Last spring, a group of us from Wayside attended a presentation of Rev. John Spong at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Buffalo. It was a thrill to be there with him among our friends. In his 80th year, he seemed energetic, bright, and passionate about living and working.
Having read several of his 21 books over the past years, I was delighted to hear him say his last book had just gone to press and would be out soon. He said it was the hardest book he had written with many arguments with his publisher over the title. It would be called, “Eternal Life: A New Vision” and would be his only book on the topic, and in all likelihood, he said this would be his last book.
Waiting nearly three months after ordering, the book arrived in late September. I eagerly began to read but soon found myself a bit bored and disappointed with a repetition of several of his books with similar conclusions on why 4th century church theology was no longer valid for our times. I have no doubt that John Spong is a bright, devoted, and hard working person. He helped me immensely to understand much of the work of the Jesus Seminar of which he labored as a member. His books and others by Seminar writers such as Markus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Robert Funk answered many questions I once had concerning the literalness of the Bible, the miracles which weren’t miracles, the non-literal understanding of the resurrection, the virgin birth, on ideas of heaven and hell, and the church as the only valid teacher of God’s truth. I had expected this book to be less these explaining of these ideas with more reasons and comments about the transcendent, “eternal life” topic. It wasn’t until the last 20 pages or so that he finally gave his conclusions about eternal life, as if he perhaps didn’t somehow want to embarrass himself by being somewhat of an escapist, pie-in-the-sky, spiritual praise ninny!
So many writings and programs of the Jesus Seminar have left me with similar feelings of a void in spirituality. Their insights and critiques of the church certainly are valuable, especially for anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of its history and why today it continues to lose so many members. Its theology and teachings just don’t connect with many asking serious questions about the church’s authenticity. Yes, help in breaking down old social exclusions and prejudices are great. Help in opening minds to another larger view of God, Spirit, and Jesus is valuable. I laughed at Spong’s paraphrases of Galileo, the one whose observations rendered God homeless; of Newton, the scientist who put God out of employment; and of Darwin, who made humanity not a bit less than angels but just a bit above apes! And I agree that many efforts to revive the church today are comparable to Spong’s image of trying to revive a corpse by giving it a face lift. But a new vision of eternal life? I felt left short.
I have felt in past years that writers like Spong and Jesus Seminar writers would prosper by a few trips to Ashrams and Meditation centers which are more Eastern. Even a trip to the Taize community in France would help, with perhaps a stay over at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village. I would love to see such thinkers spend time with spiritual teachers such as Jack Kornfield, trained to be a Buddhist Monk, then earning a Ph.D in clinical psychology, then becoming a teacher of meditation in America. I would like to introduce people like John Spong to Stanislav Groff, the Prague trained atheist psychiatrist turned teacher of Holotrophic Breath Work meditation, a technique which could lead him to the “other side”. I would like to see John Spong meet and listen to people like Wayne Dyer, Ram Dass and the Dalai Lama! I would love to have him meet one of my favorite teacher’s, Ken Wapnick, and begin a reading of the Course in Miracles.
Last year it was recommended to me to share a couple books with the church before I would be retiring after thirty-three years. The idea was to help them prepare for the future after my departure. One of the books I used was John Spong’s recent book, “A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born.” The book included the usual reasons summarized above as to why more and more people just cannot connect with the church. We discussed the book in a couple Session meetings and one of the elders who had read the book asked, “But where is the spirituality?” This is a similar question I even find myself asking after Spong’s latest book on Eternal Life, A New Vision.
In this book, Spong dismisses such Eastern resources with hardly a paragraph, noting such as simplistic and not worth looking toward. Likewise, he dismisses recent paranormal studies and resources of a transcendent world. I wouldn’t bother to suggest to him people with psychic gifts! The book would have been much richer and worthwhile had he done more of this exploration, with experience, than repeat so much his reasons for the church’s irrelevancy.
In a recent blog, Spong made a clear declaration that he was done arguing and debating with people over the gay/lesbian issue. It was time to just get on being open and encouraging people who were. I felt the same kind of declaration could be made about arguing with church members and leaders over Biblical inerrancy, miracles, physical resurrection, and others. Let it go; if people want to remain there, so be it. It’s their choice. Instead, enter and share the deep joy and peace from a newer vision and experience of eternal life, that it’s now for us to live, to be awaken to, and share with those who come open and eager to learn.
I close by saying to me, the most enjoyable and inspiring words were his the last few pages, the epilogue, in which Spong writes of aging and closing out one’s earthy life. It was almost worth the book’s price, these ten or so pages. Spong is closing out his 8th decade, seeing the ending horizon while I’m on the back side of my 7th decade. I could resonate clearly with his beautiful description of losing body strength and functions! It was helpful, peaceful, and realistic. Such a season in my life sends to my heart and soul an even greater appreciation for Eternal Life, that Higher, True Self of which I am, the Eternal Son and Child of God. For that reminder, I thank John Spong for his work and his life of being such a pioneer in helping so many of us move past the guilt, fear, and narrowness of a church we loved but with questions we always wanted addressed. I thank him for giving me the courage with some tools to attempt that same kind of pioneer travel, as short and faulty as it may have been.