Bishop John Shelby Spong ~ June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021
Bishop Spong provided a much needed place for those of us who did not connect with traditional theology. We love you Bishop Spong. You will be missed! Funeral services will be held at St. Peter’s, Morristown, NJ and at St. Paul’s, Richmond, VA. Dates and times will be announced as soon as they are available

Stepping Out with the Sacred: Progressive Engaging the Divine, Part 1

If I begin by describing this moment as a “kairos” moment, those who know that word may groan, thinking you’ve heard it all before.  This Greek term, contrasted with “chronos” meaning chronological or measurable time, has been used in New Testament theology to signify the event of Jesus as a special time, a period when many things came together to produce an optimal moment for a new beginning.  However, there is more to the term than meets the eye.  If we dig behind this metaphor, we discover its delightful Greek origins.  Kairos (Caerus), meaning opportunity, was the youngest son of the God Zeus and was depicted as a beautiful youth with a lock of hair dangling over his face, while the back of his head had nothing but short hair stubble.  If you grasped Kairos, opportunity, by his forelock as he ran swiftly by, you might hold him, but once he has passed, not even Zeus himself can pull him back.  That brief moment in which all things are possible has been lost. [i]  The term has been borrowed for Christian journals, organizations and newsletters to suggest a special, Divinely orchestrated time, but I want to retrieve the original Greek imagery of grabbing opportunity by its forelock here and now and recognizing our responsibility for earthly events, rather than something orchestrated in a far-off heaven.

Humans have often envisioned their moment in history as a “kairos” moment.   Martin Luther would not have made his impact without the appearance of the printing press, general frustration with church skulduggery, and some influential people to protect him and fellow reformers.  The ideas in Bishop John T. Robinson’s little book Honest to God [ii] were not original, but stood on the shoulders of theologians like Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and appealed to the spiritual restlessness of the Sixties.  Feminist theology could not find its voice until women theologians reached a critical mass in theological halls, joining their disparate protests into one voice.  Progressive theology, or what I prefer to call evolutionary or constructive theology, would not be where it is today without the likes of Bishop Spong and the Jesus Seminar speaking at a time when the institutional church is fading and issues such as homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, celibacy, embryonic stem cell research and clergy sexual abuse have forced it to show its true colors.

Why do Progressives need to grasp this particular moment of opportunity before it passes by?  I believe we are in a good place in so many ways.  Our post-modern world has given us permission to think in new ways about absolute truth, unchallengeable authority, hierarchical claims of knowledge and infallible doctrines, not only in the church but across all disciplines.  Those in power have been shown to have feet of clay that can no longer be covered by the robes of office, whether judges, priests or academics.  The current public exposure of paedophilia within the Catholic Church’s hierarchy at all levels, whether as abusers or protectors of abusers, makes a farce of claims to be God’s representatives on earth.  As Father Peter Kennedy and St. Mary’s in Exile Catholic Church in Brisbane have effectively demonstrated, at great cost to themselves, the institutional church can and must be challenged when it becomes no more than an authoritative dinosaur. [iii]  Conservative church leaders who deny women’s participation and subject them to places of submission simply look silly in a world where women have proven themselves capable of the highest office and the most intellectual pursuits in all spheres.  Those who oppose evolution and scientific advances in loud, undocumented voices are being ghettoized as the world goes on without them.  No longer is theology locked inside the halls of the ordained or chosen.  A plethora of serious theological books claim prominent places on shelves in secular bookshops, offering the faithful new ways to think, and people like Richard Dawkins and the new atheists are promoting a user-friendly atheism that raises timely questions for religion.   Theologian Sallie McFague calls theology, “that most pretentious, abstract and obscure enterprise,” simply the “attempt by human beings to speak of God from their own experience in light of Christian faith.” [iv] Today, we can do our own theology, creating something that is functional and not obtuse, and that actually works in our individual lives.  As always, I am using the term GOD simply as a three letter symbol without any specific gendered or theological baggage.

