don't know the answer, let's look at that together, let's struggle with it together, let's try to find a way to make sense out of this. When the creeds don't make sense to people then I think we ought a not tell them how inadequate they are, but tell them how wonderful it is that their minds are questioning these foundation things because that's the only way they're going to make them their own.
We have a saying in America that a dog has to chew on a bone sufficiently to make the bone smell like the dog before he really owns the bone. And I think that's part of what we ought to be doing. We ought to allow people to chew on the artifacts of our church's life until it begins to smell like them, and then invite them to bring, to share what they've gained. I treasure the priesthood. I believe the church of the future will have a very different priesthood, I don't think it will be a priesthood of privilege and rank as I think we've built it up into being. You know we do funny things about clergy. We decide that the prefix to our name is 'the revered one'. That's very humble of us. And in my tradition we teach our clergy that when they are really holier than lay people they put a little cross at the end of their name, so that everybody will know they're holier. And of course everybody knows Bishops are holier than just ordinary priests, and so we put a cross at the front of our name. And if we rise in the structure we're 'the very revered one' when we're a Dean of a theological college, and you come 'the most revered one' when we become an Archbishop. And I guess the title I like best is 'your beatitude'. I think it would be fun to walk down the road sometime and people say good morning your beatitude.
I do think that the games we play with lay people about our holiness are very thin. I've often wondered how it is in my tradition that we can put a thinly disguised crown on our Bishop's head, a royal cape on our Bishop's backs, a royal ring on our Bishop's fingers, a royal staff in our Bishop's hands, a royal medallion - called a pectoral cross - around our Bishop's necks, and seat them in a chair called the Bishop's throne and house them in a house called the Bishop's palace, and convince anybody that we're in the ministry of servanthood.
Can I have first here, and then I'll come to you second.
My name's Andrew. My question is, you talk a lot about I guess organised religion. What is your distinction between Christian spirituality and religion if you do have one. I guess I'm after what you mean by Christian spirituality?
Bishop Spong: I find it fascinating that the word religion hardly appears in the biblical story. There is a reference to it in the epistle to James that Luther called an epistle of straw and thought they should pitch out of the New Testament. Religion is not even a word that appears in the Jewish vocabulary. Religion is an activity of life in which we do god like things. I think the Jewish understanding would have been that religion and life were identified identical. Religion would have been the depth dimension of life, and maybe the words spiritual is a better word to use to describe that. I believe that the Christian life should lead me into a deeper and fuller humanity. A couple of years ago I was given the Humanist of the Year award by an organisation in New York City. And some of my religious critics, of which there are an abundant number, immediately said that proves what we've always suspected, you're not really a Christian you're a humanist. I don't think those two things ought to be contrasted. I think the opposite of a humanist is one who is inhumane. I don't want to be inhumane. I don't see how you can not be a humanist if you're in a religious tradition that says, the primary way you've experienced God is in and through the human life of one named Jesus of Nazareth. So if humanism and my Christian experience are not antithetical I think as I journey into one I journey into the other. I don't believe that the human and the divine are even separated. I think the more deeply human you become, the more people are able to see your life as a channel through which they experience that which was divine. And so I think that Christian spirituality and, I don't know that I'd use the word religion, but any Christian spirituality is a call into being fully human, totally loving, daring to be all that you can be. And in the process of that I think you reveal the god who is the source of life, the god who is the source of love, the god who is the ground of being, and that's the god that I see when I look at the portrait of Jesus of Nazareth.
Yes, up there please.
Carol Morris, Minister of Uniting Church in Australia. You mentioned two words, holocaust and ethnic cleansing, both sins in our immediate past and indeed in our present. In the liturgies across our tradition we have a confession, usually confession of sin, and then an absolution, and often the absolution contains the words 'in the name of Christ your sins or our sins are forgiven'. I'd appreciate you commenting on that part of our liturgies.
Bishop Spong: Well I hope no one will ever hear me suggesting that evil is not real. I think the great fault of liberal thinkers throughout the age is that they have not taken the depth of evil present in human life seriously enough. I think human beings will do anything. I don't think it's any evil beyond the capacity of human beings to do. Ethnic cleansing is just one other. I don't know animals that do ethnic cleansing, only human beings do ethnic cleansing. In my country in the last three or four years there have been two murders that were so graphic and horrible that they became worldwide stories. One was the story of a man whose name was James Bird who was taken by some people in Jasper, Texas and attached by a chain to the bumper of a pick-up truck and dragged across a gravel country road until he was not just dead but dismembered. And when asked why they did that, they responded that they did not like the colour of his skin. I can't imagine dogs doing that to other dogs.
