Spong's and Moorjani's Thoughts on Dogma

Anita Moorjani, who has a multi-cultural background to say the least, as an Indian woman born of Hindu parents raised in Hong Kong and educated there in a Catholic school, found a near death experience she went through in 2006 to be notably "free of dogma any kind." In fact, she got the distinct sense while visiting "the other side" that dogma of any kind really has no place in true spirituality. There are some interesting parallels between what she learned during her near death experience and the sermons and writings of the liberal and outspoken retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.

In the 8/13/2006 episode of the television news show “Dateline,” correspondent Keith Morrison interviewed Bishop John Shelby Spong, who shared some equally fascinating views and insights on a wide range of spiritual subjects, including the topic of religious dogma. (An interesting little coincidence worth noting, especially if you happen to enjoy these types of coincidences: 2006, when this interview with John Shelby Spong took place happens to be the same year that Anita experienced her near death experience.) 

Spong states that he “happens to believe in life after death,” but he also believes there is no hell (which in itself could be considered a pretty controversial notion in the eyes of some individuals.) Anita’s experiences would seem to confirm and bear out both of these ideas expressed by Spong (a. that there is indeed an afterlife or a spiritual life after one’s earthly life ends, and b. that there is no hell – or karma, for that matter.) 

Spong further states (again, somewhat controversially) that, “Religion is always in the 'control business'…. It’s in the guilt-producing control business.” In other words, the afterlife (as Anita’s NDE reflects) has nothing to do with false notions of reward and/or punishment. These are manmade inventions, Spong states, used by those in charge to keep the “masses” in check or in control, using fear as the main instrument of that control. 

Consider what Anita says about fear. When she saw her father in the afterlife, and when she ultimately made her choice to leave the other side and return to her earthly life, he admonished her to “Go back and live your life fearlessly!” If people live their lives in a state of perpetual fear, thinking, for instance, that they could be banished to the fiery pits of hell for just about any minor transgression at all, they are much easier to control and to keep docile and non-rebellious. (Remember one of the main themes running through the "counter culture movement" of the sixties and seventies: “Always question authority.” That policy would seem to apply not just where politics and civil rights for all are concerned, but when it comes to spirituality as well.) 

But people who live fearlessly (as Anita discusses, and as Spong implies) are much less easy to tame or control. They think for themselves and they focus on finding their own deeply personal, spiritual truths, and on being true to their own authentic selves. To the powers that be, this often signifies Danger! Danger!

After all, people who engage in critical thinking and form their own personal opinions (about spirituality or politics or any other emotionally charged subject) are not easily subdued or corralled. And what dogmatic religious leader wants members who can’t be trusted to simply "fall in line" (without asking any questions or expressing any doubts) at all times?

The retired Bishop John Shelby Spong also points out that these notions of reward and punishment are not just a part of Christian dogma. Versions of these ideas can be found in one form or another in nearly all major religions practiced around the world, both historically and currently.

He then goes even further, emphatically stating, “The church doesn’t like for people to grow up because you can’t control grown ups.” He adds that the use of the term “born again” is quite deliberate, because when one is “born again,” he or she becomes (you guessed it) a child all over again, spiritually speaking. But he contends that, “People don’t need to be 'born again.' They need to grow up and accept responsibility for themselves in the world.”

He adds that every church on earth claims to be the one true church, the one direct route to heaven. But he feels that “God” (or what Anita might term “Love,” or what others have termed All-That-Is or Source Energy or Oneness or Universal Consciousness or a Higher Power) simply cannot be “bound” in this way.

All religious faiths, he asserts, are human (i.e., manmade) systems. In Spong's words, “God is not a Christian. God is not a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist.” These, he states are simply human systems which we humans have devised over time to try to fathom or to “try to help us walk into the mystery of God.” 

And while he respects and honors the religious traditions of his youth and upbringing, he does not feel that his own religious tradition (or any other) provides "the be all and end all" definition of “God.” Rather, all religions merely “point the way” toward God (or Divinity, or Holiness, or All That Is Sacred or, again, whatever other term(s) you may like to use when describing the Infinite.)

In his view we are not “fallen” people. Rather, we are “emerging” people. He also states that we are categorically “not born in sin” but that we are still evolving as human beings and that God (or any other term you may want to use here) is actually calling us to be “more deeply and fully human.” 

This would seem to echo (or serve as a slight variation of) Anita’s assertion that one of the biggest lessons she took from her near death experience (in addition to casting off the old dogmatic shackles of fear, shame and guilt and striving to live life more fearlessly) is that we want to strive to be our truest, most authentic selves, to come more fully “into our own,” or for each of us to strive to give our own unique souls full spiritual expression while here on earth.