Perhaps the most stunning example today of grabbing Kairos’ forelock is our reinvention of the Sacred.  As I outlined in my last book Like Catching Water in a Net: human attempts to describe the Divine,[v] most serious scholars have abandoned the old man God in the skies judging who’s “naughty and nice” and intervening in the world to break natural laws to reward some and not others.  In progressive thinking, this God has long been substituted for a Sacred within the universe, whether called Energy, Presence, Love, Spirit, Ground of Being, or simply Life — images that allow us to talk with science in this kairos moment about the wondrous organism we share, the universe, and the mystery we all seek to unravel and experience, whether described in religious, natural or scientific terms.  With this imagery, we have not simply rejected the biblical God and invented our own – there are plenty of places where biblical writers imagined the Sacred thus.  Psalm 139 says, “Where can I go from your Spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle in the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (verses 7-10).  In John’s Gospel, we are told we will “know the Spirit of truth because that spirit abides with you and will be in you” (14: 17) and Paul describes the Divine to the philosophers of Athens as that in which “we live and move and have our being,” as their Greek poets had already said (Acts 17: 28).   Dragging the Sacred back down to earth by Its forelock is actually a recovery of what was banished to the skies as Christianity evolved and Church and pope claimed the earthly role.  This is not to say that the Sacred, however we describe It, is limited to one location or another, but rather that we have reclaimed a transcendent All-pervasiveness, where transcendence means being unlimited and unbound, rather than an elsewhere location.  Immanence, the Sacred with us, is possible only because of Its transcendent limitlessness.  This thinking frees us from centuries of Thomas à Kempis’ imagery in The Imitation of Christ, where the Christian longs to meet God in heaven after death, thus living in this life “as a stranger and pilgrim upon the earth, who hath nothing to do with the affairs of this world.” [vi]

Re-imagining what some call God is not about taking a few nips and tucks in the old idea.  It is a total paradigm change with endless repercussions across the board for established doctrines.  Thomas Kuhn coined this term “paradigm change” in the 70’s to describe how new scientific theories replaced old ones, [vii] but the metaphor has been copiously applied to everything from a toddler’s move from diaper to potty, to Copernicus’ move from an earth-centred to sun-centred universe.  Paradigm changes are not about band-aiding old paradigms but about looking through a completely different window at the object in question.  According to Kuhn’s analysis, new paradigms emerge from a particular culture, worldview and knowledge base when enough questions challenge existing belief systems.  While such changes can occur naturally through the evolution of ideas, crises often occur when the anomalies become too great and demand an urgent and radical return to basics.  A new paradigm must prove itself better able to accommodate current knowledge but, while most people eventually convert to the new, some will continue on with the old beliefs in isolation, or join oppositional groups.

This has been the pattern in religious beliefs, as I described in my earlier book In Defense of Doubt: an invitation to Adventure. [viii]  Progressive thinking did not emerge in a vacuum – it is the product of contemporary culture, knowledge and circumstance where old dogmas have been so bombarded by doubts that we needed to re-examine our biblical and theological roots.  Some people come to progressive thought as a natural maturing of ideas but, for many, a crisis occurs when the anomalies become too great and the ecclesiastical buffers against change become too threadbare.   As with Kuhn’s analysis, such theological crises through the centuries have been dealt with in various ways – (1) new justifications for the old beliefs have either explained, debunked or simply silenced any doubts (2) such challenges have been filed in the too hard basket and old ideas, disguised with a thin veneer of contemporary jargon, continue, or (3) a new paradigm is offered, spawning a campaign for acceptance and a wall of resistance from the old guard, even if the new ideas better accommodate contemporary experience.  Many people will reject the new ideas, continuing on in isolation, or in resistance groups that fiercely denounce the innovators, often without even engaging their theological ideas.   I am sure many of us can tell stories of our own experiences in this process.

Our new paradigm for imagining the Sacred is not simply about using inclusive language and describing a non-theistic God.  It is a whole new way of thinking that challenges almost all established doctrines and disrupts centuries of systematic theology.  Traditional Christian beliefs are not spelled out in the Bible, as many loudly proclaim, but are theological systems shaped around ancient philosophical arguments by stringing together disparate and often conflicting bible verses (and leaving awkward ones out) in order to formulate a seamless Divine plan of salvation.  The creation story, Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the origins of sin, the hero’s death as a criminal, an afterlife, atonement theories, the Trinity metaphor, sexual ambivalence, an infallible Pope, justification by faith through grace, all became beads on this string.  Cut the string at any point and the whole thing falls apart.  Over the centuries, cuts have been made, but those in power have busily knotted the string together again.  That day has passed and, not only do we have a handful of loose beads and a piece of tattered string, we also have discovered a host of forgotten beads hidden under the couch or behind the fireplace, waiting to add their story to the mix, whether women, gays, the earth, or other religions.  Today, we are restringing the beads on a new piece of thread, giving more weight to previously neglected beads and diluting the prominence of old ones that demanded unswerving belief.

