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Eternal Life: A New Vision

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Eternal Life: A New Vision
John Shelby Spong
(New York: HarperCollins, 2009)

Many of us know the old joke about the mystic who ordered a sandwich: “Make me one with everything.” But does mysticism provide an alternative to biblical faith?

That is just one question this book raises. And the way Spong gets to that question is thought-provoking.

The Anthropomorphic God

First, Spong deserves credit for his intellectual honesty. This shows in the great care he takes to attribute every quoted phrase to the person from whom he heard it. It also shows in his willingness to follow wherever his tough questions and doubts about religion lead him.

And Spong is very tough on religion the way we know it. Although he overstates his claim “to walk into these places where few have walked before” (p. 207), he nevertheless does it very well. His criticisms of religion are not new, but he presents them cogently.

“Truth is not religion’s ultimate agenda; security is” (p. 85): Spong’s conclusion from his examination of the history of religion is hard to deny if one looks at that history dispassionately. Once human beings acquired self-consciousness things changed radically. As the only creatures who are aware of our mortality, we needed a way of dealing with the resultant anxiety. “Religion’s initial and primary purpose was to enlist divine assistance to help us to cope with the anxieties of self-consciousness” (p. 89). So we created a God that makes us feel secure. A God whom we can placate and cajole to intervene in our problems and save us from harm. A God who makes us feel special by defining whom “He” (this God is usually male) loves, as opposed to those whom He rejects. And of course we always belong to the first group. Our religions are designed to count us in while counting others out.

This God is a supernatural being, very human but without a body and with unlimited power. The way we pray reveals what we believe about this God: we ask God for things; we implore God to have mercy; we praise God incessantly. Such a God is a cosmic tyrant, whom we must address in the precisely correct fashion in order to ensure we will be protected. We also rarely stop to think about what sense it makes to praise God for the good things that happen to us but not hold God responsible for the bad, and why God even needs our praise in the first place.

Spong maintains that this anthropomorphic God is really an extension of the ancient tribal deities, and must be discarded if we want to lead mature spiritual lives. He is not entirely wrong. Most theology is guilty of a fundamental error: making what we want to believe the criterion for what God is. Just take as one example the Council of Nicaea and the Arian controversy: the issue was basically which view of God and Jesus makes us feel more secure. That was all the “evidence” that mattered, and why the opposing side had to be persecuted: the Arians threatened the security of the mainstreamers. And so it has been with most theology ever since. We create the God we want, which is not necessarily the God who is.

It becomes clear that we believe these things not because we are convinced that they are true, but because we have a deep need for them to be true. We do not seem to recognize that our need for something to be true does not affect what is; it only manifests our willingness to be delusional (p. 120).

There is no doubt in my mind that this has been theology’s primary motivator throughout its history. All the bitter arguments, often even leading to violence, over theological minutiae have had mostly to do with what makes us feel secure and who is threatening that security.

The Naturalistic God

This is Spong at his best. Where he goes with this is more tenuous. Spong’s orientation seems very close to naturalism. Science seems able to explain all that is, to the point of concluding that our existence itself is no product of divine wisdom but only pure accident:

There was clearly no higher purpose involved that might have guided that single and particular sperm to penetrate that specific egg and to form, thereby, a living thing called a zygote. It was, for sperm and egg alike, the work of chance and chance alone. That appears to have been forever the nature of life (p. 23).

The fact remains, however, that the chance nature of each of our lives is not only a given, but a truth that cannot be denied (p.24).

Human life (depending on what definition is used for that life) did not arrive on this planet until somewhere between two million and one hundred thousand years ago. This suggests that neither human life nor even life itself was the purpose for which the world was created (p. 29).

It would thus seem a matter of indifference even to God whether we exist or not.

So how exactly does Spong understand God? It is hard to say, because Spong’s explanations are not at all clear. But it seems his theology might be described as kind of a “naturalistic mysticism.” It begins with this core observation:

Human life is kin not just to the great apes but to the cabbages and indeed even to the plankton in the sea. A common DNA flows through all living things. These are just some of the physical insights at which our generation has arrived. This sense of a unified oneness stands in sharp contrast to the sense of separation that we human beings have experienced as our reality from the moment we entered the realm of self­-consciousness. That insight leads to the conclusion that while separation may have been our perception, it is not the law of the universe. A deep interrelated unity is.

