Spong on heaven and hell

I presume that this Q&A from John Spong comes from an email list that Spong maintains, because I have only found its full text located a few places on the web. The entire text is as follows:

Joan from North Carolina, writes:
Do you believe in heaven and hell, the blissful heaven and the burning hell? And do you believe in Jesus Christ as your personal savior?

Dear Joan,

Answering your two questions is impossible until some terms are defined and some explanations are given. When you define heaven as "the blissful heaven" and hell as "the burning hell," you reveal an evangelical mindset that asserts a particular understanding that you are requesting that I either affirm or deny. It is to bind the discussion to your frame of reference. That immediately suggests that you do not want real answers, you want affirmation. I cannot give you that nor would I be interested in doing so. With that background, however, let me proceed to respond. I think it would be fair to say that I do not believe in a blissful heaven or a burning hell as evangelicals define those terms. I do believe in life after death and shall try to explain both why and in what way in my next book, which is scheduled for publication in September of 2009.

You define heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment where God evens out life here on Earth. I regard that as primitive, childlike thinking that transforms God into a parent figure who delights in rewarding goodness and punishing sinfulness. This portrays God as a supernatural, judging figure and it violates everything I believe about both God and human life.

If anyone pursues goodness in the hope of gaining rewards or avoiding punishment, that person has not escaped the basic self-centeredness of human life and it becomes obvious that such a person is motivated primarily by self-interest. The Christian life is ultimately revealed in the power to live for others, to give ourselves away. It is not motivated by bliss or torment. Both of those images are little more than human wish fulfillment.

The fiery pits of hell are not an essential part of the Christian story. If one would take Matthew's gospel and especially the book of Revelation out of the Bible, most of the references to hell as a fiery place of torment would disappear. That is a quite foreign theme to Paul, Mark, Luke and John. Evangelicals never study the Bible deeply enough to make this distinction. They basically talk about a book they do not understand.

When you ask about "believing in Jesus Christ as your personal savior" you are using stylized evangelical language. That language has no appeal at all for me. To assert the role of savior for Jesus implies a definition of human life as sinful, fallen and helpless. It assumes the ancient myth that proclaimed that we were created perfect only to fall into sin from which we need to be rescued. It was a popular definition before people understood about our evolutionary background. We have been evolving toward humanity for billions of years. Our problem is not that we have fallen from some pristine perfection into a sinful state from which we need to be saved, it is that we need to be empowered to become something that we have never been, namely fully human beings. So the idea that I need a savior to save me from a fall that never happened and to restore me to a status that I never possessed is in our time all but nonsensical. It is because we do not understand the nature of human life that we do not understand the Jesus role. I see in Jesus the power of love that empowers us to be more deeply and fully human and so I do not know how to translate your questions. Sorry, but the old evangelical language that you use is badly dated and I believe quite distorting to my understanding of what Christianity is all about.

– John Shelby Spong

Bart Ehrman

I don't make it a practice to read evangelical blogs, but recently I stumbled onto one, more or less by accident. I found a posting there titled "I don't get Bart Ehrman", in which the writer labeled Ehrman a "theological liberal." In fact, Ehrman is not a theological liberal at all, but an agnostic who has turned his back on religious faith, and lumping him with theological liberals confuses the issue.

The writer surmised that Ehrman is something of a media darling because "here’s a liberal scholar who not only writes for the public square; he also speaks about his own spiritual journey in those books." However, Marcus Borg, who unlike Ehrman is not an agnostic, also writes about his own own spiritual journey in his books, so I don't think that could explain it. The writer also suggests that a lot of theological liberals were former fundamentalists, and thus Ehrman fits that pattern; this may be true, but if so the liberals usually get to that point by first experiencing a kind of crisis of faith, brought on by their recognition that their former fundamentalist views were theologically, philosophically, morally, and scientifically untenable. Marcus Borg talks about the progression that he and many others have undergone, from pre-critical naivete, to critical thinking, to post-critical naivete. Basically, Ehrman is currently stuck in what Borg defines as the middle phase, "critical thinking". He has not come to (and for all we know may never come to) the state of post-critical naivete that constistutes theological liberalism--I would argue that he still adheres to his old evangelical paradigm about what a person of faith necessarily believes about God, religion, and the Bible. For Ehrman, if you reject that the Bible is inerrant, your own option is to reject religion altogether.

And I think that explains why Ehrman might be something of a media darling, while Borg is not; Ehrman fits into a rather simplistic paradigm that says that in order to be a person of faith, you have to accept certain premises about the the nature of the Bible and God. Ehrman has a problem with reconciling an omnipotent God with theodicy, for example, so for him this makes religious faith untenable. Ehrman either doesn't address or simply dismisses out of hand theologies, such as Borg's panentheism, or Cobb's process theology, that don't fit into his conception of what we might mean when we say "God". Basically, Ehrman is in many ways still an evangelical, because he still accepts many evangelical premises--he's just changed teams, or at least is now sitting on the sidelines. And since, I would guess, most people in the news media have never heard of panentheism or process theology (let alone Tillich), Ehrman's personal story of how he found agnosticism makes for nice, easy junk food that the media can easily consume and spit out again for public consumption. In a lot of ways, this illustrates how religious conservatives have managed to define the terms of religious dialogue in our country.

Michael Dowd on God

Here is a post from Michael Dowd's blog:

The crux of the problem, as I see it, is the failure of millions of people, religious and non-religious alike, to distinguish meaningful metaphor from measurable reality. God as a subjectively meaningful interpretation simply cannot be argued against. God is always a legitimate interpretation. But God is NOT (and never has been) an actual, physical Being, as science and common sense define reality. (Those who would attempt to argue that God is a REAL Father or King, but just in an unnatural, otherworldly sense are left in the bizarre position of claiming that God, the Creator of the Universe, is less real than the Universe, as I discuss here.)

HERE IS A WAY OUT OF THIS IMPASSE: Whenever you hear the word ‘God', think ‘Reality'. "I have faith in God" can be translated "I trust Reality". "God is Lord" means "Reality rules". Throughout the world, God has never been less than a mythic personification of Reality as a Whole, Ultimate Reality, or what today some call "the Universe". If we fail to recognize this, we miss everything. ALL images and characterizations of God are meaningful interpretations of Reality As It Really Is. When we forget this, we will inevitably trivialize God, belittle science, and desecrate nature.
Many believers and atheists alike define God as a being among other beings, spiritual in nature but still a being, who also happens to be super-powerful and possessing infinite resources. But God is not a being. God does not belong to the same ontological category as you and I. As soon as you stop thinking of God as a being then much of the debate between atheism and faith ceases to make any sense. This gets back to Tillich's conception of God as Being Itself. If you instead think of God as the foundational interpretation of reality at its deepest and most fundamental level, the whole question of "proving" a supernatural being's existence becomes moot.