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Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell Hardcover – September 1, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
In this challenging, intellectually rigorous culmination of his body of theological work, retired Episcopal bishop Spong (Jesus for the Non-Religious) provides a lucid historical analysis of the development of human religious thought from the onset of self-conscious awareness to the present, and a compelling argument for the creation of a new religious paradigm. Offering deeply personal reflections on his own Christian journey and priestly career, Spong reviews a lifetime of passionate engagement with biblical study and with questions of faith, charting his growing discomfort with language that seemed limited, falsifying and inadequate. Arguing that modern scientific understanding necessitates dismissing outdated metaphors and assumptions by which faith seeks to calm human anxiety, Spong suggests an understanding of God not as a person, but as the process that calls personhood into being. Spong's examination of the gospel resurrection accounts includes an intriguing interpretation of John's portrayal of Jesus as a being so courageously present that he was open to the ultimate reality of life, love and being. This work, bound to be influential, offers new insights into religion's big questions about life and death, making an invaluable contribution to both religious scholarship and faithful exploration. (Sept.)
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“In Spong’s perpetual quest for truth and knowledge, he has transformed the enigmatic cosmic energy of the ‘big bang’ into an afterglow of human hope for the ages.” (Daniel H. Gregory, M.D., Senior Attending Physician, Bassett Healthcare)
“Fear of death is the most fundamental fear of human existence. The only way it can be conquered is through knowledge and experience of your eternal being. Eternal Life: A New Vision is elegant invitation to find this part of yourself and be liberated.” (Deepak Chopra, author of The Third Jesus)
“His courage, candor and intense awareness are unique gifts to people both inside and outside Christianity at this critical time in human and planetary history.” (Matthew Fox, author of Original Blessing)
“This work, bound to be influential, offers new insights into religion’s big questions about life and death, making an invaluable contribution to both religious scholarship and faithful exploration.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Spong has spent his life and work making sense of this most fundamental human issue . . . His fans will find this spiritual autobiography fascinating, but so, too, should anyone interested in the still uncomfortable topics of death and mortality.” (Booklist)
“With subtlety and complexity, Spong promotes an idea of an ongoing existence beyond our physicality, one that entirely supercedes “religious” notions of Heaven or Hell and even conventional notions of God . . . Spong’s writing here as elsewhere is intelligent, engaged, comforting, and uplifting. ” (Library Journal)
“Spong once again puts his intellectual money on common sense . . . Religion’s purpose, he claims, is “security, not Truth” - a key insight that demands, in turn, a set of wholly new visions. . . . Spong . . . [is] a unique visionary.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
“John Shelby Spong, the reinterpreter of Christianity for the doubtful, retired as the Episcopal bishop of New Jersey in 2001 but not from his religious provocations. . . . People have to get beyond the idea of God as a heavenly judge who hands out rewards and punishment,.” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
“Eternal Life: A New Vision doesn’t actually give us a clear vision of eternal life at all. Spong would never do that.... Instead he frees us to dream a dream of what life, eternal or otherwise, might be.” (Central Coast Express)
“Spong invites us to engage the questions, to revel in the mystery, and finally to find our place within God’s place, our time within God’s time, and our life within God’s life.” (Anglican and Episcopal History)
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This book is quintessential Spong in that although riff with serious, profound topics-- surely no question is more important that whether or not we live after death-- it is written in clear, thoughtful language for the average lay reader and calls into question the more tradition views on Christianity. The complete title ETERNAL LIFE: A NEW VISION - BEYOND RELIGION, BEYOND THEISM - BEYOND HEAVEN AND HELL pretty much sums up Bishop Spong's beliefs on the subject. He sees God apart from religion. "There is no supernatural God who lives above the sky or beyond the universe. . . Heaven and hell are human constructs designed to make fair in some ultimate way the unfairness of life." He goes on to say that he recoils when he writes such words, "for this traditional definition of God has been my companion from the earliest days of my life," and states further that "the fact that the way we thought of God in our past has died does not mean that God has died or that there is no God." In short, no religious tradition is too delicate or sacred for this gentle, thoughtful seeker of truth to dismantle. He sets forth his "vision" by discussing his own life and says that this is the only way he could get into the subject. He learned first of death as a young child when he found a pet fish floating in an aquarium, then a pretty-much absent grandparent died, whose death did not have that much of an impact on him, but he really grieved when his pet dog died. Spong's mother said that death happened to old people, something he began to question when two young classmates were killed in an accident.
