|Why John Shelby Spong's "Christianity" is already dead|
Dedication: This essay is dedicated to the loving memory of my grandmother, Evelyn Hardaway, who went home to be with the Lord on November 9, 1999, at the age of 83.
Her heart was as close to God’s as anyone I’ve ever known, and she touched countless lives. Among her many ministries, she taught the 4th grade girls Sunday School class at Redwood Chapel Community Church in Castro Valley, CA for over 30 years, including some mother-daughter combinations. Her life was proof that to be great in God’s kingdom does not require any great human abilities, just a faithful and humble spirit.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation first made its way across the airwaves in 1987, the concept of the holodeck added a new plot twist. Occasionally a new scene appeared, you would watch, get wrapped up in what has happening, only to have one of the characters suddenly say "Computer, end program". The scenery would disappear, and you would realize that what you had just seen was nothing more than a computer simulation, not a part of the real story. One particular member of the crew, Lieutenant Barclay, became especially addicted to it because it allowed him to escape from the real world where he was a nervous, socially incompetent wreck. In the holodeck, he was incredibly brave, an expert swordsmen, and the lovely Counselor Troi’s object of affection.
I’m afraid to say it; after reading John Shelby Spong’s latest offering, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1998) it appears that the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey has suffered a similar fate. Perhaps more than any of the Rogue’s Gallery members, John Shelby Spong’s view of the world, his opponents, the current intellectual climate, and his own self-importance are so out of touch with reality that "distorted" doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The distortion starts very early. In his preface, Spong describes the events of his ecclesiastical career. While describing the controversy that he has stirred up, he says,
"Finally, I have been attacked in books from the religious right by such people as Alistair MacGrath, N.T. Wright, and Luke Timothy Johnson and in a proposed monograph of essays called ‘Can A Bishop Be Wrong?, edited by Peter Moore of the Trinity School for Ministry, an evangelical seminary in western Pennsylvania....When the attacking books were published, which were revealingly hostile and without saving academic merit, my controversial reputation was solidified." (p. xvi-xvii)
This is just too funny for words. MacGrath, Wright, and Johnson are all highly respected scholars. The religious right? Those mentioned here, while being in the conservative to moderately-conservative theological camps, are hardly posterboys for the Christian Coalition or The 700 Club (I, and I suspect Spong as well, have no idea what their political stances are. This is nothing but well-poisoning.) "Revealingly hostile?" Did Spong ever bother to read them? Does he seriously think that his own books aren’t filled with hostility? One does not get very far in virtually any of his books without him describing his opponents as ignorant, intellectually incompetent, fearful, racist, and all of the other names that the politically correct like to use when they have nothing of substance to offer. Without academic merit? Well, Mr. Spong, how about actually refuting what they have written and actually (egad) demonstrating how they are without academic merit? This, of course, is too much to ask. What makes this particularly humorous is his assertion that evangelicals "refuse to engage in debate." (p. 41). That is exactly what they are doing in producing those books. Maybe this is the impression that Spong gets because of the level of opponents that he finds on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, but serious scholars seek much more respectable venues to present their ideas. What is particularly interesting here is that Spong repeatedly in his books praises the work of the eminent Roman Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown, even though he is no more kind to Spong than Wright, MacGrath, or Johnson are:
"Spong is complimentary in what he writes of me as a NT scholar;...I hope I am not ungracious if in return I remark that I do not think that a single NT author would recognize Spong’s Jesus as the figure being proclaimed or written about. [Bro.BOM.704]
In the Holodeck, Spong is a serious scholar, his opponents are cowering in the corner at the very sound of his voice, and people are not attending church right now are going to come if we would only alter our beliefs to fit the modern mindset. The first two are down, the last we take a peak at now.
