TORONTO — There is no God, there is no heaven and there is no afterlife. At least, not in the way we have traditionally thought of such things.
These days, such statements might not seem all that contentious. But when a retired bishop says it, it’s worth noting.
“My audience is not the people who go to church on Sunday morning,” John Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., said on a recent visit to Toronto. “It’s the people who have given up on going to church.”
In Eternal Life: A New Vision, his 22nd book, the 78-year-old Spong turns to a topic that haunted him since childhood, drove him to theology and, he concludes, gave rise to organized religion and thwarted its development: death, and what comes next.
What separates humans from the rest of living things, Spong writes, is that we know we are going to die — and that changes everything. Only humans are self-aware enough to realize that our lives are counting down toward some unknown end.
And it scares us, so we invented religion to give us solace, says Spong, who retired nine years ago.
Instead of the traditional concepts of heaven and hell, he takes a fresh reading of the Christian gospels — particularly John — and concludes our demise makes it more important to think about this life than the next.
“The goal of religion is not to prepare us for the next life,” he writes. “It is a call to live now, to love now, to be now and in a way to taste what it means to be part of a life that is eternal. … It is the presence of death that actually makes my life precious.”
Spong was born and raised an evangelical in the American South. His parents were strong in their creationist views, and raised him to be the same.
He clung to as much of it as he could for as long as he could as he became a priest, and then a bishop, eventually taking his place as a liberal theologian.
It’s a journey from Biblical literalism to a less-religious form of Christianity that Spong hopes to help all believers make.
“What we need to do in church is a lot more adult education and a lot less sermonizing.”