Review: Retired Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong

I think that any dogmatic religion is, by its nature, anti-spiritual in that it requires adherence to a set of tenants in order to belong to a social group. Thus, in any “Christian” group, anyone who cannot believe or doesn’t profess to believe its tenets cannot “belong” and must be excluded (which is against the primary directive of spirituality – unity and inclusion).

To be a “Christian”, one must believe at least one and usually most of the following:

  • Prophecy is a true and unalterable foreknowledge of future events and the “prophets” and “prophecies” of the Old Testament were not only valid but form a perfect lens to view both past events and our descendants’ ultimate destinies;
  • Jesus of Nazareth was “Christ,” “the Messiah,” a fictional character of prophecy destined to be the autocratic ruler of the entire world (while Jesus eschewed such a position in words, actions, and philosophy);
  • Jesus of Nazareth was also “Jehovah,” His Father and the original Creator and the eventual Destroyer and violent, sexist, racist, omnipotent and omniscient ruler of everything that is, was, or will be;
  • The two-and-a-half-day death of Jesus is a significant moment in time and the axle upon which all spiritual well-being turns based on pagan rituals and beliefs including ritual sacrifice and surrogate atonement;
  • Surrogate atonement and a belief in surrogate atonement (Jesus dying on a cross) removes guilt, ameliorates behavior, and transforms us in some special way that makes us acceptable to God;
  • “Sin” exists (in whatever forms) and follows “rules” based on ritual, credulity, and professional clerical intervention; and we can effectively distinguish this thing “sin” in both ourselves and others, making valid choices based on its supposed existence;
  • “Good” and “Evil” are easily distinguishable characteristics which must divide the human race into two irreconcilable factions and it is our duty to determine when and where “Evil” exists and oppose it by all means necessary, including war;
  • That the important thing is for everyone to agree or pretend to agree on the above points and that all Muslims, all Buddhists, all animists, all Hindus, and all atheists are just wrong and should be disabused of their erroneous ideas. Their wrong-thinking is a serious threat to the right-thinking Christian community and must be actively opposed by missionary work, proselytizing, and/or conquest.

I believe none of the above.

Which do you believe? If so, why? If not, how can you call yourself “Christian” while knowing that Jesus wasn’t Christ in that he refused to fulfill prophecy and was not the type of person to “rule” over mankind which “Christ” has been expected to do but (thankfully) hasn’t done for some time now.

Do you believe in the Trinity? Can you honestly say that the humble Jesus who enjoins us to give to the poor and help our enemies is the same being that wants adulation and obedience above all else and gave Israel to His “chosen people?”

Adherents of a “new” “revised” Christianity seem to believe that one can take only the spirituality and rationality of Jesus (which are unique and individual) and still have a “religion” (which is, by its nature, communal, having common rituals, practices, and beliefs).

As soon as you have at least one required belief (which makes a dogmatic religion in the first place), you do not have spirituality because you’ve broken the Cardinal rule of spirituality: inclusion. The other spiritual rules broken include honesty and a regard for the welfare of all. This break with empathy, this deviation from reality, causes you to discount and protect yourself from the beliefs of others, perceiving these beliefs, dissonant with your own, to be harmful and threatening to you and your circle of fellow converts.

Thus, I submit, we need to separate the spirituality of Jesus of Nazareth (which I believe was the essence of early followers’ beliefs – love others, be generous, treat your “enemy” as a brother, and turn the other cheek [forgive and be contrite]), from all the other stuff which makes Jesus part of the Trinity as well as “Christ” and thus establishes “Christianity”. When you do this; when you realize that Jesus was NOT Christ and that Christ was a fictitious character created out of racism, nationalism, sexism, and Saul of Tarsus’ (Saint Paul’s) intense zeal in promoting Jesus as the “Messiah”, your “new” “Christianity” becomes vacuous.

All you have left is spirituality, which isn’t a religion at all but an experiential movement based on our souls and their natural and normal need for inclusion and belonging. It certainly can’t call itself by the name of a fictional character created by ancient political handlers intent on legitimizing dynastic rule and the theft of riches and territories owned by others, which is an ongoing theme of the “Christian” movement as well as the religious movement that engendered it and the major religion which it, in turn, engendered.

When Jesus was just a man with unusual spiritual insight, he made a huge impact on the world for about 300 years, spawning a whole loving movement against the selfishness and brutality of Rome and its military chokehold on the known world.

Rome tried to kill this movement off and it just got stronger.

Finally, they “joined” this movement and made it a formal religion and the official state religion, killing or ostracizing all dissenters, and pretending Jesus was a human version of Jehovah and that his death and supposed resurrection were what was important, not his philosophies. They clad the Pope in gold and installed him in a retrofitted pagan temple in “the shoes of the fisherman” in extreme luxury, protected and supported by the most powerful armies in the world.

