Friday, November 08, 2013

Being "Non-Religious"

Many of you know that one of my favorite religious scholars is a retired Episcopalian bishop named John Shelby Spong.  He is one of the leading voices in progressive Christianity and his books have really gone a long way toward shaping my own religious views and beliefs.  Even though he's in his mid-80's now, he's still publishing new books (his most recent, which I haven't read yet, is on the Gospel of John), and he does a weekly Q&A via email newsletter, which I subscribe to.  

I thought this week's edition was worth re-posting. 

What do you mean by the phrase you use so often "for the non-religious?" Do you mean those who don't go to church or do you mean those who don't believe in God? Or something else?

(Spong has written two books with this phrase in the title: "Jesus for the Non-Religious," and "Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World.")

It is not that easy. Lots of people who do go to church are "non-religious." Lots of people who say they don't believe in God are profoundly spiritual and searching people.
What I seek to describe with the phrase "the non-religious" are those for whom the traditional religious images have lost their meaning. There is no God above the sky, keeping record books, ready to answer your prayers and come to your aid. There is no tribal deity lurking over your nation or any other nation as a protective presence. There is no God who will free the Jews from Egyptian slavery; put an end to the Inquisition or stop the Holocaust. If these goals are to be accomplished, human beings with expanded consciousness will have to be the ones to accomplish them. This means that the category we call “religious” is too narrow and limited to work for us in the 21st century.

The question I seek to answer is that when we move beyond the religious symbols of the past, as I believe our whole culture has already done, do we move beyond the meaning those outdated symbols once captured for us, or is the meaning still there looking for a way to be newly understood and newly symbolized? The word “God” is a human symbol. I believe though that the word God stands for a reality that the word itself cannot fully embrace and that no human being can define. To worship God in our generation means not that we must move beyond God, but it does mean that we will have to move beyond all previous human definitions of God. So to be “non-religious” is just a way of saying that the religious symbols of the past have lost their meaning. That does not mean the search for God is over; it means the quest for new and different symbols has been engaged.

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