Sunday, September 20, 2009

Eternal life: A Weak Vision

Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell by John Shelby Spong
1 of 5 stars

John Shelby Spong is a poor writer and not much better a thinker. I have read several of his books and it is always the same deal. Spong presents unoriginal ideas as his own unique discoveries (when far greater minds have articulated these ideas long before). It gets worse. He congratulates himself for his "great knowledge" of science and history and then proceeds to explain science and history in a superficial and often factually inaccurate way. This book is no exception, as we see the arrogant Spong brag about how much he knows and then make false claims like saying Newton understood that his science undermined supernaturalism. Spong apparently never bothered to learn that Newton was interested in alchemy, Bible prophecy, and had puritanical religious views.

Even worse: Spong presents the history of religion as an outright self-deception in which human beings torture and persecute each other, all to protect themselves from their fear of death. In Spong's world religion is nothing more then a hateful, cruel, and oppressive tool wielded for nothing but destruction. Spong does this in every book, and he once again shows that he has no understanding of history whatsoever. This one sided negative portrait of religion is just plain silly, and Spong - who claims to be so learned and well-read - should actually know better. Spong clearly sees himself as superior to the great theological minds of the past. In order to keep up this illusion, Spong weaves an utterly unhistorical narrative in which all thinkers in Christian history hold the views and posses the intellectual acumen of Fred Phelps and John Hagee. Anyone who has ever read Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, or other great “doctors” will see instantly that Spong's portrait of past Christian thinking is uniformed and foolish.

Spong's positive conclusions are not much better. He argues that God is "not an external being 'out there'" but "the ground of being, and source of love." I agree with that assessment. Unfortunately Spong NEVER explains what these terms mean and leaves us with language designed to give us the warm fuzzies, but lacking any substance. For instance, Spong tells us that God is "our true selves" or the "depth of our self-consciousness," but says nothing whatsoever about what that might mean or how this works. He appeals frequently to Paul Tillich but seems incapable of understanding Tillich’s ideas or his arguments. Many Christian thinkers, for several centuries now, have rejected the supernatural conception of a person-like deity. But this does not stop Spong from presenting this as his own unique discovery. Even more disturbing, and unlike other thinkers with similar views, Spong offers no argument for his “discovery” or any real explanation of what it means.

Spong next discusses Meister Eckhart, and it is clear he does not understand the Meister either. He presents Eckhart as a man who discarded all doctrine and creed in favor of "feelings" about "the God within," this is a superficial and silly reading of the great mystic and only shows, once again, that Spong is incapable of anything but shallow readings of past thinkers. The mystics, for Spong, point us to an "eternal life" which has "neither heaven nor hell."

Finally, after an autobiographical chapter in which he portrays himself as a great hero who has overcome the narrow and ignorant religious past, Spong finally states his conclusion. It is very weak. Spong tells us that we "participate in eternity" because we are one with everything and our self-consciousness goes beyond space and time. This is an impersonal immortality in which the "essence" of what we are - our knowing and our loving - is essentially eternal. Furthermore, all though there is no "place" where we will socialize with those we loved and knew in life, our essences are interdependent and so we are eternally part of each other just as we are part of God.

This conclusion is not unreasonable. I believe something like it myself. But Spong offers no clarification of his position and no argument for it. He does not tell us how this differs from personal immortality except to say there are no heavens and hells where rewards and punishments are delivered. Does any memory survive? Personality? Spong does not say. And why should we believe something like this "eternal life" is real? Spong simply seems to think we can "feel" the truth of his claims. That is not very convincing.

Far better minds have argued for this impersonal "eternal life" on far better grounds. And these thinkers don't share Spong's conceit, nor his shallow understanding of the past and past thinkers. I recommend Paul Tillich, Rudolf Otto, or even J. A. T. Robinson over this dismal effort.

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