Words on Faith
May 5, 2018
The Rev. Toni Fish
Waking up and growing up
In February of this year, Bishop John Spong released a new book, “Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today.” I have always found Bishop Spong challenging and enlightening. This new book is no exception.
In its write-up about this new book, Amazon said the following: “Bible scholar and Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong contends that there is mounting pressure among Christians for a radically new kind of Christianity — a faith deeply connected to the human experience instead of outdated dogma. ... There is a disconnect, he argues, between the language of traditional worship and the language of the 21st century. Bridging this divide requires us to rethink and reformulate our basic understanding of God.”
After the fashion of Martin Luther, Bishop Spong posits 12 theses, covering everything from God to Christ to prayer to life after death. In his discussion of each, he asks the reader to be willing to abandon aspects of “medieval Christianity,” and reconcile the first- and fourth-century concepts and terminology with the 21st century, redefining terms, and finding new signifiers that more appropriately represent the ideas and concepts that constitute the core of Christianity.
As I read each chapter, I found new information and perspectives that challenged me and other material that reinforced what I had already read and assimilated. Weaving in and through my mind as I read on was a phrase that I hear often these days: “It’s as though we live in two different worlds.” Have you heard this recently in conversations with friends and others, on social media, the TV? I remember that I laughed or chuckled the first time I heard that phrase. Now, I must say, it speaks to me of truth. It does seem as though
there are at least two different worlds occupying this same physical space.
We regularly use the same words, and yet clearly the images and meanings that come to mind are not the same. Our individual reactions to situations are often diametrically opposed. The follow-up response is then to make the “other” wrong or bad or crazy or a heathen or sinner or damned. The ironic part is that both parties insist that they are right or sane or chosen or saved.
So, can both parties be correct?
This train of thought, combined with Bishop Spong’s theses, had me looking at Ken Wilber’s latest book, “The Religion of Tomorrow.” In it, he says that a single purpose that lies at the heart of all great religious traditions is the awakening to the astonishing reality of the true nature of ourselves and the universe and that there are at least two important dimensions to religion in general. One is what is called waking up, and one is called growing up.
Waking up is discovering, through prayer, yoga, meditation or contemplation, that the world we live in — a world we are told is fallen, dualistic, fragmented or illusory — is, in fact, a world that’s saved, redeemed, non-dual, infinitely wonderful. In the Christian Scriptures it is called transformation or metamorphosis. In Buddhism, it is well-known as enlightenment.
The words that are used to signify this awakened state vary across religious traditions and yet the “thing” being named is the same. St. Paul put it this way: “Let this consciousness be in you which was in Christ Jesus that we all may be one.” In most traditions, when we find that state of awakened unified awareness, we are also awakened to profound love and compassion, a care and concern of all sentient beings.
And yet, this amazing source of love and compassion has also been the source of arguably the greatest amount of suffering, torture, murder and warfare in our history. I ask myself, how is this possible? According to Mr. Wilber, it’s all about where we are on the ladder of growing up. It seems that we humans grow and develop through as many as a dozen stages of “interpretive frameworks” that govern how we interpret and experience the world. Waking up in an egocentric stage of development will “look” different from waking up in an ethnocentric or world-centric stage of development. And it seems as though there are many “levels of development” manifesting in our world today.
Each of these levels or stages has a reality that is as real as real can be. And unless we have experienced a particular level, we do not share the reality of that level. That does not make that unshared level or stage unreal, bad, wrong. It’s just not within our realm of consciousness. If we, in fact, have moved through a particular level into the next stage, we will be able to understand both world views and walk between those worlds.
How does all of this relate to Bishop Spong and us living in two different worlds?
For some of us, our worldview contains the God described in the Bible, either Hebrew or Christian or both. This God is a lawgiver, a judge, a shepherd, a Messiah. He is loving,
forgiving, compassionate, ever- present.
In this worldview, the Word of God, the rituals, the creeds, all of these are real and powerful. At times, there is a dissonance between these deeply held beliefs and the other aspects of life. How the individual reconciles this is a matter of faith. For others, our world view contains a God that is “Being itself,” manifesting as all that is, as life itself. This God is the verb, not the noun. It is inclusion and uniqueness; it is Oneness and No Thing. It is the Source of all life and for many at this stage, God is experienced as “Source of Life in the life of Jesus, as the Source of Love in the love of Jesus and as the Ground of Being in the being of Jesus” (Spong, p.
In this worldview, the experience of the Christ creates new forms, new words, new symbols, the significance of which outpictures our world today rather than that of the first or fourth centuries.
The key for us humans here, it seems to me, is to be willing to know that each world is real to those who inhabit it and that each can bring forth blessings to everyone — love, compassion, abundance, peace. To paraphrase Bishop Spong, the Christianity of the future must be willing and able to dialogue with all facets of itself and with other religious systems without defining them as deficient.
Hopefully, we who call ourselves Christians can see this life as a “journey into the mystery of God, into a new humanity, into the ability to give ourselves away to others as a mark of the presence of the Christ in us” (Spong, p. 278).
May it be so with you.