From such an insight is it not possible to postulate that consciousness is also a single whole, which emerged within the universe, and which can be accessed on a variety of levels by creatures of varying capacities?... We have always been part of that which is greater than we are. Is it not, therefore, reasonable to assume that we just might always have been a component of that greater reality? What would it do to our self­-definition if we were to become convinced that we have always been part of a whole and are not separate from that which is “other” than ourselves? (p. 146)

This mystical vision originates in an observation of the natural world: all living things are sustained by DNA, therefore all living things are connected and ultimately one. This connectedness of all that is alive constitutes the “greater reality” to which we belong.

In fact, this cosmic oneness is not limited only to living things:

It is now evident that such subatomic particles are prevalent within the outer spaces of our universe. These particles energize the interconnecting fabric of the entire cosmos. It is this knowledge that introduced us to a new awareness that we are not now and never have been separate or alone, as the experience of self­consciousness caused us to imagine that we were....

Now we are beginning to suspect that this sense of separation, by which we were quite frankly overwhelmed, may itself be a delusion through which we had to live before its falseness could be revealed. It appears increasingly clear that we are now awakening to a sense of oneness with all that is; indeed, we are more connected than our minds can yet embrace. Self-consciousness begins to look like just one more state in our development that will finally bring us to an awareness of our essential oneness with the universe, a oneness that binds together the material and immaterial things, and even our bodies and our minds, perhaps as a universal consciousness (p. 152).

This universal consciousness, which is either God or an important part of God, derives from biology and particle physics.

The Human God

So how exactly does God fit into all this?

Perhaps the personhood we have ascribed to God is really our own, projected onto God. God might then be conceived not as a being, but as the process that calls us into being; not as a person, but as the process that calls personhood into being (p. 155).

Here Spong sounds like a process theologian, or perhaps even a panentheist, who sees God as the evolving process permeating everything in existence. But there is more. Even though Spong throws out the God of traditional theism as a human projection, it turns out, very ironically, that the way to discover God is to locate God in our humanity.

...the way to what human beings have traditionally called God is not through some external projection of our needs, but through entering the depth dimensions of the human experience. The divine we have always sought turns out to be a dimension of the human. Religion ultimately becomes not an activity in which we explore the meaning of God, but an activity through which we explore the meaning of the human....

A new line of vision thus opens into the meaning of the word “God.” “God” is not an external being apart from us, to which we must relate as powerless ones to the all­powerful one. “God” is more a glimpse into the meaning of the totality of human experiences, where we recognize that we are part of an ultimate grasping after a universal consciousness with which we are one and in which we are whole (p. 156).

Surprise! After Spong’s sharp critique of the anthropomorphic God, it turns out that God is human after all! Or perhaps it would be more precise to say that God is a sort of collective human consciousness. Spong maintains that the ultimate destiny of the human being lies beyond personhood: “Individuation is just another step in the creation of a wholeness that enables the individuated one to be unique and part of the whole simultaneously” (p. 155). It is not entirely clear what this means. Yes we are unique individuals, but are we not already part of a greater whole? Isn’t that what Paul keeps telling us (1 Corinthians 12:4,27; Galatians 3:28)? Especially since Spong invokes mysticism to explain his viewpoint, it would seem that the next step would consist of the individual’s being absorbed into some sort of collective consciousness. In any case, Spong appears to imply that there is no divinity beyond humanity itself, and that pure divinity (such as it is) becomes manifest in the “universal consciousness with which we are one.”

This certainly appears to be where Spong is headed:

Perhaps the mystical dimension of recognizing that we are part of who God is and what God is, and that God is part of who we are and what we are, is the place to begin....

Only by transcending personal terms entirely can we open ourselves to the recognition that there is a source of life that flows through all living things but comes to self­consciousness in human life alone. That source of life is now, for me at least, a part of who God is (p. 161).

When all religions based on an external being die, only then will the mystical union with all that is finally be perceptible (p. 163).

This brand of mysticism has a strong New Age ring to it: God is in us and we, collectively, are God. Spong speaks of “a new humanity that no longer thinks of God as an external, supernatural deity, but rather sees God as part of who he or she is” (p. 168): the Jesus in John’s Gospel who seems to be identifying himself with God is really speaking for all humanity. This is a signature idea of the New Age: we are God and God is us. Individual personhood (including self-consciousness) is just a temporary state along the way towards realizing this. The spiritual journey moves from self-consciousness to universal consciousness. The destiny of the individual is to lose one’s individuality and merge into the “mystical union with all that is.“

Here are other passages that take us in this direction:

By the time John’s Gospel was written near the end of the first century, however, I am suggesting, the language of mysticism, of human oneness in the divine, of a life that knew no boundaries, had transformed the earlier language of miracle and magic, of angels that sing and stars that wander (p. 170).

We share in the being of God, just as Jesus did. Does that mean that our consciousness shares in the consciousness of God? I think it does (p. 171).

