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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

John Shelby Spong Re-Visited

I have frequently (including very recently) circulated, among friends, sections from the writings of Bishop Spong whom I hold in extremely high regard not only for the lucidity of his writing, but also for his analytical skills, sincerity, courage of conviction, and genuine compassion.

His bestselling "Jesus for the Non-Religious" requires some basic familiarity with The Bible. Its Audible edition has found a permanent space on my iPod along with Dawkins's "The God Delusion". While one would be inclined to think that a Bishop and an Atheist would make for odd neighbours, even in an iPod, read what Spong once had to say about Dawkins:
I think Professor Dawkins is both brilliant and an incredible communicator. The definition of God that he rejects is the same one I reject. The difference being that he thinks the God he rejects is the western God of Christianity and I believe that deity is a distortion of who and what God is. The Christian Church has made such incredulous claims about who God is and who God hates and how God acts that it is always on the defensive when new learning that challenges old definitions appears.

Traditional Christianity has been buffeted by the insights of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud and many others. They have destroyed the credibility of much of our God talk. Richard Dawkins points that out in powerful ways, feeding his conclusion that God is a harmful delusion that ought to be dismissed. I agree that God is in fact a delusion and ought to be dismissed. We disagree on the question of whether that God is the God encountered in Jesus of Nazareth or a gross distortion. I believe it is a distortion.

I met Richard Dawkins some years ago when I gave a lecture at New College, Oxford. I had just that day read his incisive book
The Selfish Gene in the Bodleian Library at Oxford so I was pleased to find myself seated next to him at the High Table for dinner.
From among Spong's many shorter pieces, the following paragraphs taken from On Faith (a wonderful Newsweek / Washington Post series) probably explain his amazing qualities and convictions best.
Obsessed with Sex, not Morality

This nation has a strange fetish with sexual sins. The press obsessed on President Clinton’s tawdry sexual behavior, but seems to regard the Bush administration’s distortion of truth about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify its military adventure in that land to be of lesser significance. Even the intelligence report on Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons reveals that this administration was caught once again in what can only be called deliberate acts of misinformation. President Clinton’s actions, distasteful as they were, did not cost the lives of some 4,000 American military personnel and thousands of innocent Iraqis. Yet the Congress wasted time and money in impeachment procedures on the Lewinsky affair. The far greater, but not sexual, nature of this administration’s crimes has not had a similar response.

We live in a time of changing sexual standards. Premarital sex is almost a universal practice in the developed world against which an “abstinence campaign” is laughably ineffective. The reasons for this are not that we have become an immoral generation, as ecclesiastical leaders like to presume. Rather, it is caused by the fact that we have created a 10-to-15-year gap between puberty and marriage. That is not a reality that contemporary moralists seem to notice. Better health practices have lowered the age of puberty in girls, while the opening of the doors to higher education and thus for career opportunities for young women has postponed the age of marriage to new and more mature age levels. In the Middle Ages when life expectancy was much shorter, females tended to marry within 12 to 18 months of puberty. Today marriage in the late twenties for young women is commonplace. In the past the double standard that governed sexual activity meant that the male was not expected to be chaste until his marriage. Today, not only has that double standard disappeared, but so has the rigid chaperone system we once employed to protect the virginity of upper class females.

Is sex outside of marriage a sin? That is the way religious people still pose the issue, but that question does not address reality. As a pastor I have confronted issues where sex inside marriage was sinful. I have known rape to occur inside marriage. I have seen sex inside marriage used as a weapon in marital disputes. It is not marriage that makes sex holy and good; it is the quality of the relationship. So before answering that question we need to face these facts. Only then can we move on to the question at hand.

Are young people who live together prior to marriage sinful? If they love each other, if they are committed to that relationship and if their life together makes both of them more whole and more deeply human, then I do not think so. If they are merely using each other, then they have turned that relationship into an act of personal diminishment. A relationship that diminishes one or the other of the partners can never be called holy.

I have know post-married people, either divorced or widowed, who have formed bonded and sexually active relationships, some times in old age that are both beautiful and life-giving, though neither person ever planned to get married. I have known gay and lesbian couples whose fidelity to each other is wonderful to behold, but who are told by church and state alike that there is something defective and even evil about their relationships. I find that deeply prejudiced, life-denying and simply wrong [...] The issue is not about sex, either inside or outside marriage, it is about the quality of the relationship [...]

It is God’s business, not the state’s or the church’s, to determine whether any act is forgivable or not. Private morality does not seem to me to be the state’s business unless it compromises the public welfare. The sexual debates that go on in the public arena are to me little more than diversionary attempts to keep the public attention away from the great moral issues of our day such as war and peace, the corruption and exploitation that takes place in business, the environmental degradation that occurs in the name of the bottom line and the manipulation of the market place for private greed. Until the state and church pay attention to these moral issues, their credibility on matters of sexual ethics will have little about it that is worthy of much attention.


NOTE 1: I had blogged about him earlier, too, and received some flak offline and via email for daring to suggest that we need Muslim Clerics (see note below) with similar skills of analysis and communication. Around the same time, several anti-Spong pieces by Muslims also appeared on the 'Net, egged on particularly because of an NPR program in which he was praised by Irshad Manji, an almost certain way to gain unpopularity among the Ummah.

NOTE 2: While not clerics, two scholars do offer cool and clear views that, in general, differ from the views proffered my most hardliners (such as Dr Israr Ahmad) and many accepted historians. One is Dr. Ghamdi - now often seen on TV and the subject of fatvaas, hatemail and threats. The other, the lesser-known Professor Ziauddin Kirmani, whose book ("The Last Messenger with a Lasting Message"), has now been reprinted and is available at T2F. For several people, this rather unconventional study has been a source of great inspiration, while annoying many others for what Kirmani sahab referred to as "the clearing of cobwebs" around Islamic History. (Another Zia - the General - wanted to present him the Seerat of the Year Award, provided he would alter/delete certain parts but he refused to compromise his years of research.)

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Blogger Sidhusaaheb said...

I agree that President Bush's actions are a hundred times worse than President Clinton's. However, I still would not say that Clinton's were not unbecoming of the Presdent of the United States and should be condoned.

It is absolutely right that Bush should be tried as a war-criminal for his crimes that include, but are not limited to causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people for reasons best known to him. However, that does not, by any means, imply, I believe, that the impeachment proceedings against Clinton were unjustified.

Also, I wonder what the learned gentleman has to say about teenage pregnancies and related problems.

27 March, 2008 02:14

Anonymous aamir said...

bush is the worst ever US ever had

27 March, 2008 07:42

Anonymous rahmat masih said...


Pray where does the 'learned gentleman', as you sarcastically called a really learned gentleman, indicate condoning Clinton's act? The retired Bishop says: "President Clinton’s actions, distasteful as they were -----". The impeachment proceedings, imo, were entirely politically motivated.

As for teenage pregnancies and other issues, may I suggest you stop wondering what he has to say and read his numerous articles on the Internet?

Being a Catholic, I am the one who should be 'opposing' a man who frequently lashes out against our Pope. However, his logical criticisms of the current Papacy plus the out-of-syncness of the RCC are getting more and more difficult to challenge.

27 March, 2008 10:21

Blogger Sidhusaaheb said...

@Rahmat Masih: To me "...the Congress wasted time and money in impeachment procedures on the Lewinsky affair." sounds pretty much like letting Clinton off the hook.

In my opinion, the impeachment move against Clinton was justified.

Bush should, undoubtedly, be punished for his crimes. Imagine doing nothing in that direction, except terming Bush's actions as distasteful!

BTW, thanks for the suggestion for looking up his articles! :)

29 March, 2008 20:08

Anonymous Fan of John Shelby Spong said...

Thanks for the quotes from Bishop Spong. His writing has helped me a great deal.

30 March, 2008 22:43


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