Going strong at age 80, retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong maintains a demanding speaking schedule and has just released his latest book, Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. The best-selling author of Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture and many other influential books joins Welton Gaddy for a wide-ranging discussion of his inclusive legacy, his sometimes controversial views of religious history, the Bible, and what’s next on his to-do list.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Bishop John Shelby Spong
[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio, I’m Welton Gaddy.
Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong led the Diocese of Newark for over a decade. Ordained in 1955, Bishop Spong has traveled the world sharing his vision for an inclusive theology that has enamored many, and estranged others. As for me, I have found him challenging, enlightening and inspiring.
If you know his name, a likely reason is his important 1991 book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. But Bishop Spong has written a number of books, and has spent a great deal of time reaching out to people who have been alienated from religion by exclusionary and narrow-minded dogmas.
Bishop Spong’s latest book is Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, which was released by HarperOne last month, and I am so very pleased that it brings Bishop John Shelby Spong back to State of Belief Radio. Bishop Spong, welcome.[BISHOP JOHN SHELBY SPONG]: Thank you. Good to be with you, Welton. [WG]: Across the years, you’ve written several books related to the Bible. I remember so well that early book on the Bible and fundamentalism. Do you think people really pay much attention to the Bible? [JS]: Well, my books have sold over a million copies, so somebody’s reading them! [WG]: I think they may be reading you more than the Bible. [JS]: There is some truth in that. Now, the Bible is a fascinating book. It’s been used in very destructive ways throughout a great deal of our history. I tell people that I was raised in an evangelical Episcopal church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and that church taught me that segregation was the will of God; that women were inferior to men; that it was OK to hate other religions, and especially the Jews; and that homosexuals were either mentally sick or morally depraved, so that you need to try to convert them or cure them; and they quoted the Bible to prove all of those things. Well, if you want to be literal, I suppose you can find a text in the Bible that can prove almost anything; but the great sweep of the story of scripture is about the dignity of human life, about expanding our humanity, about finding the image of God in people – and I don’t know how you can do that if you’re constantly diminishing them and using some sort of religious source to justify your prejudices. [WG]: Well, Bishop, I really raise that question about attention to the Bible because of just exactly what you said. I mean, we know that, on so many social issues, a lot of people who identify themselves as Bible believers elevate culture, tradition, self-interests over the teachings of the Bible, and I guess I’m interested in why you think, on those issues, the Bible will take precedence for those people? [JS]: Well, they also find in the Bible texts that can justify their continuing prejudices. Human life is not easy, Welton, and I think that’s what people need to understand. So, we’re always looking for some kind of security blanket to wrap around us; and if you believe that you’ve got the word of God written in print that you can refer to, that’s a pretty good source for going to get answers. And I think the Church has encouraged that sort of mentality about the Bible, and it’s a totally false mentality.
There are things in the Bible you certainly don’t want to blame on God, but we still, in church services, read the lessons, and at the end of the lessons we say something like: “This is the word of the Lord,” and people all say: “Thanks be to God.” We print the Bible in two columns on each page, the way an encyclopedia is printed, or the dictionary is printed, or a telephone book is printed. Those are the only books I know of that are printed in two columns, and all of them are presented to our world as sources of definitive information. You don’t argue with the dictionary, you don’t argue with the encyclopedia, you don’t argue with the telephone directory – and presumably, you aren’t supposed to argue with the Bible. But the only way you can maintain that point of view is to keep people abysmally ignorant about Holy Scripture, and I think there’s been a concerted effort on the part of leadership people in the Christian Church to do exactly that.
