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Christmas, Religion, and a New God

Jonathan B. Wight

It’s Christmas Day, and snow is falling gently in Richmond, Virginia.  Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—if shopping malls are any indication.

Santa rules, but is there a God?  This is the subject of John Shelby Spong’s latest book, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell (2010).  Spong is the controversial Episcopal bishop and prolific author who argued in previous books that Christianity had to modernize or die. Religion’s dogmas are deadening because they conflict with science and current common sense.  “One cannot restore life by doing a facelift on a corpse,” he wrote, in one of the memorable lines (p. 142). 

This isn’t particularly new; what is new is that an Episcopal bishop (now retired) is writing this.  Spong is speaking tomorrow in Richmond at my church—and the church he previously led—historic St. Paul’s Episcopal.  This is the church where, according to local legend, Robert E. Lee set the tone for the post-Civil War society by kneeling alongside a black man at the altar to receive communion. 

Spong is also willing to break with the past to forge a new direction for understanding religion and ethics.  Spong’s conclusion is that there is no God, at least not one of heaven and hell.  Rather, we must understand God (or love) as an internal link with the evolving consciousness of humanity.  This conclusion ends up being startlingly similar to Teilhard de Chardin’s thesis in his remarkable work, The Phenomenon of Man (1955). 

One is reminded of Adam Smith’s doctrine that belief in an afterlife is required if people are to develop self control needed for justice.  Is that an outdated notion?  Will humanity outgrow needing the threat of an afterlife (whether in Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism), by adopting a new universal consciousness?

Merry Christmas and happy dreams for the future…

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