In the first chapter of Spong’s book, "On Saying the Christian Creed with Honesty", Spong says,
"I define myself above all things as a believer. I am indeed a passionate believer. God is the ultimate reality in my life. I am in a constant and almost mystical awareness of the divine presence....I am what I would call a God-intoxicated being." (p. 3)
The problem for him, however, is that,
The words of the Apostle’s Creed, and its later expansion known as the Nicean Creed, were fashioned inside a worldview that no longer exists.....The way reality was perceived when the Christian creeds were formulated has been obliterated by the expansion of knowledge. That fact is so obvious that it hardly needs to be spoken." (p. 4). (Well, apparently Spong needed to speak it!) :-)
The next 18 pages are a point-by-point analysis of all the phrases of the apostles creed, including the belief in a personal creator God, and the resurrection and virgin birth of Jesus. Each one is said to not be believable in the modern world. Most of the assertions are arguments that reflect 1) moral outrage (suprise!) or 2) an anti-supernatural bias. We will touch on these issues in our response to the next chapter. For now we simply note Spong’s main point is that modern Christians, as well as the unchurched, are torn between the need for spiritual significance and answers, and being unable to believe the things that the church has traditionally taught.
But are they? In his book The Empty Church, Thomas C. Reeves offers very persuasive data that they are not.
"A Harris Poll taken in July 1994 revealed that 95 percent of those surveyed believed in God and 90 percent believed in heaven. Of the four in five Americans who described themselves as Christians, 89 percent believed in life after death, 87 percent in miracles, and 85 percent in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Even 52 percent of the non-Christians surveyed expressed belief in the Resurrection." [Ree.EC.53]
"Gallup speculated that young people may be staying away from churches because of their teaching on sex. ‘To most Americans, ‘religion’ is associated with sexual restraint. But sexual restraint is not a message that young and single people want to hear.’
And yet in mainline churches (where Spong’s theology is to be found) where virtually any sort of conduct is condoned, young people still stay away. The reverse tends to be true in evangelical churches with strict moral demands. When adults of all ages were asked, only 28 percent of the unchurched and 17 percent of the churched said they would welcome a greater emphasis by churches on sexual freedom in the future. When Gallup asked people in 1992 for reasons they attended church less frequently, only 8 percent said they disagreed with church policies and teachings. A mere 1 percent gave as their reason that churches were too old-fashioned. Heading the list were ‘Have no time, too busy (19 percent) and ‘conflicts with work, study schedule (14 percent).’ Most of the reasons given were practical. As many people said ‘Move around too much, new to community’ as did "Atheist, non-believer. (4 percent). In 1991, the Presbyterian Church (USA) sponsored two surveys among the nation’s unchurched. Both studies revealed that more than 60 percent of those polled stayed away from church because of work/school commitments, ‘Just a habit/Lazy/Just don’t,’ and ‘No time.’ [Ibid, 171-72]
If the traditional Christian worldview has been torn apart by the extension of knowledge, very few have knowledge of it.
How did we get here?
In Chapter 2, "The Meaning of Exile and How We Got There," Spong tries to draw an analogy between the Babylonian exile of the Jews in 586 B.C. and what he calls "the exile of the present."
Speaking of the Babylonian exile, Spong says, "Everything these people valued was gone. Their nation was no more. Jerusalem, God’s special city, was a pile of stones. The Temple, God’s earthly dwelling place, was laid waste. The priesthood, their sacred customs, their creedal statements, the social fabric that gave order to Jewish life - all was lost." (p. 26) Likewise, modern believers have had the world view of the past shattered by modern discoveries, with a corresponding loss of things that we hold sacred. This he views as a process that took place over time. He perceives that this process started with the work of Copernicus and Galileo;
"Galileo concluded that the sun did not rotate around the earth but rather that the earth rotated around the sun. This meant that the earth could no longer be envisioned as the center of the universe and thus God might not be quite so involved in the day-to-day affairs of human beings. This idea sent shivers down the spines of the ecclesiastical power brokers of the day, whose understanding of God depended on these heretofore unquestioned assumptions."
Again, this is not the view of the Biblical writers (see JP’s piece on Biblical Cosmology), nor is traditional Christian belief dependent on it. The biblical writers’ view is that mankind is by nature insignificant in the universe, and they are amazed that God chooses to involved in human history in spite of it (cf. Ps. 8:3-5). This is nothing but an Aristotelian cosmology that was dogmatized in post-Biblical times. We’re not off to a great start so far.
