September 11th came and horror struck in the North of the Americas. It was seen on T.V. over and over again. The line between myth and reality was severed. Our powerful selves, our self-righteous invincible selves, our constructed reality came down. Suddenly vulnerable, suddenly human, suddenly in need of God.
That is the oddity. This needed God is the very one we do not easily believe in – the one we have quietly doubted since Darwin, the Holocaust, and the landing on the moon. The concept of God to which many turned: the God out there who did not protect, did not defend, was found wanting. Many realized a truth, which we have known but denied for so long – our concept of God fails us.
Bishop John Shelby Spong came to Toronto in the weeks following September 11th. Harper Collins Publisher had brought the bishop to Toronto to promote his book: A New Christianity For A New World. Spong looks beyond traditional boundaries and concepts to open new avenues and a new vocabulary into the holy/Holy proposing a Christianity premised upon justice, love, and the rise of a new humanity.
Spong critiques the theistic concept of God, a concept that has bound us religiously, spiritually, and culturally. This is the God who dwells outside our world, visiting us occasionally to accomplish ‘his’ will. Spong invites us to shed this concept of God and to risk encountering God anew in a way that is true to our experience of life in this new century.
Simply articulated Spong offers a threefold reflection of God. The first is “God is the ultimate source of life. One worships this God by living fully, by sharing deeply.” This reminds us of John’s Gospel: “I have come to give you life that you might have it more abundantly.” As the ultimate source of life then the activity of God, our activity must confront all that diminishes life. We must decisively act in favour of life i.e. against racism, militarism, harmful patriarchy, disparity between rich and poor, homophobia to name but a few.
“God is the ultimate source of love” is Spong’s second reflection of God. “One worships this God by loving wastefully, by spreading love frivolously, by giving love away without stopping to count the cost.” If God is the ultimate source of love, then God’s activity, our activity is to do all in our power to bring about wholeness i.e. taking seriously the issues of global warming, international politics, world trade, homelessness and housing.
Spong’s third reflection is “God is Being – the reality underlying everything that is. To worship this God, you must be willing to risk all, abandoning your defences and your self imposed or culturally constructed security systems.” As Being itself, then God’s activity, our activity is to be able to say fully and wholly “I” and in the same breath “We.”
Did God die in the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11th? Of course not, but our concept of God did. The God who knows all, the intervening God, the God who allows the innocent to suffer, this theistic concept of God was questioned and found wanting. Bishop Spong in his new book successfully takes us beyond binding images bringing us to a sense of God who is real and alive in these our times.
Paul E. Hansen