Christianity’s Next Reformation — Part 4, John Shelby Spong’s Ideas, part 2
This is the next article in a series, originally inspired by an article by Keith Michael. The general theme is what needs to be done to achieve a further Reformation of Christianity. In the previous two articles (click here and here) I began to discuss the ideas of the late Bishop John Shelby Spong; he 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. I’m now exploring these two books in more detail.
Here I’m going to delve into one of Spong’s major preoccupations, the need to revise what we understand by the term ‘God’. He is against all conceptions of a theistic, personal Creator, and wants to replace this by a new understanding of God as the ultimate Ground of Being. I’ll examine how he arrived at this conclusion, which I agree with, but also the somewhat dubious path by which he arrived there.
There are many levels of understanding of theism. It can simply be “belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler of the universe” (shorter Oxford English Dictionary). Or slightly more elaborate, “the view that all limited or finite things are dependent in some way on one supreme or ultimate reality which one may also speak of in personal terms” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The theistic God can be “something like a person without a body, who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe” (Richard Swinburne). He may even be “a supernatural person who invades life periodically to accomplish the divine will… an intensely human figure who does grandiose and expanded, but nonetheless, human things”, thus “a God who fights wars and defeats enemies”, who “chooses a special people and works through them”, who “sends the storms, heals the sick, spares the dying, or even judges the sinner”, who “rewards goodness and punishes evil”.
Spong himself says of theism that it is “belief in an external, personal, supernatural, and potentially invasive Being. That is the definition of God literally present in the Hebrew scripture”. He provides a long list of the various activities attributed to this being, which include:
- to have warned Noah to prepare for the coming flood by building an ark
- to have enabled Sarah to conceive in her old age (90)
- to have called and empowered Moses to be the agent of freedom from slavery (although he doesn’t mention the striking example of the parting of the Red Sea)
- to have rained manna from heaven to feed the hungry Israelites
- to have chosen David to be the founder of a new royal line.
Since Spong doesn’t believe that God does any of these things, he concludes that “this virtually unemployed deity is still the primary object and substance of the Christian Church’s faith”. He says that there is therefore a need for a new vision; that we have only one alternative, “to go forward into we know not what… The future may contain no answer either, but we do not know that yet”. (This seems a little strange, since Spong seems on the one hand to have a clear vision of how he thinks God should be understood, and on the other hand the God that he is working towards can already be found in the past, in many other traditions, rather than the future.)
He begins his search by asking: “Is there… a depth dimension to life that is ultimately spiritual?… Is there a core to both our life and the life of the world that somehow links us to a presence that we call ‘transcendent’ and ‘beyond’ and that is never apart from who we are or what the world is?… Is there a presence in the heart of our life that could never be invoked as a being but nonetheless might be entered as a divine and infinite reality?… If we could open ourselves to such a reality, become intensely aware of it, and have both our being and our consciousness expanded by it, could we use the word God to describe that state of being? Could that still be a profound presence even if it were not defined as an external presence?”
He goes on to say that “God, for the mystics, is found at the depths of life, working in and through the being of this world, calling the whole creation into the transcendence that reveals our deepest potential”. He refers to the ideas of the theologian Paul Tillich, for whom God is “a deity who is not apart from us but who is the very core and ground of all that is”, “the infinite centre of life”, and “the power that called being forth in all creatures”.
Spong concludes that God is not “a supernatural entity who rides into time and space to rescue the distressed”, “the title for a miracle-worker, a magician, or a rescuer”, nor “the God we served in the childhood of our humanity. This God is not identified with doctrines, creeds, and traditions”. God is rather “something as nebulous and yet as real as a holy presence. It is a symbol of that which is immortal, invisible, timeless”, “the inescapable depth and centre of all that is”, “the source of life, the source of love, the Ground of Being”.
All this seems very good to me, bringing Christianity into line with Eastern Religions like Taoism and Hinduism, and other traditions like Kabbalah and Gnosticism, all of which have at their source an impersonal and ultimately mysterious Ground of Being. It also brings Christianity into line with recent thinking in science, where concepts like a Zero Point Field and David Bohm’s holomovement are suggested as the source of the material universe.
Here is another statement which suggests that Spong’s vision has led him to say things very much in line with what is known as the new paradigm in science: “The more we explore the depths of life, the more we discover that life is interdependent, interconnected, and indivisible. At the core of the human being there is no such thing as separateness and aloneness. Each one of us is an integral participant in a complex living organism, the constituent parts of which die and are born in every instant of time. Yet each part of that living whole participates in the eternity of being united to an ultimate ground of what slowly but surely we may someday learn to call God”.
Spong willingly concedes that such a vision creates problems for the Church and conventional believers: “This agenda is not a comfortable one for everyone. The question always posed by those who cannot envision God except in superhuman theistic categories is whether a view of God as the Ground of all Being is not impersonal, an ‘it’ instead of a ‘thou’. It seems to them to be a downgrading of the holy. Certainly so much of the comforting nature of the theistic God of the past does not appear present in this concept. It is difficult to pray in any traditional way to ‘the Ground of all Being’. There is in this new way of thinking about God none of the external motivation for goodness or faithfulness in worship that was part of the God of the past. Institutional Christianity loses the power it derived from an external God who judged and who imposed motivating rewards and punishments on the basis of that judgment. All of the theological understandings of the past that were designed primarily to separate those inside the Church from those outside of it sink into irrelevance”.
