Spong, John Shelby. Eternal Life: A New Vision. Beyond religion, beyond theism, beyond heaven and hell. Harper One. 2009.
J.S.S.- is a leading spokesperson for liberal Christianity. A prolific writer and lecturer. Retired Epsicopalian bishop.
My attention was drawn to this book by a very special person in my life. I had to find out for myself what this book was all about.
To describe this author as a rank liberal would be probably be viewed as a fundamentalist charge. He is a self-described product of the Enlightenment, modernity, and secularism. He is merciless in his attack on what he calls the literalists of biblical interpretations. He describes his own personal journey (evolvement) from a fundamentalist evangelical to an enlightened liberal. The thesis of his book is his personal vision of eternal life that he developed. That ‘vision’ was arrived at only after he declared the ‘death’ of religion, theism, heaven and hell. He questions all the basic beliefs of Christianity. Those who are the severest critics of ideologies are those who have at some time been part of that ideology. Spong’s conclusions are based on his interpretation of scripture, especially the Gospel of John.
I would be interested in responses from those who have read Spong and/or have an interest in his writings.
From the Preface.
“This book on life after death drove me deeply and in a new way into the Fourth Gospel. (John) described the purpose for which Jesus lived to be that of giving us life and giving it abundantly. I hope this book is in the service of that purpose.”
“Religious concepts become fragile indeed when education renders them no longer believable.” (2) The Bible and the church become “inadequate authorities”. (3) In religion the “need to believe is greater than the ability to believe”. (3) In a time of grieving the loss of a loved one people flee from “reality into religion”. (5) Religious traditions are designed to help people with death. This book is John’s personal story about life after death and he calls it his “spiritual autobiography”. (17) He does subscribe to the concept of life after death, as he understands it.
In his search for an explanation of life John concludes that “we are accidental creatures”. (24) All life is a result of evolution with man reaching a state that places him above other life, i.e. self-consciousness.
John’s personal experience with death and the explanations that were given to him as a child did not satisfy him. “Religious thinking seemed to me to be detached from reality.” (48) (This is not an unusual experience for children.)
As a twelve year old John became “an unquenchable religious seeker”. (56) As he pursued his desire to become a priest (Episcopalian) continued to have doubts about religion.
The certainty of death is strongly resisted by all forms of life as an effort of survival. For man, that desire and its accompanying anxieties, leads him to turn to religion. Religion is a human creation to fill a human need. Its ultimate goal is security not truth. This is confirmed by the changes that have happened in religion(s) over the years. The manipulating of deities is a religious practice. “Worship is simply an act of flattery by which we hope to gain God’s attention and force the deity to meet our needs.” (102)
Heaven and hell are concepts that are unacceptable (unreasonable) products of religion. “The heart, cannot accept what the mind rejects.” ((120) (Mind over heart.) This creates the option of a religion less world in which to seek after God. It is a turning “from the deity above to the deity within”. (144)
John is now ready to move ahead with his ‘new vision’ of God as he follows his own reasoning. He finds support for his vision in the mystics. He finds further support in his interpretation of the words of Christ in the Gospel of John which were never meant to be taken literally. He comes up with the conclusion that, “Because God is, I am. Because I am, God is.” (186) John has now progressed in his spiritual development through three stages, “hiding, thinking, and being”. (187)
He now is ready to present his conclusions that he has reached from his search for eternal life. He has dismissed religion and its premises that God is supernatural and man’s alienation from him requires atonement. He has transcended his religious convictions and sees God “as part of the universal consciousness in which I shared”. (206) He sees in Jesus the human, the example of becoming “one with God, transcending all human boundaries”. (208) In all his searching and discovering John considers himself to be “a disciple of Jesus”. (121)
I want to close this review with some of my own ‘conclusions’. John is being very honest in his presentations. His are conclusions of one totally committed to modernity at its best. I am open to help as to how to respond to the likes of John without getting into mind-boggling debates and dead-end arguments.