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Retired bishop: Faith a contradiction

He doesn't believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

He doesn't believe that God works miracles or exacts punishment.

And, no, he said with a sigh, God did not write the Bible.

Yet the Right Rev. John Shelby Spong, 75, calls himself "God intoxicated" as a liberal theologian who wants postmodern Christians to reconsider the fundamental tenet of their religion.

Stories written in the first century, Spong says, just aren't working for people in the 21st century.

Spong, retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, N.J., will be the guest speaker at Faith United Church of Christ in Clearwater today.

He will give four talks with themes including "Can Christianity as Presently Understood Live in the 21st Century?" and "How Do We Talk About God and Purpose?" All seats for the talks have been reserved.

Gays, women, ethnic minorities, all the believers living in exile - Spong has defended them, even when the world wasn't yet ready to hear his message.

Especially those in the Bible Belt.

"In the early '60s, the Ku Klux Klan threatened to rape my daughter . . ., " Spong said Wednesday by telephone from his home in New Jersey.

But to show how the world has changed, Spong notes that he ordained the first publicly acknowledged gay pastor in the Episcopal Church, and he ordained the first English woman as a priest, for the Church of England.

Now there are 15 women serving as Episcopal priests in the United States, and there was the publicize confirmation of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as the denomination's first openly gay bishop in August 2003.

And North Carolina has an African-American Episcopal bishop.

But such changes have not come without struggle.

In the late 1980s, conservatives within the Episcopal Church brought formal charges against Spong.

They accused him, the Los Angeles Times reported, of committing "an immoral act" and of failing to "defend the faith" by endorsing same-sex relationships, "even when that relationship has not been blessed with a service called holy matrimony."

Ultimately, the charges were dismissed.

"Religion is a funny thing," Spong said during this week's interview. "I like to say the primary purpose of it is to give you security, not give you truth. That's why (religious) fanatics can't listen. You are talking about their security system."

He said that when it comes to matters of faith, the public is quite confused:

Churches are more interested in power than truth. Politicians would rather be re-elected than take a stand on an issue.

Religion, Spong continued, is both a positive and a negative force.

"When any religion claims they have the whole truth of God, it gets violent," he said, citing the Holocaust, the Crusades and religious terrorists as examples.

"They become convinced what they think is what God thinks. (President) Bush uses God to justify all the killing in Iraq."

He says his lectures typically draw crowds hungry for more comprehensive information than they get from their own pastors on Sunday mornings.

Still, he notes, he'll never be able to describe God to his audiences:

"I don't think any human being can describe God. It would be like a horse trying to explain what it's like to be human. I experience God as life. I experience God as love."

Spong was born in Charlotte, N.C., and was reared in a church that was so conservative, he says, the congregation would have had a black person arrested for walking through the front door.

His first wife died of cancer. He now travels the country, signing books and giving lectures, with his second wife, Christine. The couple have three daughters, a stepdaughter and a stepson, ranging in age from 33 to 51. Spong is especially proud of his stepdaughter, Rachel, who is serving in Iraq.

"She's a captain in the Marines, a helicopter gunship pilot," Spong said. "The second woman in U.S. history to fly the Cobra."

He has written more than a dozen books, including his autobiography Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), which was made into a play.

The Rev. Anton DeWet, pastor at Faith United Church of Christ, invited Spong to his church after listening to him speak at Stetson University.

"I believe we have the authority and the intellect to question the Scriptures," DeWet said Wednesday. "Literalism has led to dogma and traditions within Christianity that have been devastating through the ages, and caused havoc and devastation . . .

"Ultimately, God must represent love or it is not God."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.