Christianity’s Next Reformation — John Shelby Spong’s Ideas, part 5
This is the next article in what will be a long series (list so far), originally inspired by an article by Keith Michael. The general theme is what needs to be done to achieve a further Reformation of Christianity. I’m currently discussing the ideas of the late Bishop John Shelby Spong, who was a fervent advocate for such a Reformation, as elaborated most obviously in Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and A New Christianity for a New World.
Having suggested that we need to replace the conventional Christian conception of a theistic, personal Creator by a new understanding of God as the ultimate Ground of Being, Spong went on to discuss what implications he thinks this has for our understanding of Jesus. In the most recent article I outlined the ideas in chapter 6 of the first mentioned book, ‘Jesus as Rescuer: An Image That Has to Go’. Here I’ll offer my commentary. Before I do that, here is a brief summary of his argument. For the full exposition, please see the previous article.
Spong says that the idea of Jesus as divine rescuer is outdated because, in the light of modern knowledge, the biblical idea of a fall from perfection, with loss of immortality as the consequence, as recounted in the Garden of Eden story is no longer credible. It therefore follows that there is no need to overcome this fall, “to restore the world to the perfection intended by God in creation”; Jesus’s mission as understood by traditional Christianity makes no sense to him.
By modern knowledge, Spong means particularly Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which demonstrated that Adam and Eve were not the primeval human parents, and made their story legendary at best. Darwin also challenged the belief in the goodness of the original creation, because he showed that the original creation was not perfect; it was incomplete because life has been through a process of evolution. Spong therefore concludes that “there were no first parents, and so the primeval act of disobedience on the part of the first parents could not possibly have affected the whole human race”.
He goes on to say that, once this realisation was made, the narrative changed, and alienation from God became the original sin: “the fall narrative thus became a story about the dawn of self-consciousness. It was an interesting transition from literalism to symbol”. Spong remains unimpressed by this revised thinking and concludes that sin “is not and never can be alienation from the perfection for which God in the act of creation intended us, for there is no such thing as a perfect creation. Thus, there was no fall into sin”. In more provocative language he says: “A savior who restores us to our prefallen status is therefore pre-Darwinian superstition and post-Darwinian nonsense”.
It’s disappointing that Spong accepts so uncritically Darwin’s theory of evolution, but that won’t be my main concern here. He condemns the narrative told by conventional Christian theology, but it seems to me that he has set up something similar to a philosophical ‘straw man’ argument. He rejects the traditional Christian interpretation, but doesn’t ask whether the biblical story has been interpreted correctly. The real question is whether the Church actually understood the biblical myth in the first place, therefore whether Spong is aiming at the wrong target. I’ll explore a different interpretation here.
It is reassuring that Spong, unlike Augustine, does not take seriously the idea that Adam and Eve were literally the first two humans. Since Augustine was one of the most influential early Christian theologians, we can see that Christianity got off to a bad start. Anyone who takes the Garden of Eden story literally has to explain in biological terms how a woman can emerge from the rib of a man. (Modern knowledge is certainly useful on this occasion.) They would also have to suggest where on Earth a garden might be found with a cherubim guarding the entrance.
Spong says that “this was a fascinating myth, and for most of Christian history it has been treated quite literally”. He has not freed himself completely from this error, however, because to some extent he has treated it literally himself. Even if we agree that Adam and Eve should be understood as symbols, they remain symbolic of early human beings.
If we say that Adam and Eve symbolically represent early humanity, then we are inevitably led to interpret the myth psychologically as an emergence of self-reflecting consciousness from some kind of unconscious absorption in nature. This leads to an unsolvable problem, because the myth clearly states that Adam and Eve freely chose to disobey God’s command. How could such beings, without self-consciousness and presumably controlled by instincts, freely choose anything?
