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Religion Without Theism


emptyflagpole
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Hi everyone,

 

I've just come across Bishop Spong's work and find it very exciting and intelligent. I'm writing this post to underline a point which I'm getting the impression has largely been overlooked or downplayed, perhaps in an effort to "keep the peace" or avoid conflict. The first of Mr. Spong's 12 Points for Reform begins thus: "Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead". Now, it seems clear to me that this is an atheistic statement. After all, atheism is not simply an epithet -- although it is often used in the U.S. as though it were one. It has an objective and neutral meaning, namely an ideology which is not theistic. There is an established precedent for religious atheism, both ancient and modern. The earliest formulations of Buddhism, for instance, did not concern themselves with deities, only with the addressing of human suffering and other ethical concerns.

 

I realize that Bishop Spong would be loath to put his ideas in such stark terms, and I can sympathize with his reluctance to do so (I imagine if he did, it would force him to split from his church and would likely undercut his ability to affect change in the broader Christian community). Still, there's something that seems less than perfectly honest about this hedging. He says we must find other ways to formulate God, but if these formulations are non-theistic, aren't we really talking about a creed of Christian atheism? Formulations such as Paul Tillich's (a Christian existentialist) that God is the ground of all being, sound to me to be naturalistic metaphors. By that, I mean they make no necessary appeal to a supernatural or metaphysical realm as an article of faith. I want to be clear that I think this is a good thing! I would just like to see a more frank declaration of this underlying attitude. I would love to hear perspectives from those of you who are better informed than I on the bishop's authorship & also to learn more about how you see your religious attitudes relating (or not) to belief in a divine, supernatural being.

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Dear emptyflagpole,

 

Though it's early here in S. Florida as I'm about to leave for work, I'd like to respond to your request briefly. Imo, religion without theism is an oxymoron. Later, I'll be more than happy to expand on this opinion.

 

Those who would invent a religion without God are like those who would gather fruit without trees, have children without parents. You cannot have effects without causes; only the I AM is causeless. The fact of religious experience implies God, and such a God of personal experience must be a personal Deity. You cannot pray to a chemical formula, supplicate a mathematical equation, worship a hypothesis, confide in a postulate, commune with a process, serve an abstraction, or hold loving fellowship with a law. UP102:7:3

 

If you truly believe in God--by faith know him and love him--do not permit the reality of such an experience to be in any way lessened or detracted from by the doubting insinuations of science, the caviling of logic, the postulates of philosophy, or the clever suggestions of well-meaning souls who would create a religion without God. UP103:8:4

 

In loving service,

Brent

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Guest billmc

I've just noticed this bulletin board may be broader than just people who were directed here from Bishop Spong's website. In case any of you aren't already familiar with him, he is a liberal theologian of the Episcopal Church. Here's his website, which got me here. :) www.johnshelbyspong.com

 

Welcome to the forum, EmptyFlagpole! Yes, many of us here are familiar with Jack Spong and his work/writings. I've read most of his books except for "Here I Stand." Much of what Spong says resonates with me and my experiences but, of course, some does not. But he is, at least, encouraging the church to talk about these issues.

 

From my point-of-view, I think there is a difference between supernatural theism and plain old theism. Theism, it seems to me, believes in some kind of God, or Divine, or More, or Sacred, or any of a mulitiplicity of words that we humans put on the Transcendant. Supernatural theism, on the other hand, is usually linked with Yahweh, the God of the Bible, and the Old Man in the Sky Who Intervenes.

 

I suppose the difference between the two can be a matter of semantics in some circles. But I've experienced God in the theistic way while, at the same time, was disappointed to never experience the miracle-working, interventionist God of the supernatural theistic way. So I tend to hold to theistic concepts of God, but I don't think God is a super-human (which is basically what Jesus is in many Christian circles).

 

To me, I suspect Spong is mainly against supernatural theism. What do you think?

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EFP,

 

First welcome. Second, you have some interesting points.

 

I think Spong is wrong about the death of a theistic god: It is alive and well among millions, actually billions, of people. And, while there may be increasing levels of secularism, religion (as traditionally defined) has existed since the dawn of humans and, IMO, will persist for some very good reasons.

 

Also, I disagree with Spong that Christianity "must change or die." I think this expresses an intolerant, and maybe a little condescending, attitude toward the many people who do believe in a theistic god. And, they are not all intellectual neanderthals or bomb-throwing terrorists. This suggests that one group's understanding is superior and universally prescriptive. While I personally agree with many points in Spong's theology and I think it works for a number of people who have become disenchanted with traditional Christianity, I am not prepared to prescribe it for everyone.

