John Shelby Spong is a retired bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, a tall, courtly southerner with intense blue eyes and the steel of absolute conviction in his voice. Almost certainly, he is his country's best-known voice of liberal Christianity.
He was reflecting this week on the tens of thousands of prayers that church leaders in the United States and elsewhere have launched heavenward to God since the Sept. 11 attacks. "It's been embarrassing," he says over breakfast at Toronto's Park Plaza Hotel.
He calls them adult letters to Santa Claus.
Billy Graham, the evangelist counsellor to U.S. presidents, in particular annoys him. "Talking about the people killed having gone to heaven and not wanting to come back because they're so happy where they are. Tell that to their children and see what they say."
Which leads him to recount the story of the iron crossbeam extracted from the wreckage of the World Trade Center that looked like the Christian cross. It was promptly called a sign from God. Spong practically snorts: "A sign from God? If God was going to give a sign, he would have stopped the airplanes from hitting the building."
He likens the post-Sept. 11 praying, the search for signs and divine explanations and the comments of people such as U.S. conservative Christian Jerry Falwell to how Europeans reacted in the 14th century to bubonic plague. "They assumed it was God's punishment, and they came up with two responses: flagellation and the persecution of Jews."
What people must do, Spong says, is understand and accept that they live in a world of randomness and chance. They have got to cease their childlike dependency on the supernatural holy because "the God we used to count on -- the superparent -- is gone." This God has ceased to be.
Spong preached on this theme to a packed congregation -- "It was like Easter" -- at Harvard University's Memorial Church on Sept. 16. "Afterwards, a woman came up to me and was irate because I did not give her comfort."
He states unequivocally: God is not in heaven listening for prayers, petitions, supplications on which He will choose to act or not act -- a choice always beyond human comprehension (which explains why He lets planes fly into buildings) because no one knows God's mind.
"This is not a believable God," Spong says.
If he is right, a lot of us will feel lonely. Or maybe not.
Christian prayer -- which is what about 85 per cent of us mutter aloud or within ourselves -- rests upon two foundations: belief in the transcendent and personal nature of God (he's somewhere "out there" with human characteristics) and belief that God has a direct relationship with everything he created (not one sparrow is forgotten, the Christian New Testament says).
Spong says none of this is the case, which is the subject of his newest book, A New Christianity for a New World, based on lectures he delivered at Harvard last year as a visiting professor.
God, he says, is immanent (inside us), not transcendent (out there). God is the purifying power of love. The Second Coming is not the physical return of Jesus to the world -- more or less one of the non-negotiable tenets of Christian belief -- but rather the conscious recognition within each of us of the requirement to love.
So no more prayer because no one's listening?
Not at all, Spong says.
He says prayer is the preparation of oneself to live the loving God-life, adding that he used to spend two hours in the morning in prayer and liturgical worship, which he called his time with God.
Now, he spends the two hours meditating and opening his mind to spiritual readings -- something akin to the medieval Matins, he says -- and it is the remaining 22 hours he calls his time with God, the communal aspect of his life, the 22 hours of living in the world and trying to love and understand all Creation and its beings.
He also thinks there may be some inexplicable energy released in focused group mental exertion. "But I don't want to talk about that, because that gets spooky," he says, smiling.
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