And the other was a murder of a young man just 21 years old who happened to have been an Anglican and an acolyte and an active member of one of our churches, and he was set upon by a group of people, and they beat him unconscious and they hung him up on a fence post in sub freezing weather in Wyoming and left him there until he died. His name was Mathew Shepherd. And the reason they did that is that they did not like his sexual orientation. I don't put any evil past human beings. The question is where does it come from? I think it comes out of our evolutionary history. I don't think we were created good and corrupted God's creation by falling into sin so that we need a rescue operation. I think we were created single selves and we emerged in complexity and in self consciousness and we learned how to survive, and the way we survived is that we made our survival the highest value of our lives which locked us into a radical self-centredness and anything that it takes to survive, we human beings are willing to do. So that salvation would be being called beyond your security systems, beyond your tribal identity, beyond your religious sense of superiority, beyond your gender identifications of value and no value, beyond your prejudices into a valley of free humanity.
And the only way I know how to illustrate that is to ask people a question. When I was in England I found English people a little bit more stiffer, upper lipped than Australians or Americans. So they had a lot of trouble answering this question. Well let me try it on this loose Australian group. How many of you are in love? Please raise your hands. Takes a while but the hands do go up. I'm in love, I have a very precious wife who's sitting down here on the first row and I absolutely adore her. But let me tell you what being in love does for me. It gives me a taste of a new kind of humanity. When I love Christine, I discover that I love her more than I love my own life. That I value her living more than I value my living. So I would have no difficulty if I were forced into a set of circumstances dying so that she might live. I love her more than I love my life. That's what it means to be in love. You value somebody beyond yourself.
Well I think that's an analogy of what the love of God is all about. When we engage the love of God, we engage it in such a way that we begin to escape our self centred survival needs. We begin to be able to live for another person. We are able to give our lives and our love away. And when I look at the Jesus story, that's what I see. I see a life so whole and so full and so free and so loving and so capable of being who he is under every set of circumstances that he could give his life away, not just for his beloved but for the least of these, our brothers and sisters. He shows me a picture of a new humanity, a barrier-free humanity. He calls me and empowers me to step outside my security system into that new humanity. And I believe that when I am fully human and fully loving that people will see the God that I worship manifested through my life-giving and my love-giving and my calling others to be who they are. That's the god I see in Jesus, that's why I stay in this tradition, and that's why it means everything in the world to me. That's why I wrestle to make sure that the power of that experience is alive and well for people who are 21st century people and who can't think in the traditional patterns of the 1st century any longer, and they think that if Christianity is identified just with those patterns they can no longer be Christians. I want to open a new possibility.
I'm Margaret Beirne for the Centre for Christian Spirituality of Randwick. If I understand you correctly a central thesis of yours is that the proper question of the biblical text is not 'did this really happen' but 'what does it mean'. That is a question that I think has long been accepted by mainstream biblical scholarship. Therefore my question is, why do you think, or why would you assert and do you have actual evidence that the major obstacle to modern people accepting Christianity is the Christian churches literalist interpretation of scripture?
Bishop Spong: I hear people say that from time to time, and I can only respond that you must not live in the same world that I live in. I have dealt with people both in the church and outside the church, and I think it's time we began to listen to them. People who are outside the church say, 'don't tell me about blood sacrifice, don't tell me that my child was born in sin so has to be baptized so that the sin can be washed away from him. Don't tell me that what I'm doing in Eucharist is to reenact the sacrifice that Jesus made so that I can be saved.' I think the symbols are far more literalised than most people imagine.
Now when I can talk about the bible in a long enough period of time to develop the themes that I think are essential I find that to get people below the level of literalisation is to open vast doors of meaning for them. Some years ago I read - I think it's a six volume work called "The History of the Development of Catholic Doctrine between 100 and 600" - it's not a book that I'd recommend. It's written by a name named Ewan Pelican and it's tedious and long, but it helps you understand. And I'd like to tell you that the creedal debates of the 3rd, 4th and 5th century that finally issued in what we now define as orthodox Christianity, the creedal debates were all buttressed by literal quotations from the 4th gospel. It's almost as if they ignored Matthew, Mark and Luke. They take the 4th gospel and they literalise it and the doctrinal basis of most of our creedal theology and our doctrines is based upon a literal reading of the text of the 4th gospel. And I think we need to break that open.