The "second cataclysmic revolution" was Newton;
"Newton was determined to demonstrate in intimate detail just how the world worked, and not coincidentally, how God worked within the world. So he began to assert that there were natural explanations for many of the things that in generations past had been considered mysteries attributed solely to the power of God. At that moment the need for God as the explanation for things that previously had been inexplicable began to fade, and with it also faded the previously powerful religious categories of miracle and magic." (p. 34)
We could agree with the assertion that some things previously attributed to God or the supernatural do now have natural explanations, but the objection that the miraculous has faded because we concede this is quite off the mark. From the notion that SOME things attributed to miracle are now known not to be miraculous, it hardly follows that ALL things attributed to miracles have naturalistic explanations. It is also worth noting that Galileo and Newton never drew the slightest connection between their discoveries and the overthrow of the Christian worldview.
Next up, it was Darwin. This had the effect of showing us that we were not the crown jewel of God’s creation. And though the Christian church "resisted Darwin with vigor," they lacked the power to do anything about it.
"Today, whether his critics like it or not, Charles Darwin’s thought organizes the biological sciences of the Western world. His work has made possible such once unimaginable things as organ transplants using organs derived from subhuman species. They work because Darwin was right."
They also could work because a creator decided to make some species of animal in a physiological form similar to humans. To decide that He wouldn’t do is to make a psychological evaluation of the supernatural creator, which, we are told so often by this camp, is supposed to be off limits to science. And besides, should we believe that because a battery from a Toyota Tercel will also power a Corolla, the Corolla must have evolved from the Tercel? (Actually, there are some who would draw this analogy, like Tim Berra, in his book Evolution and the Myth of Creation. [Ber.EMC. 117-19]. Berra uses the changing designs of the Corvette as proof of evolution. It is patently obvious, however, that these changes have been driven by intelligent designers!!)
"That strange thing called "creation science" is nothing more than the ignorant rantings reflecting a frightened and dying religious mentality. (p.37)
And then again there are those who would say similar things about Darwin’s ideas, like Lynn Margulis, the highly esteemed professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts. She says that neo-Darwinsim will be judged as "a minor twentieth-century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon biology." [quoted in Beh.DBB.26] So we have two contradictory statements, and even though one is much more informed than the other (Hint: not the guy in the robe), the matter will have to be resolved at a higher level than "because I said so."
Moving to the field of psychology, Spong holds up the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. According to Spong, Freud exposed the oedipal nature behind much of traditional thought. He believed that the psychology of religion was based upon "the childlike desire win reward and avoid divine punishment." and that "the Christian religion portrayed believers as children dependent upon the good favor of the divine punishment."(p. 38). Jung saw Christianity as a religion that was necessary for consciousness to develop, but the time for it had passed.
Well, apparently Freud didn’t consider the obvious alternative. Could it be that these elements are present in Christianity because, (gasp), that’s REALLY the way humans are, children who ARE under the rule of a heavenly parent who really does issue out rewards and punishments? Spong would no doubt rule this possibility out, but that leaves the question begged. And similarly, Jung only works if you follow the same lines, by assume a naturalistic, non-theistic worldview and assume that consciousness was something that actually DID develop over time. Simply presenting abstract psychological theories rather than hard data does not a case make. I could just as well argue that the thinking of Spong and his ilk is derived from the adolescent desire to want to do whatever one pleases and have no consequences for those actions.
Next up, it was Albert Einstein;
"Many other developments in Western thought furthered the squeezing of Christian content into increasingly irrelevant ghettos. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) destabilized both time and space by seeing them not as external properties, but as significantly related aspects of existence. He also introduced relativity as something present in all things, including that which human beings had once called ‘eternal and unchanging truth.’" (p. 39)
Einstein’s theory of relativity did not introduce relativity as "something present in all things." In fact, as Dr. Jonathan Safarti of Creation Ministries International pointed out to me, Einstein’s theory itself has a built in non-relative component - the speed of light seen from the reference point of the observer. In any event, relativity has nothing to do with the questions that concern us here - it only has to do with statements about the physical, measurable universe, not about moral and theological claims. Unfortunately, some reactionaries on our side have made this leap, but it is an illegitimate one. Spong’s attempt to overturn the traditional Christian worldview does not succeed. Nonetheless, he presses forward, based on the assumption that he has.
Because the theistic image of God (which he defines on p. 46 as a being who is external, personal, supernatural and "potentially invasive") has been discredited, Spong believes that a new idea of God needs to be found in order for Christianity to survive. One possible avenue is Buddhism.
