(The following is the speech delivered in Paris at the launching of the French Translation of Jesus for the Non-Religious.)
How can those of us living in the 21st century understand the Jesus of history? We think very differently from the way the people who wrote the New Testament in the first century thought. Can we any longer believe, for example, that when Jesus entered this world his arrival was announced by a star that appeared newly in the heavens or that his birth was heralded by angels breaking through the midnight sky to sing to hillside shepherds? Can we, who both understand genetics and know that women have an egg-cell, still believe that his mother was a virgin and his father the Holy Spirit? At his baptism in the Jordan River can we still suggest that the heavens opened in the roof of the three-tiered universe and the spirit descended onto Jesus with the voice of God proclaiming him “My son”? Is it still possible for us to believe that a real devil tempted him in a literal wilderness? Can we still imagine that he actually preached the Sermon on the Mount with its eight symmetrical Beatitudes or that he fed 5000 people with just five loaves and two fish? Can 2lst century minds still embrace a Jesus who raised from the dead a child, a widow’s son and Lazarus, whose flesh was already decaying? Is it possible that Jesus did walk on water or still a storm? Can we really believe that he gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, the ability to leap to the lame and crippled and the capacity to speak to those who were mute? Can we believe that on the third day after his death, his resuscitated body walked out of a grave? Do any of us still believe the story that he defied gravity and rose into the sky or that, once ensconced in heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit on his followers in the great moment at Pentecost?
I have in my career and in my writing answered all these questions with a resounding “No.” Can I then still call myself a Christian? If none of these narratives from the biblical story can still be thought of as literally true, does my claim still to be a deeply committed, believing Christian have either integrity or credibility? Is my life some kind of self-deceptive lie?
The fact is that I not only identify myself as a Christian, but I have also served my church for twenty-one years as a priest and for twenty-four years as one of its chosen bishops. In my retirement today I remain an active member of my parish church, engaging in worship every Sunday. My wife sits on its governing body. I teach an Adult Bible Class in that church on a number of Sundays each year. I am also one of America’s best-known and best-selling religious authors, whose books have not only sold well over a million copies, but have been translated into every major European language as well as Korean and Arabic.
How is it possible, some might ask of me, to hold these two things together? How deeply can one challenge the literal understanding of what many people think of as the core, the basic tenets of historical Christianity and still consider himself or herself a believing, practicing Christian? To hold the tension between these two realities was the purpose I had in mind when I wrote the book Jesus for the Non-Religious which has just this month been translated into French and is being now launched in a series of public events in Paris. This book was translated by an eminent scholar, Ray Rakower, who is fluent not only in French, but also in German and English. He also happens to be a friend of mine.
In this book I seek to demonstrate that there is a way both to read the Bible and to understand the Christian faith that is quite different from the way we have been traditionally taught. I do not think, for example, that we have to pretend that the Bible was ever written to be read as literal history. I believe that I can demonstrate that the original authors of the four gospels did not themselves believe that. The Bible, including what we Christians call the New Testament, is, rather, a deeply Jewish book, written by Jewish authors, attempting to interpret the power they had experienced in a Jewish man named Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever they understood by the word “God,” they believed they had met in the person of Jesus. This connection between God and Jesus was first made by St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, written about the year 54 CE, when he stated: “God was in Christ.” That claim would, in time, become the essential center of the Christian faith, which I continue to affirm. How that experience is to be explained is still the pressing issue driving Christian theology to this day.
In the book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, I go through the familiar biblical stories about Jesus: his birth, his baptism, his temptation, his teaching, his miracles, his crucifixion and his resurrection in order to show that there is a new way to read these narratives, besides thinking of them as literal history. Can they be true and still not literal? I am convinced they can be. Can they point to a God that they cannot define and still be true? I believe they can. Can the stories of the resurrection of Jesus be real and yet not be stories of a deceased body literally walking out of a tomb? I am certain they can be. Can I still believe in the ultimate Christian promise of life after death while dismissing the concepts of heaven and hell as little more than institutional behavior-controlling techniques? I, in fact, do so believe and have written a book to demonstrate that entitled: Eternal Life: A New Vision – Beyond Religion – Beyond Theism – Beyond Heaven and Hell. Can I help others through my writing to get beneath the literal words of both the first century New Testament and the dated concepts of the Fourth Century creeds and still continue to affirm the transcendent experience to which these words point? Not only do I think that I can, but I also believe that this is exactly the purpose for which I wrote Jesus for the Non-Religious.
I cannot, however, in this brief address carry my audience through each of the steps which I have taken to bring me to these conclusions. In the book that task took me over 300 pages. What I can do, however, is to give you my conclusions briefly and then challenge you to read the process through which I journeyed to reach those conclusions. I suspect these conclusions will disturb the voices of traditional Christian spokespersons, who seem to think that faith can come only from believing dated and largely unbelievable literal concepts. I regret that they will be disturbed by my words, but let me be clear that is not my intention, nor are these people the audience I seek to reach. I write, rather, for those people who have engaged the knowledge revolution in science over the last 600 years and for those who are not afraid of the current modern understanding of the Bible, which has been developed in the last 200-500 years. I write for those who have long ago dismissed traditional Christianity as simply irrelevant in the modern world. I write to open to them radically new Christian possibilities. I write to invite them to take a second look at the faith of their fathers and mothers, which they have today largely rejected and to begin to see something in Christianity that they have never seen before.
The fact is that I do believe in God deeply and profoundly, but I cannot tell you either who God is or what God is. Nor do I think that anyone else can do so either. All any of us can ever do is to tell others how we believe we have experienced God. God and our experience of God are not the same. All human experience is subjective and may, therefore, be delusional. Some will surely assert that such is the case with me, but I do not think that they are correct. So let me lay before you briefly the content of my “God experience” and let you do with it what you will, including judging it as inadequate.
I believe that I experience God as the “Source of Life,” which while flowing through the universe, only comes to self-consciousness in human beings. If God is the Source of Life then I must worship God by my willingness to live, to live fully. When I live fully, I believe I make God, the Source of Life, visible.
I believe I experience God as the “Source of Love,” which also flows through the universe, but which, once again, comes to self-consciousness only in human beings. If God is the Source of Love then the only way I can worship God is by loving, loving wastefully. When I love beyond all barriers I believe I make God, the Source of Love visible.
I believe I experience God as the “Ground of all Being,” to borrow a phrase made popular by the German theologian Paul Tillich, who was my primary early theological mentor. This means that the more that I have the courage to be all that I am capable of being the more I make the God, who is the “Ground of Being,” visible.
Finally, I am a Christian, not because I believe the mythological understandings of the past in some literal way, but because I see in Jesus the very dimensions of my experience of God. I see in him a life so fully lived that he reveals to me the “Source of Life;” a love so wastefully shared that he reveals to me the “Source of Love,” and one who has the courage to be all that he was meant to be, revealing to me the God who is the “Ground of Being.” Yes, I can and do join with Paul and proclaim without equivocation and with integrity that “God was in Christ.”
The task of the Christian faith to me is not to make people religious or to save the sinful, but rather to introduce us all to a new dimension of what it means to be human. It is at this point for me that God becomes not a noun to be defined, but a verb to be lived. The book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, is thus for me the clarion call to see and to embrace a new Christianity for a new world.
~John Shelby Spong