In his new vision “the task of the church becomes… that of providing opportunities for people to touch the infinite centre of all things and to grow into all that they are destined to be. In this manner they might discover in their personhood itself the Holy God, who is the Ground of their Being”. “If God is the Ground of Being, you worship this divine reality by having the courage to be all that you can be — your deepest, fullest self”.
All this seems very commendable and going in the right direction. Spong is much more in line with the spiritual path as conceived by other traditions and, I might add, that of esoteric Christianity. It is disappointing therefore that one of Spong’s major inspirations in order to arrive at his condemnation of theism was The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud. Is a dedicated, and not very clear-thinking, atheist the most reliable person to give an account of the rise of religion and spirituality? Might he not have certain preconceptions and prejudices? One of my general criticisms of Spong is that he has been too easily seduced by modernism, including the worldview of ‘science’, when we actually need to return to pre-Enlightenment Ancient Wisdom ideas. Freud’s highly speculative theory is of course not science.
The essence of this theory, according to Spong, is as follows: “theistic religion was born at the exact moment when human self-consciousness first emerged out of the evolutionary process”; “Freud found in all of these theistic manifestations the suppressed hysteria of a newly self-conscious creature”; “theistic religion was born as the means of dealing with the trauma of self-conscious existence. It was born as a tool designed to keep our hysteria in check”.
Spong therefore concludes that “theism was the means whereby that which was experienced as other by newly self-conscious human beings was personalized. At its beginning, theism was perceived not in a single, unified way, but in a wide variety of individualistic ways. The first form of theism was the primitive assumption that every vitalizing force experienced in life was animated by a spirit. These animating spirits… were assumed to be personal, to have selfhood”.
“The earliest form of theism, then, was the postulation, by self-conscious creatures, of the existence of self-conscious spirits as an explanation for the vitality found in life outside themselves. Animism, the label given to this form of theism, captures the human assumption that life was animated and that this vital aliveness in creation grew out of the aliveness of those personal spirits which inhabited all things”. Animism was thus theism’s “first and aboriginal form”.
Spong says that he is “convinced that this powerful and provocative Freudian analysis is correct”, and goes on to say that “it was when I reached this conclusion but still could not dismiss what seemed to me to be an experience of something other, transcendent, and beyond all of my limits that I knew that I had to find another God language”.
I have to disagree with Spong on this point. He has identified animism as a primitive illusion, and I fear that he has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Far from being a superstition and illusion, there is currently a revival of animism, which hopefully will continue. Spong himself has said that “each one of us is an integral participant in a complex living organism”, by which I assume he means the universe. Why does he therefore have a problem with animism? Many people still believe in it, and it may well be part of a new emerging paradigm in science. (I wrote about animism recently in an article discussing a paper by biologist Rupert Sheldrake entitled ‘Is the Sun Conscious?’. Also interesting is a paper by Stephan Harding, entitled ‘Towards an Animistic Science of the Earth’¹.)
One example of animism is the evidence that plants are conscious and capable of communication (I’ve written about that here). In that article I discussed at length some of the material in Jeremy Narby’s book The Cosmic Serpent, where he investigates the use of ayahuasca by indigenous Amazonians. In a nutshell, they say that they were taught the complicated preparation of the substance by the plants themselves, or perhaps by the spirits of the plants. A local expert tells him of the existence of “invisible beings called maninkari, who are found in animals, plants, mountains, streams, lakes, and certain crystals, and who are sources of knowledge”. They say that these maninkari “taught them how to spin and weave cotton, and how to make clothes”. (These sound something like the elemental beings familiar to esoteric spiritual traditions.)
Synchronistically, just as I was writing the above, I came across this article by David Price. He begins by quoting Alberto Villoldo, who talks about an Upper World which is “the invisible domain of our destiny and spirit”. He says that “angels, divine helpers, the Ancient Ones, and all varieties of luminous beings populate the upper world”. As part of his commentary Price says, in relation to indigenous spirituality, that “everything is conscious to some degree. Everything is alive and related to everything else”, we live in a universe that is “astonishingly alive”.
I would therefore like to offer an alternative interpretation of the rise of theism, contrasted to that of Freud and Spong. It is hard for us now to imagine what human experience was like before the emergence of self-consciousness. However, awareness and experience must have been much more deeply immersed in what we would now call the unconscious psyche. Therefore humans probably had a direct awareness of elemental spirits, luminous beings, and any other of its inhabitants. If such knowledge was later not available to all, then people would listen to their shamans, who undertook journeys into this inner realm. In both cases, far from being a primitive illusion, animism was a truth that humans had direct access to.
This did not prevent them from going on to develop a concept of a universal Ground of Being, along the lines of Spong’s vision, for example the Wakan Tanka of the Native Americans: “According to Native American mythology, Wakan Tanka is the concept of a life force, a Supreme Being or God sometimes called ‘The Great Spirit’. To the Lakota, Sioux, and other Tribes, it was the animating force of the universe who created the universe, but at the same time, they comprised the universe”².
Any religion which has the power to unite humanity must have a deep and true understanding of cosmology and psychology. I therefore suggest that animism should be an essential ingredient in a reformed Christianity.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, 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 profile.
- I have a pdf copy of this paper, which seems to be no longer readily available. It now seems to be part of a book The Handbook of Contemporary Animism. See Towards an animistic science of the Earth | 42 | The Handbook of Conte (taylorfrancis.com)