From the mind of John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Bishop


Harper Collins - San Francisco, c1991 By Bishop Spong


There may well be an eternal objective truth beyond all our words, but the minute that truth is spoken by a human being who is a subject, it ceases to be either eternal or objective. It becomes then, truth compromised by time, concept, vocabulary, history, and prejudice.

       Both the Sacred Scriptures and the creeds of the Christian Church can point to, but never fully capture, eternal truth. The attempt to make either the Bible or tradition "infallible" is an attempt to sore up ecclesiastical power and control. It is never an attempt to preserve truth. Indeed, those who would freeze truth in words, concepts, or creed will guarantee a time warp that will finally doom the truth to extinction. Only truth that is freed from its captivity to time and words and allowed to float in the sea of relativity will survive the ravages of subjectivity. Only truth that can constantly call out new words capable of lifting yesterday's experience into today's mindset will finally survive.

       The formulation of today or tomorrow will be no more eternal than the formulation of first century people. This is not a plea to give up inadequate ancient words for ultimately inadequate modern words. It is to force upon us the realization that all words are, in the last analysis, inadequate. Truth is never finally found in words. Truth is always beyond words. Yet there can be no truth for human beings unless we use words first to understand it; and second to convey it. So we mortals live our subjective truth in the constant anxiety of relativity. That is all we can do and that realization strikes a mortal blow at the traditional excessive claims of all religious systems.

       Religion almost inevitably tries to take our anxiety away from us by claiming that which religion can never deliver - absolute certainty. If religious systems succeed in giving us certainty, they have certainly become idolatrous, for the ultimate mystery and wonder of God cannot be reduced to a particular language and captured in the concepts of any human being. The Christianity that I advocate and follow does not rob me of my humanity by making claims of either inerrancy for Scriptures , of infallibility for the papacy or sacred tradition. My religion does not reduce God to an idol of its own creation. It does not give me certainty or even security. Rather, in my religious system I meet a God in Jesus who calls me deeper and deeper into my humanity - part of which is a constant quest and journey into the truth.

       That journey in time always becomes for me a journey into God. In this journey I find the courage to live by faith as I think the Bible understands that word. It also provides me with the integrity of honesty as I live in the midst of religious uncertainty and insecurity. This kind of Christianity does not affirm those whose deepest need is to know that they are right, that in their religious tradition they possess the truth. My understanding and knowledge of the history of religious systems convinces me that whenever a group of religious folk begin to believe that they possess God's truth, almost inevitably, they become those who in the name of their version of that truth persecute, excommunicate, purge, burn at the stake, or justify cruel religious wars against any who will not salute their tradition or acknowledge their rightness in things religious.

       It is not coincidental that the angriest mail I receive comes from those who claim to be most religious and who think they can speak with the very voice of God. Indeed, some of these letter writers even state that their hostile missives do not contain their own fallible words but the Divine words spoken directly by God to me through them. I am always surprised at how vindictive God has become. I suppose these people need some authority beyond themselves to give them permission to be so angry.

       In more sophisticated but no less inadequate ways, this infallible mentality feeds the activities that mainline churches call "evangelism" and "foreign missions" . Both movements assume that the truth lies with those who do the evangelizing and the missionary work. The history of both activities is rife with religious and political imperialism, and even violations of human rights. It is no wonder that when churches begin to talk about a "decade of evangelism," Jewish people begin to lock their doors and secure their windows. Foreign missions has in our day become far more rhetoric than reality. Christians continue to talk about the process. Very few in fact engage in it significantly, for after two thousand years of Christianity, even allied with the worlds most powerful political, social, economic and military systems, has failed to penetrate the non-western world save in the most minuscule way.

       The time has come, in my opinion, for all religious systems, including Christianity, to look at the truth that lies beneath the words of every great religion, to respect that truth, to learn from that truth, and to spend its "missionary" efforts only on those lives that have no sense of the holy, or no experience of a transcendent wonder. Most of the people who fit that description, I might add, live in the secularized Western World.

       In the attempt to remove imperialism from Christianity, to become humble before the infinite mystery of God, a proper starting place for me is in facing the subjectivity of all religious words, including the words of Holy Scripture.


Further Recommended Reading:


Burton Mack, WHO WROTE THE NEW TESTAMENT, Harper - San Francisco, c1995 by author.


          A wonderful look at the history of the writing of the New Testament by a professor of early Christianity at the School of theology at Claremont and associate scholar at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in Claremont.


John Romer, TESTAMENT, Henry Holt & Co - New York, c1988 by author.


          Traces the history of the bible from an archeological approach. Also available as a series of video tapes.


Elaine Pagels, THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS, Vantage Books Edition, c 1979 by author.


          Gives one insight into the many aspects of Christianity and the diversity of beliefs among the earliest Christians by Elaine Pagels scholar who chaired the Department of Religion at Columbia University, and Harrington Spear Paine Professor of religion at Princeton University.





Bishop John Shelby Spong, RESCUING THE BIBLE FROM FUNDAMENTALISM, Harper - San Francisco, c1991 by author.


          Gives excellent guidelines on how to view scripture from a symbolic point of view and elaborates on the dangers of literalism. Bishop Spong is the Episcopal Bishop of Newark.


A. N. Wilson, JESUS A LIFE, Fawcett Columbine - New York, c1992 by author.


          An objective and historical look at the life of Jesus, those who followed him and the origins of many of our ideals. Mr. Wilson Journalist is a prolific journalist, author, and scholar of English Literature.


Alexander Eliot, THE UNIVERSAL MYTHS, New American Library Division of Penguin Books, c1976 by Alexander Eliot.


A Wonderful look at the language and world of myth delivered in this work by Eliot and his co-authors Joseph Campbell and Marcea Eliade.




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