Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Literalism vs Spirituality

St. John the Divine in rainbow colors, NYC.

Happy 90th birthday today to progressive Christian author Bishop John (Jack) Spong, who has helped Christians better understand our faith with the help and support of Christine Spong. 

The following post appeared on July 16, 2014. 

The trend of people identifying as “spiritual but not religious” is sometimes a rejection of biblical literalism, religious fundamentalism and official orthodoxy. To me that can be a good thing, and, in my reading of a recent translation from Middle English by Bernard Bangley of the book, The Cloud of Unknowing, very traditional. 

The anonymous author encourages readers to discard what’s not helpful in the book, and so I freely disagree with the writer’s rejection of physical and sensual experience as unspiritual, even ungodly.  This 14th century English monk must not have met the 14th century English nun, Julian of Norwich, who wrote, “In our sensuality, God is…” 

The beliefs of the church regarding creation, incarnation, and resurrection all support a hallowing of bodily experience. As James B. Nelson and a diverse group of other contemporary Christian body theologians have affirmed, we know God through our bodies or we don’t know God at all. Nelson goes so far as to add, “Pleasure is the strongest argument for the existence of God.” 

Yet I wholeheartedly embrace The Cloud author’s understanding that literalism interferes with our spirituality, and he offers many examples. I once wrote that we do a disservice to religion when we treat matters of faith as matters of fact. 

For example, the writer cautions against taking the ascension of Jesus literally. As a college professor of mine once said, “If Jesus had ascended at the speed of light, he still would not be out of the known universe.” 

The Cloud of Unknowing asserts that “the spatial references are only symbolic. … The spiritual realm is always near, enveloping us on every side. Whoever has a strong desire to be in heaven is already in heaven, spiritually. Measure the highway to heaven in terms of desire rather than miles. … Love determines a soul’s location.” 

Earlier the writer explained, “Similar in nature to heavenly bliss, divine contemplation already participates in eternity.” I once wrote that people we recognize as living saints are those who experience God’s commonwealth here and now. Spiritually they have found heaven in their desire to love and serve others. Heaven for me is where God’s will and human will coincide. Saying the Lord’s Prayer (“on earth as it is in heaven”) is a way of aligning ourselves with that greater purpose. That’s why Jesus could say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” or “among us.” 

There are many pearls of wisdom about the spiritual life in The Cloud of Unknowing. Here are a few quotes I underlined in my copy: 

+ Remember your spiritual needs rather than your spiritual achievements.

+ Continue until your prayer life becomes enjoyable.

+ You only need a tiny scrap of time to move toward God.

+ Loving contemplation destroys our tendency to sin more effectively than any other practice.

+ The essence of contemplation is a simple and direct reaching out to God.

+ Judging others, pronouncing them good or bad, is God’s business. We may evaluate behavior, but not the person.

+ Christ taught us in Matthew’s Gospel that spoken prayers are best when they are not too long.

+ A little prayer of one syllable pierces heaven because we concentrate our entire spiritual energy into it.

+ The person in great distress will continue calling for help until someone hears and responds.

+ The little word “God” can flood your spirit with spiritual meaning without giving attention to particular activities of God.

+ I desire to help you tighten the spiritual knot of warm love that is between you and God, to lead you to spiritual unity with God.

+ Love functions as your guide in this world, and it will bring you to grace in the next.

+ [After meeting our physical needs,] sensuality urges us to take more than we need, encouraging lust.

+ The important consideration is not what you are, or what you have been, but what you want to be. 

Finally, this anonymous monk seems to echo the axiom that spiritual guides remind us of what we already know: 

Writers used to think that humility required them to say nothing out of their own heads, but to corroborate every idea with quotations from Scripture or the [Church] fathers [and mothers]. Today this practice demonstrates nothing but cleverness and education. … If God moves you to believe what I say, then accept my ideas on their own merits. (p 99-100) 

Given its encouragement to surrender certain knowledge of God for intimacy with God, I can’t help but think The Cloud of Unknowing would be a great text for the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. As they say in recovery programs, religion is for people afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for people who have already been there. 


My dear friend and longtime supporter of this blog, the Rev. Steve Pieters, will be featured as a character in a film about televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker due out in September of 2021. Her interview with him on national television opened many evangelical hearts to people living with AIDS and more broadly, the LGBTQ community. Watch the trailer.

My final post on my blog “Progressive Christian Reflections” will occur on June 30, 2021. More than ten years of posts will remain available to you on the blogsite, and I encourage you to enjoy them. I regret that I never created an index of post titles, but the search engine in the upper left corner of my blog can help you find posts of interest by typing in a subject, topic, name, scripture reference, religious season or holy day. Or you may work through them by year and month listed in the right column. 

Though they may have been written with current events in mind, I intended them each to be read meaningfully at any point in time. You may continue to contact me at my email address used by the delivery service or by leaving a comment on a particular post. FeedBurner has announced it will discontinue all subscription services sometime in July, the occasion for my timing. It has been a pleasure writing this blog, but now, I believe, is a time for silence, something I considered when writing the Zen series. 

I assure you I am well, content, and thankful to God for this extension of my ministry. Thank you for your interest, comments, correspondence, and contributions. I am grateful to Metropolitan Community Churches for recognizing this blog as an “Emerging Ministry” and for reposting many of my reflections, as well as the dozens of Facebook pages that allowed me to provide links to particular posts. I am grateful for the free services of Blogspot, Google, Facebook, and the delivery service, FeedBurner. I am grateful for artist and friend Becki Jayne Harrelson and my husband Wade Jones for their technical and moral support. 

To date, the blog has had 511,000 visits, a count that does not include almost 500 free weekly subscribers. Once donations were possible, the highest annual income ever was $2,000. Subscriptions have always been free and the blog non-monetized (no ads). Permission has always been granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Donations may still be made through the links provided at the end of this post. Thank you! 

Copyright © 2014 Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

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Learn about Chris Glaser’s life and gay activism in the church.


  1. Sending you hugs and love Chris. You have been a blessing in my life for so many years. I will miss the blogs but will review past publications.

    1. Thanks, Kimberly! You've made my day with your kind words! Glad to hear from you!

  2. Thank you. I have so enjoyed your reflections …time fir sabbath rest

    1. Thank you! And I'm looking forward to more "a-ha's" when I will not feel compelled to share them. I hope you enjoy the earlier posts.

  3. Your posts have had a way of hitting home when I didn't even know I needed them. I tend to work intuitively with Spirit, and your reflections have given me good food for the application of reason as well. A million blessings in your more silent practice and contemplation which has already been wrapped around your words like a warm cover. If and when you decide it is time to bring back some of the wisdom you will find to the community again, I look forward to seeing what you and Spirit will create next. How well loved you are by Her/Him/Them, I think.