There are moments in life when you hear something that absolutely blows you away. I experienced such a moment on July 1st at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. It wasn’t just the words I heard that touched me so. It was the words within the context, and the relative embrace of the words exhibited by the people that surrounded me.
First you have to understand the unique setting that is Chautauqua: an amusement park for the mind. It was initially built on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in 1874 as an “educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning.” Although initially the courses were for Sunday school teachers, its success and popularity precipitated a broadening of the curriulum to include academic subjects, music, art and physical education. Today on their website they note that “7,500 persons are in residence on any day during a nine-week season, and a total of over 142,000 attend scheduled public events. Over 8,000 students enroll annually in the Chautauqua Summer Schools which offer courses in art, music, dance, theater, writing skills and a wide variety of special interests.”
For those longing for intellectual and artistic stimulation in a peaceful setting, it constitutes a veritable fantasy land adorned with quaint Victorian era cottages often fronted with beautiful and pristine landscaping. Among its many homes, inns, and entertainment facilities arranged in a cozy village-like setting, are church houses where people congregate from all over the United States for religious retreats. The four pillars of Chautauqua are Art, Education, Religion, and Recreation. Needless to say, religion (particularly Christianity) is a big part of this community. But so is education and art. They have a quality symphony orchestra, a theater group, an opera company, and a dance ensemble. Nightly, they provide top notch entertainment in their sizable amphitheater. Throughout each day, every day, there are lectures and events galore.
The last three years my wife and I have ventured to Chautauqua for science themed days where we attended lectures by people like Donald Johanson and Carl Zimmer. NASA had a mock up of a Mars Rover there last year. This year I was drawn by Alan Alda who is a true science geek like myself.
Each afternoon the Department of Religion hosts a lecture series. Although I often miss these events for a number of reasons, this year, my innkeeper, knowing my proclivities, strongly recommended that I consider listening to this week’s speaker. I took her advice and my wife and I skeptically sat at the Hall of Philosophy among an overflow crowd that I could only guess exceeded 1000 people. The lecturer was John Shelby Spong, a Bishop in the Episcopal Church. Rabbi Samuel Stahl introduced Bishop Spong and the Rabbi’s words drew me in, in a way that made me feel as though my mind was being read. It was a spine-tingling experience from the outset, and Spong’s words were unlike any I had ever heard from a man of God.
I certainly will not be able to capture and share in this medium the true essence of his message – but I will attempt to briefly summarize it. I STRONGLY encourage any person of faith as well as any person like myself who falls into the agnostic camp to listen to this lecture: Transcending Religion without Transcending God which is embedded at the bottom of this post.
I’m guessing that anyone who listens to this talk with an open mind will be in some way moved by his words. I am also guessing that personal reactions will run the gamut from “this guy is a heretic” to “finally a voice of reason coming from the religious community.” If you are likely to be among the former, Spong proclaims that he wishes to destroy no one’s faith, but boldly states that “If I can take away your God, you had very little, if you can lose it all in one hour.”
If you are religious, keep in mind as you consider listening, that this lecture was part four of a five part series. Spong had lectured in a similar vain for three consecutive days at the Hall of Philosophy to a pretty religious group of people and this day’s crowd was the biggest I had ever seen gathered (excluding events at the amphitheater). This was not an angry or defensive crowd, but a thoughtful and attentive one. What Spong said deeply challenged conventional definitions of religion but the people came back for more. And if you are a rationalist, more inclined toward science than mysticism, you will be refreshed by Spong’s embrace of science and urging away from the traditional notions of religion that many find hard to accept. Even Richard Dawkins seems to respect Spong.
Spong derides religious zealots who promote racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia based upon quotations from the Holy Scriptures. His rational embrace of science and the realities of human suffering (often as a result of religion’s influence) have guided his journey toward a reinterpretation of the faith story. He strongly asserts that he wants nothing to do with any institution that diminishes the humanity of any child of God. He deplores how the Bible and the Church have harbored those that have relegated blacks to subhuman status, women as second class citizens, and gay and lesbian people as essentially immoral. He explains the human experience within a context of understanding derived from biology and anthropology. He links our instinctual drive to survive to all living organisms and with this understanding, supplants the notion of original sin. He embraces the teachings of Darwin and reinterprets salvation – not as a rescue from the fall from perfection but as a new understanding of what it is to be fully human. After all, we haven’t fallen – we have evolved.
Salvation he argues is not to be made religious. It is not to be forced into a particular creed or to follow a particular faith story. Salvation is to be made whole – to be called beyond our limits, our fears, our boundaries, and to be called into a new consciousness, a new humanity – where we can be called beyond our selfish drive to survive, and begin to truly give of our lives and our love.
Spong challenges both the notions of a personal God with supernatural powers and the traditional Jesus story. He derides the traditional notion that humans are inherently depraved – and looks at our understanding of human development and asks if it is a wise parenting strategy to tell a child that he is bad, evil, and depraved in an attempt to turn that child into a healthy adult. He looks at how religion victimizes its followers and how in turn its practice facilitates hate and division.
Spong provides a sobering account of religion in general – particularly the prejudicial inspiration it has historically provided and the violence it has incited in the name of one’s preferred deity. Again, rather than reject science as a threat to an ideology, he embraces evidence, and searches for a new spiritual transcendence of God – to fill what he describes as a God Shaped Whole in every living person. His ultimate mysticism is a bit of a stretch for me – but all in all – the 80 minutes required to listen to his message is indeed time well spent. The experience itself, for me, set in the Chautauqua Institution context, was deeply moving and inspired hope that we can move away from the unnecessary corrosive derision whereby some religious zealots dumb down the masses to protect their fragile foothold or engage in promulgating the dehumanization of those who are different. It gives me hope that those who have spiritual needs unfulfilled by the wonders of the universe can find peace with God in a way that bolsters our humanity rather than in a way that divides us. Please give Spong a listen and let me know what you experience through his message.