If we speak of the Sacred in everything, or as that in which we live and move and have our being, we are speaking of that in which everything and everyone — Hindu, Christian, atheist, Sikh — live and move and have their being, which brings us to a whole new imaginative place in terms of engaging the Sacred, the theme of my next book, available in October 2010 – Stepping out with the Sacred; human attempts to engage the Divine. [ix] We progressives have been more than happy reimagining the Sacred as immanent Spirit, Life, Love, Presence, Energy, or even avoiding God-talk altogether.  We have dismantled theories of atonement, divinity, miracles and saints in order to free the Sacred from humanly-created bonds.  Yet we have been surprisingly silent on one of the biggest repercussions from our new God-paradigm – the Sacred in religions other than our own.  If the Divine is in everything in the Universe, or the Sacred is the Earth itself, we can no longer seek and explain the Sacred in language and concepts only from our cultural and religious imagination.  If the Sacred infuses everything, we can no longer talk about Jesus as the only, or even the most authentic incarnation, especially if we have never investigated how other religions see the Sacred incarnated in them. We can no longer argue that God is present only in and for those who pray the right words and perform the correct rituals if the Sacred is everywhere.  We cannot even talk about sacred and secular with this new imagery, as if they are different compartments of experience, nor can we speak of our spiritual lives as distinct from our secular lives if the spiritual infuses everything.  Our paradigm change does not simply involve new ways to talk within our religious framework – it necessitates, for any authenticity or completeness, our engagement with other religious traditions as well, to see how our Divine appears in those different venues.  Our paradigm change should challenge us, not just to interfaith dialogue where we listen to the other out of interest and hospitality, but to seek how the Sacred appears and is described within other religious explanations.  The Hindu Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) said:

God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times and countries.  All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God …  Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion … The devotee who has seen God in one aspect only, knows [God] in that particular aspect alone.  But he who has seen [God] in manifold aspects is alone in a position to say, “All these forms are of one God and God is multiform.” [God] is formless and with form, and many are forms which no one knows. [x]

The last phrase should grab our attention – many are the Divine forms which no one knows. Engaging the Sacred is an evolving journey across much and varied territory, not a single destination along a single path.

The Dalai Lama is always quick to discourage people who wish to convert to Buddhism because they like his ideas – and his personality as well!  Religious traditions, he says, are as much about culture as about theology and people are more comfortable with religious forms that arise from familiar cultural experiences.  What he is challenging here is actually the Christian idea of “conversion” – the claim that there is only one truth, a claim that deprived Aboriginal people of their indigenous spirituality and forced Muslims to convert or be killed in the Crusades.  Max Muller, nineteenth century religion scholar, famously said that to know one religion is to know none which, when we think about it, is true, although most of us have acted with only one religion all our lives.  How can we make claims of superiority about our religion when we have no intimate knowledge of another?  The Dalai Lama is not discouraging people from seeking wisdom and inspiration in different traditions, but saying that we do not need to deny our current religious location in order to take up another space.  Gandhi followed the teachings of Jesus more closely than most Christians, yet he saw no need to become Christian and forsake his rich Hindu heritage.  Why have we made a passion of either/or with the human wisdom of the centuries?

This is not just a plea for interfaith dialogue, although that is very important.  It is a plea that, as we progressives seek and reconstruct the Sacred, we do it from beyond just the perspective of Christianity, an interfaith search that will enrich our lives and open doors to a smorgasbord of wisdom.  Once we abandon a God that created all humanity yet favors only those who offer worship in a certain way or believe certain things laid down in a religious text only available to some, we cannot continue to assume that our new God-imagery can only be deciphered within our own limited culture and thought, and that our engagement with the Sacred is limited to a re-imagined Christianity.  At a church meeting a few months ago, a minister who calls himself progressive admitted he knew little about what other religions taught.  He was quite comfortable with this, because he was satisfied with what he experienced of God through the Christian tradition.  While this may have been a common response in days gone by, it is no longer good enough if we are to describe the Sacred infilling the whole universe.  If we are not interested in how other religious seekers experience the Divine we also claim to seek, we are simply perpetuating our exclusivity, say nothing of restricting our own possibilities for transformation.  After reading my last book Like Catching Water in a Net, which traces how people describe the Divine across religions, a retired clergyperson said to me, “We certainly have spent our lives preaching a rather limited cult, haven’t we.”  As long as the Trinity, with Jesus as the only way, truth and life, determined our theology, exclusivity was the name of the game, but now that we have moved beyond these claims, we must also move beyond the barriers that these claims built and held in place.  This does not mean that we progressives will all come to the same conclusion about the Sacred.  The whole point of the progressive movement is to be on the journey, or within the cosmic dance, not locked in new boxes of other peoples’ conclusions, like some new religion with a new set of “must-hold” beliefs.

