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 2

Continued from Stepping out with the Sacred: Progressive engaging the Divine, Part 1

A current move for Progressives, when churches fail us by demanding we believe difficult things about God, is to focus on what we do rather than how we live, as in Gretta Vosper’s book With or Without God: why the way we live is more important that what we believe. [i]  Florence Nightingale, a significant but unrecognized progressive, feminist and liberation theologian, said – “Unless you make a life which shall be the manifestation of your religion, it does not much signify what you believe.” [ii]   Religion scholar Karen Armstrong says:

The experience of an indefinable transcendence, holiness and sacredness has been a fact of human life … I don’t think it matters what you believe in – and most of the great sages of religion would agree with me.  If conventional beliefs make you compassionate, kind and respectful of the sacred rights of others, this is good religion.  If your beliefs make you intolerant, unkind and belligerent, this is bad religion, no matter how orthodox it is. [iii]

Yet this is exactly what the Buddha, another progressive thinker, said some 2500 years ago.  Born into Hinduism and seeing suffering as the human problem, he tried the religious solutions of his day and found them wanting.  In desperation, he sat under a tree meditating until he found enlightenment or “became awake,” the meaning of the word Buddha.  His solution was not metaphysical speculation but a practical way of living fully here and now, which is why his teachings appeal so much to the disenchanted of all religions. He dismissed blind following of external authorities, saying — “Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher,” he said.  “Be ye lamps unto yourselves” and pursue your own path. [xxxv]  The Buddha dismissed prayers offered to helpless gods as fetters that bind and refused speculation about the Sacred, the cosmos or the soul, developing instead a way to live.  It was not that he denied Something More but, since we cannot know, why waste time speculating.  He advocated self- effort instead of passive offerings to gods and miracles.  His practical way followed Four Noble Truths — One: Life is suffering.  Two: The cause of suffering is desire, our selfishness and ego clinging to what does not last.  Three: This selfish desire must be overcome.  Four: it is by following the eightfold path with the help of a community – right knowledge, right aspiration, right speech, right behaviour, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right practice.  In the end, compassion and action are the goals and the question of whether there is Something More remains open.  This way of living does not ask that we choose one path over another, or one set of beliefs over another, but offers a tried and true path which others have perfected and which can benefit Progressives trying to live in fully human ways -the “do unto others” principle, rather than a list of beliefs.

Last December 2009, I attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia.  Some 7,000 people from across religions and nations listened to how others engaged the Sacred and how this transformed their lives and shaped they way they lived.  White Sikh turbans mingled with Buddhist saffron robes and Muslim women in hijab chatted with Hindu women in magnificent saris.  Saami people from the Arctic, outfitted in striking embroidered wool garments, compared stories with sedately suited men with crosses around their necks.  We became quite curious about one very tall hat in the line in front of us, wondering what his faith tradition might be, but when he turned around, he was the local catering chef.  I introduced myself to Swami Parameshamanda in the crowd waiting for the opening ceremony – his Calcutta-based order has ashrams across the globe.  “How heavy is a polar bear?” he asked after we chatted a while, and then gave his own answer, “Heavy enough to break the ice.  Thank you for breaking the ice and speaking with me.”  During the opening plenary, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Aboriginal and Shinto blessings were offered.  I wondered at the plethora of wisdom represented by these people, not just in themselves but in their ancient traditions, all seeking human transformation.  His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shanker, having watched the massed orchestra perform with precision, in sync with choir and soloists, offered this as a metaphor for the Parliament.  Each religion plays its own instrument and we don’t argue or make claims as to which is the best instrument.  The key to harmony and not chaos, he said, is to “play our own instrument, don’t fight, and all focus on the one conductor – whom some call GOD.” [xxxvi]  Seven days of meeting sessions with some thirty options in any one time bracket would take a book to describe (the program book was three hundred pages), but in all the sessions I attended, I never once heard anyone making superior or exclusive claims for their religious beliefs – wait, except the Christian lobby outside the entrance with a sign proclaiming Jesus as the only way, truth and life; and the atheists standing beside them offering $10,000 to anyone who could prove there is a God.