What the mystics seem to grasp almost intuitively is that God is not a being external to life that we must woo and flatter to gain divine protection and ultimate triumph over the demons that beset us as we seek meaning, purpose and a stake in eternity. Running counter to this principle of our dying religious past is the mystical perception, more experienced than believed, more intuitive than doctrinal, that God is the ultimate being in which our being shares (p. 171).

Did Jesus transcend the barrier of death because he transcended the boundaries of self-­consciousness and entered the timelessness of a universal consciousness? (p. 173)

Jesus had forced them to move away from the fear of life and the need to be dominated by an external God, to recognize that the divine and the human were not separate, but that the human was the vessel in which the divine lived (p. 183).

If the truly human, which was experienced in Jesus, is the content of what we mean by the word “divine” and is met not beyond life but at the heart of life, then the pathway into the divine is to become human (p. 184).

Humanity is not alone, as we once thought, separated from God and thus in need of rescue. We are increasingly aware that we are part of what God is and we are at one with all that God is. Suddenly it made sense to me that the ancient name of God found in the Hebrew scriptures was part of the verb “to be.” God, the great “I am,” blends with the “I am” affirmations that each of us must make on our journey into self-understanding (p. 207).

We had to walk through self-consciousness to discover the universal consciousness. We had to walk through the time-bound to discover the timeless. That was necessary before we could claim our identity as part of who God is. It is only here that we sense that finitude finally fades into infinity, that earth is the doorway to heaven and that the human is and can be transformed into the divine (p. 207).

The mystics are right. They are people of a deeper consciousness. There is one consciousness, but self­-conscious people alone can know it. I am finite, but I share in infinity. I am mortal, but I share in immortality. I am a being, but I share in being itself (p. 209, emphasis added).

I have quoted these passages at length to allow Spong’s concept of God to emerge from his own words. Our universal collective human consciousness is God, but it is unclear whether or to what extent God is more than that. Spong does say that “there is one consciousness.” But beyond that, he describes God as “the ultimate being in which our being shares,” and at times he uses Tillich’s terms “Ground of Being” and “being itself.” So which is it? Is God an ultimate being, or just being? Spong does not seem to have thought this out very carefully.

So what else could God possibly be aside from human consciousness, which is at least part of God? That is not clear at all. At one point (p. 184) Spong calls God an “ever-expanding life force.” So in addition to human collective consciousness, God is the force that animates nature, as well as the “Ground of Being.”

The Moral Dimension

One huge problem with these phrases is that they are morally neutral. The theological problem of the existence of God is not so much a matter of whether a “being” we call “God” literally exists, but whether whatever it is that we call God is good. If God is not good, then God’s existence is almost a matter of indifference (unless we believe we can influence that God through flattery or submission). Spong establishes no reason to believe that God is good. Certainly human consciousness is not wholly good; it is ambiguous. So too is “being.” There is nothing within “being itself” to justify the conclusion that being itself is good. The forces of nature are amoral and produce evil as well as good, destruction and violence as well as creation. Human consciousness, presumably an important aspect of God if not the actual totality of God, entertains evil as well as good. To establish God’s goodness something more is needed.

Spong does talk about God and love, but with just one obscure exception he does not explain what he means by love. Love does not necessarily follow either from God as “life force” or from God as “universal consciousness.” The one indication of love’s meaning that Spong gives us is this quotation from a friend: “If whatever attracts atoms and molecules to each other could also be called ‘Love’ then the source and creator of all could be called love. Dare we be so simple?” (p. 153). Again this is kind of a “naturalistic mysticism” and attempt to derive love from some mindless attractive force in nature. There is nothing necessarily good about it - one entity can be attracted to another for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with love as we usually understand love. Love requires awareness. Iron filings attracted to a magnet are not expressing love. Even the energy behind erotic attraction can be used for good or for ill, for creation or for violence. It is difficult to see what Spong’s God offers beyond the amoral forces of nature.

The Individual’s Destiny

In summary, it seems we can describe Spong’s God as “life force” plus “universal consciousness.” The problems with this way of understanding God become most apparent when we consider the destiny of the individual. Spong is correct in rejecting traditional notions of heaven and hell as ways of controlling people through fear and a perversion of biblical teaching. But Spong’s solution is also hardly satisfactory.

The goal of all religion is not to prepare us to enter the next life; it is a call to live now, to love now, to be now and in that way to taste what it means to be part of a life that is eternal, a love that is barrier­-free and the being of a fully self-­conscious humanity. That is the doorway into a universal consciousness that is part of what the word “God” now means to me. This then becomes my pathway and, I now believe, the universal pathway into the meaning of life that is eternal (p. 204).