Formal Christianity was founded in 325AD and superseded the spirituality practiced by Gautama Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi and the 500 or so 12-step self-help groups, among others.

Christianity is what killed the movement founded by Jesus. What happened in 325 had little to do with “following” Jesus, who was now stuck with the label “Christ,” identified as the same as Jehovah, a genocidal tyrant, and used (just as in the Old Testament) to justify and glorify military aggression and territorial expansion.

This misuse of Jesus of Nazareth persists today and is the reason I find the label “Christian” to be both inaccurate and offensive.

The following is a long quote from retired Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong:

There is an enormous gap at present between the Christianity understood in the great academic centers of learning in the world and the Christianity understood by those who occupy the pews and, in some cases, the pulpits of our local congregations. Knowledge that is commonplace in the academies is frequently heard in the pews as profoundly controversial, probably heretical, and even as an attack on all that they hold sacred. This in turn causes critics like Christopher Hitchens to attack Christianity because they are unaware of any form of Christianity other than the literalized supernatural view that so frequently emerges in and from our churches.

This enormous gap between the academy and the pew is openly fed by ecclesiastical leaders from the Pope to the various denominational heads, who do not make it easy for the people in the pew to gain access to biblical scholarship. They instead create and participate in a conspiracy of silence. They fear that the people they serve will be scandalized if they knew the truth. The fact remains, however, that both the common theistic definition of God as an “external, supernatural being, who does miracles and answers prayers” and the understanding of the Bible as a book of authoritative divine revelation of the “Word of God” are not now taken seriously in Christian academic circles and this has been the case for almost two hundred years! Church leaders seem to prefer for their Sunday worshipers to remain in the dark. Let me illustrate this by stating some little known, and among scholars, not controversial biblical facts.

The gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. They are the products of a time between two and three generations after the crucifixion of Jesus. The gospels were written in Greek, a language neither Jesus nor his disciples could either speak or write. We can find no evidence that miracles were associated with the memory of Jesus prior to the 8th decade. The stories of Jesus’ miraculous birth to a virgin did not enter the developing Christian tradition until the 9th decade. The account of Pentecost and the ascension of Jesus are 10th decade additions to the story. Resurrection was not understood to be the resuscitation of a deceased body until the 9th decade. Paul does not seem to be aware of the story of Judas as a traitor nor does he ever refer to the narrative of his Damascus Road conversion, which was not written until Paul had been dead for thirty or so years. Furthermore, there are no camels in the biblical story of the wise men and there is no stable in the Bible in which Jesus was presumably born. The New Testament does not agree on who the twelve disciples were or on the details of the Easter story. That is just the beginning of facing the gap between the academy and the pew.

Let me turn to theological topics for a moment. No biblical scholar today, post-Darwinians as they are, will defend as literally accurate either of the creation stories in the book of Genesis.  More importantly, no educated person in the 21st century believes either the astrophysical formula in which the Bible portrays the earth’s relationship to the universe or the dominant anthropological ideas that underlie the classical way in which Christians still tell the Christ story. That familiar narrative posits an original perfection for both the world and for human life, which was presumably ruined by the disobedience of the heretofore sinless human beings, which brought about a fall into “original sin.” That “fall,” in turn, necessitated a rescue operation, which this storyline suggests was accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross. How can one fall from a perfection human beings have never possessed if all of us have evolved? How can we then be rescued from a fall that never happened? How can we be restored to a status we have never possessed? The story breaks down in a thousand ways.

Yet Protestant preachers and lay people still say things like “Jesus died for my sins” and Catholics still refer to the “sacrifice of the Mass,” as the moment when they reenact liturgically the drama of salvation and the price God required Jesus to pay to overcome the fall. So, because we know no alternatives to this traditional formula we modern Christians either close our minds to reality in order to remain believers or we abandon Christianity because it no longer makes sense. This almost unchallenged vision of the past in turn provides fodder for the secular critics like Christopher Hitchens to attack the traditional Christian articulation as if they are the first to discover its inadequacies, revealing in the process their own biblical and theological ignorance.