"The Buddhist tradition, for example, is not a theistic religion. Nowhere in classical Buddhism do the Buddhists posit the experience of an external deity....However, it hardly would be proper to assert that the Buddhists of the world are atheists, unless atheism can be called profoundly religious." (p. 57)
If Buddhists wish to define their god in such a way, I’m not going to quibble with them over whether they are atheists or not. What I do object to is the notion that this is a possible road that Christianity can go down and still be called Christianity. If Spong wishes to become a Buddhist, then he is free to do so. Just let him stop referring to himself as a Christian and change the title of his book be "Why Christians Must Convert to Buddhism". The God of the Christian Bible is a theistic God, and if one does not believe in a theistic God, then he cannot be called a Christian. For anyone who has any objections to this notion, and simply dismisses it as narrow-minded, unenlightened, and unimaginative "literal" thinking, we present the following fantasy;
Why Marxism Must Change or Die
"I define myself above all things as a Marxist. I am indeed a passionate Marxist. I am what I would call a Marx-intoxicated being. However, the words of the Communist Manifesto were fashioned inside a worldview that no longer exists. That fact is so obvious that it hardly needs to be spoken. It was assumed that people would still work even when there was no profit motive. We know today that that is not so. People are inherently lazy and will not work for the common good. It was also assumed that without competition and a profit motive, manufacturers would still produce quality goods.
So while claiming to be a Marxist, and still asserting my deeply held commitment to Karl Marx as an economic genius, I also recognize that I am exiled from the literal understandings and world-view that shaped the Manifesto. There is no truth in Marxism if we can’t move beyond the socialistic economic models of the past. "Can one be a Marxist without being a socialist?" becomes a powerful question. If Marxism depends on a socialistic definition of Marx, then we must face the fact that we are watching this noble economic system enter the rigor mortis of its own death throes.
Marxism is not defined by me as the narrow-minded, socialistic economic model that requires a mental lobotomy to believe. It is defined by me as liberating the proletariat from the shackles of poverty and hunger. And we do this by allowing a free market with a minimum of regulation, which allows people to invest in whatever they choose in order to make money for themselves. This in turn lowers unemployment, causing shortages in the supply of labor. When this happens, the bourgeoisie must raise wages, offer medical benefits, paid vacations, and stock options in order to attract and retain workers. Increased competition will result in higher-quality, less expensive consumer goods, and then, at last, my brothers, the proletariat will be free from the shackles of poverty, hunger, and Kleenex that feels like sandpaper. Long live the revolution!!!"
These notions, of course, are nonsense. If one holds to the principles of free-market capitalism such as I described above, then one is by definition not a Marxist. But somehow when someone tries to engage in similar mental gymnastics to redefine Christianity, he is welcomed as a courageous, enlightened thinker. We will defer the question on why this is so until the end; for now we continue.
The reworking of the Christian experience would naturally involve finding a meaning for Jesus that is different than that of traditional Christianity. After presenting the usual spew about the gospels not being literal history, Spong shifts his attention to Paul, who he says is "more prone to proclaim Christ than he is to explain Christ" (p. 74). After quoting a sampling of verses (2 Cor. 5:1, Rom. 8:39, Rom. 6:23, and (1 Cor. 1:23.24) of how Paul describes Christ and His work, he says,
"These are ecstatic words. They rise out of one who is been so deeply moved by the Christ experience that he is processing it internally. In these passages he is not yet using the classical theological words designed to enable him to explain to curious and dispassionate observers the meaning that he has found in this Jesus.....The very moment we move from ecstatic proclamation to explanation, the presuppositions, definitions, and stereotypes of the ages begin to shape our words. That is inescapable. That is also why theological explanations can never be literally true or eternally applicable." (p. 74-75) (emphasis mine)
"That experience always lies behind the distortions, which are inevitable since words are inevitable since words are limited....One must never identify the text with the revelation or the messenger with the message. That has been the major error in our two thousand years of Christian history. It is an insight that today is still feared and resisted." (107-08) (emphasis mine)
Spong feels that the Hebrew word for "spirit", (ruach), whose Old Testament usage Paul was drawing from, reveals something;
"The ‘ruach’ (Hebrew for spirit and wind) or wind was first of all impersonal.....The wind is an analogy for the spiritual life. Wind also has animating power.....God might have been defined by these ancient people as a distant, theistic, personal power who lived beyond the sky, but in the very mysterious wind....they believed they found themselves touched by God here and now. So the theistic concept of God and the nontheistic experience of God were already in creative tension. The wind was a symbol of God’s vitality, God’s incorporeal status, and God’s intimacy, and even though the divine one dwelled beyond this world, a God presence in this world forced God’s reality among them. So, the Hebrew word for , ruach, became a synonym for spirit." (p. 104) (emphasis mine)
To sum up and reply to Spong’s points,
1. Paul was more concerned to proclaim his experience of Christ than to explain Him and does not use the later classical theological words used to explain Christ. And what of it? Paul, rather than "still processing his experience internally," was dealing with questions in the church that were more practical, rather than Christological, in nature. And furthermore, as Spong himself admits (p. 74), Paul does not completely avoid trying to "explain" Christ. In fact, Romans is a lengthy and detailed theological explanation of Christ and the meaning of his work. Spong fails to appreciate this, I think, because of his own narrowing of what constitutes the "meaning" of Christ.
