Chapter 1: A Personal Prologue

The Living Commandments
by John Shelby Spong

Chapter 1: A Personal Prologue

This is a book about ethics and rules, life and faith. It is written by one who wants to explore each of these categories.

I am not a universal man. I am a particular man with a particular heritage and particular attitudes. I have been shaped by my environment and by my century. I speak with no wisdom beyond the experiences of my life as they have interacted with my upbringing, my education, and my deepest commitments.

I am a Christian. I am convinced that in Jesus of Nazareth God has entered human history uniquely and decisively, but I am not wedded to any particular explanation as to how that great and mighty wonder actually came to pass. Above all else, I want to be an honest man. I want to be honest about what I believe and how I live that belief out, but I also want to be open and capable of moving into new conclusions should the living of life seem to push me in new directions.

I am a child of the South. My family upbringing was strict, moralistic, Calvinist. Ethical issues were not discussed in my childhood home, life’s answers were considered to be clear and self-evident, leaving little room for discussion, much less for debate. Only the two categories of right and wrong seemed to exist. The content of those two categories was assumed to be certain. In that environment, to violate the rules of life was to bring swift and certain punishment upon yourself. If your bad behavior managed to escape human notice, you were assured that nothing was hidden from God’s all-seeing eye. If the scales of reward and punishment for good and bad behavior were not balanced here on earth, they would be balanced—the preachers would tell you—beyond the grave in the heavenly places or in the fiery pits of hell. In my youth to be caught in wrongdoing was to experience both the fear of God and the fear of my mother! She was not a big woman, but armed with a stinging switch picked from a forsythia bush, she seemed ten feet tall to me. There was never much doubt that good and evil were clear, simple, and distinct categories.

There was tremendous security in such an upbringing. But while I enjoyed that security, I am also now aware that it produced in me an unthinking rigidity and a highly judgmental attitude, for both were distinct parts of my personality structure as a teenager. If I felt insecure or uncertain in those years, I would never have admitted it. My tendency was to cover that insecurity with dogmatic pronouncements; and this tended to make my rigidity seem virtuous, at least to myself. It is easy to understand why I was not particularly popular with my peers at that stage of my life.

By the time I was twenty-one, I had never tasted alcohol, I had finished college, I was married, and I had decided on the priesthood as my vocation and career. I suppose I saw in the priesthood an external rigidity that ministered to my needs for certainty. Yet that vocation has, much to my surprise and joy, done exactly the opposite thing for me. It has called me to live in and to appreciate the joy of uncertainty, the absence of security, and it has led me into an existential search for integrity of character and faith in a world that seems to many to have only questions and no final answers.

This is a brief description of the person who has undertaken to write this volume. I feel it essential that my reader have some sense of who I am and the direction from which I am coming, for the subject matter of this book is both personal and nonobjective.

There is still deep in my makeup that strain of moralistic rigidity. It is best expressed, I suppose, in the personal standard of conduct I impose upon myself. A sense of an ultimate right and an ultimate wrong is still real for me, and I often wonder how I would deal with any serious breach of that standard in my personal life. But this rigidity is coupled with intense and significant learning from the psychoanalytic disciplines, including a two-year seminary experience in group therapy with four other seminary couples. Beyond that, I have spent over twenty years as a pastor privileged to share in the deepest secrets and internal traumas of very real human beings. I cannot even imagine an aspect of human behavior that I have not confronted as a counselor. As a result of these experiences, I have been driven to nonmoralistic conclusions time after time. The exigencies of existence have given birth to what has become the deepest tenet of my belief, namely, that God’s will for every life includes wholeness, freedom, being. The traditional moral code generally undergirds wholeness, freedom, and being, but not always, and when it doesn’t, the quest for wholeness has come to take priority for me over the rules of behavior, at least as I deal with the lives of other people.

It is from this mixture of personal rigidity and pastoral openness that I entered this study of the Book of Exodus in general and the Ten Commandments in particular. I wanted to affirm the eternal truth that lies underneath this ancient code—a truth that has endured the test of time, but I also wanted to free that eternal truth from its rigid, ancient context so that it might be heard anew in the context of my world and my century. I wanted to perceive the heart of the law as the creator of wholeness rather than as the moralistic arbiter of goodness.

A book to me is a very personal thing, a sharing if you will, of what is real in the life of the author. I trust that this work will be received as such, and if some part of what is real to me makes contact with something that is real in the lives of my readers, then my purpose will have been achieved.