When you look at some of the passages in the Bible – I made a talk to The Hemlock Society several years ago, that’s the group of people that wants to make a case for people having the right to determine if and when – or how and when – they will die, no guesses in the “if” about whether we’re going to die, this is just going to happen to anybody – but the justification and the antireligious bias against the Hemlock Society, or against end of life decisions, is that life and death are issues that should be in God’s hands and not in human hands; and yet, you go to the Bible, and when you research that book about all the things that you can do that the people take upon themselves: the power of executing you – that’s the power of death! And there wouldn’t be any of us alive if we still took that literally: if you talk back to your parents or are willfully disobedient – you are to be executed; if you worship a false God – you are to be executed; if you’re homosexual – you are to be executed; if you have sex with your mother-in-law – I thought that was a cute one, you are to be executed; if you commit adultery – you are to be executed. There wouldn’t be many people left in this world if we would follow that literally. And yet we still have this propaganda that when you hear the words of the Bible written, you are hearing the Word of God. Well, I just think we’ve got to counter that, and I think it’s got to be countered by somebody within the Church; because somebody who’s given up on the Church – nobody’s going to pay any attention to the fact that they’re Bible-bashers. You know, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, they’ll sell a lot of books – but they don’t do much to the people in the Church. The people in the Church have got to be educated by confident biblical scholarship, by those who have access to that biblical scholarship – and I think that’s the job of the clergy. I hope that my books help in that capacity.[WG]: Bishop Spong, what’s new in this book? What have you said here that people who’ve read your books before have not? [JS]: Well that’s a good question, and I think a quite legitimate one. What this book was, is – it actually started when I did a series of lectures in a resort community in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and these were pretty well-heeled southern, successful business people, had summer homes, so it’s a pretty affluent community, and they’re pretty bright people. They’re all university educated, and many of them have more degrees than just university degrees. They’re CEOs, they’re professors, they’re doctors, they’re dentists, they’re lawyers – and yet, when they came into this resort community – as part of the entertainment, we had a lecture series, and I did a series of lectures up there every year for about 8 or 9 years on the Bible and how it came to be written – and I found these brilliant people totally, totally unaware of the origins and history of the Bible.
And, you know, they responded with such enthusiasm because they’re right out of the Bible belt, and these aren’t anti-Bible people. Most of them are church-going people, but I think they sort of stay on the fringes of the Church because, you know, a lot goes on in church you can’t wrap your brain around with any integrity, you know, the “God is out to get you” is a very big idea, that the God who killed Jesus because you were a sinner, that’s a pretty big idea, and that’s a pretty gross idea, too; but I found that once you could begin to scrape the Bible of this layer of mentality that I don’t think people believe – though they might say they believe it – then they found the Bible’s a pretty exciting story. I think the Bible is deep in the life of Western civilization; and if you lose the Bible, you’re going to lose the sense of human dignity, you’re going to lose the sense that every life is unique and precious, you know, if we’re nothing more than animals then you can do all sorts of social engineering; but if we’re human beings created in the image of God and loved by God, then you’ve got to begin to treat every human life with dignity and with respect. And so I want to keep that very powerful idea abroad in our society, because I think that we’re on the edge of beginning to live in a society that is so godless that we don’t pay any attention to the dignity of human life if human life is a bit inconvenient.[WG]: Well that’s a great description of the importance of not only reading your book, but reading the Bible, and studying it, as well. Bishop Spong, how should people who reverence and follow the Bible as their authority respond to individuals, Muslims for example, who turn to a different source of authority, such as the Koran? [JS]: Well, you know, one of the sad things about every religion in the world is that all of us claim that we are the one true faith. Now, if you are the one true faith, then you have a hard time admitting that there’s another possibility out there that might challenge you for the position of one true faith, sort of like the Germans during the Nazi era were quite sure that Aryan humanity was the most superior kind of humanity, and one of the ways they proved it was to try to annihilate another group of people who are very substantially powerful in terms of their competence, namely the Jewish people. So I think one of the things you’ve got to face is – that the fact is, that there’s no such thing as the one true faith. There’s no such thing as one true Church. There’s no such thing as one way to God – and yet that’s in all of our traditions. That’s why the Pope has to be infallible; that’s why the Bible has to be inerrant; that’s why you’ve got to maintain that you have the one true faith and that nobody can come to God except through your faith. That’s idolatry. You know, what human being knows the mind of God so powerfully that we can legislate for who can enter into God’s presence, and how God is to be understood? That’s nothing except idolatry! And yet, it feeds the need in human life to find some sort of certainty and some sort of security; and I think the Christian Church has played into that human mentality.