Let me just illustrate that with one story. There's a story in the gospels about Jesus walking on the water. If you ask the literal question, did this really happen? Then you have all sorts of people trying to make sense of how he maybe had flotation shoes on or how it was that maybe that text wasn't accurate and it said he walked alongside the water instead of on the water; which makes you wonder why anybody thought that was so unusual they ought to write a story about it. When you read that story the story itself doesn't make sense. Jesus walks out on the water for no apparent purpose. He didn't go out to catch a fish, to rescue anybody. He just sort of walks on the water. You get the sense that the disciples needed to take to school the next day for show-and-tell week, and Jesus was giving them a sort of trick. It's not a very appropriate view of Jesus.
Now if you're Jewish and you know that in the Jewish tradition there's the story of God's power over water and the Red Sea and God's power over water in a number of other episodes, so that God's power over water becomes something that you talk about liturgically. And if you read the psalms and the prophets you will find where they say, "our god is so great that our god can make a pathway for gods self in the deep, in the sea. And god's footprints can be seen upon the water." That's stated in the liturgy of the Jewish synagogue, that's part of the way they praised God, the God who has power over water. Now in the 1st century Jewish men and women believed that they met in the life of the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth the very presence of God. They couldn't describe it, they simply experienced it. And so when they wanted to write about them they took the god language out of their tradition. The god who can walk who can make a pathway in the deep, the god whose footprints can be seen upon the water, that's the god we believe we have experienced in Jesus of Nazareth. And so they create the story where anything God can do, Jesus can do. And Jewish readers would have understood that. But unfortunately we Christians became gentiles by about 120 of this common era, and we then began to read the scriptures as if they were gentile objective history books. And we were so anti Semitic that we didn't even raise the question of how Jews wrote their sacred stories and how Jews interpreted the scriptures themselves. And it hasn't been until this century that we've finally begun to go back and to pick up the symbols out of the Jewish faith that have enabled us to open our eyes to a whole new dimension of gospel material. And I think that's one of the most exciting things that's happened in our world today.
Yes, you please.
Heather Creighton from the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. You use the words to be the best of who you are. How do you respond to someone who tries to be the best of who they are, but because of their colour, their culture, the sexuality, it just isn't good enough.
Bishop Spong: Well that's another manifestation of what I would call the survival self synerge syndrome that marks humanity. We are scared to death of people who are different. That's because we are fearful for our own life. And so anybody that's different threatens our life. So we stand inside our tribal identity, we stand inside our gender identity, we men taught women over the years that they were not really fully human. Jerome suggested that women were created by defective sperm. I think that's a really unusual definition. He should have stuck to translating. That's part of the survival syndrome.
We taught women they had to do and be certain things so that the tribe would survive, and women accepted that by and large until the last century when they began to break out of these molds to become fully human. We must have been scared to death of gay and lesbian people. We thought that they were deviant somehow or other. That's been our definition. When I was growing up I didn't even know what a homosexual was, we just didn't have homosexuals in the south where I lived. When I finally did hear the word and put a content to it, an identity, an explanation, I simply accepted the definition of my culture and of my church, that to be homosexual is to be morally depraved and so they ought to be converted or to be mentally sick and so they ought to be cured. And it just didn't occur to me to think about anything else.
I since have had the privilege of doing an awful lot of study on this issue at a lot of places that I think would be the envy of some. I've studied with some doctors at the Cornell Medical Centre. I didn't study homosexuality, I studied sexual orientation for all people. And I found a number of fascinating things that convinced me beyond any reasonable doubt that homosexual people are not a threat to my survival, they're not a threat to my marriage. I think that's one of the sillier things I've ever heard. That if two gay people love each other it somehow threatens the institution of marriage. I don't know where that comes from. Unless a person is so sexually ambivalent they're trying to debate whether or not to leave their wife for another male lover or whatever. I just find that really strange. I became convinced that sexual identity is something to which we awaken, it's not something we choose. I didn't choose to be heterosexual. I just woke up when I was 12 or 13 and girls didn't seem obnoxious to me any more.