"In these words (spirit), Paul was groping for a way to make rational sense out of his experience that in the human Jesus, God had been perceived to be dwelling on this earth in a dramatically new way....it was Paul’s radical suggestion that in Jesus, God and human life were now seen to flow together." (p. 103)
We too believe this, though in a much different way than Spong does (Spong interprets Christ’s divinity as being part of the "infinity of God (that) can be found in the heart of human life." (p. 131)). But the bottom line is that this is how Spong perceives the meaning of Jesus, and that forces him to miss that to Paul and the early Christians, His meaning covered more than one dimension than just His divinity.
2. Descriptions of these ecstatic experiences cannot be literalized because
words are limited. Therefore, theological explanations can never be literally true. This is self-refuting. Spong’s own assertions amount to an explanation and a description of what happens when humans come in contact with "the divine" (as he defines it). His thesis is therefore a theological explanation and description itself, made with limited words. His description therefore cannot be literalized. And the statement "theological explanations can never be literally true" is part of that explanation. This makes that assertion not literally true, which in turn means that theological explanations can indeed be literally true. This is why it is particularly humorous to see him state that "this is an insight that today is still feared and resisted." Why would anyone be fearful of an illogical "insight"?
3. The fact that the Hebrews used an impersonal term for spirit proves that they were struggling with the tension between theistic beliefs and nontheistic experience. Talk about a humoungous logical leap! In the pre-atomic age, the most powerful forces that these people would have been exposed to would naturally have been the impersonal forces of nature, so it is not suprising that they would have likened the force of God’s presence to the most powerful things that they experienced. Likewise, today the phrase "I don’t want to steal Ted’s thunder" is used to describe a statement or thesis that Ted is going to present, the force of which is powerful, so it is likened to thunder. Using Spong’s logic, we would be forced to conclude that the use of "thunder" to describe Ted’s thoughts mean that we are struggling between the tension that we conceive of Ted as personal and our experience of him, which indicates that he is not.
Washing Away Spong’s Way
Spong also takes a stab that the idea Jesus is a rescuer from sin, calling it "the most obvious candidate for dismissal." Spong begins his conclusion by saying "We human beings do not live in sin. We are not born and sin." (p. 98) Indeed, he has stated earlier that the whole idea of sin was nothing more than a tool of the ecclesiastical elite to use as a tool to manipulate people’s behavior and feelings of inadequacy. (p. 90-91)
And yet, a mere four sentences later he says,
"We are the bearers of what English biologist Richard Dawkins has called ‘the selfish gene.’ When any of us gets caught in a battle for survival, even now our higher instincts still collapse and our radical self-centeredness causes us to engage in a tooth-and-claw struggle all over again. This is quite simply a description of our being. That is what it means to be human." (p.99)
Well, then, this is self-evident, even to Spong. Humans are beings who do very bad things. How then can the doctrine of sin be nothing more than a manipulation tool of the ecclesiastical powers when it is such an obvious description of the human race? And what excuses his critique of human behavior from being labeled as guilt manipulation?
No Basis for Ethics
In his chapter "A New Basis for Ethics in a New Age," Spong argues that the Bible’s commands are irrelevant to modern life, or are so offensive that they cannot be followed by people in this age. It is just as well; the removal of an external deity from our worldview has left us without that basis for determining what is right or wrong. So how does he deal with this?
