Book Openers: John Shelby Spong . . . Facing Death — and a Dead “God”

John Shelby Spong's latest book is being released this month.

John Shelby Spong's latest book arrives in bookstores this month.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Former Episcopal Bishop of Newark John Shelby Spong says it’s time to ditch the two principle beliefs of Western religion.

The first one, he says, is that God is other, “a supernatural being who can do for me that which I cannot do for myself,” a situation that requires getting and staying on God’s good side.

The second outmoded belief is that human beings are alienated from the sacred and that our alienation requires some kind of atonement — which is another way of saying that we are all guilty as hell. 

On these two premises, says Spong,  have Western believers placed their dearest hopes for eternal life.

And it’s bunk.

Modernity, science, knowledge and reason have demonstrated once and for all that these premises are flawed, Spong argues in his latest book, Eternal Life: A New Vision – Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.

To continue to believe in this sort of religion is to be naively, hopelessly and pathetically stuck in denial. To cease to believe, on the other hand, means accepting that the universe – and we ourselves – are meaningless accidents.

Spong profers a third way, however, one that involves being “fully human.” We are not really separated from God, he asserts. Rather “we are part of what God is and we are at one with all that God is.” We are finite, but we share in infinity. We are mortal, but we share in immortality.

Spong, who turned 78 this year, says that “when I die I will rest my case in the ‘being’ of which I am a part . . . I step beyond words at this point into the wonder of a wordless reality.”

I like Spong’s sense that human beings are “at one with all that God is.”  And I can cheerfully recommend this book to readers who don’t accept the idea of a  miraculously parting Red Sea, or a Jesus risen bodily from the dead.

But, for me, questions remain: Is God an other, a person with whom we can enter into a relationship? Or are we part of God, each of us an expression of the Infinite? Or something else entirely?

Unlike Spong, I don’t think I have the answers to these questions. I have no certainty regarding God’s otherness vs. God’s me-ness. I’m not at all sure that traditional, God-as-other religion is delusional. Hey, for all we know, there may be an actual God out there creating and loving the Universe even as we speak — even as we debate the fine points of God’s time-and-space-shattering nature.

As Huston Smith repeats often in his recent autobiography, Tales of Wonder, “We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery.”

Or, as I am wont to say: God is Big.

Eternal Life: A New Vision, by John Shelby Spong, HarperOne, 2009, hardcover $24.99.

© 2009 Barbara Falconer Newhall

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