Reflections on Bishop Spong and Nontheism, Part 1 September 28, 2010Posted by Matt in books, Christianity.
Tags: A New Christianity for a New World, Bishop Spong, death of theism, god, human condition, Nontheism
I recently read the book A New Christianity for a New World by John Shelby Spong and within its pages I found both reasons to rejoice for finding a somewhat kindred soul and reasons to reflect on my own faith and ideas about humanity and God. There are two major themes in the book, the first dealing with what he terms the “Death of Theism” and the second on building a new vision of Christianity in a post-modern, post-theist world. It is a brilliant book in many ways that disturbs and challenges the reader to closely examine the paradigm of belief in which they reside and to perhaps return with some unconventional conclusions.
Bishop Spong defines the term theistic God as such: a being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will. This description of God, according to Spong, is dead. To further this idea, he looks at the roots of theism and the human knowledge in today’s world, coming to the conclusion that the two viewpoints are incongruous.
In the modern world we have a wealth of scientific knowledge as well as an awareness of things going on outside of our small sphere of influence, and these have greatly contributed to the supposed death of theism. The scientific world no longer sees God in terms of a chain of cause and effect. We know that sickness is not a reflection of God’s judgment, but that it is the result of germs, viruses, etc. Our knowledge of weather patterns, fronts, and other meteorological phenomena show us that harsh weather (droughts, floods, tornadoes, etc.) is not an expression of divine will, it is explainable. The security-producing role attributed to God (God will take care of you) only works until it doesn’t, and when that happens one’s faith is either destroyed or one is forced to perform theological acrobatics to retain their worldview.
Spong carries on the discussion by visiting the distant past, saying
For literally hundreds of millions of years, most of the living creatures who inhabited this planet were born, lived, and died with no conscious awareness of themselves. They simply passed through billions of life cycles, guided by biological instinct and environmental necessity in an apparently endless wheel of fortune, without any need, desire, or ability to raise questions of either mortality or purpose.
At some point self-awareness came into being and with that, “the trauma of self-consciousness,” as Sigmund Freud put it. Perhaps this is the manifestation of the “image of God” bestowed upon humankind in the creation myth of Genesis. As this realization of mortality grew, the early humans were gripped with anxiety. The relative shortness and uncertainty of human life became existential realities that could be thought of abstractly and anticipated consciously. So, with this realization, a need to find meaning, permanence, and stability in a chaotic world was born. This self-awareness and consequential anxiety compose what is known as the human condition.
Spong then goes through a series of subconscious statements that may have plagued the early humans as they came to grips with the trauma of self-realization.
“I am self,” was the first definition of self consciousness. This then led to,
“Perhaps I am not alone,” the conclusion reached by newly self-conscious being when it viewed the world as an objective other for the first time. Next, they said,
“Perhaps these powerful forces can be made to work for me or at least not against me.” Then, going a bit farther,
“Perhaps these powers are benevolent. Maybe they desire to help, watch over and protect me.”
Thus, the God understood theistically was a human definition, not a divine revelation.
Today, in Spong’s thinking, the theistic God is dead, run through by the sword of knowledge, but of course the human condition persists. The hysteria accompanying self-awareness and the anticipation of mortality continue to plague humans. This leads to a variety of reactions, from our Western dependence on drugs, a classification that could include something relatively benign like caffeine, something potentially destructive like alcohol, or even the rampant use of anti-depressants as prescribed by doctors, to the violent outbursts so often reported on today’s newscasts, to the rabid Christian fundamentalism shrilly proclaiming and condemning in pulpits across America.
With numbers declining and the world rapidly changing around them, Christianity stands at a crossroads. Theism is dying and atheism is an unfulfilling option, so perhaps there is another way – and that is just what Bishop Spong attempts to hash out in this book. He ends this section with what he calls the “profoundly religious questions of the new millennium.”
Is it not a possibility worth pursuing that our very self-consciousness might be the means by which our lives could opened to nontheistic dimensions of our existence, even nontheistic definitions of God?
Could not our growing self-consciousness also enable us to relate to that in which our being is grounded, that which is more than who we are and yet part of who we are?
Could we not begin to envision a transcendence that enters our life but also calls us beyond the limits of our humanity, not toward an external being but toward the Ground of All Being including our own, a transcendence that calls us to a new humanity?
Is there not a new maturity that can be claimed by human life when we cease the search for a supernatural being who will parent us, take care of us, watch over and protect us?
Is there not a new human dignity that can be found in the rejection of those groveling patterns of our past through which we attempted to please the theistic deity in the early years of evolutionary history?
In place of that groveling, are we not now able to open ourselves in new ways to discover the Ground of Being that is met and known in the self that is emerging as expanded consciousness?
I’ll tell more about his ideas later as I have time.