I’m going to reinterpret the first three chapters of Genesis in a way that makes sense of the version that Spong rejects, although it is somewhat different from the traditional Christian version. Before rejecting the biblical message, we should make sure that we understand clearly what it is saying. I’ve already written about this at length in an earlier article entitled ‘The Garden of Eden Revisited’, so here I’ll merely summarise the key points. Please read either what follows or that article for the full argument with more details. If you think while reading that my interpretation is bizarre or extraordinary, then let me say in advance there is significant evidence in support of it, which I’ll come to afterwards. It is at least a coherent interpretation of the Biblical message, and one that I believe makes more sense than the conventional one that Spong rejects.
Genesis 1 tells how God created a hierarchical universe with various levels — an assumed spiritual realm, higher and lower waters, and the material universe (the dry land which emerges from the lower waters at verse 9). The text then describes the evolution of the material universe and the emergence of life in its various forms on Earth. It is at this point (verse 25) before the arrival of humankind that “God saw that it was good”.
Then the text (as it appears in English translations) becomes difficult to comprehend. A supposedly singular, masculine Creator God (even though the original word used for God, Elohim, is plural) says “Let us make humankind in our image”. This same male God created humankind in his image, which is male and female.
The first problem here is that, according to the NRSV edition of the Bible, the original Hebrew word translated as ‘humankind’ was actually ‘Adam’. That humankind was what was intended by the author is therefore merely an assumption, perhaps unwarranted. (Why this matters will become clearer later.)
The second problem is that the use of the word ‘image’ is strange. Do we really think that humans look like God in some sense? Has something been lost in translation? A better understanding might be ‘of the same nature as God’, thus the created beings were immortal souls, or some similar term, in any event a spiritual entity which has the potential to become a physical human being.
The English text continues as if the male and female were human beings on Earth, which is problematic. However, again in verse 27 ‘humankind’ should more correctly have been rendered as ‘Adam’, so the same problem reoccurs. Even more strange is that “male and female he created them” should, again according to the NRSV, be more correctly translated “male and female he created him”. The ‘Adam’ — not humankind — created in verses 26 and 27 is therefore both male and female, the significance of which becomes apparent in chapter 2. Perhaps more importantly, there is no suggestion in Genesis 1 that the Adam referred to exists on planet Earth; this has merely been assumed because translators have chosen to use the word ‘humankind’. At the end of Genesis 1, when God again declared that everything he had made was “very good”, humanity had not yet arrived on Earth.
This line of thinking continues in chapter 2. The Garden of Eden story which begins there, despite apparently taking place on planet Earth (the naming of rivers confuses the issue), makes more sense if we assume that it refers to events taking place in the spiritual (heavenly) realm. There the entity known as Adam, who we know was created both male and female and was therefore androgynous, is split into two separate entities or principles, one male and one female.
Their proper home was the Garden of Eden, the spiritual realm of ‘Paradise’. They were forbidden to eat of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil”. Since the consequence of this transgression will be that “in the day that you eat of it you shall die”, this suggests that the spiritual entities, who are eternal and immortal, of the same nature as God, if they incarnate into a physical body, will obviously be forced to experience death. The phrase ‘good and evil’ refers to the world of the opposites, the psyche at the lower levels remote from the divine source, as humans experience it when in a physical body.
It is not Satan who tempts Eve to eat the fruit, as later Christian theologians have claimed for no reason apparent in the text. The serpent symbolises the fall into the material world; that is what tempts Eve, and then Adam. The spiritual pair have then eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as pure consciousness from the spiritual realm incarnates into physical form, and experiences the world of the opposites (good and evil).
If such an interpretation seems strange, and inconsistent with some parts of the Genesis text, then I would suggest that it is something that Jesus believed, at least according to the Bible, since that would seem to be the message of the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The story begins at Luke 15.11. There the younger of two sons asks to be given his birthright (the fact that he was of the same nature as God), then takes it off to a distant country (the material world) where he squandered this birthright “in dissolute living”. At some point he comes to bitterly regret this decision, and seeks to return home to the spiritual realm.