 Forget dogmatic concepts that were designed to induce guilt and fear (like “original sin” or “karma” or “heaven and hell”). Leave those ideas behind (along with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, if you happened to grow up with those particular childhood traditions, as I did.) Consider instead this wise retired priest’s recommendation to “grow up” spiritually speaking and to come into your own as a fully realized, spiritually enlightened, adult human being. He preaches: "Think of your salvation as enhancing your humanity rather than rescuing you from it.” God, he goes on to say is “not a parent figure up in the sky.” Rather, “God is unfolding through the life of our consciousness.”

 This priest’s words speak to me as clearly and compellingly as Anita’s do, in part because he does not “throw out the baby with the bathwater” as some atheists tend to do. Atheists study the same facts that this priest did (the fear and the guilt and the controlling nature of every dogmatic religious faith) and then come to the conclusion that in order to be fully realized grown up human beings, we need to put aside every single idea pertaining to spirituality or God/A Higher Power and/or thoughts about the possibility of an afterlife.

In sharp contrast, the retired Bishop demonstrates (in both his words and his deeds) that one can in fact believe (in God, in an afterlife), but that one can do so in an evolved, mature way. And furthermore, one’s sense of “grown up spirituality” need not be based on fear or guilt or shame or control, but on a desire to keep seeking and striving and growing and maturing as an authentic, loving, evolving, mature and sophisticated spiritual being. I love his perspective because it goes to show that you can be a mature, sophisticated, intellectual thinker and a spiritual person all at once! By the same token, one’s sense of personal spirituality need not be child-like or based on the spiritually immature notion of, in his words, “God as a parental figure in the sky.” 

I especially love his idea that we should not be seeking “salvation from our humanity” but “enhancement of our humanity.” Talk about a great way to eradicate centuries of fear and guilt when discussing God and spirituality. We don’t need to think of ourselves as inherently flawed (or, to put it in religious terminology, “fallen.”) Isn’t it infinitely healthier and more constructive to think of ourselves as these growing, evolving spiritual “works-in-progress” who are seeking what he calls “enhancement” rather than “salvation” from our own human natures?

Why would we want to escape or evade being saved from our own humanity?  What possible spiritual good could come from that self-hating, punitive, soul-annihilating way of thinking? As you can see, in addition to presenting us with a significantly more mature way to look at spirituality, the priest is also showing us a spiritual viewpoint that is considerably more positive and life affirming than religious traditions that emphasize reward and punishment over spiritual evolution and self-actualization.

Anita and other like-minded souls might just add to this line of thinking that "we are in fact God, for God is Unconditional Love, and at our spiritual cores, we are also Unconditional Love." If you grew up in any faith that placed a lot of emphasis on the punitive side of religion, you may find yourself taking great comfort in this priest’s (and Anita’s) words.

But don’t just rely on the wisdom of other spiritually minded individuals (as wonderful as that wisdom may be.) Turn inward and listen to your own heart, and, in the immortal words of Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” 

What is your intuition telling you about your own spiritual path? What do you want your own personal spiritual evolution to look like? How do you envision what is possible for you to achieve in every area of your life, both here on earth, and then later, after your physical life is over and you have “made the transition” to the other side? This involves a combination of “enhancing your humanity,” as the Bishop mentions, as well as becoming (and staying as true as possible to) your own most “authentic” self that Anita talks about in her interviews. 

If you have trouble figuring out your heart’s desire or what you most enjoy doing and thinking about, try this little trick or strategy. Allow your mind to wander wherever it wants for a good ten or fifteen minutes. Where does your mind wander to when you just allow it to roam free in this way? Maybe your thoughts land on your significant other. Maybe your thoughts wander to some of your favorite trips or to the idea of traveling in general.  Maybe your thoughts meander over to a book that you read recently.

Wherever your thoughts land when doing this little exercise, try to “feed” yourself more and more of the nourishing wonderful thoughts that replenish you the most. This is a wonderful way to give yourself the love that you deserve. For me, when I engage in this exercise of allowing my mind to wander to favorite topics, I learn that some of the activities that feed my soul include talking, thinking and writing about the loving, liberal, welcoming spirituality that is all about inclusion and oneness and divine love. 

Returning for a moment to the fascinating sermons of the spiritual thinker and retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, I am struck yet again by the parallels between what he says in his sermons and what Anita learned during her near death experience. In a sermon he delivered on the subject of one of his books, “Jesus for the Non-Religious,” he urged parishioners to consider changing how they think about God, regarding God not as some sort of "supernatural father figure looking down on us from the sky," but rather “as a presence at the very heart of life.” He goes on to add: “If God is the source of Life, as I believe God is, then God is present in all living things. God is present in you and me. And if God is the source of life then the only way to worship God is by living….and loving.” 

This line of thinking dovetails nicely with what Anita Moorjani learned during her NDE, in which she felt simultaneously enveloped by unconditional divine love all around her and completely at one with all living things, including (but not limited to) both her deceased father and best friend in "the other realm" and her mother, brother and husband, all here in "the earthly realm," not to mention all plant and animal life.