 

Yes, I think Spong does sometimes couch his language in ambiguous terms, but I would not go so far as to suggest he is disingenuous. Wearing the clerical collar and bearing the title Bishop does afford him some credibility that a defrocked priest might not enjoy.

 

George

Edited by GeorgeW
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After all, atheism is not simply an epithet -- although it is often used in the U.S. as though it were one. It has an objective and neutral meaning, namely an ideology which is not theistic. There is an established precedent for religious atheism, both ancient and modern. The earliest formulations of Buddhism, for instance, did not concern themselves with deities, only with the addressing of human suffering and other ethical concerns.

 

EFP,

 

You also have a good point about the word 'atheism.' It does, at least in America, carry a negative connotation. This may be in part because Christianity has been historically the default theology of most Americans. So, it isn't just the absence of a belief, but an affirmative denial of the prevailing religious milieu. Also, it has, IMO, taken on a a hostile, anti-religious tone because of some of the outspoken atheists, like Sam Harris, who don't merely express an unbelief, but are actively opposed to religion and the belief in God generally.

 

George

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Welcome and thanks for this discussion topic.

 

First let me say I am Episcopalian and happen to live in the diocese where Bishop Spong was Bishop when he was active in the church administration. He is no longer active in that capacity but I see his influence in the preaching I hear from the pulpit each Sunday.

 

I think we need to be careful about interpreting our word usage. I would for example consider deism and theism to be different but I would not consider atheism and deism to be compatable. Therefore I think of the word atheism as implying something stronger than non-theism.

 

I cannot speak for Bishop Spong but I can try to desribe how I react to what he is saying. I have been taught that our faith should be informed by reason, tradition and scripture. When I think of reason I include science as I think of science as an empirical understanding of the world using our reasoning. We live in a post enlightenment world with a world view influenced by reason. There are aspect of the traditional theistic understanding of God which many people have trouble reconciling with science and reason. I hear Bishop Spong as saying we should not therefore abandon the project. We should not reject reason and science and we don't have to reject our Christian tradition, but we need to find ways of reconciling these influences.

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First welcome to the forum EFP. Perhaps you will take a few moments to introduce your self more formally in the the water-cooler introductions area so we can better get to know a little about your background and make you feel at home.

 

As George i also disagree with the statement "Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead" but i respect Bishop's Spong right to believe as such. I don't think you can get any more personal than God yet at the same time i see the Christian God in more abstract terms and find meaningful such writings in the Bible such as "in Him we move and have our being" (yes the ground of all being), "God is All in All", "God is the true light that lights every man (and woman) that comes into the world", 'God is not a man ", "there is no place that God is not, by God ALL things consist (or exist), etc. Perhaps the way many traditional Christians define theism is in my view limited or not accurate and that may be the theism Spong is speaking of. However, theism in the general sense of the word is just the belief in God or as my dictionary states "Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world". Now those are only words and what they mean are slanted by ones own experiences including conditioning, teachings and understandings to name a few things.Personally i see the "unconditioned" and "absolute changeless permanent reality" of Buddhism not to be in opposition to my wordless experience of the definition of God even though many Buddhists may refrain from such a word because of the existing connotations it encompasses.

 

Just one point of view,

Joseph

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I would add that IMO the term “theism” seems to have a different meaning in popular Christianity. If my family and friends understood what I believed, they would call me an atheist, perhaps because I do not believe in an elsewhere male deity who directs our lives and would condemn us to hell (an actual place “down there”) or reward us in heaven (an actual place “up there”) nor do I believe in the inerrancy of the bible. In fact, in the few instances where I tried to explain my beliefs, people have shaken their heads sadly and said “I'll pray for you.” ;)

Perhaps this is what Bishop Spong meant?

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This is what Spong said in a conversation with Michael Dowd.

 

So, God to me is the source of life, and I worship God by living. God to me is the source of

love, and I worship God by loving. God to me is the ground of being, and I worship God by

having the courage to be everything I can be.

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emptyflagpole,

 

First, many welcomes to board. :) Thanks for the very interest topic of discussion.

 

I do think religion without theism is very possible. Not merely hypothetically, but in real world history. Christian non-theism is a more problematic, but perhaps doable nonetheless. But I do agree with George that theism in a more or less traditional sense is not dead nor intellectually untenable.

 

But like others, I think 'theism' can be very vague. After all, there is the supernatural theism noted by Bill. But there's also pantheism, panentheism, etc. Theism can be a rigid belief about an actual supreme being, or it can be an attitude toward the cosmos and a way of relating to it. Or perhaps more truthfully, a different way of knowing reality, seeing something more to the phenomenal world than is normally thought. I personally believe more in a divine reality than a divine being, if this divine being is considered a being among many beings.

