If you enjoy wrestling with the big questions in life, and recognize the value of wisdom and experience—especially when coupled with sixty years of scholarly study of theology and philosophy, diligent pursuit of ever-elusive truth through reason; intellectual honesty; insatiable curiosity; and an astute mind and loving heart—then you owe it to yourself to read Eternal Life: A New Vision, the culmination of Bishop John Shelby Spong’s seventy-nine-year journey of inquiry. Eternal Life goes beyond religion, beyond heaven and hell, and explores a very different interpretation of the Christian story and history, and what that Christian “experience” can mean to a modern mind—specifically in terms of life, death, and life after death.

This latest—and last—book by Bishop John Shelby Spong is difficult to review in some ways; it is not easily characterized by simple technical questions about scripture or Biblical interpretation. Rather, Eternal Life covers the biggest and toughest of questions.

A few relevant disclaimers: 1) This reviewer is a non-theist, and no longer believes in god. 2) Many skeptics and non-believers break ranks with Spong insofar as he persists in using “God language” like “salvation,” “eternal,” and “redemption”. Such breaks are evidenced by the Bishop’s participation in some formal debates with atheists. Still, it seems that if we discard our symbols and metaphors we might arguably just as well discard all attempts at articulating the human experience—including art, myth, literature, and all of language. As Spong frequently points out, language is but symbol. It is therefore worth pointing out that the naturalist, skeptical, and materialist reader may want to be patient with Spong’s use of loaded symbolic terms. If we open our minds to alternative definitions that do not insult our modern advances in thinking, we just may find some beautiful ideas to which we can assent. 3) Finally, this reviewer is an admitted fan of John Spong, as evidenced by the inclusion and fictionalization of an extensive discussion with him—with kind permission—in the reviewer’s novel that illustrates how uncritical acceptance of any belief can divide, diminish, and literally endanger our humanity (A Secret of the Universe: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Discovery of an Eternal Truth).

Disclaimers notwithstanding, it is worth clarifying that Bishop Spong’s Eternal Life is indeed a new vision that boldly chastises and discards traditional religion, yet somehow illuminates what the great mythologist and comparative religion scholar Joseph Campbell called “the power of myth” to facilitate our understanding of our experiences—in ways even strict materialists can access.

Einstein said “the only source of knowledge is experience,” and it is experiencing the realm of human emotion and the interconnectedness of living things into which Spong calls us, using this symbolic language of old. Herein lies the beauty of Eternal Life: A New Vision; its wisdom is accessible to the progressive Christian and the skeptic alike. If some of us who consider ourselves atheists wish to move beyond that simple statement about what we don’t believe, and focus on the affirmative, there is much that can be learned from Bishop Spong’s views of what it means to be alive, what it means to be human, and how even ancient mythologies can inform our experience of love, loss, mystery, wonder, and awe.

Readers who can accept new interpretations and definitions of old symbols and allegories will glean much from Spong’s shared journey of experiences—concepts that are consistent with science and modern understandings of how the real world works, consistent with the mythological truth of sacred texts, and that still call us to be more fully human and to “live fully, to love wastefully, to be all that you can be and to dedicate yourselves to building a world in which everyone has a better opportunity to do the same” (p212). If we do that, Spong argues, we can experience the connectedness he associates with “god”—which lies within us! He says, “The divine we have always sought turns out to be a dimension of the human.” We can experience the “eternal” through this life—touch it, if you will. While the book embraces death and darkness as our call to meaning and light in this life, Spong is staunchly insistent that it is through this life that we experience this new, almost scientific or quantum view of “divinity,” connectedness, and interrelatedness. (Thankfully, he makes no attempt to co-opt quantum physics into yet another new-age, woo-woo religion, as do many who seek simply to provide the next opiate to the people—or to sell get-rich-quick books on Oprah.)

While Spong’s answer to the unanswerable question of life after death is an assertive “yes, it exists,” that “yes” comes carefully nuanced in modern arguments for a somewhat mystical interconnectivity. As Carl Sagan would remind us we are all made of “star stuff.” That alone is evidence of connection. But memories literally transcend time, and we recall and still live in the love of those who are dead—which makes them live on in a real way. Still, Spong is unwilling to make the seemingly distasteful assertions of years past, that we’ll actually physically be reunited with loved ones in some anthropomorphic post-life experience. Indeed Spong’s are a new set of definitions for old ideas, and a new way of looking at life after death, so any reader expecting affirmation of traditional afterlife fantasies of milk and honey will be disappointed.

Clearly we can’t expect that Spong has discovered heretofore unknown secret knowledge of the afterlife, and revealed it in this book; but what Spong gives us is far more than just an accounting of his own spiritual and intellectual journey through life, and it’s inevitable suffering and discarded theodicy-plagued solutions. It is also more than metaphor for his spiritual journey, which he sees as parallel to that of the evolution of humanity’s search for answers on a macro scale.

Bishop Spong argues that if we are willing to listen, we can find that through death life is illuminated, transformed, inter-connected, and indeed, transcendent beyond what we seemingly see. This is a mental stretch for many of us, but one can argue it need not conflict with even a purely materialistic view of the world, where memories are but electrical impulses stored in neurons, and matter is all there is. So for skeptics and believers alike, it is worth our effort to look beyond what could be a false dichotomy of either supernatural nonsense or blindness to our full human experience, and stand wrapped in awe at what is. Reading Eternal Life will help any curious mind to do just that—celebrate what is, and embrace life more fully in the process.

 (Special Note: You can listen FREEE to Stephen’s extended interview with Bishop Spong about Eternal Life via  iTunes or online at www.truthdriventhinking.com/audioblog.htm.)

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, and A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog; © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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