Also, what does Anita tell us about our "soul purpose" (pun intended) here on earth? She says our only mission, our ultimate goal, (from a spiritual perspective) is simply “to be.”  As mentioned earlier, “being” in this context means two things: 1) “being our most authentic selves,” and also 2) “being love.”

Isn’t it fascinating how closely Spong’s ideas match up with Anita’s? He did not have an NDE, of course, but he has spent his life pondering the great theological questions, and his questioning and exploring have caused him to move past the religious ideas that he ultimately found too limiting to the point where he is today, thinking very much the way Anita thinks post-NDE. 

I don’t think it is a mere coincidence that this brilliant spiritual scholar and teacher and this “exceptional near death experiencer” think so much alike. I think they simply took slightly different paths to the same final spiritual destination of enlightenment or spiritual knowing. And I feel lucky to be alive when they are also alive and sharing their knowledge so willingly and generously with the rest of us. 

Another concept that Spong shares which overlaps perfectly with some of the things Anita has discussed is the idea of “loving wastefully.” This notion corresponds nicely with Anita’s advice to love yourself so unconditionally and so much that the healthy, nurturing unconditional love you feel for yourself actually “spills over” onto your loved ones and all of the people in your life.

Here is how Spong describes his advice to "love wastefully": “The image in my mind is an old sink in the basement where you plug up all the drains and you turn on all the faucets and the water overflows the boundaries and goes all over the floor and fills up every little crack and cranny, every dirty little space and never stops to ask ‘Does that crack deserve this living water?’ You love because love is what you have to do and you don’t worry about whether or not somebody ‘deserves’ the love. You love wastefully.”

Doesn’t that notion of "loving wastefully" correspond exquisitely with Anita’s “love spillover” idea? I think these deep similarities between the ideas contained in two fascinating spiritual thinkers are anything but coincidental. I think they are clues, wonderful clues, which show us that we are heading in the right direction in our quest for more and more spiritual knowledge.

Think of strange serendipitous moments in your own life when life’s mysterious momentum or "synergy" (to use a slightly overused phrase, just for a moment) seems to be propelling you in a wonderful, synchronized direction. I can give a small example of a recent serendipitous moment in my own life. I had gone to the city from the suburb where I live and I nearly hopped on a subway going the wrong direction to meet up with an old friend in town for just a few hours.

Because I made that error, which cost me a few minutes, just enough minutes it turns out, not only did I get myself going in the right direction, but I also ran into yet another old friend, who is only in the city from time to time because she lives elsewhere during much of the year and travels a lot to boot. So the odds of my running into this particular old friend on that exact street corner at that precise moment (and made possible by the fact that I had almost boarded the subway going the wrong way) were – I don’t know – maybe 10,000 to 1?

It was so great to catch up with one old, dear friend whom I rarely get to see on my way to seeing another dear friend who lives very far away and whom I also rarely see. Are these signs from the Universe? From God? If so, what are they signs of? Of our profound connectedness? Of our oneness with everyone we know (and indeed every living thing)? Who really knows? That's all part of the great mystery that is life, I suppose.

Bishop Spong concludes his sermon on "loving wastefully" with the assertion that we need to “have the courage to be all that we can be.” Yet again, this idea links up perfectly with one of Anita’s post-NDE pieces of advice to “be true to ourselves" or to be our "most authentic selves.” All of these synchronicities and similarities between the ideas of Anita Moorjani and Bishop Spong seem to indicate that they are both “on the right track,” spiritually speaking, and that if we at least listen to them with an open mind (whether or not we ultimately decide to accept what they say), we might very well find ourselves "on the right track," too.

We each have something to offer the world simply by “being all that we can be” (in Bishop Spong’s words) or by “being true to ourselves” (in Anita’s words). And he even concludes his sermon by saying we ought not “be bound by the fears of yesterday.” (How intriguing that he uses that same word – fear – that Anita uses so frequently in her own interviews and presentations.) He does not want us to be spiritually imprisoned by external “fear mongering” (imposed by restrictive and/or exclusionary religious thinking), whereas Anita does not want us to be spiritually imprisoned by our own internal fear-mongering (our fear of illness or death, for example). 

If I want to heed the call of my own authentic spirit (or soul or higher consciousness, you get the idea) and feel good and send myself in a positive direction spiritually speaking, I can read a good book or listen to inspiring music or look at a painting that moves me. I can also head over (virtually speaking) to Anita’s website and listen to her soothing voice and wise words, or I can meander over to YouTube to listen to some of John Shelby Spong’s fascinating sermons or interviews. These are spiritual thinkers who speak directly to my soul in different but equally useful ways. Their words sync up perfectly with how I feel about God and the Infinite and the Divine Spirit that lives within each of us.