Spong recasts role of Jesus in Christianity

Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong gives the fifth and final lecture of his Week One series, “Re-Claiming the Bible in a Non-Religious World,” Friday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Adam Birkan.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

“I am not looking out today on an audience of fallen sinners. I am looking out today on an audience of human beings who have not yet achieved the fullness of their humanity,” said retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong during Friday’s Interfaith Lecture.

In the final lecture of his weeklong series, Spong challenged the notion of original sin and recast the meaning and role of Jesus Christ for Christians living in the 21st century.

In the 2 p.m. lecture in the Hall of Philosophy, Spong traced the ancient and biblical history that called for the development of a divine Christ-like figure, the life and way of Jesus Christ, and ultimately defined what he believes it means to be a Christian today.

The traditional idea of God as a supernatural being that resides in the firmament and descends to Earth to perform miracles and save the world from sin no longer fits with our modern laws of science and logic, Spong said.

The Christian understanding of Jesus as a savior stems from the idea that human beings are born with original sin. That concept entered Christian theology in the third and fourth centuries, Spong said.

“It is the result they claim from a fall from the perfection which God intended for us all. The perfection for which human life was originally created,” he said.

Don’t be so literal or dumb about the Bible.

-John Shelby Spong

Christian theologians, such as St. Augustine, who read the Bible literally, developed the theology based on exactly what was written in the Book of Genesis. Early thinkers used the stories of the Bible to explain aspects of the world and humanity, which they could not understand, Spong said.

“They did not know the second and third chapters of Genesis were not written by the same author,” he said. “They didn’t know it was 500 years older, they just thought it was the continued story of the word of God.”

“If the first chapter of Genesis said that the world was created perfect and that human beings were created in the image of God, then they asked, ‘Where in the world did evil come from?’” Spong said.

The answers to those questions were all given in the Book of Genesis. The first three chapters taught that God had created a perfect Earth and that humans corrupted the perfection God had created by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Spong said.

“In that corruption, they corrupted all of God’s creations,” he said.

The fall from God’s grace resulted in suffering and death on Earth, Spong said. Early theologians said that the sin of destroying God’s perfect world was so terrible the only hope for salvation would be if God came to Earth to rescue humankind. The story of Jesus Christ was created to tell the story of how God descended to Earth to sacrifice himself on the cross to give mankind eternal life, Spong said.

“Now what’s wrong with all of this? Everything, everything is wrong with this,” Spong said.

One of the first problems with that understanding of God, and the role of Jesus Christ as the savior, is how the story portrays God, Spong said.

“God becomes a monster, God’s an ogre, God is one that does not know how to forgive, God is one who has to have a human sacrifice, a blood offering,” he said.

That conception of the Jesus story turns Jesus into a masochistic victim, Spong said.

“It turns our religion into a religion of guilt and manipulation,” he said. “You and I become guilt-filled people; the primary coin of the realm of Christianity has been guilt. Guilt — the gift that keeps on giving.”

“The message of the Christian church cannot be just guilt; guilt doesn’t produce life,” Spong said.

The last problem with the early Christian conception of Jesus Christ is that, based on the logical and scientific data embraced by modern-day society, the stories of the foundations of human life found in Genesis and taken literally by early theologians are impossible, he said.

“Life is not static, life has developed over the last 3.8 billion years, from single cells to self-conscious complexity,” Spong said.

That’s what our faith is about, it’s not about making you religious or moral or right. Our faith is about calling you to live, calling you to the fullness of humanity. We do not need to be saved; we need to become fully and deeply human. We do not need to be born again, we need to grow up.

- John Shelby Spong

When advances in science destroyed the theory of creation, the entire creation story — and belief systems surrounding it — were blown apart, he said. Without the creation story, the story of original sin in the Garden of Eden is lost, and if there was no fall from grace in Eden, the need for a savior disappears.

The idea of Jesus as a supernatural deity who sacrificed his life by dying on the cross so humans could have eternal life is scientifically, and logically, improbable, but that does not mean Jesus did not have a powerful and profound influence on our human conscience, Spong said.

“When I look at the portrait of Jesus as it is refracted to me through the gospels and through the Christian tradition, I see Jesus primarily as a boundary-breaker,” he said.

“I see Jesus as a life that is able somehow to affirm his and our humanity so deeply that you and I begin to be free to lay down the security barriers that each of us builds around ourselves to enhance our survival,” Spong said.

Human beings are biologically drawn to selfishness as a route to survival. Jesus’ experience of life and way of life introduced humanity to a new consciousness of what it means to be alive, to be loving humans.

In Paul’s second epistle, he wrote that barriers disappear when people live in the Christ experience, Spong said.

“In Christ, there’s neither gay nor straight, there’s neither Jew nor Muslim, there’s neither Catholic nor Protestant, there’s neither orthodox or reform, there’s neither Sunni nor Shiite,” he said. “But what there is, is a new creation, that it is in Christ we are called to be so deeply and fully human that we no longer have to spend our energy building ourselves up by tearing someone else down.”

That understanding of Jesus is supported in different moments throughout the gospels, Spong said. Following Jesus’ crucifixion, a Roman soldier is quoted as saying, “That’s what God is like.”

“He’s saying, I see in the human ability to escape its boundaries and give its life away — that’s where I see the presence of God,” Spong said.

In Matthew’s metaphor-heavy gospel, a star appeared above Jesus’ birthplace. The star attracted followers from all cultures and religions, across all boundaries.

In chapter two of the Book of Acts, written by Luke, the story of the Pentecost is told. In the story, the Holy Spirit appeared to the early Christians and they were lifted out of their tribal constraints.

“They laid down their security system, and when they did they found they could communicate with anyone in whatever language they spoke, because the language of human love is universal,” Spong said. “It’s not a miracle story. Peter didn’t suddenly begin to speak Chinese or German. Don’t be so literal or dumb about the Bible.”

In the Gospel of John, it is argued that the most important moment of Jesus’ life was when he died on the cross. The moment of Jesus’ crucifixion was the moment in which he was able to give himself away in love, wholly and completely.

“What we need to understand is that divinity is not the opposite of humanity, divinity is the depth of humanity,” he said.

In the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John, the disciples asked Jesus why he had come to Earth. Jesus responded, “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly,” Spong said.

“That’s what our faith is about — it’s not about making you religious or moral or right. Our faith is about calling you to live, calling you to the fullness of humanity. We do not need to be saved, we need to become fully and deeply human. We do not need to be born again, we need to grow up.”