Responding to Bishop Spong’s 12 Principles and the Future of Religion

A recent national poll on millennial thinking (defining millennials as ages 18 to 34), found that millennials have very little confidence in establishment institutions. Indeed, more trust the military (55%) far more than organized religion—25%. This is a generation after all that has grown up with news of pedophile priest scandals and their cover-up by institutional religious leaders, as well as the collapse of the economic titans and their economy.

It strikes me that Bishop John Spong’s prophetic questioning of Christianity’s dogmas and structures would sit quite well with these young people, one might even say that he is posing the questions that they are asking about when it comes to organized religion. In this way he is and has been a prophetic voice (when, as Rabbi Heschel point out, the primary work of the prophet is to interfere) interfering with taken-for-granted religious doctrines for decades. He has dared to criticize religion and envision a different future for Christianity even while remaining part of the church structure. This takes quite a lot of doing and dancing! No wonder he has stayed so young! Now he is calling for a “New Reformation” and has laid out 12 principles that are equally challenges to the religious status quo.

I will respond to Spong’s 12 principles here with a brief comment by myself in italics working out of the Creation Spirituality lineage.

1. God
Understanding God in theistic categories as “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external to the world and capable of invading the world with miraculous power” is no longer believable. Most God talk in liturgy and conversation has thus become meaningless. I talk about a panentheistic God, which is non-theistic, but is a God who is in all things and all things are in God. Also the apophatic God, the God of “superessential darkness” who “has no name and will never be given a name” (Eckhart) is demanding to be revisited.

2. Jesus – the Christ
If God can no longer be thought of in theistic terms, then conceiving of Jesus as “the incarnation of the theistic deity” has also become a bankrupt concept. The historical Jesus was a supreme teacher of action and contemplation and of Compassion and our shared work of Divinity. There is also the Christ of the Creeds that Spong wants to create distance from. But the third nature of Christ –The Cosmic Christ archetype–, the light in every being, names the inherent God-like-ness of each and every being, ourselves included. It finds a parallel concept in the “Buddha Nature” understanding in the East and in the “image of God” concept in Judaism. (1)

3. Original Sin – The Myth of the Fall
The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which we human beings have fallen into “Original Sin” is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense. Jesus never heard of original sin—no Jew has. Original Blessing displaces original sin, since for 13.8 billion years our species has been blessed by choices of the universe that resulted in our existence as well as the rich and blessed world in which we live. Sin is the refusal to say Yes and Thank You for that original blessing.

4. The Virgin Birth
The virgin birth understood as literal biology is impossible. Far from being a bulwark in defense of the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth actually destroys that divinity. According to Otto Rank, the archetypal meaning of the Virgin Birth is that it distinguished the goddess religion Christianity from other goddess religions of the Mediterranean area by insisting that this divine son did not have intercourse with his mother but left home to preach a radical teaching of justice and compassion.

5. Jesus as the Worker of Miracles
In a post-Newtonian world supernatural invasions of the natural order, performed by God or an “incarnate Jesus,” are simply not viable explanations of what actually happened. Thomas Aquinas says that the greatest miracle of all is a virtuous life—in that regard Jesus incarnated and taught this most important miracle. Miracle is about “marvel” and the greatest of all marvels is existence itself (Eckhart: “Existence is God.”)

6. Atonement Theology
Atonement theology, especially in its most bizarre “substitutionary” form, presents us with a God who is barbaric, a Jesus who is a victim and it turns human beings into little more than guilt-filled creatures. The phrase “Jesus died for my sins” is not just dangerous, it is absurd. If life is a blessing and not a curse and our origins are a blessing then at-one-ment with the Divine is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and accomplishment, not atonement. Another word for “at-one-ment” is mysticism, the experiencing of oneness with the Divine.

7. The Resurrection
The Easter event transformed the Christian movement, but that does not mean that it was the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ deceased body back into human history. The earliest biblical records state that “God raised him.” Into what, we need to ask. The experience of resurrection must be separated from its later mythological explanations. Frequently I ask audiences to shut their eyes and then raise their hands if they have experienced the presence of a loved one after they died. Often 80% of the audience have had such experiences. If we have had them in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, what is to deny that people who loved Jesus might have had similar experiences in the first century?

8. The Ascension of Jesus
The biblical story of Jesus’ ascension assumes a three-tiered universe, which was dismissed some five hundred years ago. If Jesus’ ascension was a literal event of history, it is beyond the capacity of our 21st century minds to accept it or to believe it. Buckminster Fuller used to say “anyone who is still using the words ‘up’ and ‘down’ is 500 years out of date.” The basic dynamic of a curved universe and a curved earth is in and out, not up and down. In what way did Jesus go out and how deeply has his message traveled into our souls and culture after his exit from this plane?

9. Ethics
The ability to define and to separate good from evil can no longer be achieved with appeals to ancient codes like the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount. Contemporary moral standards must be hammered out in the juxtaposition between life-affirming moral principles and external situations. In my recent book on evil, “Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil and Soul and Society” I take the 7 chakras of the East and compare them to the 7 Capital sins of the West to come up with a new language and understanding by which to confront evil. In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas also rejected lists of commandments and instead based his ethics on an invitation to a virtuous life.

