I once heard J. S. Spong tell of co-lecturing with Carl Sagan at a conference in the northeast a few years ago. Carl ran up to Spong, a long-time friend, and said with excitement, which he expressed with his hands, “You know, Spong, if the Ascension of Jesus occurred as it is literally portrayed in the New Testament … that is to say, had Jesus actually been caught up in the heavens in order to sit at the right hand of God … well … you know what that means, don’t you?”
“What?” asked J. S. Spong.
“Well,” explained the cosmologist, “if Jesus were caught up at the speed of light — 186,000 miles per second — with what we know today about the vastness of our galaxy — Jesus would still be traveling today just to reach the outer limits of the Milky Way! Furthermore, there are billions and billions of galaxies!”
Fascinating. Actually, our galaxy alone is not only vaster than you think, it is vaster than I can think. Hypothetically, for example, if you could place our sun at the outer limits of the galaxy and the earth at the opposite reaches and then shut off the suns rays, as in turning off a light switch, we would not know it for another 82,000 years. Theoretically, the last rays of light would take that long to reach us.
So, the cosmologist raises an all-important point for religious people, one I suspect many of them have never considered. The cosmology of the average New Testament saint was primitive at best. Clouds made up the sky and the heavens were just beyond the clouds. They had no way of imagining our nearest star being nearly 10 light years from planet earth. So, if the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are going to have any relevance in our world today, will not those who would like to take it “literally” need to rethink how they’re going to understand, and so interpret, the scriptures? Is it possible to regard sacred writings as inspired, as well as relevant and applicable, without pretending, and demanding others pretend, its limited views of the world must be accepted and never questioned?
Here’s something else. As long as you think of God as separate from you, which I did for decades and many still do today, that is to say, as long as you think of God as a male figure, grandfatherly type, having a long beard, wearing a white robe, sitting on throne and floating around in an imaginary heaven while angels sing the chorus to “Holy, Holy, Holy,” then your cosmology, and very likely your faith, is regarded by thinking people as mere fairytale with no connection whatsoever to reality. Sanity is the unequivocal acceptance of reality — of truth. Which explains why much religion today, and virtually all of it that you see on television, is insane.
What if you were to give up the ideas you learned from sincere but misinformed sunday school teachers that God is separate from you or that he lives somewhere in outer space in a place called heaven? Or that Jesus will return one day in a Rapture and rescue you?
Is it not enough that Jesus said: “The Kingdom is within you” (Luke 17:21)? Is it not enough that Jesus also said, quoting the Scriptures, “You are gods” (John 10:34). If he is the way, as most Christians insist, why would you look elsewhere or, as he put it, “travel a broad road that leads nowhere” (Matthew 7:13)? The “narrow road” leads to the universe within.
If you wish to find God, there is no need to look beyond for what could only ever be found within. Which is precisely why Rumi, the Sufi poet, said: “I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know answers … knocking on doors. Suddenly, the door opens … I’ve been knocking from the inside.”
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On Knowing God
Dr. Steve McSwain has been called “the voice for the SBNR (Spiritual but Not Religious).”
He grew up in the Baptist church, but he’s an advocate of inter-faith dialogue. He was a Christian minister for over 20 years but didn’t receive his spiritual awakening until he quit going to church. Today, he is devoted follower of the Christ-path to knowing God but argues that Christianity isn’t the only pathway to the Divine.
Dr. McSwain may be a walking contradiction. Or, he may speak for a growing number of Americans who are finding and creating new pathways of spirituality.