In the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas Jesus expresses the message of the Prodigal Son parable even more starkly: “I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty”. What does Jesus mean by this? Is he saying that immortal souls chose to incarnate into the bodies of some form of apelike primate?
I consider the late Raynor C. Johnson to be a great authority on spiritual matters, (although I’m aware that some strange accusations have been made about his private life). He interprets the parable in the same way: “It is the story of the souls of men who drifted away from the Father’s presence after they were created, descending from their true home through all the levels of lesser reality until they finally found themselves in the far country of earth in physical bodies. Here they have dissipated their spiritual treasure, the Light that the soul was originally given. They are in the darkness of matter, having forgotten the brightness of the Father’s realm. Their famine is spiritual and life seems dreary, futile, and meaningless. The soul is now a prisoner of the ego; its voice is weak and the ego does not wish to hear it. Degradation leads to suffering; after enough has been endured the voice of the soul is listened to and in desperation the individual tries to find his way back” ¹.
END OF SUMMARY
That is what I believe to be the real meaning of Genesis chapters 1 to 3. Adam and Eve were not the first humans, rather the two aspects of an original spiritual entity called Adam, who chose to descend to the material level against the divine will, whatever we are to understand by that. We did not, as Augustine claimed, inherit the sin of Adam and Eve; we are all Adam and Eve because we chose to descend into the material world, thus we are all ‘fallen angels’.
The interpretation of Genesis that Spong is condemning, apart from being too literal, is therefore somewhat superficial, and very exoteric. As Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi (a Kabbalist of whom more later) says: “According to tradition, there are four ways to comprehend reality. The first is to understand only literally, the second to view allegorically, the third to perceive metaphysically, and the fourth to experience mystically. These levels correspond to a man’s nature and depend on his stage of development”. It would be reasonable to conclude from this that many Christians, even in modern times, are stuck at the first level. Halevi also says that “many Kabbalistic works are unintelligible for the above reasons”. Is it possible that Genesis chapters 1–3 are one such Kabbalistic text? (And furthermore, as suggested above, one that has been mistranslated in English bibles.)
Even if that is the correct interpretation of Genesis 1–3, that does not mean that its narrative is true. As far as I’m aware, there is no equivalent myth in the religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. (I’m sure Medium readers will let me know if they know of any.) There is nevertheless the same message. For example, according to Buddhism, life in the material world is suffering, therefore something to be escaped. We therefore seek to free ourselves from the cycle of death and rebirth and return to an original state of pure consciousness (our Buddha nature).
That is essentially the same message as in Hinduism. Thus Ravindra Kumar says, as quoted by Simon Heathcote, (apologies for the male-oriented language): “A time comes in a person’s life, in a particular incarnation, when he begins to lose interest in the affairs of the world, knowingly or unknowingly. He may feel that he does not belong to the world, and the objects of the world no longer give him satisfaction. Though not clearly perceived, somehow he intuitively senses that the objects of sense gratification which he has sought over and over again, perhaps in several incarnations, have brought him nowhere. A faint idea begins to haunt his thoughts that he belongs to some other order of existence and that his home is somewhere else. This is the beginning of the search for that permanent element we now call ‘soul’ ”.
Translating these other spiritual traditions into biblical terms, we are seeking to redeem ourselves from our ‘sin’ of falling into the world of matter, where we experience physical death, and return to the Garden of Eden, our original nature — spiritual and immortal.
When I published my original article on this theme, conventional Christian Gerald R. Baron responded that “there is a lot in this that is new, novel and quite strange to me, as you can imagine”. I was somewhat surprised by this, since such an interpretation is not something I’ve made up, and therefore personal to me. For example, Alfred Ribi in Turn of an Age, a study of Hermeticism and Gnosticism in relation to the psychology of Carl Jung, says that the motif of “the soul’s fall into the material world and its subsequent redemption… is ubiquitous and not specifically Gnostic. The Gnostic traits are scattered across history, through which this motif resonates”. This comes from a chapter entitled ‘The Lost Soul and Its Redemption’, which clearly resonates with the theme of the alternative interpretation. This becomes even clearer in the title of the following chapter, ‘The Fall of the Soul into Matter’.
