John Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, has figured prominently in my own religious history. I was a freshman in college when the book Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism came out. As I was wrestling with my own doubts, it was important that a bishop in the church could articulate those doubts. And given that he could do so within the church, so could I.
What was especially important was that his doubts went to the central issues of Christian faith. They never were content to stay on the periphery. Thus his books are always an invitation to rethink everything. God, salvation, atonement, the divinity of Jesus, the purpose of faith. Now I diverge from his ideas in a number of ways but I never hesitate recommending his books because the right questions are being asked.
His 12 theses that he’s just released in new form continues in that vein. What I’d like to do is to offer some ideas and respond to them. As a progressive Christian I am starting from a similar place but I’d like to take his theses in a different direction.
God. Spong argues that we cannot think of God as a supernatural being outside of space and time. I’d agree. Since we’re in space and time, the only divine reality we could relate to or make empirical claims about would likewise be in space and time.
Even if its existence could be inferred through a transcendental argument it’s not clear how it could command any allegiance. It’s hard to give my life to the first cause or to be saved and transformed by it. And this is where I think Spong could ask more questions. What operates in *this* life and world that is worthy of our allegiance, our worship even? What must I relate to in *this* life and world if I am to be saved? What realities beyond myself am I dependent on if I was to live a life well lived?
That would take you into a descriptive account of the divine which is rich with possibilities. It would not just negate many harmful theologies, it could make God language meaningful again in a way to fulfill what I think Spong and I would agree is its purpose, to open us up to the world and to each other and to saving realities.
Jesus. If God is to be found in Jesus , then Jesus participates in and reveals these saving and transformative realities. The point would never be Jesus. It would always be in reference to the way Jesus points to such realities, in his life, teachings, and the conversations, stories, traditions, and communities which developed from this.
Original Sin. Spong rejects it. I think he does so prematurely because I believe there is a space to work out a descriptive account of structural causes of injustice, of evils in our own lives and in the life of the world. And it could be done without presuming individual volition that so many modern liberal theories rely on.
This is one of those examples where I think Spong too readily dispenses with the tradition instead of seeking to reconstruct the ideas so they can continue to have power so they can inform us today. And so the church and the wider society loses out as a result. Click here to see at least my own take on how one could do this.
Virgin Birth. Spong rejects it. As biology I do as well. But again Spong never tries to re-imagine this story. What does it mean to think of women as giving birth to the divine? And as my friend Virginia Dicken writes “These stories of women finding creative ways to define their lives apart from sexual relationships with men are compelling to me as a lesbian, as a feminist, and as a Christian.” I’d hate to lose such stories and their liberating role because of a dispute over the science. Something would be lost.
Miracles. Spong rejects them. But he never re-imagines them. What do the miracle stories do in Jesus as he heals lepers and those considered “possessed”? They cross social boundaries and include people who by definition did not belong to their given communities. What do the miracles like the wedding at Cana or the feeding of the 5,000 suggest about life abundance and sharing? What becomes literal nonsense can open us to seeing the world through a new lens if we ask a different set of questions.
Questions which are pertinent today as we deal with divides, social, economic, religious and otherwise. Miracles, according to Friedrich Schleiermacher reveal God. Anything which reveals God is a miracle, including stories which imagine a shared world.
Atonement Theology. I reject this too if it means that God must have a blood sacrifice to be appeased. If the answer to the question, what must I be saved from is God, then theology will run into problems. But I think it is possible to rethink our language. For one thing, we invariably need scapegoats, we need some place to take our past, our sins, what we fear in ourselves and place them on something or someone.
We know the problems when it is someone. At least with the old sacrificial system in the OT it was placed on a goat to be driven out into the wilderness. In Islam, part of the visit to Mecca is to throw stones, stones containing parts of your life you want to be rid of at three walls called jamarāt. I would rather have folks be aware of what they wish to be rid of in themselves then simply project this on others, where real harm can come.
The book of Hebrews argues that our need for this is overcome in the death of Jesus. But psychologically I’m not certain this is the case. I think we need visible expressions of this, where our sins are announced and then pronounced forgiven. Think confession. Think Yom Kippur. This is where Islamic, Jewish, and Catholic traditions can inform us liberal Protestants. Simply saying this is barbaric fails to take account basic human needs and finding ways to creatively relate to them.
As Freud suggests, what we ignore about ourselves as humans, will find away to assert itself. And well done theology should be able to relate to that, not to just the best in ourselves, but to that in ourselves that we seek to overcome. It is in that basis that we could have At-One-Ment with God, with ourselves and with one another.
Resurrection. Here Spong seeks to do what he often does not do in the other theses. And that is to re-imagine the concept. “The experience of resurrection must be separated from its later mythological explanations.” The goal of reconstruction is to try to imagine the experience that was got at with the original language and then change the language to keep faith with that original experience.
That original experience for Spong is the way a life well lived is one which has shared itself so as to touch many lives. Such a life is so big that it can’t be contained in earthen vessels. The reverberations continue well beyond one’s time span. Thus eternal life becomes a quality of this life. So we can, as Paul suggests, be raised into new life now. We don’t wait in expectation for an afterlife. We get to participate in eternity now.