10. Prayer
Prayer, understood as a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history, is little more than an hysterical attempt to turn the holy into the servant of the human. Most of our prayer definitions of the past are thus dependent on an understanding of God that has died. I have defined prayer as “a radical response to life” whereby we say Yes to life (our mystical self) and No to injustice (our prophetic call).(2)

11. Life after Death
The hope for life after death must be separated forever from behavior control. Traditional views of heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment are no longer conceivable. Christianity must, therefore, abandon its dependence on guilt as a motivator of behavior. Einstein says no energy is lost in the universe and Hildegard of Bingen says that no beauty is lost in the universe. Eckhart says that at death life dies but being goes on. In what forms does being go on? Some say Reincarnation; others Regeneration; others Resurrection. Truth is these are not that far apart. Aquinas says there are two resurrections in life: The first is waking up in this lifetime and if we undergo that we do not have to worry about the second.

12. Judgment and Discrimination
Judgment is not a human responsibility. Discrimination against any human being on the basis of that which is a “given” is always evil and does not serve the Christian goal of giving “abundant life” to all. Any structure either in the secular world or in the institutional church, which diminishes the humanity of any child of God on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation must be exposed publicly and vigorously. There can be no reason in the church of tomorrow for excusing or even forgiving discriminatory practices. “Sacred Tradition” must never again provide a cover to justify discriminatory evil. Science assists us in recognizing the immense diversity of creation and of human backgrounds and preferences. We cannot develop our capacity for discernment or for judgment and growing a conscience without consulting science.

Rev. Matthew Fox

About the Author:
Matthew Fox holds a doctorate in spirituality from the Institut Catholique de Paris and has authored 32 books on spirituality and contemporary culture that have been translated into 60 languages. Fox has devoted 45 years to developing and teaching the tradition of Creation Spirituality and in doing so has reinvented forms of education and worship. His work is inclusive of today’s science and world spiritual traditions and has awakened millions to the much neglected earth-based mystical tradition of the West. He has helped to rediscover Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas. Among his books are Original Blessing, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, The Reinvention of Work, A Spirituality Named Compassion and Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times.
1. See David Mevorach Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World (NY: Cambridge Univ Press, 2015).

2. See Matthew Fox, Prayer: A Radical Response to Life (NY: Jeremy Tarcher, 2001).

Review & Commentary

  • Gene Bammel

    A well packaged summary of what “faith” means to so many people

  • jimoppenheimer

    We think we “know” stuff, and assume stuff about the world on that basis, but we would do better to be more aggressive about defining what we really do not know.
    I keep seeing folks saying we know that God makes no sense, and therefore god doesn’t exist. Similarly, we know that miracles make no sense, so we know miracles are not real.
    Armed with this certitude, we dismiss all of the dozens of thousands of witnesses that tell us god is real or that miracles actually occur;say they are all deluded, wrong or lying. They must be, since we already know that what they say is untrue.

    • Frankly

      Yeah, I tend to agree with you here. I love Matthew Fox, but I think he’s pushing too hard here. It’s good to sit with the mysteries that the tradition has handed down, and savor them like fine wine. Yes, they have to evolve and keep up with science, but you can’t push spiritual understanding. Else, you can come off like an angry atheist bent on tearing it all down for no good reason. I understand the need to counter fundamentalism, but for the rest of us it isn’t helpful to just say “miracles didn’t happen.” Scripture scholar Raymond Brown used to always tell people that if you take away some mythological understandings too forcefully and too quickly, you can end up damaging that person’s basic faith and spiritual life. Better to let it unfold, coax it along, coach it, but don’t push.

  • Kay Ojen

    If you like Bishop Spong you will like a book on Kindle direct called Jesus Mari & Joji. It incorporates his ideas in an often funny story about a dad and his kids.

  • Robert

    As I have aged, so have my beliefs. Gradually, I became aware of a new way of thinking and believing at age 20, again at 30, and again at 40. And so I have passed my 90th year knowing that my spiritual growth was still not complete. The statements and challenges of new thought awaken in my ancient soul possibilities. It is as though I stand at the door and knock. What lies beyond is still mine to discover. Lead on.

  • Violet writes

    I am glad for the quote “it distinguished the goddess religion Christianity from other
    goddess religions of the Mediterranean area by insisting that this
    divine son did not have intercourse with his mother
    .” I had figured out after reading a bit about ancient Goddess tradition, that Christianity is not an outgrowth of Judaism, but rather, a reform of the Goddess tradition by Yawists. Jesus is the new replacement savior who instead has an honorable relationship with his mother. Women welcomed this aura of honor as it meant honor for women. And an end to self-castrations by young men. And an end to “prostitution” in temples (the sacred marriages).

    The idea of god as ogre has never appealed to me. Especially grotesque is a god who arranges a human sacrifice to compensate for supposed original sin. While original sin was unknown in the first century, maybe human sacrifice was not unknown? Thus an urgent need for Jesus to be the one and only sacrifice per Hebrews. A fiction that Jews would immediately reject knowing that Yahweh abhorred human sacrifice.

    Thank you Matthew Fox, for giving us a better idea of God.