“Controversial” Bishop Spong, now 78, talks about “Eternal Life”

Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong is a man of great faith who is impatient with history and with his own mortality. He’s seen a whole lot of positive change in his lifetime, but he’s impatient when he still witnesses the exclusion of people from the community of faith—or finds old biases and bigotry resurfacing in new guises.

He bravely speaks out as a lightening rod for many people who feel that the religious dogmas they’ve inherited simply don’t fit our world anymore—but don’t know quite how to raise the questions. Jack has a gift for articulating those questions and many persuasive answers, as well. You may completely disagree with him. Many people do. But you shouldn’t ignore him. He’s a font of provocative spiritual ideas.

Now that he’s 78, Jack is thinking a lot about—well—he’s thinking about what he describes in the title of his new book as: “Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.” ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm spoke with Jack Spong at length. Here are highlights …


DAVID: I’ve always loved your sense of humor! In the opening of this new book, you actually apologize for not dying earlier! It’s sort of a Mark Twain twist, I’d say.

In your opening, you write, “This is my fifth ‘final book.’ I have even written my autobiography. One is supposed to die after an autobiography is either written or published. I did not do that.”

So, is this one truly your “last” book? Or your “last” last-book?

JACK: (Laughs.) I think I’ve had the best retirement anybody’s ever had. I’ve grown more professionally and personally in these years. I feel totally fulfilled. My wife works closely with me on these enterprises. She manages my schedule and she’s my primary editor and I just adore her.

I retired in 2000. Then, I taught at Harvard. I’ve lectured around the world. I continue to write and to hear from readers all around the world. I turned 78 in June, so I’m in my 79th year of life. And it’s a wonderful life.

DAVID: Well, I think it’s terrific that we’re getting some of the most important new books this year from people well up in years. We just welcomed Harvey Cox to ReadTheSpirit and Harvey’s now 80 as he gives us his latest book, “The Future of Faith.”

This certainly is an affirmation of the spiritual gifts of aging, I would say.

JACK: I like Harvey a lot! I’ve been reading his books since I was a young man and I got to know him when I was teaching at Harvard. He’s a very important thinker about the Christian faith at a very important time in history.

The religious world is breaking into two parts: One is the part that can’t engage in today’s world. This part of Christianity is still shouting yesterday’s answers louder and louder. Some people like that kind of approach. There are Catholic versions of this backward-looking approach to faith and there are Protestant versions—all marching steadfastly into yesterday.

DAVID: And the other? Is it the part that’s trying to adapt to the future as Harvey Cox and you are describing it?
JACK: Yes, we need to transform this enterprise of Christianity.

One thing we have to realize is that we no longer believe most of the old things we were told we had to believe. Go to a Christian funeral today. The liturgy still states the old truths but when you get around to talking about the person who’s now gone, there’s not a great affirmation about life after death. Think about what you hear at funerals these days. Now, they’re mostly memorial services that celebrate who the person was.

DAVID: Harvey says this is the age of spirit—meaning that it’s no longer an age in which the old dogmas mean much to people. Faith still is vitally important, but—
JACK: —but now the frontier we need to explore is: What do we mean by spirit? How do we move deeply into life to touch the wellsprings of eternity.

That’s why my book’s entire title is so important to me: “Eternal Life: A New Vision” and the subtitle is “Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.”
I’m calling people to life. In my experience, the more deeply I live—the more in touch I am with that which is holy. The more I wastefully love, the more I am in touch with God, the God who Paul Tillich called “the ground of all being.”

It looks like Harvey and I are chronicling the same transition we see unfolding. This is a frontier—a period of significant turning into something different. This book is about eternal life, but I use that handle of eternal life to explore a lot of ways that we’re changing.

DAVID: People will find some startling insights in your new book, I think. One of them is your call to people “to embrace death.” Explain that point a little, will you?

