I met the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, the retired bishop of the Episcopal Church Diocese of Newark (based in Newark, New Jersey), way back when he was bishop and I was a parishioner at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, DC. I’ve forgotten why he was in town—probably business with the Presiding Bishop, whose main bailiwick is the National Cathedral—but he usually made time to stop in at St. Stephen’s, which was close to his heart because of our long history of civil rights actions.
He was something of a hero of mine because of his outspoken stance in favor of gay and lesbian rights in the Episcopal Church, but I wasn’t prepared, when I shook his hand and introduced myself, for him to actually know who I was. He had heard of my work with the church’s inclusive language lectionary (which sowed the seeds for The Inclusive Bible), and immediately engaged me in a long and animated conversation about inclusive language.
I now subscribe to his newsletter, in which he responds to letters from readers. I found this exchange particularly fascinating.
John Gamlin from Old Hall, East Bergholt, Colchester, UK, writes:
If we are now beyond theism then I suggest we are also beyond the word “God” — beyond it because:
- of the baggage it carries;
- to continue to use it is to be constantly misunderstood; and
- we will continue to drift back into the old language and old images.
So what new name?
None will do, but we need to look somewhere for a new way to describe the bearer of eternity.
Thank you for your perceptive question, which has forced me to think about this issue in a new way to answer it — or at least to keep the conversation going. I need to make some distinctions or clarifications.
1. There is a difference between the experience of God and the explanation of the experience. Religion tends to assume they are the same. Theism is a human explanation of the experience of God; it is not God. The experience can be real or delusional. The explanation will never be eternal. No explanation ever is.
2. Personhood is the deepest experience of our lives as human beings and we cannot escape its boundaries. We describe everything in terms of that reality. That is why we think of God after the analogy of a person. We can also never get into the being of God, or of a fellow mammal, a reptile, a fish or an insect. We define each out of the reference of our own personhood. The same is true for every other creature. Xenophanes said it in the third century before the Common Era, “If horses had Gods, they would look like horses.”
3. The concept of God has been evolving as long as there have been human beings. In animism, which appears to have been the earliest human religion, God was defined as multiple spirits in a spirit-filled world. These spirits caused everything to do the things that we human beings observed happening. The sun moved, the moon turned, the flowers bloomed and the trees bore fruit. Animism sought to help us relate to and win the favor of these animating spirits. When we human beings moved into agricultural communities, God was defined in terms of the processes of fertility. When we grew into tribes on our way toward nation states, God became a tribal deity. In the Gods of Olympus, animism and tribal deities were merged into a hierarchy of Gods ruled by the head (chief) of the Gods (Jupiter, Zeus) but with animistic functions still being defined by spirits (Neptune and Cupid, for example). Finally, we moved into a concept of God’s oneness and God began to grow vaguer and more mysterious.
4. During our history, definitions of God have been born, changed and died and that is the process that is going on today. Our knowledge is expanding and our definition of God will expand with it. The God who was thought to ride across the sky as the sun, changed as our knowledge of the sun grew.
So what do we do? Allow the name to evolve. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is identified with wind and breath, concepts that eventually evolved into the word Spirit. God was identified with love, as the expander of life, and evolved into the understanding of the Christ figure as “love incarnate.” God is also identified with the idea of “rock” and evolved into the Ground of Being that we identify with the old patriarchal word Father.
I do not believe that in the last analysis any human being can actually define or redefine God, whether we call God the Holy, the Sense of Transcendence or anything else, but I do believe we can experience this presence and I do believe it is real. When we experience this presence I know of no other way to describe it except as “God.” History teaches us that the word God is never static; it is always in flux and ever changing. I suggest that we not be frightened and allow that process to continue.
I will continue to think about it because of you. So I thank you for your question.
—John Shelby Spong