I could spend many hours re-emphasizing my point that, if we have a non-theistic paradigm of the Sacred within everything, or if we see the Sacred as simply life with a capital L, we must also address how this has been experienced in waters beyond our own.  This is not just about acquiring knowledge of the other, but about exposure to human wisdom on a grand scale to show us how to live as human beings.  We Progressives are busily reinventing ourselves in response to the failures within our own traditions, yet we are surrounded by people from other religious traditions that have long worked within this understanding of the Divine, who can share with us their wisdom and discoveries.  Have we tried to read their sacred texts and commentaries, or even know what they are – the Tao Te Ching (Taoism), TriPitaka, Lotus Sutra and Dhammapada (Buddhism), Avesta & Gathas (Zoroastrianism), Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana (Hinduism), Adi Granth (Sikhism), Lun Yu and I-Ching (Confucianism) to name a few?  In Sikh doctrine, for example, the Divine Presence is without form but visible to enlightened believers as immanent in all creation. [xxxvii]  The Hindu search for the Divine leads to the discovery that our real self, atman, is actually part of the universal Self, the Divine Brahman.  And for the Native American, “You ask me to plough the ground.  Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s bosom?” [xxxviii]  Traditions that have long built their theology and ecology on such imagery can surely help those of us trying to reconnect with the Sacred here and now, rather than longing for heaven.  Norman Habel says in his new book An inconvenient text: Is a green reading of the Bible possible? “It is time we read [the Bible] as Earth beings in solidarity with Earth, not as God-like beings who happen to be sojourners on Earth.” [xxxix]

While what we do and how we live lies at the heart of things, many of us are not in situations or churches where we can simply ignore the clash of belief systems as old and new paradigms continue to brush against each other and cause friction and dissent.  There are times when I wonder whether progressive and conservative, for want of better labels, are not two inevitably and eternally different beasts, which is why I find an affinity with those who seek the Sacred outside my tradition and in theological images with which I can identify.  When I began writing my forthcoming book about engaging the Sacred across religious traditions, I had no idea how rewarding it would be to me personally, breaking me out of theological boxes I thought I had already left and inviting me to meetings with the Sacred I have long sought, but in new and fresh places.  I remember sitting on top of a hill in India with a Hindu colleague, asking him to talk about God while I listened.  I could say “yes” to all his descriptions, albeit it in different names and metaphors, something I find hard to do with some of my “old paradigm” Christian friends with whom I share a hero and a sacred text but little else.  When people hear me speak, some ask if I am still a Christian, which I find difficult to answer knowing what they mean by that label.  Yet I also bemoan the fact that this part of my identity is under threat, simply because I have taken my religious tradition seriously and refused to allow the teachings of Jesus to be misinterpreted and the Sacred locked in humanly-constructed limits of language and concepts.

Let me finish with another image from the Parliament of the World’s Religions.  Sri Jai Karunamayi, an Indian teacher, described the world as many rooms in one house – Australia is a room, India is a room, Canada is a room.  What we need, she said, is unity in the house.  This metaphor is more vivid if you have been in an Indian household where sons bring wives home to live in one room of the parents’ house, sharing cooking and living areas.  Although the metaphor founders if we think of the traditional “hierarchies” in an Indian family house, it reminds us that, since we don’t have the possibility of moving to another “house” or planet, we must share the one we have and this means sharing the energy and life-forces which sustain  our global home — which some call God.   We can hear other religious ideas and think, “that’s nice,” “that’s weird,” or “that’s wrong,” but if we realize we are all seeking the Sacred, described differently through different human experiences, language and imagery, we don’t have to stay in our rooms.  We can use the shared kitchen to compare stories over a meal and relax in the shared living room, learning how another’s story can resource our own search for transformation.  The aim is not to convert but to share life experiences, just as we share recipes, political opinions and our planet.  According to religion scholar Ursula King, we need more “world believers” who, like world citizens living in more than one country yet retaining a sense of “home,” have deep roots in one faith but relate to, and learn from, faiths other than their own — spiritually multi-lingual and multi-focused people. [xl]  This, I believe, is the progressive challenge in this kairos time of opportunity.   Here it from the lips of Buddhist activist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:

We have to be in touch with ourselves and with other enlightened people and we have to be in the present time because only the present is real, only in the present moment can we be alive.  We do not practice for the sake of the future, to be reborn in a paradise, but to be peace, to be compassion, to be joy right now. [xli]

© Copyright belongs to author Val Webb. This cannot be reproduced/published without author’s permission.

[i] Aesop, Fables 536 (from Phaedrus 5. 8), c. 6th B.C.E, trans. Gibbs,

[ii] John T. Robinson, Honest to God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962)

[iii] See Martin Flanagan, Peter Kennedy: The man who threatened Rome (Australia: One Day Hill Publishers, 2010)

[iv] Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking theology and economy for a planet in peril (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 15, 17

[v] Val Webb, Like Catching Water in a Net: Human attempts to describe the Divine (New York & London: Continuum, 2007)

[vi] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1955), 57

[vii] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970)

[viii] Val Webb, In Defense of Doubt: An invitation to adventure (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1995)

[ix] Val Webb, Stepping out with the Sacred: Human attempts to engage the Divine (New York & London: Continuum, 2010)

[x] Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1965), 86-7

[xi] Quoted in Anand Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind: Celebration of unity in diversity (Jakata: PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2009), 13

[xii] Quoted in Tony Kelly,  A New Imagining: Towards an Australian spirituality (Melbourne, Australia: Collins Dove, 1990), 112

[xiii] Quoted in Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind, 4

[xiv] Omoto Kyo, Michi-no-shiori, quoted in Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind,, 6

[xv] Qur’an 2: 115

[xvi] Dvatrimshika, quoted in Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind, 4

[xvii] Quoted in Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind, 6

[xviii] Guru Gobind Singh, quoted in Sikh Missionary Center, Pearls of Sikhism: Peace, justice and equality (Ann Arbor, MI: Sheridan Books, Inc, 2008), 54

[xix] Adi Granth, quoted in Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind, 7

[xx] Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1965), 6

[xxi] Sam Keen, Apology for Wonder (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1969), 15, 211

[xxii] Lloyd Geering, Coming back to Earth: from gods, to God, to Gaia (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2009), 218

[xxiii] Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart & James Laughlin eds., (New York: New Directions Pubishing,1973, 1975), 343

[xxiv] Pastor Simon Chen, “In Defence of Faith,” Mudgee Guardian, Friday March 19, 2010, 13.

[xxv] Quoted in Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind, 113

[xxvi] Dadistann-i-dink, quoted in Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind, 19

[xxvii] Mahabharata, quoted in Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind, 57

[xxviii] Quoted in Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind, 99

[xxix] Quoted in Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind, 117

[xxx] Quoted in Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind, 35

[xxxi] Udana-Varga, quoted in Krishna, One Earth, One Sky, One Humankind, 107

[xxxii] Gretta Vosper, With or Without God: Why the way we live is more important that what we believe (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005)

[xxxiii] Florence Nightingale, Suggestions for Thought, quoted in Val Webb, Florence Nightingale: The making of a radical theologian (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2002), 169

[xxxiv] Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: A memoir (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 4-5

[xxxv] Smith, The Religions of Man, 105

[xxxvi] His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shanker

[xxxvii] John R. Hinnells, ed., Dictionary of Religions (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 15

[xxxviii] Webb, Like Catching Water in a Net, 95

[xxxix] Norman Habel, An Inconvenient Text: Is a green reading of the Bible possible? (Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum Press, 2009), 58

[xl] Ursula King, The Search for Spirituality: Our global quest for a spiritual life (New York: BlueBridge, 2008), 62

[xli] Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace, Arnold Kotler ed., (Berkley, CA: Parallax Press, 1987), 86

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