My mother said, the sap has risen. And I didn't know what that meant either. I do know that all of a sudden I was more interested in taking baths than I'd been before and brushing my teeth more frequently and combing my hair; because I wanted the opposite sex to find me attractive. I didn't choose that. I find it very difficult to believe that young gay and lesbian people wake up one day and say uh hah I'll decide to be gay or lesbian because I really like to be disowned by my family and run out of town and bashed and murdered, and all the other things that we've done to gay and lesbian people.
Now as soon as you come to a different understanding that homosexual people are like left handed people. We used to persecute them too. We used to tie their little left hands behind their backs to force them to be normal, because we define normalcy as right handed. And we had defined normalcy as heterosexuality. I think sexual orientation is normal across the spectrum. Now people say, well do you mean you approve of all the kinds of things that we hear that homosexuals do? No, I don't think I approve of that. But maybe you haven't noticed I don't approve of all the kinds of things that heterosexuals do. You know some sexual expressions are depraved, and I think if you have ten male lovers a night if you're a prostitute or if you have ten male lovers a night if you're a gay man that that's equally depraved. I think that you cannot have a sexual relationship with anybody that you don't honour them and love them in a radically exclusive way. And I think that's what we ought to offer to the whole world - to the gay world and the straight world, and bisexual world - to whatever the differentiations are in our humanity.
I'm tired of being a part of a church that in total ignorance condemns a segment of the society that they do not understand. I regard organisations that say they exist to cure homosexuals as fraudulent. I think they're medically fraudulent and I think they are psychologically fraudulent, and I think we ought to say that loudly and publicly. If they want to challenge that then let them submit their data to reputable scientific and medical resources. I don't believe that that data will hold up in any medical or scientific forum in the world. And I think we Christians have got to get over this incredible obsession with sexuality and with homosexuality.
You don't quote the gospels when you talk about homosexuality because Jesus never mentioned it. You have to quote Leviticus in Genesis XIX and Romans I and a couple of other questionable passages in the polling(?) and auline and pseudo-Pauline corpus. But the greatest privileges of my life I believe has been to stand at the side of gay and lesbian people and to experience what they experience in hostility, in overt killing hostility. And it helped me understand what they've had to live with, and the fact that so many gay and lesbian people have become whole and free and loving people in the midst of that marginalization and hostility is a miracle that ought to be celebrated, and they ought to be congratulated and we ought to say 'how did you do it' and begin to learn from them. And I will live long enough to see that issue die as an issue in the church. I think it's already dead in the United States, and I believe it will be dead in the rest of the world before very much longer, and I pray that I've had a part in helping that have a proper bearing.
Ladies and gentleman I think we have time for just one last question. Julia.
My name is Julia Baird, I'm a Sydney Anglican. Therefore not a priest. I was very struck when you were talking tonight. I was reminded of one of my favourite lines by G K CHESTERTON when he talks about the difference between a poet and a mathematician; and he says the poet seeks to get his head into the clouds and the mathematician seeks to get the clouds in his head, and it's his head that splits. I'm curious as to whether your sense of the divine is about getting your head into the clouds. And I don't mean that in a kind of a fluffy naive sense, but the talk of wonderment that you were speaking about. And if in fact you're leading us, you're talking about with words a kind of word lesseners, and a form of mysticism which seems to run through a lot of what you say. And if that's the case what that means about political engagement.
Bishop Spong: First of all I'm always interested that people identify themselves as a Sydney Anglican as if that's a new breed of creation somehow or other. I just think they're part of the human race I'm afraid. I do, I surprise myself Julie, I have always been sort of a rationalist, an over-developed left-brain person, an under-developed right brain person. And rationalism has been the method I had to understand it before I could give myself to it. My theme in one of the books that I've written is that the heart will never worship what the mind rejects. And so my religion has got to sort of appeal to mind and heart.