I don’t believe that Christianity or any other religion is designed to give us peace of mind, or to convince us that we possess the truth. I think what Christianity – and I can speak for that more than I can speak for anything else – I think what Christianity is designed to give us is the courage to live in a world of relativity, and in a world of colliding values, and not to fall apart. To embrace the insecurity of life, and to continue to put one foot forward in front of the other, and continue to walk into the unknown… It takes an awful lot of courage to be human, and I think Christianity has shifted in the past few centuries from giving us the security – giving us the ability to embrace insecurity without falling apart – to pretending that it can give us security; and when you get to the time where religion pretends to give you security, then you’ve got to batten down your hatches and demonstrate that you’ve got it. That’s when the Pope becomes infallible, and it’s when the Bible becomes the word of God, and I think we’ve slipped at that point into an idolatrous understanding that is beyond the capacity of human beings to interpret the mind of God. What incredible folly that is for us to claim.[WG]: One of the points that I have always appreciated about your ministry is that you have remained faithful and loving within the ecclesiastical tradition, and within the Christian tradition that you are criticizing and hoping to help change. I’m curious, Bishop Spong, how do you feel about your Church – and I’m talking here about not just Christianity, generally, but the Episcopal Church, specifically. [JS]: I feel very good about it. I was Bishop for 24 years. I was the Senior Bishop in terms of service when I retired, so I’m deep in the structure. I’m not just out on the fringes, and I think that’s important.
When I look at my Church, and when I recognize that I grew up in a church that taught me that segregation was the Will of God, and North Carolina’s Episcopal Diocese today is headed by a man named Michael Curry who’s an African-American, who was elected by the people – that’s an enormous amount of progress for one lifetime.
And I was raised in a Church where a woman was considered inferior, and she could not participate in the Liturgy in any way – and today, 50% of our clergy are women. About 25 of our clergy have been elected Bishops – of our women clergy – and the Primate, the head of the Episcopal Church is a woman, the former Bishop of Nevada. That’s enormous progress in one lifetime.
When I was a kid, we called women in the Church the “Auxiliary.” Sort of like the firefighters’ auxiliary, or the Rotary Anns! They weren’t a part of the Church. They were tangential to the Church. When I grew up, we didn’t have any homosexuals in the South. We just didn’t allow them to be visible. I didn’t even know what the word “homosexual” was until I was 16 – 17 years old. Like I said, it just didn’t come up in our conversation. Today, my Church has two elected and confirmed Bishops who are gay – openly gay – and both of them live with their partners. When I retired as Bishop of Newark, we had 35 out-of-the-closet gay and lesbian clergy serving in this Diocese, and 31 of them lived openly with their partners; in one lifetime that’s an enormous amount of progress.
And when I grew up it was all about converting the heathen. You know, we didn’t know who “the heathen” were, but we knew they weren’t Christians like us. And today what’s going on in the interfaith world is dialogue in search of the common truth. That’s going with Jews, that’s going on with Muslims, that’s going on with Hindus, that’s going on with Buddhists – and I think that’s enormous progress.
So when I look at my Church over the period of my lifetime – and I’m 80 years old now – I see enormous progress. If I look at it on the terms of one week, or one month, or even one year – the struggles have been life-killing; you know, I have a lot of scars from those battles, but I think those battles were worth fighting. And the fact is that my Church, right now, is something I’m incredibly proud of. I have a woman rector of the church I attend, and she’s an outstanding priest, and as deeply a caring a human being as I’ve ever met. And I just think that what we’ve done is to free the talents of 50% of the human race, and open the Church to their gifts; and when women come into the leadership of the Christian Church, theology changes, liturgy changes, the way we understand God changes – and I think we’re much more inclusive because of that. So, I really feel pretty good about my Church.[WG]: Well that’s a great word; and I know the people, including the presiding Bishop of whom you speak, and couldn’t agree with you more.
Bishop Spong, you have, in my opinion, courageously, as well as forthrightly and insightfully, confronted Christians with a new vision of Christianity. One of your most widely read books – and most appreciated for me – was the book that argued that Christianity must change or die. I’m curious; do you feel that you have been heard? How do you feel about your influence?[JS]: Well, again, I think you need to take a fairly long-range view. Certainly, I’ve been an uncomfortable presence to some who are, sort of, traditional in their thinking, because they don’t really want to change. I had one pastor that came up to me and said: “If my church had the choice, they’d always vote to die before they voted to change.” The ability to change is very slight in organized religion, again, because it feeds into our security system. And even, you know, the Episcopal Church revises its prayer book about every 50 years, and the whole Church goes into apoplexy about this; but we always, sort of, live through it. And the fact is, that we change the prayer book because the way we perceive reality has changed.