In this relatively short book, not much over 200 pages, Bishop Spong says so much that makes so much sense, and he says it so much better than I can summarize or paraphrase, but here are just a few of his many statements that resonated with me: Churches seem to prefer child-like members who do not think for themselves; fewer and fewer people care what fundamentalists think; we must dance with death before we can rejoice in life; it is difficult to be a biblical literalist if you actually read the Bible; and the primary function of religion is to provide security.
In the "Epilogue" Spong discusses the right to die; he does not mean suicide but the right to end a life in a meaningful-- he would say-- beautiful way. We should have that choice; if we are unable to make that choice, than a family member or beloved friend should make that decision for us. It should never be made, however, by a non-interested third party such as a physician or other health care professional. But before the epilogue, he ends with what once again I must quote verbatim: "If someone were to pose to me the question that was posed by the mythical biblical character of Job so long ago--'If a man [or a woman] dies, will he [or she] live again?'--my answer would be yes, yes, yes. . . So 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. That to me is to be a disciple of Jesus. Finally, that to me is the way to prepare for life after death. Shalom."
I confess that I have been puzzled by Spong's repeated definition of God as "the source of life, the source of love, and 'the ground of all being,' which he adopted from his spiritual guide, Paul Tillich. I had hoped that this book would shed further light on this definition. Here, Spong finally reveals that he is a mystic, and that this hallowed tradition of mysticism has seen God through inner experience, not external revelation. He asserts that God is not the theistic, creative, all-controlling deity of the Bible, but rather a divine aspect of our own nature as human beings. Jesus, he says, was fully human, and did not come down to earth as an incarnate God to "save" humankind from original sin (which does not exist, because of evolution). Spong disavows all the miraculous and supernatural explanations of God and Jesus, and believes that the Gospel writers were not trying to be literal in their descriptions of the life of
Jesus. Instead, they were explaining in their limited vocabulary the God-experience like-minded people saw in Jesus.
Spong's main thesis is that human self-consciousness, superseding the consciousness of other animals, left us with fear and anxiety when it was experienced by early man. Because of the knowledge of his frailty and impending mortality, man invented religion to allay these fears. Spong recounts the steps through which religion has grown, starting with animism, going through goddess worship for fertility, ascending to multiple gods of both sexes, and finally resulting in the one patriarchal God of Judaism, Chrisitanity, and Islam. Spong goes "beyond religion," asserting that this form of worship was suitable for the childhood of the human species. Now, the contributions of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein have rendered the theistic God obsolete.
Bishop Spong's description of the evolution of religion, interspersed with his own life experiences, make up the most informative part of the book. But when he starts to describe his own view that he and other human beings will live eternally "beyond heaven and hell," he loses me. I think it is just another delusion manufactured by Spong, through his relentless study of the important aspects of science and human nature, and his boundless love of spirituality. He says that there is no present, only the current moment becoming an endless future. Because we can imagine things outside time and space, both the past and the future, we are really timeless beings. Our consciousness will become the consciousness of all the universe, just as Jesus modeled for us.
Spong tells us that the love he has given and received from his family, friends, and acquaintances is the most cherished aspect of his personal "divinity." Most of all, the love of both his wives was the greatest gift he has received. Since God is "the source of love," he is assured that his consciousness will live forever, and he welcomes death when it must come. In his last chapter, Spong says that we human beings are entitled to choose euthanasia when death becomes inevitable, because of the medical prolongation of life not available to previous generations.
The book is eloquent and beautiful, if not wholly rational,and is typical of Spong and his enormous life achievements.