What do you do when you’re nearing the end of your life and the creeds and doctrines of your youth ring hollow? You hold fast to what is real, to what your heart tells you is true.
That’s the approach Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong takes in his book Eternal Life: A New Vision, which came out late last year. Spong was raised in a fundamentalist church and ordained a priest and later a bishop in the Episcopal church, but he’s best know as a passionate and prolific spokesperson for liberal Christianity. Some of his other books are titled Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Jesus for the Non-Religious, and Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. I read Why Christianity Must Change or Die and agreed with most of it; this is the second Spong book I’ve read.
Spong has seen that fundamentalist doctrines and a literal interpretation of the Bible simply can’t be supported by the evidence provided by Galileo, Newton, and Darwin. He says “There is no supernatural God, animating spirit, Earth Mother, masculine tribal deity or external monotheistic being. There is no parental deity watching over us from whom we can expect help.”
Still, Spong remains a Christian, saying “I must go through my faith tradition to its center, its core and its depth, and only then move beyond it.” I agree with him. A person will grow and mature spiritually far better by drinking deeply from one religion than by sipping lightly from many.
Though his book is subtitled “beyond religion, beyond theism, beyond heaven and hell” and though he severely criticizes all of the above, he has not become an atheist. Spong says “I cannot and will not deny the reality of my God-experience. The fact that the way we thought of God in our past has died does not mean that God has died or that there is no God.”
Through spiritual practice, Spong has ended up where countless devotees of every religion known to humanity have gone – mysticism. He references theologian Paul Tillich when he says “if God is the ‘Ground of All Being’ then my ‘being’ not only is part of but participates in the ‘being’ of God.”
Bishop Spong has experienced the Unity of All, which gives him the confidence to believe in eternal life even though he clearly does not expect to be raptured or resurrected. He says:
The human quest for life after death is not based in any sense on the claim that my life or anyone else’s is immortal; it is based on a new awareness that self-conscious human life shares in the eternity of God and that, to the degree that I am in communion with that ever-expanding life force, that life-enhancing power of love and that inexhaustible Ground of Being, I will live, love and be a part of who God is, bound not by my mortality but by God’s eternity.
I have little to criticize in this book other than Spong’s insistence that “the supernatural” does not and cannot exist. I have experienced “animating spirits” and “tribal deities” and I am not willing to write them off as pure psychological phenomena. But for those who insist on a rationalist, naturalist approach, Bishop Spong’s views on life after death are a pleasant alternative to New Atheism.
No matter which path we follow – Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, or any one of countless others – all mystics are headed toward the same destination anyway: the Unity of All.