Returning now to Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, according to him, “Kabbalah is the inner teaching of Judaism”, thus a deeper, esoteric understanding. This is how he understands the process of creation. (The early parts of this may be hard to grasp, but I include them because they are necessary in order to understand what he means by ‘Adam’.) “According to Kabbalist tradition God generates out of the Void of Non Existence, beyond which God is All and Nothing, the first state of Unmanifest Existence. From this World without End, crystalizes a realm of Limitless Light, in the midst of which, there emerges a point of no dimensions, called the First Crown. These three states of Unmanifest Existence become the negative background to the positive universe that streams through the primal point of the First Crown to evolve into the archetypal world of Emanations. This manifestation on its completion is known as Adam Kadmon, that is, the Primeval and Universal Man… Adam Kadmon is the Universe made after a likeness to God” ². As Halevi goes on to explain, this is neither the Adam of Genesis chapter 2, nor the Adam (translated as ‘humankind’) of Genesis 1, verses 26 and 27.
Halevi says rather that this “Adam Kadmon contains in principle the whole of the manifest Reality”. Another term for divine wholeness in Kabbalism is En Sof which is the Absolute All, God the Immanent, and is the equivalent of the Gnostic pleroma, the creator Brahma according to some Hindu traditions, the One of neo-Platonism, and probably the unus mundus of Carl Jung.
What follows is Halevi’s Kabbalistic interpretation of Genesis 1–3. (He uses some obscure — to us — terms, which refer to four levels of reality. In descending order these are: Azilut the Realm of Emanations, Beriah the World of Creations, Yezirah the World of Formations, and Asiyyah the material plane.)
“ ‘In the beginning’, that is, after Adam Kadmon had been emanated into existence, God created heaven and earth, time, the firmament and the elements. He also brought forth plants and living creatures. On the sixth day of Creation God said, ‘Let us make (a) man in our own image’ and so a second Adam came into existence who was the perfection of Beriah, and its steward. Later, in Gen. 2:7, ‘The Lord God formed man’ and this third Adam became the synthesis of the World of Formation. When the yeziratic Adam fell with his Eve, he descended into Asiyyah, the world we live in. These four Adams are an expression of the four levels within the azilutic Tree of Adam Kadmon”.
Despite all the complex language here, what stands out for the purpose of my interpretation above is that the Adam of Genesis 2 is not a physical human. ‘He’, although androgynous, is an emanation of the azilutic Adam Kadmon who is the universal man, and the beriatic Adam who is the possibilities of man. ‘He’ is therefore an entity located somewhere between the spiritual and material levels, which descends to the material plane. Halevi also confirms that the Adam of Genesis 1. v26–27 is not a human being, rather beriatic Adam, which is “the possibilities of man” — thus an archetypal blueprint for humanity — and androgynous, “still in a high enough estate to be a single being containing both sexes, or in kabbalistic terms active and passive pillars in constant union”. Therefore, those who have translated the Hebrew for Adam as ‘humankind’ have misunderstood the original text, and have allowed developing Christianity to make the mistake that Spong is rejecting.
The perhaps extraordinary and hard-to-accept conclusion forced upon us by this alternative interpretation is that the creation which God considered ‘good’ in Genesis 1, v25 and v31 was one in which no humans were involved. It became imperfect when certain souls committed the original sin of choosing to descend into the material world — the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
We therefore have to reconsider what might be meant by the phrase ‘have dominion over’, since it cannot be what Christians have understood by it. In Halevi’s terminology, the being created at Genesis 1.27 was a beriatic Adam from the level of Creation, thus the possibilities of humankind. This would be the equivalent of some kind of deity with the responsibility of overseeing life on Earth and its evolution. Halevi indeed calls this being a steward.