 

In this broader sense of 'theism', I think it would be difficult to find 'religion without theism'.

 

Peace,

Mike

Edited by Mike
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I would love to hear perspectives from those of you who are better informed than I on the bishop's authorship & also to learn more about how you see your religious attitudes relating (or not) to belief in a divine, supernatural being.

 

I would not presume to speak for Bishop Spong - his writings are pretty clear and unambiguous in my estimation.

 

I embrace the ideals and aspirations expressed in his writings which, I believe, are best summed up by point number 8 found on the front page of this forum:

 

we are Christians who form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace and justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all G-d's creation, and bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers.

 

Not one of the 8 points even mentions some of the supernatural elements many associate with the Biblical stories. The focus is on the sentiment expressed above.

 

It is my impression that Bishop Spong is bothered, as am I, by the barrier that belief in supernatural, deistic characterizations can be to following the tenets of the 8 points. They are a distraction, because people spend more energy and time debating the finer points of this mystical "fact" over that mystical "fact" than on simply following the humanitarian message of Jesus.

 

I really wouldn't read anything more into it than that.

 

If not buying into things we can neither prove nor disprove makes us an atheist, well, then; so be it.

 

NORM

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The dichotomy between theism and atheism is actually a false one and there are more god beliefs out there than just supernatural theism and atheism. The earliest religions were actually animistic and didn't believe in any divide between the supernatural realm and the natural world. Rather they saw God in all things, everything from the rocks to the trees and animals. The view that Spong subscribes to I think can be more accurately described as pantheism which is the belief that God and the universe are one and the same rather than separate beings. Pantheism may be uncommon in Christianity but it's more common in many Eastern religions like Taoism and Hinduism and two of the most prominent pantheist figures are Einstein and Spinoza. We can debate whether or not pantheism is compatible with Christianity, but I think it's more accurate to describe Spong as a pantheist than an atheist. If you want a clearer understanding of pantheism, I recommend reading Marcus Borg's book The God We Never Knew. While I love Spong and have a lot of respect for him, I think Borg does a clearer job of describing nontheistic Christianity in less confusing terms than Spong does and in general seems better at describing his vision of Christianity.

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Dear PC friends,

 

Non-theistic religion?

Well, technically not hypothetical, but false nonetheless, imo.

 

I suppose "theism" can be vaguely understood, so I start with the dictionary:

Theism: belief in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world

I’m also admittedly slow, and often I do miss the finer points, but thankfully my friends can clarify for me just why the concept of a "non-theistic religion" would be given any weight whatsoever on a progressive Christian discussion board?

Point 1 - By calling ourselves progressive, we mean that we are Christians who have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus.

Oxymoronic - as in consisting of incongruous elements.

EdF65 said:“God is good all the time. All the time God is good.”

 

1 John 4:8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

 

UP 1:7:3 “…the concept of divine goodness is understandable only in relation to personality. Only a person can love and be loved.”

 

1 Corinthians 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

 

UP 160:5:3 “All religions based on fear, emotion, tradition, and philosophy I term the intellectual religions, while those based on true spirit experience I would term the true religions. The object of religious devotion may be material or spiritual, true or false, real or unreal, human or divine. Religions can therefore be either good or evil.”

 

UP 160:5:5 “You cannot have a genuine spiritual religion without the supreme and supernal ideal of an eternal God. A religion without this God is an invention of man, a human institution of lifeless intellectual beliefs and meaningless emotional ceremonies. A religion might claim as the object of its devotion a great ideal. But such ideals of unreality are not attainable; such a concept is illusionary. The only ideals susceptible of human attainment are the divine realities of the infinite values resident in the spiritual fact of the eternal God.”

False religions represent an evasion of reality, imo.

 

In loving service,

Brent

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Dear PC friends,

 

(snip)

I’m also admittedly slow, and often I do miss the finer points, but thankfully my friends can clarify for me just why the concept of a "non-theistic religion" would be given any weight whatsoever on a progressive Christian discussion board?

 

(snip)

In loving service,

Brent

 

Brent,

 

All views are allowed in this debate and dialog section. It is not reserved for those who consider themselves Progressive Christians. Allowing people to express their views is not giving weight to a particular view which includes yours and mine when we post as members.

If anything, as PC's or members here we are expected to give weight to members in the form of respect for their right to express their view while giving weight to a view is purely discretionary on the readers part.