"We look, I believe, not outside of life for some external and objective authenticating authority, but rather at the very center and core of our humanity. We get to that core by asking a totally different set of questions. These are not God questions, but human questions, such as: what gives us life? What lifts us into wholeness? What enhances our being? What introduces us to transcendence? What calls us beyond our limits? What do we ultimately value? These questions will force us to search, not the empty heavens, but the depths of our being for answers. This search will lead us, hopefully, to some new possibilities. It will reveal, among other things, that any repression of our humanity can never be a doorway into life. Morality, in any area of life, will not be achieved by threats and negativity. The repression of sexual energy, for example, which marked traditional ethics for so long, did not lead to the fullness of life. It only created the backlash of an uninhibited exercise of sexual energy, which was also destructive to our essential humanity. When the value of human sexuality is repressed, it returns as pornography. When we take sex away from love, we succeed only in taking love away from sex. Ethics and morality must go beyond this false dichotomy." (p. 160)
This begins to unravel into a sea of contradictions once it is closely examined. The problem is the assumption that people will agree on what "wholeness" is and what causes it. A few sentences later Spong appeals to "The data of human experience", assuming that this is a uniform thing. Let me demonstrate; As of this writing, I am nearing 30 years of age, single, and still a virgin. To me, it is the abstaining from sexual immorality that brings me "wholeness." I am not less (and in many cases more) happy and well-adjusted than the vast majority of other people around me. And yet Spong says that I am not "whole." Who decides? Him or me? Or some psychobabbler? And then there is someone who routinely engages in promiscuous behavior that Spong disapproves of. They can claim that Spong’s decrying of their hedonistic actions is "repressive" and that it denies them "wholeness." How does Spong prove that it isn’t so? They might even say that Spong himself is repressed and lacks "wholeness" because he doesn’t engage in that behavior. Who decides? Him or them?
Spong’s system also gets him into trouble with his own beliefs. He states that "there is an objective wrongness in seeking to cause pain in another life. (p. 162)." But does that apply to burning the skin off of unborn babies, puncturing their skulls, or dismembering them with a vacuum, all without any kind of anesthesia, no less? Nope. Spong is pro-choice all the way.
Then there is this frightening statement,
"Humanitarian relief efforts save lives today in starving countries, but these same efforts only guarantee the death of the next generation if the population is not limited, so the morality of such humanitarian activity also becomes questionable." (p. 155, (emphasis mine).
Why not just drop the bomb on all of the starving countries in world? Failing to do so only guarantees the death of the next generation. I guess that the morality of such nuclear restraint becomes questionable! The conclusion is obvious; Spong’s basis for ethics is no basis at all. It only further reveals the bankruptcy of his own theology.
And on a much more lighter note,
"Under the guise of promoting family values, many ‘Christian’ groups support corporal punishment as a way of breaking a child’s rebellious spirit, or curbing the child’s ‘original sin.’ In my mind that is not a family value at all but an attempt to impose a control system to insure conformity at the expense of life and creativity." (p. 163)
Ha! Ha! At the expense of life and creativity! I’m afraid it’s been a long, long time since Spong has been a parent of young children. So I guess we just let junior display his "creativity" in Crayola all over the hallway wall? Does pulling his sister’s hair get put under the "life expression" category?