In the light of this understanding of Genesis, how are we to interpret the mission of Jesus? There is much talk in the gospels of the forgiveness of sins, but suppose that the true meaning of Jesus’s mission was to announce the forgiveness of our Original Sin — to have chosen to fall into the material world, contrary to the Divine Will.
In Spong’s eyes, Paul is especially significant, because he is responsible for what he believes to be the false story of Christianity. In the light of these alternative esoteric interpretations, we might see Paul’s statements in a new light. As far as I’m aware, nowhere in the Old Testament is the expected Messiah linked to the Adam of Genesis chapter 3. In fact, I believe that the Garden of Eden story, even though it opens the Bible and is therefore the foundational statement of the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition, is nowhere referred to in the remainder of the Old Testament. This seems odd, suggesting that the writers were unaware of it, and that it was a late addition to the canon. Paul would therefore seem to be the first person to make the connection: “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15.22). Perhaps he is saying that because of the spiritual Adam’s fall into physical bodies, which involves death, Christ has come to show humanity how to return to their original spiritual, immortal nature.
Paul also says: “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed” (Romans 3. 23–25). Perhaps this can be interpreted as follows: all humans are ‘souls’ who have disobeyed God and lost touch with their original divine nature by falling into matter; through Christ Jesus, God has signified that this ‘sin’ has been forgiven. Perhaps the original plan for creation has been amended, because God has seen that some good might come of our Fall.
Again, even if this alternative interpretation of Genesis 1–3 is correct, which Paul seems to believe, that does not mean that it is true. I haven’t read the whole of Halevi but, as far as I can tell, there is no suggestion that in his thinking this descent into matter was against God’s will³. Here, however, he expresses a message similar to that of the parable of the Prodigal Son and the quote from the Gospel of Thomas above: “while Adam is confined in an animal skin on Earth he must not forget his origin. Adam and Eve are in exile, and people in every era have sensed deep in their memory a dim recollection of another kind of existence. This strange homesickness fades in most people as they become immersed in life, but there are some for whom the remembrance never disappears. Indeed the longing increases so that they seek to regain or at least find the gate to Eden. For this purpose myths, ideas and meditations have been scattered throughout history by teachings that possess knowledge of how to return. One such tradition is Kabbalah”. Some other traditions would be Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, the neo-Platonism of Plotinus, Gnosticism, and perhaps the true meaning of Jesus’s mission.
Scholars have concluded that in the first three chapters of Genesis, there are two different stories of creation. The main reason for this is that ‘God’ is called by different names, Elohim in chapter 1 and Yahweh in chapters 2-3. It is therefore believed that there were two authors, the Elohist and the Yahwist. Be that as it may (and it’s also possible that there are differences in vocabulary and style between the two chapters), Halevi’s Kabbalistic interpretation provides a single consistent narrative running through the first three chapters, suggesting perhaps that actually there is only one story of creation there. This becomes apparent if one penetrates beneath the surface to the esoteric meaning (and also the mistranslations).
Halevi’s understanding also resolves the difficulties of language in Genesis chapter 1 that I outlined above — the singular/plural and male/female inconsistencies; the Adam that is created there is not ‘humankind’, rather a non-material entity both male and female.
Spong is possibly correct to condemn the traditional Christian narrative, which considers Adam and Eve to be, or symbolically represent, the first humans. Once we have considered the possibility that the Church has misunderstood the text, and reinterpreted the story in the way it was originally intended, the language used by the Christian tradition makes a lot more sense, if not the way it has interpreted it.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity in general, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.
- The Spiritual Path, Hodder & Stoughton, 1972, p71
2. All Halevi quotes are taken from Adam and the Kabbalistic Tree, Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1974
3. On an internet search for Kabbalism I found the following, which is the closest to this idea: “The purpose of spiritual work… is to recover sparks of Light that have been given over to the Negative Side, called klipot. Those sparks originally got there through what’s called the sin, or fall, of Adam, and unfortunately, throughout history, humanity has also collectively sent those sparks to the Negative Side”. The Reason We Fall (kabbalah.com)