It was to speak to the gap between the academy and the pew that I wrote Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. In this book, I seek to open the windows into Christian scholarship and to make it available to ordinary lay people. I want to challenge the cover up engaged in by clergy who know better, but who seem to believe that truth, honesty and scholarship will “alienate the faithful.” I want to force the religious debate into a new arena of honesty. I want to call people to look at a new way to read the scriptures, a new way to be the church in the 21st century. So in this book I have walked through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, facing and revealing its contradictions and even pointing out places where the biblical text seems to endorse and support attitudes that most of us today regard as immoral. Should slaves be taught in the name of God to be obedient? Of course not! Yet for centuries we Christians quoted Colossians and Ephesians, among other biblical sources, to perfume the indignity of first slavery and then segregation. Should wives be taught to be subservient because that was God’s plan? Of course not! Yet the fact is that the apostle Paul seems to think that his definition of the inferiority of women is “God given!” and on the basis of that definition we Christians have not just denied educational opportunities to women, but also refused to allow them the right to vote until the twentieth century. Should homosexuals be discriminated against or even put to death? Of course not, but we Christians have done that to countless numbers of gay and lesbian people and justified it by quoting the book of Leviticus. These attitudes reflect nothing other than uninformed prejudice and are based not only on a profound ignorance of the Bible, but also of the origins of homosexuality. Should wars be blessed and birth control condemned because of quotations from “Holy Scripture?” I shake with rage at such conclusions!

To look at the Bible from the perspective of contemporary scholarship is to call the traditional understanding of the Bible and of Christianity itself into question, yet despite the fear that religious people feel at this prospect, to fail to do so is nothing other than a prescription only for a slower death. Why would any church or church leader choose to walk that path?

I have two audiences in mind in the writing of this book. One is a church audience made up of people who appear to know that the old words no longer make sense, yet in the absence of an alternative still cling to the meaningless past. The second audience is made up of those who have abandoned traditional Christianity because for them it has become unbelievable. I want them to know that there is a view of Christianity beyond the one they have abandoned or the one that Christopher Hitchens attacks. It has just never been introduced in the pews. My goal in this book is to take people beneath both the literal and contradictory words of the Bible and the convoluted concepts of theology to explore realms of spiritual truth present but unseen.

I believe Christianity has to do not with guilt and sin, but with increased humanity and heightened awareness; with breaking barriers that separate us from one another in our quest for survival and with calling us to move beyond self-consciousness into universal consciousness where, I believe, we touch the edges of eternity. Will this book succeed in this mission? Time will tell, but, regardless, the need to address these issues is real and I have now made that effort.

I want to live to see a new Christianity for a new world. Indeed I want to assist in its birth.  This book is designed to be a shot across the bow to inaugurate that campaign.

~Retired Anglican Bishop, John Shelby Spong

I was a frequent blogger on Bishop Spong’s website for several years, but I finally realized that the good Bishop’s efforts at saving Christianity by admitting its ongoing dishonesty were NOT serving mankind or truth, but were giving legitimacy to a movement which was co-opted early in the process of formalizing itself. It has had little to do with “following” Jesus ever since, who is now stuck in the Trinity and with the label “Christ” and used (again) to justify and glorify military aggression.

Spong dissembles. He all but admits that the term “Jesus Christ” is, in and of itself, a lie, but still calls himself “Christian.” After admitting to the world that the combined Christian leadership has been lying to the rest of us for 200 years, he still hints that he knows things we don’t, which I’m convinced is just another thing he believes that isn’t exactly true. And these lies and cover-ups go well beyond just hiding the intellectual and spiritual deficits of Christianity but include sexual misconduct, cover-ups, and other crimes and misdemeanors within significant numbers of the world’s clergy! We’re finally getting a belated “sorry” out of the current Pope, but, as far as I can tell, just about ALL thriving churches are founded on lies and misrepresentations.

Yet the smugness continues. Bishop Spong, admitting his own failures while “serving” his community, continues to act superior to the rest of us, to pretend that he still has a jewel in the cesspool of disproved lies and conceits that compose the bulk of his “faith” and the foundation of his extensive education. Having seen the massive misinformation given to the modern world by the “Good Book,” he clings to the title “Christian” and sets himself higher than the rest of us by having mastered this admixture of useful humanitarian ideas, bigotry, misogyny, and grossly ignorant and misleading fiction.

My firm belief, having sat at the feet of this learned master, for several years, is that the good bishop’s scam is well-hidden and undoubtedly well-meaning, but it protects a body of work (Christian scholarship) that has led the world astray for far too long.

There are other (far less misleading and destructive) ways to study spirituality other than reading the Bible. The Holy Bible has had its day and has proven wanting as a proper guide to either thinking or action again and again. I maintain that most of it was composed, not to educate or elevate people, but to rationalize warfare and to support autocratic rule in empires, nations, tribes, communities, and individual families. And I believe that Bishop Spong himself, while entirely sincere, still uses it for that purpose.

After all, in supporting autocratic rule and docile credulity and obedience, The New Testament, its parent book, The Old Testament, and its daughter book, The Quran, have been overwhelmingly successful!

©David N. Dodson 2011-2018, Phoenix, AZ

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