Haven’t Got a Prayer
Since we can’t believe in an external deity, prayer as it has been practiced through out the centuries, for if there is no deity living in a heaven above, He can’t be spoken to. He even has a moral objection to the notion. In 1981, his first wife was diagnosed with cancer. Everywhere, people told him that they were praying for her. For a time she went into remission, but eventually died after 6 1/2 years, which was still much longer than the doctors gave her. But he cannot accept that it was divine intervention brought on by prayer;
"Suppose, I queried to myself alone, that a sanitation worker in Newark, New Jersey, probably the city with the lowest per capita income in the United States, has a wife who receives the same diagnosis. Because she is not a high-profile person, well-connected to a larger network of people, socially prominent, or covered by the press, the sickness of his wife never comes to public attention. Suppose he is not a religiously oriented person and thus prayer groups and individual petitions in hundreds of churches are not offered to his wife’s behalf. Would that affect the course of her sickness? Would she live less time from diagnosis to death, endure more obvious pain, or face a more difficult dying? If so, would that not be to attribute to God not only a capricious nature, but also a value system shaped by human importance and the worldly standards of social elitism?" (p. 142)
Besides being an "argument from outrage", Spong has previously removed sin from the equation, which makes it consistent. Sinners deserve to die. Any time that is given beyond a sin committed is an act of grace, not a right. If God grants one person more time, but not another, the one who dies sooner does not get less than what they deserved (which was nothing). Second of all, the sanitation worker who is not "religiously oriented" is living in disobedience. Why wasn’t he involved with a church? If he had, then he would have had access to a network of people who could pass his prayer request along to many others (i.e receive the benefits of obedience). Sin is part of the biblical equation of ethics. This is akin to taking the equation 10+5=15, removing the +5, and saying that the equation is contradictory because 10 is not equal to 15. In any event, according to Spong, this conception of prayer is passé. So, he feels compelled to find another one;
"Prayer is the offering of our life and our love through the simple action of sharing our friendship and our acceptance. Prayer is being called to be the friend of another and thus giving that other the courage to dare, to risk, and to be in a whole new way, perhaps in a whole new dimension of life.Prayer is also my active opposition to those prejudices and stereotypes that diminish the personhood and the being of another." (p. 143-44)
He actually drones on for two whole pages with more platitudes like this, and as worthwhile as these activities may be, to say that this is in any sense prayer is simply absurd. I think we need say no more in response than "Give it up." Seriously, what would those who so heartily pepper the back cover of his books with ringing endorsements think if he said that "snorkeling is laying concrete for the foundation of a house?"
At the beginning of the chapter, he has said,
"If my experience is typical, prayer will be the place where we will experience the most emotional difficulty as we seek to move from our theistic believing past into our nontheistic, unknown, and yet believing future." (p. 135-36)
Indeed. People are always going to experience difficulty when we engage in double-speak.
We return to the question of why thinkers like Spong are welcomed and respected in today’s popular culture. Spong himself provides a clue;
"I enter this process because I can neither dismiss this Christ nor live comfortably with the way he has been traditionally interpreted....I still find the power of the Christ power compelling." (p. 119)
Yes, dismissing Jesus is hard to do. He is compelling. If he were not so, books written about Him would not continue to be produced at the astounding rate that they are. The vast majority of people are reluctant to say bad things about Him and usually find at least something in His teachings that they find to be noble and good.
What Spong has done has simply interpreted the motifs of the Christian experience that He finds agreeable and decided that that is what lies at the core of that truth. The hypocrisy here is that earlier he has made the charge that God was made in our image, rather than the other way around.
"The fact is that the God of Thomas Aquinas looked and acted very much like Thomas Aquinas. So, too, did the God of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Thomas Cranmer look and act like each of those theologians." (p. 48)
It is a point of fact that many theologians have lived with things in Christianity that they would not have created themselves. Very few Christians have felt completely comfortable with the doctrine of eternal punishment. Another example is John Calvin. Whether one agrees with his theology of predestination or not, it is clear that he believed it because he believed God had revealed it, even though it was not the way he would have done it. He referred to it as "a horrible doctrine". [Gar.CHW.529]
Spong, in contrast, simply rejects whatever he can’t stomach. He cannot live with a God that requires Him to give up any of His own ways of thinking, as is evidenced by his extensive arguments from outrage. He also can’t live with a God that demands anything of him. As N.T. Wright comments,
"And what, we may ask, is so difficult about accepting for oneself that this claim of Jesus might be true? Aye, there’s the rub: to do this will cost not less than everything. But that is perhaps what one should expect. Pearls of great price do not come cheap." [Wri.WWJ.103]
As such, he has remade God in his own image. And even in some way, if Spong were successful in his efforts to redefine Christianity, would that prevent it from "dying?"Spong has said of liberalism in his previous book Liberating the Gospels,
"I do not believe that Christianity will be saved or even well served by what has come to be called the liberal approach to the Bible. That approach seems to me rather to remove from the Christian faith all of its power and authenticity by looking for natural explanations for apparently supernatural events." [Spo.LTG.17]
With this I am in complete agreement. The problem here, however, is that very little, if anything, of what Spong proposes is very different from the liberalism of old. And that theology has already had 100 years to make it’s mark. As James Stanton reminds us,
"The nineteenth-century liberals predicted that the capacity for supernatural faith would inevitably wither away in the twentieth century. The church was supposed to prepare itself to offer a non-supernatural version of its faith. But history played a trick on the liberals. Based on their predictions, we would expect the thriving churches of our time to be those that are equipped with liberal modernist gospels. Those benighted churches that clung to the beliefs of the fundamentalists should have withered away in the face of history. But anyone with eyes to see or statisticians to count can observe that the opposite is true. Liberalism, which married the spirit of the age, is eking out a poor living on a widow’s pension of sentiment and endowments." [Moo.CBBW.6] (In Europe, we would also add government subsidies)
The ideas that Spong presents were proposed 100 years ago. And they have proven themselves to be false. After all, what would we think about someone who still claimed that the automobile was still a passing fancy?