This passage is hardly intelligible, since it uses key words like “eternal” whose meaning Spong has not explained. Does “eternal” mean “everlasting,” as many theologians use the word, or does it mean something else? All that seems remotely clear is that the individual’s destiny is to enter the universal consciousness.

Here is Spong’s final statement on individual destiny:

Finally, to state it as plainly as I know how to do, I believe deeply that this life that I love so passionately is not all there is. This life is not the end of life. I cannot articulate the content of this concept more than I have done, but I want my readers to know that my convictions, however poorly or weakly described herein, are real and they are convincing to me. The only way I know how to prepare for death is to live in such a way that I enable each day to participate in eternity. I enter the realm of eternity only by embracing the finite. I walk into life’s meaning by being open to what lies ahead and beyond. I do believe that love is eternal and I am held in the bonds of love by my family, my friends and countless acquaintances. They are to me windows into eternal life. I embrace them and I embrace eternal life through them.

This statement has a more traditional sound, but once again what it means is not clear at all. What does it mean to “participate in eternity”? What does it mean to say that “love is eternal and I am held in the bonds of love by my family, my friends and countless acquaintances”? Many would understand that as saying our existence continues in the memory and hearts of those who love and survive us. Is that Spong’s intention, or is he trying to say something more?

The only way that I as a reader can attempt to answer that question is to return to what Spong said about “universal consciousness.” But what exactly does “universal consciousness” mean? That we are all aware of the same thing, because there is only one awareness? This would certainly be in tune with the Eastern sources of this idea, upon which Spong appears to draw. Buddism in particular maintains that the individual self is an illusion and has no independent reality. And as we have already seen, for Spong self-consciousness is a developmental stage on the way to our awareness of “our essential oneness with the universe... perhaps as a universal consciousness.” In a universal consciousness the individual is dissolved. As Spong himself says, there is one consciousness.

This poses a problem. The mystical vision requires that we give up our individuality. If individuality is preserved, which is the Christian hope symbolized by the resurrection, then there cannot be just one universal consciousness. If there is only one consciousness, then there is no individuality. (Buddhism, a mystical religion that seems to have inspired Spong, understands this very well, denying the reality of the individual self.) And if there is no individuality, then there is no participation. And if there is no participation, then there is no love. Love exists in the awareness and cherishing of the other as an individual. If we are all subsumed under a single universal consciousness, then instead of the participation of individuals we are left with a dead identity.

The Problem of Justice

Aside from this ontological problem with Spong’s theology, there is an ethical problem as well. According to Spong there is no heaven or hell, and ulrimately no reward or punishment. “All ideas of the afterlife as a place of reward for virtue, or punishment for sin, would have to die for me before I could go deeply into this subect” (p. 11). Spong is justified in questioning the simplistic and tyrannical views of heaven and hell that have animated much of Christianity, but he throws out too much. He allows for no accounting for how we have lived our lives. This is not what Jesus taught. Over and over again Jesus called us to repentance, he warned of the Day of Judgment, and he instructed us that the way we treat others will determine our experience in eternity. There is no room in Spong’s theology for any of this.

Spong is right to dismiss heaven and hell as understood literally. He is wrong not to preserve a way they can and must be understood symbolically. We cannot say with precision what kind of “reward” or “punishment” may or may not exist. We are intended not to know about that now, so that we can come to love goodness for its own sake and not for the sake of a reward that we can see. Nevertheless, we need to know that how we live our lives, especially in relation to others, makes a difference. If this were not so, then God, or the Universe, or whatever one might wish to call it, would be indifferent to our goodness or lack of it. There would be no justice, and if there is no justice there cannot be love.

Over and over and over again Jesus tells us that how we live our lives now does make a difference in our experience of eternity. There is the Parable of the Talents. There is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. There is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. There is the Parable of the Rich Fool who stored up treasures for this life only. There are all the parables about stewardship. These all indicate lessons to learn, either here or on the other side. Whatever eternity is (and it cannot be just endless time), it must be dynamic. It must have some mechanism for addressing the failures of this broken world, or else everything Jesus told us about God and the Kindgm is a lie. The Eastern tradition from which Spong draws his inspiration depends upon reincarnation to solve the ethical problem, because it has no concept of eternity in which these issues can be resolved. Spong’s vision of our ultimate destiny is to enter Nirvana directly, bypassing reincarnation and any solution to the ethical problem.

