Spong may not present the strongest arguments for the historicity of Jesus but who cares when he delivers such a clearheaded critique of the sins of religion and advances a wonderfully humane message for religious and nonreligious alike, as he does in his new book, Jesus for the Non Religious.
In explaining religious anger (does one need any examples here? Spong says of the 16 serious death threats he has received not one was from an atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem, leaving only you-know-who) Spong points the finger directly at the violent and angry god Christians worship. Christians are quick to deny this, saying they worship a God who sent his Son to die for our sins, who always extends his mercy to us. And that message, says Spong, was not the message of the earliest disciples and it contains the seeds of the most pernicious and destructive of attitudes.
Being constantly reminded that the Son of God died for our sins is to be constantly instilled with a sense of guilt.
What kind of human being constantly begs for mercy? Can anger that has been turned inward ever be a source of life? Are we human beings ever helped by being told how hopeless, wretched and evil we are? Does that ever make us whole? Does it ever make us more loving? (p.235) Spong asks.
The Christian message is a bloody one of covering over our “sins”. It is a message of humiliation and guilt, of instilling a sense of unworthiness in people. When all that is good is projected away from ourselves and onto our god, we are left with our wretched selves, even singing in hymns (Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me) what “wretches” we are, and the best we can hope for is that our “sins” are “covered” — not removed, just “covered” by the blood. So they are always there, leaving us to constantly helplessly remain in a condition of begging for mercy.
Edmund Cohen (The Mind of the Bible-Believer) has also observed the shallow “put on” type of happiness often practiced among Christians, and notes that this is just how the Bible tells them it is meant to be done. “Put on the new man”, says Ephesians 4:24. Exactly. The Christian nature is a “put on”. It is not from within, it is not a real change, the old self is suppressed, denied, struggled fearfully against. Little wonder that one so often depressingly reads some of the highest statistics for domestic violence and child abuse, murder and sexually transmitted diseases, are found amidst the most conservative Christian populations.
Years ago one of my favourite moments of each day was telling bible stories to my children before they went to sleep. One evening I suddenly stopped myself. I was about to describe that dramatic moment of Abraham’s willingness submit his will so completely to God’s that he would even sacrifice his son — How did it ever take so long for the reality of that message to hit me? I could not speak another word, and never told another Bible story again.
But the reality of that message is still foremost in the Christian message. It is the central motif in the core gospel message. God was responsible for butchering his innocent son to cover the guilt he accused us of. And if we don’t “love” this barbaric unjust deity he will consign us to everlasting torment. What sort of people worship such a being and calling him “Love”? The same people aspire to be his “children”, to be like him. No thanks.
(Spong rejects this notion of god too, describing it as a “theistic” concept. Spong rejects such a “theistic” type of “God”.)
Spong looked a little resigned when years ago I thanked him for helping me on my way towards atheism. But he had the honesty to acknowledge that so many Christians do live “up tight” lives, at least those who take it seriously so often do; and that those atheists he knew were far more relaxed and whole within themselves.
It has been nice to “grow up”, and no longer see myself as a child of any deity at all. And it has been even nicer to discover in the process that all those “devils” in me were not really so bad after all — they just seemed so threatening because I was trying to keep them locked up all the time. And nicer still to find that it’s the same with most people I’ve met.
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