What I discover in my life is that rational thought only carries you to a point, and it can't get beyond that because you're landlocked by your rational categories, you simply can't get beyond that. If horses had gods they would look like horses, so human gods inevitably look like human beings because I cannot escape the limits of my humanity to describe god any other way except by human analogy. And yet my experience of God drives me beyond words into silence, into wonder. If anybody had said to me 25 years ago you would wind up closer to the mystics than to any other part of the Christian tradition, I would have said you got the wrong person, that's just not who I am. But that's who I find myself being today. And I'm quite content to allow that to take place. God for me is infinite mystery but ever real. Stoddard Kennedy, an English poet described God as like the sea beneath the sun, it never changes and yet it ever changes - it's always in transition. And that's the way my life now seems to be. I journey through the doorway of my tradition, Jesus is very important to me. I go through that doorway but inside that doorway I experience a transcendence and a wonder that just cannot be bound by creeds or traditions or even what I call the Christian faith. God is bigger than all of that, and I'm content to have that journey continue, and I regard that as a beautiful and wonderful journey.
Let me say that I've gotten to the place where I identify God primarily with things that are universal like life and love and being. And so I worship by living and enabling others to live as fully as possible. I worship by loving and enabling others to love as fully as possible. I worship by daring to be who I am, and having the courage to enable everybody else to be who they are, and that's the kind of Christian life I want to live, and that's the kind of Christian church or a church dedicated to doing that that I want to build, and I want us to take seriously our heritage, our background, our historic symbols, but I don't want us to make idols out of any one of them. I want them all to be things that we open, so we travel beyond them into the wondrous mystery of God who is for me the eternal reality. I cannot be apart from that reality. It would be a lie for me to say that that reality is not true for me. It's the deepest reality that I know, and I commend this sort of journey into the mystery of God to the people of this nation and to the people of the world.
Geraldine: Bishop Spong we must draw to a close. Can I just very quickly, I don't know whether you can summarize this. We haven't mentioned the Ten Commandments. Is that a code a useful code any more? Where does that fit into that wonderful invitation that you just put then.
Bishop Spong: I think if you get inside the Ten Commandments that there's a great deal of value there. I think literally the Ten Commandments are very negative to women for example. The Ten Commandments are written in a period of history when women were not considered fully human, and you see the hints of that in the 10th commandment where it says you shall not covet your neighbour's wife nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is your neighbour. Now that's not a code I intend to follow. I have four daughters and I am not interested in somebody treating my daughters as if they're a possession. The Christian church has bought into that. We still have wedding ceremonies where one man gives the woman away to another man as if she's a sack of potatoes. I don't own my daughters. I didn't give my daughters away. And I'd like to tell you their husbands don't own my daughters either. And if they haven't discovered that by now they're in for a very big surprise. And I'd like to get away from that.
Even the 7th commandment is I think fascinating because it seems so clear and obvious. That's the one that says you shall not commit adultery. And everybody thinks that makes perfect sense. But they don't seem to realise that when that commandment was given the pattern of marriage was polygamy not monogamy. A man could have as many wives as he could afford. And 300 years after the 10 commandments were supposed to have been given to Moses, King Solomon had a thousand wives. I don't know what adultery means when one man has a thousand wives. If you've got a thousand wives and still have some need to commit adultery you've got a problem.
And may I suggest this is not even a moral problem. You've got a bigger problem than that. You see what that commandment meant literally was one man shall not violate the woman who is the property of another man. That's what it meant literally, and the proof of that is in the Jewish code. If a man had a sexual liaison with an unmarried woman it was not adultery it was a crime against the property of her father. He had lowered her bride price. She was now damaged goods. So he would be fined an amount of money to enable the father's estate to be brought back to being whole.
Now those things are in the Ten Commandments, and I think we ought to recognise that time makes ancient good uncouth, and if you're going to use those commandments, you know I think it's terribly important that you say that adultery means that you do not violate your oath to the partner of your life. That's very important. But the Ten Commandments persay were written in a period of time that was very different.
Take the commandment about taking the name of the Lord in vain. I hear Christians struggling with that. Because they now think it means don't use profanity. Well I don't think profanity is a very good idea, but I don't think that's what that commandment is about. Profanity is really blasphemy. When I say god damn you, that's my acting as if I have the power of God to consign you to your eternal destiny. That's blasphemy for me to say that. It might not be appropriate English, but it's not what that commandment is about. That commandment was in a period of history where they didn't have lawyers. Now you can argue whether that's a better world or a worse world because they didn't have lawyers. But they didn't have lawyers. So the way they would do a contract was that they would bargain until they reached an agreement. So many acres for so many cows. And then when they had reached a verbal agreement they would clasp each other's hands and swear in the name of the Lord that they would be true to the bargain that they had just struck. And if they did not obey that bargain they had taken the name of the Lord in vain. But we treat that with courts today, and with legal contracts, and we bind people in a different way.