If you go back to the old prayer book of the seventeenth and eighteenth century – that was before people knew that there were such things as germs and viruses, or cardio-vascular accidents; we didn’t understand much about medicine; we bled people when they were ill, hoping to get the evil spirits out of them. And so the payers – sickness was interpreted as the punishment of God for your evil! So the prayers for the sick were to get you to confess your sins, so that God could forgive you and God would stop punishing you with leukemia or whatever God was punishing you with. Now that’s a pretty weird idea today! We also, back before Galileo did his writing in the early years of the seventeen century, we were quite sure that God lived above the sky, and that God’s primary activity above the sky was to keep record books up to date on your behavior and mine. That’s pretty primitive today; but we thought that very seriously.
Now I’m suggesting that if the Christian Church doesn’t continue to rethink its message in terms of the new understandings of human life and the Universe in which we live, we’re going to die quickly – and we may die anyway, but we’re going to die a lot more quickly if we don’t begin to do things like that. And so I think that’s what the job of the Christian Church has been; we’ve had to do that over and over again in history.
People don’t live long enough to embrace that, but Christianity was born as a Jewish movement, and it was translated into a Mediterranean Greek thinking neo-platonic kind of worldview; and it took a lot of doing, and it’s almost not recognizable after Augustin transforms it into a sort of neo-platonic religion.
That lasted for about a thousand years, until the world stopped thinking in Plato’s terms and started thinking in Aristotle’s terms; and Tomas Aquinas arose in the Church in the thirteenth century, and recast the Christian faith in the light of Aristotelian thinking.
And then the new insights began to come from the East and from the world of science and we had a period in history that we call The Enlightenment. And I think the Protestant Reformation’s purpose was to recast the Christian faith in terms of this new world view that was emerging. That was the first time that we didn’t keep the Christian Church together, you know, it split apart over that.
But what we’re doing today is that I live in a world where the Earth is not the center of the Universe, where miracle and magic is hardly a category that we use; we explain everything that the ancient world used to explain as miracle or magic in quite non-miraculous language. We live in a world where – we used to think that human being were created perfect and fell into sin: we call that Original Sin, so the whole human race has been infected, and what we need to do is to be rescued by the external God, and lifted back to the perfection for which we were originally created. What do you do with Darwin? Darwin says there is no such thing as perfect creation; that we are in a process of evolving, and if you have never been perfect you can’t fall into sin. So original sin has simply got to go. And then the whole way of telling the Jesus story as the rescuer of the fallen, or the savior of the sinful, or the redeemer of the lost becomes inoperative, so how do we tell the Jesus story? I think we tell the Jesus story as the expander of life, and we cast the Christian message in a very positive and, I would call, a humanistic direction. And I think that is exactly the direction that it should go in. If you read the Fourth Gospel – and that’s my present study, and if I write another book it’s going to be on the Fourth Gospel – but if you read the Fourth Gospel, it’s a Gospel about life, it’s not a Gospel about religion. The purpose of Jesus is to bring life, and to bring it abundantly. John’s Gospel ends up, in the conclusion, by saying: “These things are written that you might have life.” I think that’s where the focus of the Christian Church has got to be. We’ve got to get rid of sin and begin to focus on life.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that – and there’s always a quick fundamentalist who’s ready to say this – I don’t mean to say that there’s not a great deal of human evil! I think human beings can be as evil as any creature – far more evil than the animals to one another, and animals don’t do genocide, human beings do genocide; animals don’t become alcoholics, human beings become alcoholics. But I think that what we have called “sin” is simply the baggage of our evolutionary history; that we are survival-oriented creatures, and as we make our survival the highest value of our lives, it means we’re radically self-centered. I think what Christianity has got to do is to take us and our survival-oriented mentality, and lift us beyond it into the capacity to live fully, and even to give our lives away – and that’s when I think we can tell the Jesus story in a much more powerful way.[WG]: Needless to say – and I love, love what you are saying – but it has caused a lot of critics, it has developed a lot of people who think you ought to be out of the Church rather than in the Church. I’m curious: how do you respond to your critics? [JS]: Well, I hope I outlive them and outlove them more than anything else, and maybe not in that order – I think I would outlove them first and then outlive them, and I don’t mean just by living longer, I mean by living in a quality relationship, I think that that’s just, that’s the best way to deal with your critics. And most of the criticism, Welton, that has come to me has not been on theology, because I don’t like people think about that that much. The place I’ve gotten hostility – and I’ve had 16 valid death threats in my life – but they’ve come out of the struggle for human justice; they’ve come out of participation in civil rights movements; they’ve come out of walking with women and breaking down the barriers against women; they’ve come with walking with gay and lesbian people in breaking down the barriers. That’s where the hostility’s come from. I don’t know a lot of people that want to argue a great deal about the Creeds; and I can tell you that within the last three months I’ve delivered major addresses at three theological seminaries, and what I’ve done is to say: “We’ve got to get rid of words like ‘savior,’ ‘redeemer’ and ‘rescuer’ to describe Jesus, because that’s based on an anthropology that’s pre-Darwinian, and it makes absolutely no sense in a post-Darwinian world.”