A couple of observations on why Spong’s ideas won’t succeed. Spong is proposing changing Christian thinking to match that of the society at large. Well, the society at large is already able to think as they do without the church. Obviously, they don’t need it.
Oh, Spong might say, they do need it. They need it to find meaning in their lives, to find out what makes them whole. They are seeking for meaning, purpose, and spiritual significance.
And with this, I am in complete agreement as well. Unfortunately, Spong’s answers don’t provide a solution. Spong’s books routinely hit the best-seller lists. However, those people who buy his books don’t seem to be making their way into liberal churches on Sunday morning. Spong’s liberalism (and that it what it is) is already dead. Why is that? From my perspective, it’s like this; I get up on Sunday morning every week to worship a living personal God. I support my church financially because I believe in the work that they are doing will last. I make sacrifices in my time to work for things that I believe God has called me to do. But if I didn’t believe that to be true, I, along with most other people, sure am not going to waste two hours of my valuable time on Sunday morning, or fork over my hard-earned money to support ministers who preach clap-trap such as this. You can find much more meaning and significance by watching Terry, Howie, Chris, and JB goof off every week on FOX NFL Sunday. Or as Reeves states it so well,
"Weigh the benefits: Sunday with the family at the beach or in church listening to a sermon on AIDS; working for overtime pay or enduring pious generalities about ‘dialoguing’, ‘inclusiveness’, and ‘sharing and caring.’; studying for exams or hearing that the consolations and promises of the Bible are not ‘really’ or ‘literally’ true; entering a race to raise funds for disadvantaged children or sitting through pleas for federal health insurance; shopping at the mall or hearing about the wickedness of anti-abortion demonstrators; reading the newspaper or being harangued about racism and sexism." [RE.EC.172]
Spong’s answers aren’t answers. Oddly enough, Spong almost seems to recognize this;
"Is my reformulation of Christianity adequate for our brand new world? I would be surprised if it is judged to be so. It is at least the best that I know how to offer at this moment, given when I live and how far into the future I can see. But if I were to asked to bet on what will happen tomorrow, my best guess would be that my approach will prove to be not radical enough, I suspect that the next generation might even dismiss me as an old-fashioned religious man who could not quite cut the umbilicus to the past in order to enter the future." (p. 227, emphasis mine)
So, even Spong thinks that his theology will not ultimately be compelling. It is a pity that he can’t realize that it isn’t compelling now. Those of us who do have our choice of seats on the bandwagon before the big rush.
Computer, end program.
1. [Beh.DBB] Behe, Michael. Darwin’s Black Box. New York, The Free Press, 1996.
2. [Ber.EMC] Berra, Tim. Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990
3. [Bro.BOM] Brown, Raymond E. Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. New York: Doubleday, 1992
4. [Gar.CHW] Garrity, John A. and Gay, Peter (eds.) The Columbia History of the World.
New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
5. [Moo.CBBW] Moore, Peter C. (ed.) Can a Bishop Be Wrong? Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing: 1998.
6. [Ree.EC] Reeves, Thomas C. The Empty Church: Does Organized Religion Matter Anymore? New York: Touchstone, 1996.
7. [Spo.LTG] Spong, John Shelby. Liberating the Gospels. San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1996.
8. [Wri.WWJ] Wright, N.T. Who Was Jesus? Grand Rapids: Eerdmens, 1993.