Even Jesus, they went to Jesus and said: Lord there's so many commandments we can't keep them all. Tell us which ones are the most important. And Jesus said you can't really do it that way, but I can give you the inner meaning of the commandments. If you love God with your heart, soul, mind and strength, you will keep commandments number 1, 2, 3 and 4. That has to do with God only, no idols, God's name, God's day. And if you love your neighbour as you love yourself you will keep commandments 5, 6 7, 8, 9 & 10. That's honouring your parents and not murdering and not committing adultery and not stealing and not bearing false witness and not coveting. So if you put it positively, you love God and you love your neighbour as you love yourself.
I think we can built a just society upon that basis, but I'd be really hesitant to locate it in the Ten Commandments because of these other sort of cultural changes that have taken place over the years that render them, at least in their literal meaning, no longer relevant. In the scriptures, the Hebrew scriptures, there are three versions of the Ten Commandments. Most people aren't aware of that. There's one Exodus XX, there's one in Exodus 34 and there's one in Deuteronomy V, and they are not all compatible. Exodus XX and Deuteronomy V are close, but Exodus 34 is the earliest version and it's much more Celtic. In fact the last commandment in the list in Exodus 34 says, you shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk. I'd like to tell you that I've never even been tempted to break that commandment.
I'm so glad I asked that question.
January 1, 2007
I welcome the attention that serious atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are offering the world at this moment through their books. They are bringing what I regard as a deserved criticism and a necessary correction to what Christianity has become in our generation.
I, for one, have no desire to worship a God who is thought to favor the war in the Middle East in order to accomplish some obscure prediction found in the late first century book of Revelation, who suppresses women in the name of ancient patriarchy, or who is so deeply homophobic that oppressing homosexuals becomes the defining issue of church life.
Such an irrational, superstitious deity has no appeal to me and the attack of atheists against this kind of God is welcome. I also do not want to be told that the “true God” can be found either in the inerrancy of the Bible or in the infallibility of a Pope. Both are absurd religious claims designed not to discover truth but to enforce religious authority and conformity.
I believe, therefore, that atheism as a challenge to organized religion has a worthy vocation to fulfill. The real atheists are saying that the God they have encountered inside the life of the church is too small and too compromised to be God for their lives. If the church is dedicated to such an unbelievable, magical and miracle-working deity that it cannot admit to any genuine probing of the divine, then the atheist speaks a powerful truth.
Atheism, technically, does not mean a denial of the existence of God. It means literally a denial of the theistic definition of God. That is to say, theism is not what God is; it is what human beings have decided that God is. Human definitions of God can die without God dying. Theism means that we perceive of God as “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external to this world (usually conceived of as above the sky), who periodically invades this world in miraculous ways.”
This is the God who split the Red Sea to rescue the chosen people and who invaded the world in the person of Jesus to rescue the fallen creation. This is also the deity displaced by Galileo, made impotent by Isaac Newton, ridiculed by Freud and relativized by Einstein.
The theological question that needs to be explored in both church and state is this: Can God be understood in some way other than through these infantile and tribal images? Can Jesus be seen in some way other than as the divinely appointed sacrificial victim who paid the price owed to God for our sinfulness? Because I believe that both God and Jesus are so much more than these distorting images suggest, I am confident that a dialogue with those who call themselves “atheists” would not only be good for the church but it would also allow deep and profound truth to emerge.
Among the issues for discussion between atheists and believers would be: What leads human beings to seek to define God in the first place? Is it the human experience of transcendence? Otherness? Divinity? How then do we conceptualize that experience? If the worship of our God leads us to justify our killing religious prejudices that have throughout history created such things as the Inquisition, the Crusades, religious wars and even the current ecclesiastical attack on homosexual persons, can this God really be anything other than a creature of our own making? Will we remain deluded enough to call this creature God? Since that is what the theistic God has so regularly given us, would not the world be better off without such a deity?
The choice between the theism of the church and the atheism of those who reject the God of the church is to me a sterile and lifeless choice. Such a meeting between believers and atheists might lead us to examine what Paul Tillich called “the God beyond the gods of men and women.” If believers cannot have that conversation because it compromises their God definition, then that is a tip-off that the God they serve is in fact an idol and atheism is always a proper response to idolatry.