Thinking out loud as I read Spong's A New Christianity for a New World
To be honest, religious experience is not something that's been big for me. I've never been much into the "God said to me.." stuff. As a preacher, I've said things like "I think God would want......" mostly because I've never thought I heard God much anyway, not even at my most fundamentalist. These days, older and wiser, I'm not surprised that's how it's been. After all, God (as the sort of 'sitting in heaven and listening and answering back' being we learned in Sunday School) simply doesn't exist. If there is "anything" worthy of the name, then God is more ground of all being, under pinning, and at the back of everything.
God is not a person we can talk to - at least not expecting an answer. I suppose I can talk to God in the way I talk to my grape vines when I prune them. But I don't ever expect an answer, and I'm not sure why I ever talk to them anyway. I have had some good insights out pruning vines, and when I've talked to God. I don't think the vines or God said anything. The brain simply sees new things when you give it time to contemplate through a few acres of grapes. Maybe you could call that God talking but it's just a figure of speech; it's not really a being talking to me.
Even though God never said very much, I feel some loss at the idea of saying that old God doesn't exist. It seems a more lonely universe when I wonder if there is no God to talk to. "This leaves a very impersonal lonely universe!" cries out some fear deep down inside me.
And then I think, 'Why should this be so? Is this really how I feel?" And on reflection it sounds like the conservative rhetoric when faced with realistic theology. It's what they feel and fear and what they want me to feel. It's old mind habits still echoing but having no real power when I bring them to consciousness. When I think more consciously I remember that in reality I struggle to maintain relating at any depth to people, and walking through the gardens this morning, looking up through the figs and palms and bunyas I was as happy as I ever am. It was good. Who needs a God who never says anything anyway? If I find a friend to talk to for an hour or so, or spend some good times with my wife then I have nearly anything. The old God never actually did anything for me. Why does it matter if he is not there? Actually, I don't really care at all if that old God is gone - all the better in fact!
This is all fine, but the big thing is: If this is all so, why is Jesus important anymore? In unsubtle theology Jesus is just God in human form. Forget all the fencing and hair splitting by the conservatives, when it comes down to it Jesus is just God. That's what Spong is really saying when he says Jesus has been captured by theism. More sensitive and sensible Christians will own Jesus' humanity, see the Son of God legends for what they are, and talk about one who epitomises or witnesses to the nature of God in some way. So if God does not exist it becomes very hard to see just what it is which is special about Jesus!
Jack Spong's thesis is that before Jesus was incorrectly divinised by the church there was still something startling about him that brought people in touch with the Divine. Which brings us right back to that religious experience that never really works for me. Jesus never did turn me on! I never did experience anything much there. Certainly never anything I did not doubt and see plenty of other possible explanations for! Maybe I should never have called myself Christian!
At one of my ordination interviews someone pointed out that I had not said very much about Jesus. I replied that he was "the cipher, the way to God, the one who gives everything we were talking about this afternoon any meaning!" I must have convinced them because they recommended me for the next step in the process, but really Jesus was almost only an abstract principle for me. It was the sense of, and the longing for the Divine that I was in love with.
I was increasingly repelled by the growing foolishness of the church, which claims ever more ridiculous and naive power for believers, and made the Christ even less believable. In response I would later consistently preach Jesus the man, and as "what would Jesus do if he were here in our shoes?" but with no great sense of him as anything more than some example. The gospel stories have their power, but l find Doug Mills or my Dad more inspiring.
Maybe I need to "meet Jesus again for the first time" as Borg puts it, but his writing produces no one I can relate to. Jesus seems a very distant figure in a rather alien culture. Today at least, I feel like I could use a more immediate hero, and will glorify god by my wonder and joy in the creation around me.
It's ironic. I smile at Spong, thinking "Really, all you are doing is trying to find a way to stay in the Church you love. So you are trying to dream up a theology that will still work! And you can't... not yet anyway." My greatest emotions as I read his book, are that I too, do not want to lose the church. Whatever my difficulties with "religious experience," it has touched me too deeply to let go easily. The theology is the easy part!
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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