Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Spong's Phantom Religious Faith

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.

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.


jackfate said...

All religious doctrine, language and writings is from human imagination. All religion is a human creation. The Sacred, Holy... God can only be found within the human heart and mind. You must search for it but it is there along with the ugliness.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for posting a comment.

What you're saying here sounds to me quite a bit like the position on religion put forth by figures such as Ludwig Feuerbach who argue that religion is a projection and objectification of subjective human longings and desires.

Since I'm not a subjectivist when it comes to doctrine, I disagree. Yes, human imagination, language, etc. plays a mediating and a shaping role. But as a religious realist, I do believe that our religious language is talking about something real beyond the merely human. But not all language or teaching is equally valid. Something (or Someone) is revealed to us, given to us from beyond ourselves.

jackfate said...

"Merely human?" Wouldn't that be an an oxymoron?

The only way good is accomplished is through humanity..... the same can, of course be said of evil. I find it fascinating that such contradictions lurk within the human heart and mind. The bible, for instance, is a completely human product written by dozens of men (no women) over what, 1500 years or so? and in it you find the most repulsive of evils (sometimes with the blessing of "God")—genocide, incest, hate, murders and violence of all kinds—but you also find great good—love, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, tolerance, kindness—and it all comes from the mind of human beings not a supernatural father figure that lives above the sky.

To me Jesus was "merely human" and that makes living a sacrificial life like his a human possibility which means that it is up to us to find and do the good which is in our hearts and minds. It is possible to live a life of sacrifice and love for our fellow human beings. It is possible to live the Empire of God now. That does present a tremendous challenge to us who claim to be followers of Jesus because it puts total responsibility on us not some fictional future event where Jesus will return to set all things right. If we don't do it, it won't get done.

I find great inspiration in that conclusion as well as fear and trepidation. I think this is what religion is, or should, be all about. I feel too much time is spent with concern about the afterlife and personal salvation. We don't need to be "born again" we need to grow up and take responsibility as mature adults! Many churches and doctrines try to keep us as immature, dependent children.

And, I know a bit about Feurbach and it is difficult to refute him. I personally feel we do indeed project the best of human traits upon a deity we create which means we basically worship those traits. I think that what we find "beyond the merely human" is us!

Thank you for allowing me to post here. I do appreciate others willing to discuss such matters. I hope I have made my points clearly.

Bryan Owen said...

There's much that we can agree upon, jackfate, but in the end, I find the Feuerbachian approach to religion to be largely an exercise in narcissism-writ-large: the idolatry of worshiping ourselves. Which strikes me as the perfect religious justification for Empire: the projection and imposition of ourselves - our values and agendas - on the world.

I also think that the Spongian approach to Christianity sets up false dichotomies, as though we have to choose between EITHER this-worldly ethical activism, OR a focus on salvation, eschatology, etc. By contrast, the generous orthodoxy of the historic Christian faith - rightly understood - embraces a BOTH/AND approach.

(For a more extended critique of the leftist approach to Christianity, check out this piece by Fr. Greg Jones of the "Anglican Centrist".)

Along these lines, I heartily recommend Luke Timothy Johnson's book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003). It's a fine corrective to both evangelical fundamentalism and liberal fundamentalism a la Spong.

N. T. Wright's Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church is also a must read for the same reasons.

Craig Goodrich said...

The shortest review of Spong came, I think, from a brilliant man who died before Spong was born. It was Chesterton, who said something like, "For Jones to worship the divine spark within means in the end that Jones shall worship Jones."

When Spong -- and possibly jackfate -- reach out to Jesus and tug his beard, the mask will come off to reveal -- Spong! (or jackfate...)