Eternal Life: A New Vision

I just got off the phone with Bishop John Shelby Spong. I interviewed him for the newly revised God Complex Radio. The podcast will be available on the 29th.

I had so many things that I wanted to ask him, so many things that I wanted to pull apart. I wanted to agree and disagree with him. But, with his disarming, cordial, and (it seemed, from our short conversation) loving demeanor, I mostly listened.

He wrote a new book, his last book, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell. In it, he looks at death, and, it seems finds new meaning in life.

He talks about religion as an imperfect, human endeavor, and tells how he became more and more alienated from traditional church life…

Increasingly, I saw the church as an organization for the spiritually immature, as a body of children vying for the affirmation of the heavenly parent. I saw the church engaged in a medieval attempt at the manipulation of the divine, and all for our benefit. I saw it increasingly turn into a retreat into unreality. Worship became not communion with the power of life and love, but a drama in which clergy starred. God was addressed in the chanted language of the Middle Ages, language that enhanced little more than the clergy’s desire to perform. Church life seemed more and more dedicated to behavior control, and church politics was always about who’s out and who’s in.

It’s hard for me to read these words. Even though I agree with much of it, I also wear the title “Rev.” I work for the church, alongside many men and women who often have dispiriting jobs, face acute criticism, and are trying to find a bit of hope to share.

Yet, it’s good for me to read them. Bishop Spong is reading the ancient stories and examining the rituals in the midst of scientific realities and the search for truth.

The most beautiful thing about the writing and about our conversation was that emanating love. Bishop Spong has found meaning in the mystical tradition that seeks union with God. Instead of imagining God as “other,” God is the ground of our being.

We talked about being at the bedside of our parishioners. What do we say? Though Bishop Spong does not think that religion should offer meaningless words of comfort, we are often there holding the hand of the dying.

I remember being at the bedside of a woman—a truly beautiful person (and I’m not just saying that because she’s dead). She drew me to her and asked in a whisper, “What’s going to happen?”

I replied, “When you die?”

She said, “Yes.”

And I told her that I didn’t know. I told her that I was not compelled by golden streets or crystal fountains. That imagery did not suit me. But, drawing from Eckhart, I thought that the love of God, from whence she emanated, would surround her and embrace her. Nothing could keep her from the love of God. Not life and not death.

“I see pools,” she replied.

And I never heard another word from her.

I think that Bishop Spong’s new vision is similar. God is the source of love and the source of life. The goal of the church should not be to make us more religious, but to make us more human.

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