This lack of interest in how the Sacred is engaged in other religious traditions was brought home to me forcibly last year at a theological educators’ conference. One presenter was drawing parallels between science and religion by talking about both natural creativity in the universe and also unpredictability beyond natural laws.  In religious terms, this has been called “Creativity with a capital C,” the Creator Spirit as the source of creativity, or the biblical Divine breath giving life.  What struck me during the talk and questions afterwards was that, while there was much discussion as to how this imagery of Divine creativity affected traditional Christian doctrines about God and Jesus and our attitude to nature and ecology, there was absolutely no mention of how this impacted how we think about the majority of human beings in the world – those who follow other religious beliefs – who must also mediate this Sacred.  We are much more willing to integrate our contemporary God-images with physics, cosmology, ecology and biology than with other people on the same search as us but down different roads – our exclusivity dies hard.

The irony, however, is that our new ideas about the Sacred have long been central to other religious traditions.  In describing God as Energy, Creativity or Formlessness infilling the universe, we are newcomers on the block.  Had we chatted with our friends from different religions before this, we would know such imagery is common.  From the Sioux tradition, Black Elk said, “For the Great Spirit is everywhere; he hears whatever is in our minds and hearts, and it is not necessary to speak to him in a loud voice.” [xi] Australian indigenous artist Wandjuk Marika says, “This land is not empty, the land is full of knowledge, full of story, full of goodness, full of energy, full of power.  The earth is our mother.” [xii]  The Divine in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita says, “As [humans] approach me, so I receive them.  All paths … lead to me.” [xiii]  The Indian greeting “namasti” with hands together and a slight bow means “the Divine in me greets the Divine in you.”  Shinto teaching says, “There is not a single place in all the corners of the world where God is absent.” [xiv] From the Qur’an, “To Allah belong the east and the west: withersoever you turn, there is the presence of Allah.  For Allah is all-pervading, all-knowing.” [xv]  Jain Sutra says, “My Lord!  You are one although variously appearing.” [xvi]  Confucius said, “In the world there are many different roads but the destination is the same.  There are a hundred deliberations but the result is one.” [xvii]  For Sikhs, “God is formless, colorless, markless … casteless, classless, creedless, [God’s] form, hue, shape and garb cannot be described by anyone.” [xviii]  The Sikh Guru Nanak said, “Some call on the Lord, ‘Rama,’ some cry ‘Khuda,’ some bow before him as Gosain, some as Allah; …Whoever realizes the will of the Lord, he or she will find out the Lord’s secrets.” [xix]  To these, we can add the words of Peter in Acts, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to [God]” (Acts 10: 34-5).  What this should tell us is that we Progressives have more in common with religious traditions beyond our own than with Christian fundamentalists and conservatives who still operate within the traditional Christian paradigm, and yet most of us have not even bothered to search the wisdom in other religions for new imagery.

Since Christian claims of uniqueness (and the theology that supported them) emerged from, and were strengthened by, the rejection of other religions, now that these dogmas are dissolving, we find ourselves reconnecting and mending barriers that once held us firmly apart.  Christian and Jewish scholars work closely today as the Jewishness of Jesus is recovered by Christian scholarship and Jews reflect on the wisdom of their own sage, free of Christian trappings and anti-Semitism.  In a university class on Christian Traditions, I was explaining contemporary challenges to the divinity of Jesus, suggesting that Jesus evolved into God in the early centuries, or had divinity thrust upon him.  A Muslim woman doing her Masters came to me afterwards and said, “If Jesus is not God, as Muhammad also claimed, in what way does the message of Christianity differ from that of Islam?”  In intra-faith situations, many of us have witnessed such reconnections through the Ecumenical Movement and also in unions of denominations, where dogmas and ecclesiastical forms over which our ancestors fought and died have shown to be cultural accretions and surmountable hurdles.  Religion scholar Huston Smith says:

It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the pathways merge.  As long as religions remain in the foothills of theology, ritual and church organization, they may be far apart. [xx]

With our current return to the sacredness of the earth and our responsibility for its care rather than exploitation, we are borrowing language, concepts and earth rituals from indigenous traditions we once tried to destroy as pagan.   Philosopher Sam Keen says:

To wonder is to perceive with reverence and love … and in wondering we come close to the feeling that the earth is holy.  Historically, the notion of wonder has been closely bound up with a religious mode of being in the world … In my experience, the substance of wonder is more frequently found in the prose of the secular than in the often quaint poetry of religion … Whether we continue to talk about God is not so important as whether we retain the sense of wonder which keeps us aware that ours is a holy place.[xxi]

Sir Lloyd Geering, in his new book Coming back to Earth: from gods, to God, to Gaia, calls this conscious concern for the planet the “new mysticism,” whether we use traditional God language, the language of Gaia, or the everyday human language of ecology. [xxii]  In this concern for the earth as a result of our new paradigm of the Sacred, we are finding ourselves more in line with admirers of nature than with much of the worship liturgies in churches.

As for the mystical path, when Henri le Saux, a Franciscan monk from Brittany, went to India to “Christianize” India and its monastic institutions, he found instead that India’s monastic traditions had much more to offer Christianity about meditation and contemplation.  Benedictine monk Bede Griffith went to India on a similar mission and ended up learning so much from Eastern meditation traditions that he combined the monastic traditions of East and West.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Vatican sent monks to Asia and Latin America to help Catholic churches in those areas develop their contemplative arm.  Instead, the monks were converted to new meditative ways learned from indigenous traditions.  When monks from across religions and countries gathered in Thailand in 1968 to share their common desire for union with the Ultimate, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, on the morning he was accidentally electrocuted, delivered a paper that said:

I believe that, by openness to Buddhism, to Hinduism, and to these great Asian traditions, we stand a wonderful chance of learning more about the potentiality of our own traditions, because they have gone, from the natural point of view, so much deeper into this than we have.[xxiii]

And what about Christian ethics?  Can we claim uniqueness here, as some try to do?  As I was preparing today’s presentation, I read the column called “Eternity Matters” in our local small-town newspaper.  This particular one was written by the Presbyterian pastor and entitled “In Defence of the Faith.”  Noting that Richard Dawkins had been speaking around Australia, the pastor assured readers, among other things, that Dawkins’ tirade against the terrible things done in the name of religion was simply not true, and then listed the holocausts by Hitler, Pol Pot and Idi Amin as linked to atheistic thought.  “As Christians,” he said, “We believe that all people are made in the image of God … and this is why we should respect and esteem one another.  It is from this value or idea that we derive laws which give equal rights to all people.  Remove this Christian principle,” he said, “and all sorts of philosophies emerge which proclaim the supremacy of one group of humans over another.” [xxiv]  This common assumption that the Golden Rule, the ethics of how to treat each other, is of Christian origin again shows our isolation and ignorance — Christianity was the late-comer here as well.  Let me quote from ancient Sumatran wisdom, “Let all your undertakings be pleasing to you, as well as others.  If that is not possible, at least do not harm anyone.” [xxv]  From Zoroastrianism, “That nature alone is good, which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.” [xxvi]  From a Hindu Vedic text, “This is the sum of duty.  Do nothing unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” [xxvii]  From Confucius, “What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to anyone else; what one recognizes as desirable for oneself, one ought to be willing to grant to others.” [xxviii]  From Plato, “May I do to others as I would that they should do to me.” [xxix]  From the Jewish Talmud, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow human being: this is the whole Torah: while the rest is the commentary thereof …” [xxx]  From Buddhism, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” [xxxi]  When we hear all these – and there are more — the words ascribed to Jesus in Matthew 7: 12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” seem strangely less unique.  Matthew’s Jesus acknowledged this by adding, “for this sums up all the Law and the Prophets.”  Given this religious universality, we can smile at an incident in Richard Dawkins’ recent interview in Australia with TV commentator Andrew Denton.  Trying to keep Dawkins away from his usual litany of the evils of religion, Denton asked Dawkins what ethics and values he lives by, since he is opposed to any religious ideas.  After some hesitation, Dawkins said, “Oh, the usual – do to others what you would like them to do to you.”

Read Part 2 HERE

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