 

Just for clarification,

JosephM (as Admin)

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genuine spiritual religion

I really cannot figure out what this means.

 

What is genuine? Is there any way to judge the beliefs of a person other than through the fruits the beliefs yield

For me spiritual is a personal event. Do you mean that everyone in that religion has had a transcendent experience or practices spiritual disciplines?

 

You know - I am good with lack of meaning. Loving does not need meaning, being compassionate needs no purpose, transcendent experiences stand on nothing other than the experience

 

Theism is a troubled word. I think we should follow Sam Keen's advice and take a word sabbath. Let's not use any "__theism" for 30 days. Find some other word that means what you want to mean.

 

Dutch

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I really cannot figure out what this means.

 

What is genuine? Is there any way to judge the beliefs of a person other than through the fruits the beliefs yield

For me spiritual is a personal event. Do you mean that everyone in that religion has had a transcendent experience or practices spiritual disciplines?

 

You know - I am good with lack of meaning. Loving does not need meaning, being compassionate needs no purpose, transcendent experiences stand on nothing other than the experience

 

Theism is a troubled word. I think we should follow Sam Keen's advice and take a word sabbath. Let's not use any "__theism" for 30 days. Find some other word that means what you want to mean.

 

Dutch

 

And here we can follow tradition ... with a big Amen!

 

Myron

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Joseph and PC friends,

 

My thanks for your kind clarification regarding allowance for all views and respect for the right to express them. While I may well have committed some political incorrectness, I surely intended no personally judgmental offense.

 

Neon, I applaud your informed sympathies toward interfaith understanding. While adjectives like “true and false” can easily come across as intolerant, I will stand by my opinion that religions without God are inventions of man and that even great philosophic ideals which exclude God are unreal, illusionary, and thus ultimately unattainable.

 

I understand that the Master himself was far wiser in his ministry. For example, perhaps this story would strike a resonant chord:

“Jesus learned much about men while in Rome, but the most valuable of all the manifold experiences of his six months' sojourn in that city was his contact with, and influence upon, the religious leaders of the empire's capital. Before the end of the first week in Rome Jesus had sought out, and had made the acquaintance of, the worth-while leaders of the Cynics, the Stoics, and the mystery cults, in particular the Mithraic group. Whether or not it was apparent to Jesus that the Jews were going to reject his mission, he most certainly foresaw that his messengers were presently coming to Rome to proclaim the kingdom of heaven; and he therefore set about, in the most amazing manner, to prepare the way for the better and more certain reception of their message. He selected five of the leading Stoics, eleven of the Cynics, and sixteen of the mystery-cult leaders and spent much of his spare time for almost six months in intimate association with these religious teachers. And this was his method of instruction: Never once did he attack their errors or even mention the flaws in their teachings. In each case he would select the truth in what they taught and then proceed so to embellish and illuminate this truth in their minds that in a very short time this enhancement of the truth effectively crowded out the associated error; and thus were these Jesus-taught men and women prepared for the subsequent recognition of additional and similar truths in the teachings of the early Christian missionaries. It was this early acceptance of the teachings of the gospel preachers which gave that powerful impetus to the rapid spread of Christianity in Rome and from there throughout the empire.” UP 132:0:4

 

Since “truth never suffers from honest examination” I'll risk adding a quote about Buddhism for your thoughtful and tolerant consideration. Following that, I should bow out with my opinions in this particular debate and dialogue thread and prepare for a week on the rock pile.

 

Said Gonod: "I would really like to know what you think of Buddha." And Jesus answered:

 

"Your Buddha was much better than your Buddhism. Buddha was a great man, even a prophet to his people, but he was an orphan prophet; by that I mean that he early lost sight of his spiritual Father, the Father in heaven. His experience was tragic. He tried to live and teach as a messenger of God, but without God. Buddha guided his ship of salvation right up to the safe harbor, right up to the entrance to the haven of mortal salvation, and there, because of faulty charts of navigation, the good ship ran aground. There it has rested these many generations, motionless and almost hopelessly stranded. And thereon have many of your people remained all these years. They live within hailing distance of the safe waters of rest, but they refuse to enter because the noble craft of the good Buddha met the misfortune of grounding just outside the harbor. And the Buddhist peoples never will enter this harbor unless they abandon the philosophic craft of their prophet and seize upon his noble spirit. Had your people remained true to the spirit of Buddha, you would have long since entered your haven of spirit tranquillity, soul rest, and assurance of salvation.”

