by John Shelby Spong
He was a remarkable man, a superior lawyer and one who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. He had many, many friends and I was privileged to be one of them. I knew him for 35 of his 107 years. More than that, I knew him in some deeply personal settings. I walked with him as his wife Dorothy sank into a state of unknowing. It was the onset of her dementia that caused him to move with her into a setting where she could be cared for and he could be near enough to share time with her every day. I will never forget him singing “Annie Laurie” to his uncommunicative wife.
I knew him as a devoted member of Christ Church in Short Hills, New Jersey. He was a sidesman – that is Christ Church, Short Hills, vocabulary for a lay reader or chalice bearer. He was also the regular narrator at their Christmas Pageant. Though active in his church, Malcolm was an uncomfortable Christian. That is, he was uncomfortable with traditional, ecclesiastical thinking and ecclesiastical language. He knew how to separate the authenticity of his own God experience from the explanation placed on that experience by the ecclesiastical institution – explanations that were to him always both time bound and time warped. So he sat loosely to creeds, to liturgical forms and to doctrinal concerns. In this, Malcolm and I found common ground and became kindred spirits. We celebrated Malcolm’s birthday together every June from the time he turned 100 until his 107th birthday this past summer when we saw him for the last time.
In the course of his 100th birthday gathering, near the end when people were preparing to leave, Malcolm turned to me and out of the richness of our past conversations said, “Well, Jack, what are you working on now?” I responded, “Malcolm, I am trying to find a doorway that will allow me to talk about life after death in such a way that a scientifically trained citizen of the 21st century could respond without turning off his or her brain.” I thought that Malcolm at age 100 might have some existential interest in this subject. I was not prepared for his response. He broke into a loud and a sustained laughter that left me standing with the quizzical smile of one who is slightly embarrassed. I was trying to brace myself for whatever his verbal response might be, but feeling somewhat vulnerable. When he finally ceased his laughter, he replied, “That is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard of you trying to do.”
Before I could say a word, he went on to pose what he saw as my problem. “Who are you going to interview for this project?” he asked. “Where are you going to do your research into this subject? Your passport may get you to China” he continued, “but it will never get you to the place where that question can be studied.” Finally, he concluded his comments by saying: “If this turns into a book it will be the shortest book of your career. It will have three lines: 1. Nobody knows, 2. Nobody can find out, 3. The End.”
When he finally fell silent and I had a chance to pick myself up off the floor, I told Malcolm, I did not in this project plan to engage in speculation into the unknown. I rather planned to approach life after death through the medium of life itself – about which a great deal can be known. Can I go deeply enough into the meaning of life that I can touch the limits? Can I discover the edge of humanity where it appears to enter the divine, where time ceases and eternity begins and where the barriers that surround life fade away and we discover that there is a universal consciousness in which we all participate? If I can do that, it will be through that means that I will approach the subject of life after death.
Although still skeptical, Malcolm at least began to understand that I was not on a mission to affirm the pious claims of traditional religion or to defend the popular ecclesiastical definitions of God, who seemed to use life after death as a method of behavior control or even to affirm the reality of those now empty realms that we have in the past called heaven and hell. When my study did lead to a book that was published in 2009 under the title Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell, I took a copy of it as my gift to Malcolm when we attended his 104th birthday party and later received from him his imprimatur. Malcolm approved of that book because of who Malcolm was and how Malcolm lived.
The only way I know how to approach the subject of eternity is to live fully in the present. The only way I know to discuss timelessness is to engage deeply and fully the gift of time that we now have. The only way I know how to approach the idea of divinity is to be fully human now, expanding all limits, transcending all barriers. I understand God as the Source of life empowering me to live fully; as the Source of love enabling me to love wastefully; as the Ground of Being giving me the courage to be everything I am capable of being. So it is in living fully, loving wastefully and being all that I can be that I experience the presence of God and it was, I am fully convinced, this same God experience that caused the followers of Jesus to view him as one in whom and through whom God was present. So they said of Jesus: “God was in Christ.” What this phrase was seeking to communicate is that somehow, in someway, through some means, they saw the presence of God in the fully alive, wastefully-loving Jesus.
This was the God that Malcolm also understood and this was the God with whom Malcolm lived. He worshiped this God of life, love and being by living fully, by loving wastefully and by being all that he could be. To Malcolm, God was not a being to be pleased, so much as God was a verb to be lived.