Archive for the ‘John Shelby Spong’ Category

I’ve been listening to a podcast called Spirit in Action, produced by the liberal Quakers at Northern Spirit Radio, and it’s added some nice confirmations to my theory of the secret UUs.

John Shelby Spong was on a 2005 podcast that I just heard today. He and the host spent a few minutes on the idea of ongoing revelation, and the host asked Spong what books he might add to the canon of sacred scripture if he could. Spong named Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letters From a Birmingham Jail,” and works by Dag Hammerskjold, among others. And elsewhere in the interview he talked about incorporating the findings of science into one’s spirituality, naming Charles Darwin and Karl Jung in particular.

Among the six sources of spiritual wisdom UUs recognize: “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

In a more recent podcast, Philip Gulley was discussing his latest book, If the Church Were Christian, and through the course of the conversation mentioned that Fairfield Friends Meeting — the Quaker meeting he pastors — includes Baha’i, Jews and atheists.  And as for himself, he told the host he’s not concerned with calling himself a Christian. As the first chapter of the latest book suggests, he sees Jesus as a model for living, not an object of worship.

Sounds kind of like a UU congregation, doesn’t it? I was also reminded that in the book, though not in the podcast, he mentions that he would rather have a congregation of kind atheists than mean-spirited Christians.

Among the seven UU principles are a respect for the worth and dignity of each person; encouragement to spiritual growth; and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

I don’t mean to make more of this than it is. I doubt either Spong or Gulley would call themselves UUs. But the theologies they espouse, in particular their shared emphasis on action over belief and acceptance of people as they are — and their theological ideas which bear many similarities to one another and not many at all to the traditional Christian settings each of them came through — suggest that they would be comfortable and very much at home in a UU congregation.

More to the point, I think that the broad universe of liberal religion has more similarities than differences. If atheists can attend a Quaker meeting, and a former Episcopal Bishop can speak unreservedly of wanting to add Martin Luther King to the sacred canon (and rip Leviticus out of it), then we’re drinking from the same well. Add many reform Jews, the United Church of Christ and other liberal Christian denominations, humanists, many or most neo-pagans and various unlabeled liberal-spiritual types, and we have a movement that’s considerably larger than it might seem.


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A while back (a long while, I admit), I stated my intent to devote some postings to a synthesis of theological thought drawing on the recent works of several liberal Christian and post-Christian scholars. The delay has been purely a matter of distractions taking time and attention, and I still plan to get to it.

What I can say now is that the overall themes I see in their work are universalism (some more explicitly than others); a compassionate grace that seems to see all of us — not just the “chosen” or “saved” — as worthy of  love; and a view of God as non-personal. They generally shun atonement theology and hold a classically Unitarian view of Jesus as a spirit-filled man, but not the divine Son of God.

There is a noted lack of obsession in their work with delineating who is “in” or “out,” right ot wrong, moral or sinful. There is no sense of exclusivity among them. Even Donald Miller, who might be surprised to be included with John Shelby Spong and Scotty McLennan, writes candidly in Blue Like Jazz of finding much more non-judgmental acceptance and community among a group of free-loving hippies than in the campus church, during his college days. (Overall his views are more traditionally Christian than the others — but still a far cry from the fundamentalists.)

The view of God differs from one to another, but to a person they all have outgrown the traditional idea of God as a super-powerful person. Marcus Borg devoted his book The God We Never Knew to describing and advocating panentheism, the idea that God infuses all things and (differing from the related concept of pantheism) also transcends all things. Unlike the wholly transcendent God of traditional Judeo-Christian theology, Borg’s deity is more organic, dependent on the universe just as the universe is on the deity. Spong’s deity is “the ground of all being” — a concept he gleans from Paul Tillich — and the source of love. Spong calls himself an atheist in that he rejects the idea of theos, a personal God, while embracing an ultimate Source of existence.

All in all, while these scholars are working independently and their thoughts are not completely interlocking, there are broad thematic congruences that, I think, are forming the seeds of a theology for the 21st Century — one that will be right at home in a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

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Tonight I went to a discussion group at the church, the first in a once-a-month series of theology talks. This one was centered on the belief of 18th-Century Universalist minister Hosea Ballou that all humans have a “God-given right to be happy.”

The discussion was lively, and touched on whether we have a right to be happy or to pursue happiness, on whether anyone ever does anything that’s not ultimately motivated by the desire to be happy (Ballou believed we do not), and whether happiness is a state of frequent euphoria or more a pervasive feeling of contentment.

A few people objected to the phrase “God-given,” and that got me to thinking. A good number of UUs are atheists or agnostics, I know, but I’m not. Not anymore.

On the other hand, I don’t conceive of God in the way that most traditional religious systems posit God either.

Some people believe in a God who manipulates everything about the world, and they tend to try to scry the will of God out of every event. Something as momentous as an earthquake or as trivial as their finding a good parking space, they’ll chalk up to God’s will. I don’t agree with that.

On the other hand, some people believe God is an entirely human imagining, made up and not real in any objective or important way. I don’t agree with that either.

Some people believe God created heaven and hell and sujects us to a final judgment. Various religions have various schemes for staying out of hell, but I don’t believe in hell. Others believe God wound up the universe and then went away somewhere, perhaps to a summer home. I don’t buy that either.

The most useful way I’ve found to think of God in my recent years is, as Paul Tillich and then John Shelby Spong more recently put it, as the Ground of Being. This is not the personalized, anthropomorhic God of the Bible, with his giant-sized emotional reactions and sometimes schizophrenic tendencies. It’s a less personal fundamental essence undergirding all of existence. The Source of Love in Spong’s formulation, but not a cosmic puppetmaster. This is, at this point, where I am. Which means I am comfortable with Ballou’s God-language, and don’t need to reformulate “God-given right” into “human right” as some of the group tonight suggested, but also means I do not have an especially concrete idea of God that I feel a need to talk others into sharing.

There is one philosophical point that I considered mentioning tonight but ultimately didn’t. The presence of “God-given” in Ballou’s phrase (and more broadly) establishes an objectivity for the existence of rights, and a foundation for considering things to be inherently right or wrong. The Founding Fathers attributed our “inalienable rights” to our Creator, the specific identity of which they left amorphous, but which they did deliberately invoke. I think they were wise to do so.

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I’ve been mulling over some ideas about an emerging theological trend that is arising out of Christianity but expanding into a universal, wholistic view. I am planning at least one entry on it and probably more.

I think this movement portends well for the future of Unitarian Universalism, even though its early wave — most notably in my reading, John Shelby Spong, Philip Gulley and Marcus Borg — are not working specifically from that perspective.

More to come.

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