Above all, eternity must contain within itself the possibility of love. It is difficult to see how love can be possible when individuality is obliterated, as it is in the mystical view of a single universal consciousness. It is also hard to see how one can find such a vision comforting. I think it would be very tiresome to see exactly what everyone else sees, all the time, forever, with no change and with no individual differences or interactions, with no choice and with no escape. I for one would not wish to spend eternity that way. I could even find that a convincing picture of hell.

Instead I would turn to Spong’s mentor, Paul Tillich, perhaps the deepest thinker in Christian theology on the topic of individual destiny. Tillich is very mindful of our necessary lack of knowledge on the temporal plane. After a careful analysis of the problem of individual destiny in the final section of his Systematic Theology he concludes that we can make only two statements about what lies beyond death, both of them negative:

  1. The self-conscious self cannot be excluded from eternal life.
  2. The self-conscious self in eternal life is not what it is in temporal life.

We cannot know exactly what awaits us in the next phase of our existence. We can only have a hope that individuality remains meaningful in some incomprehensible way, and that love is still a potentiality.

Recovering the Message

Spong’s vision, more akin to Hinduism and Buddhism than to biblical religion, is very different from the vision of Christ as taught in the Gospels. I do not say that Spong’s view is untenable - mystics have held such views for thousands of years - but just that it is different from Jesus’s view. We all have a choice as to which authority we follow. Jesus has convinced me of his authority - no one else either before or since ever understood or preached non-self-interested love while still in his thirties - so I believe that Jesus had a special vocation and that he knew something. So Jesus remains my authoritative source on the nature of eternity. My choice to follow Jesus’s teachings therefore makes Spong’s mystical vision inaccessible to me.

Nevertheless, there is no question that Spong’s skepticism about the directions in which traditional Christian theologies have taken us is critical in helping us recapture Jesus’s message. Ever since the primary emphasis of Christianity shifted from love and service to personal salvation (and we can give special thanks to Augustine and all his theological heirs, both Catholic and Protestant, for that distortion of Jesus’s teaching), Christian theology has served to obscure Jesus’s message. When asked what we must do to inherit eternal life Jesus answered very plainly (Luke 10:25-28). Yet generations of Christian theologians have spun their soteriological theories as if they never listened to a word that Jesus said. Spong provides a tremendous service in calling us to confront and correct that, even if his own replacement vision is flawed.

Spong set himself the mission of rescuing the Bible from biblical literalists. He has shed light on how the first-century Jews who wrote the Bible may have understood what they were doing as midrash, a Jewish form of homiletical interpretation. The purpose of midrash is to express a truth in symbolic language, not to report historical facts. Midrash can also be considered not only as a corpus of tradition but also as a way of thinking. Spong has been sharply criticized for his use of midrash by Christian critics who claim to know what midrash is but who have a very narrow concept of it. (I am very often amused by Christian scholars who came to Judaism late in their lives, who see it as an object of study and analysis and who never experienced it as a part of themselves, yet who presume to lecture others on how Jews “really” thought.) Spong is absolutely right in pointing out that the Bible comes to life when freed from the fetters of mindless literalist exegesis.

So we have two views to choose from: the Eastern mystical and the Western biblical. (Of course there are Jewish and Christian mystics too but Spong does not draw upon those.) Because the Western biblical view has been corrupted for so many years by bad theology and by literal interpretations that split the Bible from its historical context, a protest like Spong’s is both inevitable and welcome. I also deeply respect those who find his vision compelling: at least his view is tolerant and does not define outgroups whom it consigns to hell. But for myself I prefer a third alternative: to wrestle with the scriptures, trying to develop an ear for them, trying to understand the truth behind the literal meaning of the words with genuine appreciation of the Bible’s culture and history. This includes realizing that human consciousness evolves, including our understanding of God, and that the Bible does not limit God to a single static concept. I find the Bible and especially Jesus’s teachings rich enough that I experience no need to reach out to Eastern mysticism to complete my theology.

Finally one clear difference between these views emerges: in Spong’s mystical view we are God or a part of God. In the biblical view we are not the Creator; we are God’s creation. I find the latter speaks more to my own spiritual life, encouraging a humility I cannot find in this kind of mysticism. And if Jesus, whose wisdom the Gospels make very apparent, tells us something about eternity, which he calls the Kingdom of Heaven, then I believe him.

In conclusion, Spong provides both a nontheistic and a non-atheistic counterpart to the views of protest atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. While I am not an atheist and do not agree with any of these three, I highly respect and value their work and I believe we would be greatly diminished without it. All three writers point to abuses of religion that even today we tend to rationalize, ignore, or even justify. In that sense they are friends of all who are trying to recover true religion, and so should they be received.

August 2017