And besides that, it’s not even biblical. The word “savior” does not appear in the biblical story until Luke’s Gospel, which would be the ninth decade; and it appears in the Magnificat – the song that Mary sings – and she’s talking about “God, my savior,” not about Jesus; “savior” is not a New Testament word. And yet that’s what we’ve done; and we’ve done this idea of Jesus as a savior based upon, I think, bad anthropology saying that what we are is fallen sinners. I don’t think we’re fallen sinners; I think we’re incomplete human beings – and salvation does not mean to overcome the sin of the world, it means to transcend the limits of our humanity, and to call us into being more deeply and fully human. And I think that’s a very different way to talk about the Christian faith, and I think that when the Church begins to embrace this, I think there’s a possibility for a revival of Christianity.[WG]: That’s terrific. Well, listen, we only have about two or three minutes left, and I want you to know that some people will be listening to this conversation on Christmas Day. And so, I want to ask, what Christmas message do you have to share with us this year? [JS]: Well, I’ll be glad to respond to that. I think the beauty of Christmas is that the claim that’s being made is that it is in human life that God and humanity come together. If you want to be divine, you have to become deeply and fully human; the pathway into divinity is to become fully human. And I think that’s what the Christmas story is about. I don’t think it has a thing to do with biology. I think it has to do with: people had an experience, and a man named Jesus of Nazareth, that convinced them, that he called them to a dimension of humanity that human beings alone could never have created. And so, in order to tell that story, they developed a mythology of the virgin birth, because they lived in the first century. They didn’t understand about reproduction: they thought that the whole life of the human being was in the sperm of the male; they thought the male simply planted that life in the womb of the female, and she nurtured it like a farmer plants his seeds in the soil of mother earth, and mother earth nurtures them. And that’s the way we understood life.
In 1724 we discovered that women had an egg cell; it was a brand new discovery, and that means that from that moment on we can’t tell the story of the virgin birth, it doesn’t make sense. Because what you have at that point is that every life is the creation of a male and female, a sperm and an egg, that go together; and so, even Jesus of Nazareth has to receive 50% percent of his genetic code from his mother. And you know the Roman Church had a hard time with that, because they had this doctrine of original sin, and the reason that Mary could be the mother of Jesus is that she didn’t pass on the sin of Adam to Jesus and he could be born as the sinless one. That doesn’t work after you understand that women have an egg cell; and that’s why we had to declare Mary immaculately conceived in the eighteen century, so that she could still be the mother of the sinless one. Christianity adapts to knowledge; it doesn’t do it comfortably, but it does it if it has people within the Church who love the Church and are willing to take on the flack to keep the Church relevant to the modern world. And I think that’s a vocation, and I just love Christmas, I think it’s a beautiful and wonderful season, and I think people ought to celebrate it with gusto.[WG]: This is Bishop John Shelby Spong, and let me say, on behalf of a lot of people, certainly what’s true for me: we are appreciative of the work that you’ve done, and the work that you continue to do. I consider what you’ve been talking about today the essence of the meaning of Gospel, which is “good news,” and I don’t know anyone who speaks it better than you do. [JS]: Well, I appreciate that, and I just think we’ve got a good story to tell, and you’ve got to tell it outside the boundaries of the religious traditions of yesterday, which I think are dying, and I don’t think Christianity is to die with these old traditions. I think it’s still got a great future. [WG]: Bishop Spong, I’m grateful to you for being able to be with us today on State of Belief, and hope to talk with you again. [JS]: Thank you. I’ll look forward to that.