 

"You see, Gonod, Buddha knew God in spirit but failed clearly to discover him in mind; the Jews discovered God in mind but largely failed to know him in spirit. Today, the Buddhists flounder about in a philosophy without God, while my people are piteously enslaved to the fear of a God without a saving philosophy of life and liberty. You have a philosophy without a God; the Jews have a God but are largely without a philosophy of living as related thereto. Buddha, failing to envision God as a spirit and as a Father, failed to provide in his teaching the moral energy and the spiritual driving power which a religion must possess if it is to change a race and exalt a nation." UP 132:7:4,5

 

In good spirit,

Brent

 

PS. Dutch, I believe you make a critical point which sheds light on a semantic problem arising from intertwined references to ‘socialized religion’ and ‘personal religion’. With you, I also view genuine spiritual experiences as personal events that stand upon their own merit.

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Whether they are supernatural or non-theistic, all religions are invented by humans and the real delusion is for any religion or way of life to claim to know the one true way to salvation or to claim to know the "TRUTH" about God. You say that non-theistic religion is unattainable and yet in reality it is supernatural religion which is unattainable. If supernatural was an attainable religion, then there would be significant differences between the morality of theists and atheists and yet study after study shows there is no difference. In fact, societies which are the most religious also tend to be the most corrupt. For example, out of all the first world nations, the U.S. is the most religious but the U.S. also has the highest crime rates, the worst education, and the worst economy. Meanwhile, secular nations like Sweden and Japan are far more peaceful than more religious nations like the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Supernatural religion has been responsible for some of the worse catastrophes in history, such as the Crusades, the Salem Witch trials, and more recently, the Uganda kill the gays bill. Supernatural religion continues to place unhealthy and dogmatic rules which are pointless and impossible to follow, like forbidding consenting adults from having sex until they say a magic spell when they get married which suddenly makes it magically different from sex before marriage somehow. Yet even though supernatural religion forbids sex before marriage, surveys reveal that the bible belt states have the highest teen pregnancy rates. If supernatural religion was attainable, then surely fundamentalist Christians could do a better job of keeping it in their pants. Supernatural religion also continues to deny the reality of proven scientific facts which have long since been settled such as the origins of humanity, the age of the Earth, and that homosexuality is a natural and healthy part of life. Religion is only "attainable" when theists stop playing make believe and accept there is no magic genie in the sky who will solve their problems but the "real" God is the divine spark in their heart, and that they must look inside themselves for true divine inspiration instead of looking for a god "out there."

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Brent,

 

I must be honest and confess I have never met nor heard for myself from the man Jesus known as the Christ, Siddhartha known as the Buddha, nor this Gonod you speak of that is supposed to have asked Jesus that question. Wherefore there can i have an opinion of what is written in your quote as an accurate account or statement concerning Buddha? While the language of the time of Siddhartha the Buddha may refer to God in other terms more familiar to the culture that do not resemble a typical Christian understanding of God, my personal studies of Buddhism and Christianity confirmed by my personal experiences from both religions without personally knowing either man indicate to me that by following reported basic teaching by both that God can be experienced. While Buddhism uses such words as the unconditioned, absolute changeless reality, etc and Christianity Father, the great I am, the creator. etc. i find them both to lead to our source as may other religions that i have not studied or experienced sufficiently to form a view may also.

 

With tolerance and consideration for opposing views,

Joseph

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Neon,

 

Religion does not, IMO, cause intolerance. Religion reflects the attitude of the person or society in which it is found.

 

George

In the sense that what a person believes about the world influences their actions, I think it does cause intolerance. Just in the case of the Uganda kill the gays bill for example, though homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda, the situation wasn't as intense as it is today before the American Christian right came over and brainwashed and took advantage of the religious fundamentalists in that country. In his interviews with Rachel Maddow, David Bahati gave his reasons for trying to wipe out all the gays in the country and his reasons were all religious based. He even quoted St. Paul saying the wages of sin are death when Rachel Maddow asked him if he supported the death penalty for gays. Do all religions cause intolerance? Of course not all don't but supernatural religion has been if not the cause, it was the justification for so much intolerance in the past century and all the research shows a clear correlation between secularism and tolerance and a correlation between supernaturalism and intolerance. Edited by Neon Genesis
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Neon,

 

The fact that someone cites religious reasons for hateful behavior does not mean this is the real underlying motivation. One can consciously use it as a rationalization. And, I think it is often sincerely but wrongly believed to be a person's motivation.

 

Racism, xenophobia, homophobia are found among both religious and non-religious people and there are many religious and secular humanists. Therefore, religion is not IMO a good predictor of worldview and attitudes.

 

Geirge

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