Friday, June 13, 2008

Roman Catholic priest, Vincent Donovan in his book “Christianity Rediscovered”

Never accept and be content with unanalyzed assumptions, assumptions about work, about the people, about the church or Christianity. Never be afraid to ask questions about the work we have inherited or the work we are doing.

There is no question that should not be ask or that is outlawed.

The day we are completely satisfied with what we have been doing, the day we have found the perfect, unchangeable system of work, the perfect answer, never in need of being corrected again, on that day we will know that we are wrong, that we have made the greatest mistake of all.

Bishop Spong's Q&A 6/11/08

Dale Mason, from Cromwell College at the University of Queensland, writes:

What store or value do you put into or get from:

The Gospel of Mary (the mother of Jesus)The Gospel of Mary MagdaleneThe Gospel of JudasThe Gospel of Thomas

Can we open them to new meaning? Can we attribute to them the status of Scripture? Can they contribute to or enhance the mission of the Christian Church, which in your terms is to make us truly human?

Dear Dale,

The gospels to which you refer are not of equal value, so your question cannot be answered generally. All of them are later works that were not incorporated into the official canon of Scripture for a variety of reasons, not all of which we will ever know. Perhaps it was because they were later in history. Perhaps it was that they were not judged as authentic. Perhaps they were caught up in early church struggles and wound up on the losing side.

The thing we gain from them is a vision of early Christian history that is different from the orthodox view with which most of us were raised. It also confirms the recent scholarship that has successfully challenged ecclesiastical propaganda, that in the beginning of the Christian era there was not a single Christianity, but a variety of Christianities that were competing with one another. The gospels to which you refer reflect that early variety.

The Gospel of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is not thought of very highly. I am always suspicious of "lost" gospels and can find very little about it except in circles of Catholic piety. Surely it is not authentic and we have no record of the mother of Jesus writing anything and surely she was not alive when this second century work was written.

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene has been treated in a book by Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School, who found great meaning in that work.

The Gospel of Judas has been treated in a book by Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina, who is one of the great scholars in early church history.

The Gospel of Thomas is treated with great respect by the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, who actually elevated it into the Canon in the book edited by Robert Funk called The Five Gospels. Elaine Pagels at Princeton has done what I regard as the best work on the Gospel of Thomas in her book Beyond Belief.

I commend all of them to you for your study. Having said that, however, I do not feel any great desire to take much time to study these late sources, since I do not believe that they contain much that is worthy of serious scholarly attention. The Gospel of Thomas would be the only exception to this statement. I am not nearly as impressed with these works as some of my colleagues seem to be. Time will tell who is correct. I am willing to be convinced, but that has not yet happened.

- John Shelby Spong

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Bishop Spong's Q&A

Larry Hester from Denver, Colorado, writes:

You recently suggested that the split in Christianity today is between those who assert yesterday's religious explanations and those who find no meaning in yesterday's religious explanations and give up on religion altogether. If that is so, is Christopher Hitchens' book, God Is Not Great, a message from the religiously disillusioned? If so how do those religious people who defend the past deal with that book?

Dear Larry,

If I understand your question correctly, let me begin with three declarative statements: 1. Religion must always be questioned 2. Theism can be abandoned without abandoning God 3. Christopher Hitchens' book is a real asset to the current debate. Now just let me put some flesh on each of those statements.

Since human beings are creatures of both time and space, and since we know from the work of Albert Einstein that time and space are relative categories that expand and contract in relation to each other, then we must conclude that any statement made by anyone, who is bound by time and space, will never be absolute. There are no propositional statements, secular or religious, that are exempt from this principle. Words reduce all human experiences to relativity. That is why every religious formula must be questioned; that is why no word of any book is inerrant; that is why no proclamation of any ecclesiastical leader is infallible; and finally, that is why no religious system or institution can ever claim to possess the true faith. Religion is a journey into the mystery of God. It is not a system of beliefs and creeds and when it becomes that, it always becomes idolatrous and begins to die.

Theism is not God. It is a human definition of God that assumes that God is a being, perhaps the "Supreme Being," supernatural in power, dwelling outside the world (usually thought of as above the sky), who periodically invades the world in miraculous ways to answer human prayers or to effect the divine will.

It is my sense that this definition of God has been mortally wounded by the successive blows of Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, just to name a few. I do not believe, however, that this means that God has been mortally wounded even if the theistic definition of God has been.

Suppose God is not defined as "a being," but is simply experienced as a power, a presence. Then describing that experience is quite different from claiming to know who or what God is. Then the question is, "Are we delusional or is this experience real?" I think God is real and I believe we are in the process of defining our God experience in a new way that will replace the dying theistic definition of the past.

Finally, Christopher Hitchens' book, God Is Not Great, is a description of the theistic God of the past who is dying. The theistic God certainly appears in the Bible and is guilty of many things that are genuinely immoral, like killing the firstborn male in every Egyptian household, stopping the sun in the sky to allow more time for Joshua to slaughter the Amorites and ordering genocide against the Amalekites through the prophet Samuel. Christians need to remember that it has been the theistic God who has been responsible for the development of such things as anti-Semitism, the Inquisition, and the oppression of people of color, women and homosexual persons. This deity has also been perceived as justifying war, fighting crusades and creating slavery. Let us agree with Christopher Hitchens that this God is not great. We need to challenge Christopher Hitchens' assumption, however, that this is the only way we can think about or conceptualize God.

I think of the God experience as the power of life, love and being flowing through the universe and coming to consciousness in human self-awareness alone. I therefore feel that by living fully, loving wastefully and being all that I can be I can make the God experience visible. I also believe that it is my Christian vocation to build a world where all people have a better chance to live, love and to be. It is when I do these two things, I believe, that I am engaging in the essence of worship.

John Shelby Spong

Preaching and the "Word of God"

Excerpts from an article by Rev John Shuck, First Presbyterian Church, Elizabethton, TN

I believe that many clergy are overdue for a heart to heart with their congregation about the metaphor “Word of God” especially as it applies to the Bible. I have found that this metaphor more often stops creative thought than inspires it. The question we might ask our congregations is, “If the Bible is the Word of God, what makes it so?”

Modern scholarship has eroded the foundations for the metaphor. We have come to a time in which it is incredible to assert that our canon of scripture is objectively true or authoritative for all humanity. Appeals to the Bible’s historical or scientific accuracy are na├»ve. The claim that our canon has been dictated or inspired by supernatural revelation amounts to little more than special pleading. There is no magic power that makes the Bible or any text within it superior, truer, or more divinely inspired than any other human writing, religious or secular. The hands of human beings through their own imaginative power made every jot and tittle of carving and of script.

The Bible is a collection of the writings of human beings. Once we dismiss the assumption that our book or library of books is more authoritative that any other collection, we can finally take our seat around the table of humanity.