Saturday, January 3, 2015

What Is God? A Response From Bishop John Shelby Spong

Many of you who read my blog will be at least somewhat familiar with John Shelby Spong, author and retired Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey. Bishop Spong has been instrumental in my understanding that there are other ways to view Christianity other than fundamentalism or evangelicalism. Spong is the author of such best-sellers as Rescuing The Bible From Fundamentalism, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, A New Christianity For A New World, and Jesus For The Non-Religious. Each week he sends out an e-mail where he responds to a question from one of his readers or attendees of one of his lectures. Here is one from this past December 11th. If you are interested in signing up for these free weekly exchanges, simply visit his website, look in the right-hand sidebar, and enter your e-mail address under "Free Q&A Email." You can unsubscribe at any time as well.

Bishop John Shelby Spong

Question & Answer
Ann of Clemson, S.C., writes:

Bishop Spong spoke at Clemson United Methodist Church in Clemson, SC. He asked if we had questions. We were to write them down and get them to him. Situations arose that prevented getting my question to him. This is my question, because it is a question that my granddaughter asks regularly: WHAT is God? 

Dear Ann, You did not tell me your granddaughter’s age, but her question reflects so well the modern world. Unable to answer the “Who” question satisfactorily, we have moved on to the “What” question. The trouble is that whether asked by children or adults, it is an unanswerable question and even a rather arrogant one, for what human being can claim to be able to define God? So my first response to you is not to feel threatened by your granddaughter’s question or to feel inadequate that you cannot answer it. Neither can anyone else and those who pretend that they can are fooling themselves and anyone who listens to them. Whatever God is or isn’t, the human mind can only talk about the human experience of God, not about God. There is a difference between the two. God, by every definition, is not bound by the human experience. We are all tempted to literalize our own perception of whatever ultimate reality is. That is why the gods of human beings all tend to look like enlarged and unlimited human beings. We talk about ourselves as being created “in the image of God,” but the fact is that God is always created in the human image. Does that mean we have nothing to say to questions like the one your granddaughter has posed? No, but it does mean that we should be aware of our limitations. I can tell no one who God is or what God is. Neither can anyone else – from the Pope to Pat Robertson to the Dalai Lama. That is simply an aspect of human pretending. What I can tell you and your granddaughter about with some integrity is how I believe I have experienced Transcendence, Otherness, and the Holy. Because I have experienced it also does not make it so, since I may be delusional. I don’t think so, but people do see and experience things that are not there. The human mind will play tricks on us at every stage of life. So I have to test my experience every day in the light of all that I determine to be real. Having done that for a life time I can say, I hope with integrity, that I believe in and experience God as the Source of life calling me to live fully, as the Source of love empowering me to love wastefully, and, as the Ground of all Being (to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich) giving me the courage to be all that I can be. It is in this process of living fully, loving wastefully, and being all that I can be, that I expand the limits of my humanity and believe that I begin to move beyond those limits and experience that which is ultimately real. The reason I am a Christian is that I see in Jesus of Nazareth a life fully lived, a love wastefully shared and one who can be who he is under every set of human circumstances. So I join St. Paul in the acclamation that somehow and in some way all that I mean by the word God I believe that I have encountered in the life of this Jesus. If your granddaughter is young and this is too convoluted for her just tell her that God is the experience that she is loved, that she has ultimate value and that her job in life is to be all that she can be. All else is background music.

~ John Shelby Spong