We live in a world steeped in religion. Out of the almost 7
billion people on our planet more than four billion are embedded in one of
the world's three main religions. Most of our holidays have a religions
significance. We elect or dismiss our politicians on religious grounds. We
print religion on our currency and into our laws. We swear on bibles and the
zealots among us all claim to have GOD on their side. There is no escaping
the fact that our future is deeply intertwined with religion.
Most religious behavior is based on a tribal mentality. They
all postulate that god has a chosen people and if god has a chosen people
then it is clear that anyone who is not part of the chosen people is part of
the un-chosen people. That is how the tribal mentality is created and
Bishop John Shelby Spong brings reason to the circular
arguments of tribal religion. He introduces us to a new way of looking
at Christ and walking in Christ that is fitting of a modern, global and
responsible society. He offers us a sound alternative to fundamentalism
while still recognizing our need as conscious beings to ponder the meaning
of life as we live with the ever present fear of death.
Give him a listen and watch his words brighten your day.
For those seeking to experience Christianity in a new and vibrant
way, Bishop John Shelby Spong offers fresh spiritual ideas. Over the
past four decades, he has become one of the definitive voices for
progressive Christianity. As a member of Bishop Spong's online
community, you'll receive insightful weekly essays, access to Message
Boards that will connect you with other believers in exile, and
answers to your questions from Bishop Spong himself!
”Think Different - Accept Uncertainty”
A Call to Re-Image God ...
Defining the human experience that we call God is not just a
modern activity, human beings have engaged in this task since the
dawn of civilization. The factor driving the change in the human
definition of God was never a new revelation from on high; it was
always a dramatic shift in human life usually brought about by a
necessary adaptation in the eternal quest for survival. The God
experience has always been given a human definition.
The first recognizable human religion, anthropologists tell us,
was what we today call “Animism.” Animism was a religion that
perceived of God not as a being fixed in one particular place, but
as a diffused and ever present invisible force found everywhere.
Animism pointed to the presence of spirits connected with various
parts of nature. In this animated world, there was a spirit of the
ocean that kept the tides within its bounds. If that spirit became
violently angry a tsunami might result. There was the spirit of the
olive tree that when pleased caused the tree to maximize its fruit.
The presence of “spirits” explained the life and behavior of
everything: animals, plants, the sun and the moon. At this time in
history, human beings were in the hunter-gatherer phase of our
development, unsettled nomads engaged in the endless human quest for
food. Food, generally speaking, could not be stored or at least not
for long periods of time, so starvation was an ever present threat
to survival. It was the religious task in this animistic world to
keep the spirits happy so that those spirits would aid us in the
struggle to survive. That was the primary human understanding of God
for literally thousands of years.
When the shift from nomadic wandering to a settled life of
cultivating the soil began to occur the human understanding of God
had to begin to shift and shift it did. The first two places where
settled human communities developed were in the Nile River valley of
Egypt and in the area known as Mesopotamia, located between the
Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. In both places, the rich and
fertile soil invited people to cease their wandering life and to
settle where that soil promised them a steady supply of food. No,
the shift did not happen all at once, but when it did happen, the
understanding of God developed in a nomadic culture no longer made
sense in their settled state. Animism now began to fade and a
religion organized around fertility cults came into being. This
religion, dedicated to a God conceived of as the “Earth Goddess,”
began to dominate the human experience. Ancestor worship was part of
that shift. The reason for this addition to human thinking was that
a nomadic people were always on the move and so their dead, even if
buried, were always left behind and thus soon forgotten. Graves did
not become shrines. When settled communities were formed, the dead
were buried nearby and the idea of being surrounded by one’s
ancestors seemed natural. Indeed, the act of burial itself was a
gift of Earth Mother worship, since burial in the ground was thought
of as an act of opening the womb of Mother Earth and placing her own
children back into that womb.
Child sacrifice also grew out of these fertility cults. The idea
here was that if one offered one’s first born child to the fertility
goddess, one would be blessed by that deity with many more children.
Religion was then, as it has always been, in the service of human
survival and survival had now moved from the daily searching for
food in a spirit-filled world into the attempt to grow food in an
agricultural community, where bountiful yields depended on the good
will and favor of the fertile Earth Mother.
In time, however, those agricultural communities became bigger
and more complex and thus they had to be both governed and defended.
This new reality demanded a new tribal organization. The survival of
these agricultural communities began to depend on both the military
wisdom and brute strength of the male warriors, the strongest of
whom would become the chief. With survival now dependent on both the
fertility of the Earth goddess and the power of the male chief,
slowly the deity began to be portrayed as a feminine goddess with a
male consort. Over time the male warrior deity grew stronger until
God came to be thought of primarily after the analogy of the chief.
God came to be thought of as the heavenly chief, a single ruler who
guarded the community from above. This was the first expression of a
primitive monotheism. There was an intermediate step between animism
and monotheism that was reflected in the gods and goddesses of the
Olympus. Here there was a male chief, a Zeus or Jupiter, together
with a female partner, a Hera or Juno, but with various other
natural phenomena covered in animistic style by special deities:
There was Mercury the messenger god, Neptune the god of the sea, and
Cupid the god of love. It was the male-warrior deity, thought of
after the analogy of the trial chief, however, who was destined to
be the wave of the future, the context in which the theistic nature
of God would emerge....
... If we do not pass it on, it dies. Love cannot be saved or
stored. If God is love, we need to ask the obvious question: Can we
then say that “Love is God?” Does defining God as love not carry
us beyond theism?
A second biblical image for God is that of a rock. Well over a
hundred times in the Bible, the word “rock” is used in reference to
God. That idea has entered Christian hymnody in such titles as “Rock
of Ages.” To what reality was this biblical image referring?
Experience tells us that when we stand upon a rock, we are supported
and kept from sinking. Is that the connection? My great theological
teacher, Paul Tillich, made that connection when he referred to God
as “The Ground of Being.” Can this “rock” image also lead us beyond
theism? Is our “being” an aspect of something we might call “being
itself”? Are we connected in some mysterious mystical way with all
that is? Can we look at God through this lens and break the theistic
pattern by exploring these possibilities? I believe we can. I think
we must. The future of Christianity requires the discovery of new
analogies for speaking of the holy. That is the first step in moving
beyond theism. It is a slow process, but a necessary one. Once we
enter it, however, new doors begin to open. We will continue to walk
through those doors as this series continues.