26 November 2011


Jesus for the Non-Religious
by John Shelby Spong

Although it is always fun for me to read books about atheism or freethought ---those that I can read while nodding my head in 100% agreement, it is also good to read other points of view, perhaps to understand another philosophy or even to scoff at its ridiculous assertions.  In this book, I managed to do both.  Because I assumed it was written for "non-believers," I thought it was written from an atheistic point of view.  However, I was wrong about that, yet found that I was in agreement with the author throughout much of the text.

 The author, a former Episcopalian bishop, considers himself a Christian, but he does not believe the Bible is inerrant and he certainly rejects many of the religious practices and beliefs of various (perhaps most) Christian sects. He is writing the book for those who have rejected religion as it is taught and practiced in most churches today and for those who may still have faith but who have given up on organized religion. Note that the title is not Jesus for the Non-Believer.

In this book, Spong is apparently expanding on Dietrick Bonhoeffer's radical vision of "religiousless Christianity" written from his prison cell in Nazi Germany.

When I read the introduction, I had the impression that the author was going to try to convince readers to follow Jesus, but I'm glad I read on because the book explains the life of Jesus in a secular way, rejects Biblical miracles that defy the laws of nature, and points out numerous inconsistencies. He also acknowledges many of the negative results of religion, from hatred of other religious groups, wars, guilt and self-hatred while pointing out that Jesus's actions rejected many of the prejudices of his day.

 And speaking of prejudices, Spong points out that although society has made enormous strides in ridding ourselves of prejudices, the one institution that still clings to old traditions is religion, by not allowing women full participation in church leadership, by condemning homosexuality, by demonizing other religious views, to give just a few examples. At its worst, churches blame the "liberation" of women, gays, and other such groups for the downfall of marriage, the loss of ethics and morals, and all other ills of society.

I found this book very interesting and informative. It explains the origins of many Biblical stories, how they came about, how many New Testament tales retold stories found in the Old Testament, how they were changed and exaggerated. And except for the author's frequent mentions of God and his Christianity, I see very little of the "Christian" that I grew up with.

Although I did not agree with everything in the book, Spong's views are actually refreshing in comparison to what we often hear spewing from members of the Religious Right.

 In discussing racial, gender, and sexual-orientation prejudices, the author states. "Debated prejudices are always dying prejudices. The debate is actually part of the death process." He wasn't speaking specifically of the debates about the existence of God, but those debates are going on now. Perhaps such belief is slowly dying.

Spong thinks that if the church does not change, if it will not break from its tribal mentality in which it believes its own version of God is better than everyone else's, it will die out. That can't happen soon enough for me.


A few passages from the book:
From Chapter 20:

"The word 'atheist'... does not mean, as people commonly assume, one who asserts that there is no such thing as God.  It means, rather, that one rejects the theistic definition of God. It is quite possible to reject theism without rejecting God."

"...The theistic definition of God has been all but destroyed by the advances in knowledge that created the modern world..." 

"Modern people today function as atheists, yet they still struggle in the religious dimension of their lives to grasp tightly an artificially respirated theism. What people need to hear and to embrace is that the theistic definition of God was never about God; it was always about human beings desperately in need of a coping system that would enable them to live with the anxieties of what it means to be human."

"I am a God-intoxicated human being, but I can no longer define my God experience inside the boundaries of a theistic definition of God... So in order to get to the essence of who Jesus was... I must get beyond the traditional theistic definition of God that I now regard as both simplistic and naïve, to say nothing of being wrong."

From Chapter 21:

"The signs of the death of a theistic understanding of God are all around us. Many of us will not allow ourselves to see them, because we have no alternative and would rather live with an illusion than try to embrace reality. It will not work, however, because once an idea of God begins to die, it is like Humpty Dumpty: 'All the king's horses and all the king's men could not put Humpty Dumpty back together again.'"

"...Theism as a way of understanding God has, I believe, actually served to diminish our humanity.... theism seems to give rise to inordinate and destructive religious anger."

"A cursory look at Christian history will provide ample evidence to support the conclusion that there is a very high correlation between religion and killing anger.  Religious people are loath to face this fact, but it is painfully and obviously true. One has only to listen to conversations about religion among people holding competing views to see how quickly anger surges... Religious discussions become war zones that not infrequently make street brawls look civilized."

In discussing the hostility the author has received himself, including hate mail, abusive phone calls, threats against his family and 16 credible death threats, Spong says: "The fascinating thing about this kind of abusive behavior is that the hostility typically comes from fellow Christians ---in my case, some of them well known in evangelical and catholic circles. None of my death threats came from an atheist, a Buddhist, or a Muslim. They were most often delivered by Bible-quoting Christians who defined themselves as true believers, men and women who said they were acting in the defense of or on the instructions of God."

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