We know this happens in our immediate relationships, in our impact on others. But its hard to imagine this lasting more than a generation or two. At some point it is not clear that anyone will remember you besides as an entry in ancestry.com In this, Spong needs a metaphysics to genuinely make this account of resurrection compelling.
In process theology, every event when it becomes the past, becomes objectified. That is, it cannot be undone. It can only serve as the material basis for any future event. Because it remains and serves to shape any possible future, there is an objective basis for immortality. Not of our self consciousness, but of our lives, our actions, our presence. Because we are, the world’s future takes on a different shape.
How we live life now, matters eternally. It is not a call to escape this life for another one. Nor can it be a threat (though as Nietzsche notes in his idea of eternal recurrence, there is something foreboding to think our actions have eternal consequence and cannot be undone.) But it also means our lives have meaning in God and for the world, whether we are famous or not, remembered or not. Death does not end this for Jesus and us.
Ascension of Jesus. I reject this too as a literal account though this was the only piece in the 12 theses that seemed out of place. It has never struck me as significant, in doctrine and in any construal of Christian faith that I’m aware of.
Ethics. Spong writes “Contemporary moral standards must be hammered out in the juxtaposition between life-affirming moral principles and external situations.” I’d suggest a particular overarching principle that Spong has provided in other places. “All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is.”
I think when Spong wrote these theses he envisioned something like situation ethics and maybe Joseph Fletcher’s idea of the love ethic. But I don’t think that comes out whenever Spong writes on moral issues. Instead he works with the idea of the divine image in all of us, the idea that we all have creative possibilities to fulfill and that the supreme aim of life is to help people (or at least not hinder them) in this.
What does it mean to think about each one of our possibilities. How does fulfilling our aims mirror God’s calling for each one of us (not just humans but all life, all events have aims, have a teleos that seeks completion). How can we develop responsiveness to those aims and how do we create a world where it is possible for others to do likewise? This calls for a metaphysics and an ethics that Spong hints at but does not provide.
Prayer: It’s not communication with an external personal being. What can it mean? Prayer is a broad term that performs many different functions. And different kinds of prayers and occasions happen depending on the end in view.
There could be centering prayers, that remind us who we are, who God is and the relation between us .There could be forms of meditation which focus our attention away from the hubb bubb of daily life. There could be prayers of thanksgiving, of gratitude. But Spong is speaking of petitionary prayers which seek to change the circumstances of our lives. They reflect a certain kind of desired end. They seek to work with God towards that end. In that they require the full involvement of ourselves towards that end.
So if I pray for a good grade on the school test but do not study, then I am not actually doing anything to achieve that end. It may be a wish but wishes and prayers are not the same thing. I have to involve myself in working with God to achieve the desired result. So a farmer who prayers for a good crop still has to plant the crop, a student still needs to study, and if your family member is to be well, they need to visit the doctor.
So prayer is is words + intention+ plus working with the resources (ie God) we have towards the desired end. That doesn’t mean prayer always works, just like a doctor can fail, just like our best efforts can miss the mark, just as the odds may have been bigger then we anticipated. Prayer is not some magic that fixes this. It may be a determination to try, which is certainly a first step.
I believe God works with constituent elements of a situation, the resources at hands and us. Now, the past is past and cannot be undone. So no, God can’t stop a speeding bullet. That trajectory is already happened, it’s objectified and every other event which follows happens from that fact. But God can work with the future, with possibility. But I should be clear, not any possibility, but those that have a chance to be actualized, what sometimes is known as potencies.
I can’t pray to join the NBA. Not only because I’ve doing nothing to achieve that end but physically I’m just not equipped. Age wise I’m not either. But I could pray to be a better pastor, I could pray to increase my love for my spouse, I could pray for a response to homelessness in Norman OK. So prayer is not magic or words. Prayer is responding to the possibilities in our mix that can affect the good in life.
Conclusion: I think Spong asks the right questions. This is why he was so important in my own faith development. The picture above is from an event when I was finishing seminary where he spoke at the United Church in Bloomington Indiana. While his ability to question everything had a ready audience outside of the church, the fact is his questions are also being raised in the church too.
What I find limiting is that Spong provides little constructive resources to re-imagine Christian faith. He takes ideas and rejects them instead of creatively reworks them. And when he tries to rework them, he doesn’t provide a description of what kind of world would have to be for his ideas about God, ethics, the ends of life to have grounding.
This is why I had to go to other thinkers. Process theology supplies a lot of the descriptions of the world I am working with. Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr on a description of human beings. Sallie McFague and Gordon Kaufman on God in nature. Henry Nelson Wieman and Edgar Brightman on the nature of God. Empirical theology and Mordechai Kaplan on the aims and purposes of theological reflection.
So while the questions Spong raises need to be given consideration, the resources to relate to those questions, I find, required further reading. To agree with Spong, Christianity Must Change or Die. But those changes will come from other writers and from you and I and the conversations happening in progressive religious congregations, in coffee shops, online, and around this country and world of ours.
Which was Spong’s goal all along.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma