After reading A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born, Eric Von Salzen has posted a fantastic essay about John Shelby Spong over at "The Anglican Centrist." Besides accurately diagnosing the emptiness at the heart of Spong's theological vision, it's also a hope-filled reminder that every Episcopalian simply cannot be accounted for by the Right's blanket charge of The Episcopal Church's alleged heresy/apostasy.
Here's a portion of this fine essay.
Here's a portion of this fine essay.
What Bishop Spong is refuting is not Christianity, but some weird parody of Christianity that he has created in his own imagination. This is a simplistic, village atheist performance that isn’t even challenging enough to be interesting.
But what is interesting is that, having asserted that theism is dead, Bishop Spong can’t stop talking about God. He proclaims that “the reality of the God-experience overwhelms me every day of my life.” “I have walked beyond theism,” he says, “but not beyond God”. The reader may be perplexed – I am perplexed – about what the heck he is talking about when he speaks of a “post-theistic God, the God who is not a person but the source of that power that nurtures personhood”, a God that is “nebulous and yet as real as a holy presence”, “a symbol of that which is immortal, invisible, timeless”, “the reality underlying everything that is”, “the ultimate source of life”. Go figure.
Bishop Spong even argues that the death of theism needn’t deprive us of our Jesus. He asserts that “I cannot remember a time when Jesus was not important to me”. For him, he says, Christ “is the source of godly empowerment who calls me beyond my boundaries”; he is “not an example to follow”, but “a vision that compels”, “the doorway through which I enter the holiness of God”. This may not make much sense, but give Spong credit for one thing: Unlike some modern “followers of Jesus”, he avoids the cop-out of claiming that Jesus was a great moral teacher who we should follow but not deify. “The content of Jesus’ teaching,” Bishop Spong concedes, “was not terribly original.”
So, if Christ is not the Son of God (because there is no “theistic God” to be his Father), and if he was just run-of-the-mill as a moral teacher, how does Christ become a compelling vision, a doorway into the holiness of the post-theistic God? Bishop Spong’s answer seems to be simply that in our western culture, we’ve inherited “Jesus, who is called Christ” as “the primary symbol in our faith-story”, and the “Christ-figure will continue to be our central icon, the gift we have to offer the world.”
I puzzled over these assertions for several days after I finished this book, and I went back and re-read several parts of it to be sure I hadn’t missed something. I’ve concluded that Bishop Spong really means what he says. He really does feel a “God-experience” while he nevertheless denies the reality of a (theistic) God; he really does find that a First Century rabbi with nothing original to say is his “doorway” into “the holiness of [the non-theistic] God.” He’s apparently able to do this because he’s been steeped in religion – and particularly the Christian religion – his whole life. He finds that he can still enjoy the feeling of being Christian, can use the name of “Christian”, even though he’s rejected the substance of Christianity. I understand that a person who has had a limb amputated may continues to feel a phantom sensation as though the missing limb were still there. This may be something like what Bishop Spong feels about God and Christ.
Phantom religious faith may work for Bishop Spong, and it may work for some others, but I don’t think it can work for the church, not for long. I’m typing this post on my laptop. If I pull out the power plug, I can still continue to type for some period of time on battery power. But after a while, I must either plug back in, or my screen will go dark. You may be able to enjoy the God-experience for a while without God, but if you don’t plug back into the source of that experience, your screen will go dark.
Bishop Spong thinks that in the modern, secular era, “we” can no longer believe in a (theistic) God and a Christ who is the Son of that God. If Christianity is to survive, he claims, it must radically transform itself into the non-theistic faith he advocates. Yet when I look around, I find thriving churches that unapologetically worship the theistic God that Spong says is no longer viable in this age. If Spong were right, shouldn’t we see people flocking to “non-theistic” churches? Have I missed that? Try a little thought experiment with me. Suppose a new church were opened in your community, and the pastor announced that its services would “celebrate the long human journey from the first form of life in a single cell to the complexity of our modern, fearful, human self-consciousness.” (This is the liturgy of the future, according to Bishop Spong.) How many congregants do you think that church would have after six months?
I don’t dispute that Christian churches face a modernity challenge today. We sometimes use archaic language that fails to convey the true meaning of our faith to contemporary listeners. We sometimes hang on to practices and traditions that no longer make sense in today’s world. Some of our churches still revel in the glories of the Middle Ages, while others embrace the modern world up to, but not including, 1859. We do have to change, but we don’t have to give up God and we don’t have to give up Christ. Spong is wrong about that.
On the contrary. Rather than water down the Christian message to a mere “icon”, as Bishop Spong would have us do, we need to proclaim it with confidence. But we need to proclaim it in language that modern listeners can understand. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave the first Christians the gift of languages, so they could speak the word of God to those around them, each in his own tongue. The language changed, but not the message.