Book Review

Eternal Life: A New Vision. Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell by John Shelby Spong. HarperOne, NY, 2009; 268 pages, ISBN 987-0-06-076206-3, hardback, $24.95.

In this very personal presentation, retired Episcopal Bishop Spong explores whether human beings continue to exist after death. In a search for truth carried out through the Christian faith, he has rejected a theistic God, the literal truth of scripture, and organized religion. He critiques these concepts at length as human responses to fear and desire for security, saying for example:

      Religious practices, when analyzed objectively, make it obvious that their hidden purpose is to manipulate the external supernatural deity so that this deity will bring divine power to bear in the service of frightened human beings.  – p. 99
     . . . The human origins of religion are once again visible in our assumption that the deity will respond to our flattery in the same way that human authority figures respond.  Flattery presupposes that the flattered one can be enticed to do what we wish.  So early humans developed liturgical words to be used in worship that are unashamedly designed to flatter the deity, to gain the deity's favor, to win approval and to enlist divine power on our behalf.  Today in ecclesiastical circles, we call these words praise, but they are in reality little more than liturgical flattery. . . . The God who is "other" has clearly been created in terms of this deity's ability to meet our human need. – p. 101

The demeaning posture and servile actions associated with worship, as well as the statements of unworthiness and calls for mercy, reflect this "beggar" mentality.  Additionally, the use of parental language makes the worshipper childlike and feel in some measure secure if he or she follows the rules attributed to the divine parent.  Spong draws a sharp distinction between what he calls his "God-experience" and the traditional human depictions of a supernatural God, and he holds that our knowledge of the universe today precludes this older God.  He concludes that:

There is no supernatural God who lives above the sky or beyond the universe. . . . There is no parental deity watching over us from whom we can expect help.  There is no deity whom we can flatter into acting favorably or manipulate by being good.  There are no record books and no heavenly judge keeping them to serve as the basis on which human beings will be rewarded or punished.  There is also no way that life can be made to be fair or that a divine figure can be blamed for its unfairness.  Heaven and hell are human constructs designed to make fair in some ultimate way the unfairness of life.  The idea that in an afterlife the unfairness of this world will be rectified is a pious dream, a toe dip into unreality. – pp. 121-2 

Many religions can't accept the vast, interconnected cosmos that science has revealed to our senses, or its implications for humanity's relation to the universe.  The "deep interrelated unity" of physical existence leads him to speculate:

      From such an insight is it not possible to postulate that consciousness is also a single whole, which emerged within the universe, and which can be accessed on a variety of levels by creatures of varying capacities? From this perspective, while the genesis of self-consciousness gave the human creature a sense of having broken into an entirely new understanding of life – that is, a new awareness –  that awareness was certainly not a new reality.  We have always been part of that which is greater than we are.  Is it not, therefore, reasonable to assume that we just might always have been a component of that greater reality?  What would it do to our self-definition if we were to become convinced that we have always been part of a whole and are not separate from that which is "other" than ourselves? – p. 146

Because of theistic religion's inability to let go of theology built on fear and insecurity, Spong feels religion is increasingly irrelevant to people's lives and in their search for truth.  He feels that we need to update our conception of God, to recognize that everything said about deity involves analogy and metaphor, to recognize that any personhood attributed to God has been projected from human beings.   His own conclusions about life's continuation are expressed from a Christian perspective and center on Jesus as the most exceptional human being.  Shading to the mystical, they are rooted in his interpretation of the Gospel of John and conform to his own God-experience.

His narrative makes parallels between his individual search over a lifetime and stages in the development of the human species. One need not agree with various features of his presentation of human history or humanity's relation to the rest of life on earth to find of interest this story of one person's ongoing search for truth . – Sally Dougherty (November 2009)

Book Reviews