JACK: We do need to embrace death as a friend, not an enemy. Death is as natural as our birth. Suppose there was no death. Our life would become an endless monotony—500,000 years of playing shuffleboard in a nursing home.
Because we know that death is a part of life, you don’t want to let a day go by without telling your spouse how deeply you love this person. Death is what gives life its passion and what drives us from the depths of our existence. The more deeply I reach into life, the more I touch the things that truly are eternal.
DAVID: Today, we’re strongly recommending to people that they pick up a copy of your book and read all the 250-or-so pages for themselves. But let’s give them a taste of what they’ll find in these chapters.
One very provocative argument you make here is that our old conceptions about Heaven and Hell simply have to be abandoned to free ourselves from a lot of old religious baggage that’s not really helpful anymore.
JACK: The teachings about life after death that we’ve inherited really have been aimed at controlling human behavior. What we’ve been taught really is about scaring us to act in a particular way. We have to get away from that concept.
I don’t know any parents anymore who would try to raise a child by saying: I’m going to write down everything you do—good and bad—and I’m going to punish you for all the bad and reward you for all the good. No one thinks that’s good parenting, but that’s one way we’ve been taught about Heaven and Hell.
We need religious maturity. Too many people want to keep other people in child-like innocence so they can be manipulated. That’s why so many people talk about God as Father. Heaven and Hell have been part and parcel of this.
I don’t know anybody who is helped by being told how bad they are—yet the liturgies of my church tell me over and over again what a wretched sinner I am. The liturgy tells me I’m not worthy to gather up the crumbs under the table. These are childlike images—what a slave says to the master. That’s the image many people have of our relationship with God. I think that’s a dreadful image. We have to break cycle that and call people into a new maturity.
My sense of God is that God is the power of life calling me to live, God is the power of love calling me to love, God is the ground of all being calling me to be all I can. Jesus lived fully, loved wastefully and the job of the Christian church is not to make people more religious. The task of the church is to call people to live and to love and to stop tearing other people down in destructive ways.
Our job is to create a world where everyone has a chance to live fully, love wastefully and be all they can be. That’s the only mission the church really has.

DAVID: One reason people shy away from exploring their questions and doubts is that they’re afraid they’ll somehow offend their friends and loved ones. And, often, I’ve heard people return to this issue of death—fear of death. Raising too many questions can be very upsetting when one is approaching the Big-D: Death.
One of the strongest affirmations you make in this new book is: You don’t fear death. Not at all. You’re one of the world’s most famous Christian skeptics and yet—you’re not afraid as you approach the end.
JACK: I wanted to call this book “Dancing with Death” but Harper told me nobody would buy a book with the word “Death” in the title. People are terrified of death.
People don’t even want to touch a book with that word in the title. But, I’m not terrified of death. I’m far more terrified of meaningless life.
DAVID: We should share with readers another remarkable point you make in this book. I imagine that a good number of your fans—and your foes—suspect that you don’t believe in what we might call “Heaven” at all. And, what you describe in the book certainly is not a big fancy city with streets paved of gold. You’ve got a much different vision of what Heaven may be.
But in the simplest terms—you argue passionately for something that most people probably would call Heaven. Can you describe a little bit about your vision of this eternal life? It takes 250 pages in the book, but give us a little taste of what you’re trying to convey.
JACK: That’s really hard to do.
What I try to do as a religious person is to recognize religion’s limits. Try to imagine a horse communicating—with a horse’s range of communication tools—what it means to be a human. A horse couldn’t do that!
So when human beings try to describe what it means to be God, then I think we face the same problem. We don’t have the capacity of language to properly talk about God and expanded life and expanded love and expanded being. We can get to the edge of expressing it, but our communication tools fall far short.
DAVID: Yes, you explain this in the book. But you also write some important affirmations here about what eternal life means.
JACK: One question I always hear is: Am I going to know my loved ones? And I say to people: I don’t know how to answer that honestly. But it’s a very important question because an important part of who we become in life are all the memories of the people we know and have loved.
If I’m going to share in whatever eternity really is, then the person I am is not just Jack Spong as a single, isolated person. I’m Jack Spong who has a wife who is a part of me, who has a mother and a father who are part of who I am, who has friends who are part of me. I can’t imagine a life after death, where my humanity reaches into new dimensions, that doesn’t somehow share in all of the people who have made me who I am. But it’s beyond the boundaries of the human language to describe how that will be.
DAVID: There’s a lot more in this book—many related topics you touch upon, but your message ultimately reminds me of wise words from a good friend of mine over the years—Rabbi Daniel Syme who is well known in Reform Jewish circles for his talents at education and writing. He says that our language to describe Heaven breaks down very quickly. We know so little, really. And, if we focus too much on Heaven, we ignore the world around us now.
Toward the end of your book, there’s a short passage we quoted in our Introduction to your new book earlier this week. I think it’s well worth wrapping up this interview with your words …
I end this book by calling you to live fully, to love wastefully, to be all that you can be and to dedicate yourselves to building a world in which everyone has a better opportunity to do the same. That to me is to be part of God and to do the work of God. …
Then, you conclude this way: “Finally, that to me is the way to prepare for life after death. Shalom.”

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  (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)


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