Monday, December 12, 2011

Bishop Spong: "Shifting the Paradigm"

I see from the Episcopal Divinity School Fall 2011 newsletter that Bishop Spong gave a lecture in St. John's Memorial Chapel back on October 21 entitled, "Shifting the Paradigm - From Rescue to Expanded Life." Here's some of what the newsletter article reports:

In his address, Spong declared Christianity's "old symbols increasingly are bankrupt ... [and] the new symbols have not yet fully arisen so that they are recognized." He compared the present day with that of Augustine, Aquinas, or the 16th-century Reformers - a moment of "paradigm shift" that "calls for the death of what has been and the birth of what is to be - and that is never a comfortable time." In particular, he said, the titles "savior," "redeemer," and "rescuer" applied to Jesus in liturgies, hymns, and sermons have "become bankrupt, useless, and even distorted ... I think all of them have got to go."

"What is the problem with these titles?" Spong asked. "They all imply a particular definition of human life, which I think is false. ... [W]e are constantly insulting our humanity out of a particular theological frame of reference. We are beggars approaching God. We are telling God how unworthy we are." Such a theological construct, said Spong, is "simply not true. ... It is therefore bad anthropology, and no one can build good theology on bad anthropology."

"Our problem is not a fall into sin," maintained Spong. "It is that we have not yet achieved our full humanity."

The source of acts of evil, said Spong, is found in humanity's survival instinct, "the evolutionary baggage that every one of us carries." Because it is part of human nature, "our only hope is that we are lifted beyond it. We have to be called, we have to be merged into a humanity that somehow finally escapes survival as our driving force."

Words like savior and redeemer and rescuer "simply lock us into the old paradigm," Spong argued. Instead, telling the story of Jesus "as the source of love calling us to love beyond every boundary, to love wastefully, to give it away, to never stop and count the cost: that's a new image of what it means to be human."

I won't waste time by critically assessing any of this (others have done that work quite well with regard to Spong's published writings). But I will say that Bishop Spong is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness of an increasingly post-Christian society. Instead of saying, "Prepare the way of the Lord," however, Spong declares a different message: "Catch the wave of the 'paradigm shift' by purging the Church of creedal Christianity and classic consensual ecumenical teaching. Then, exercising the authority of your own private judgment, and for the sake of being 'relevant,' create something new to replace the old, dull, dead dogma."

By contrast to Spong's project, note these words from the preface in Thomas Oden's Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology:

I wish to provide neither a new interpretation of old ideas, nor a new language that is more acceptable for modern sensibilities. Rigorous accountability to the ancient teachers themselves is a large enough task, without adding to it other heavy burdens. If that seems irregular, it can be viewed as a response to a prevailing excess, one that inordinately emphasizes self-expression, often exaggerated in current self-importance. I do not pretend to have found a comfortable way of making Christianity tolerable to vanishing forms of modernity. I present no revolutionary new ideas, no new way to salvation. The road is still narrow.

I do not have the gift of softening the sting of the Christian message, of making it seem light or easily borne or quickly assimilated into prevailing modern ideas. I do not wish to make a peace of bad conscience with dubious "achievements of modernity" or pretend to find a comfortable way of making Christianity expediently acceptable to modern assumptions. If Paul found that "the Athenians in general and foreigners there had not time for anything but talking or hearing about the latest novelty (Acts 17:21), so have I found too much talk of religion today obsessed with novelty.

I am dedicated to unoriginality. My aim is to present classical Christian teaching of God on its own terms, undiluted by modern posturing. I take to heart Paul's admonition: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we had already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted [par o parelabete, other than what you received from the apostles], let him be eternally condemned [anathema esto]!" (Gal. 1:8, 9; emphasis added by Oden).

Truly, the difference between Spong and Oden is a difference that makes a difference!

I'm reminded of something James Griffiss wrote in his book The Anglican Vision: "I believe ... that our [Anglican] history and foundations demonstrate a pattern of continuity and change - continuity with the tradition of the gospel we have received in Christ and, at the same time, a willingness to interpret and understand that gospel as changing situations might require." Spong's project repudiates continuity for the sake of change. By contrast, I think that Oden's book embodies continuity in ways that enable faithful interpretation of the gospel in changing situations. (I would say the same thing about Luke Timothy Johnson's The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters.)

So yes, let's shift the paradigm. But let's shift it away from "progressive" attempts to drive the Church off the Christian reservation. Instead of novelty and "relevance," let's focus on continuity and faithfulness to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith. For, as Dorothy Sayers once put it, "It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man - and the dogma is the drama."

14 comments:

Matthew M said...

Somebody HELP ME - please!

Will some one shoot this clown?

You Episcopalians are a mess!

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Matthew M. We Episcopalians can be a mess! But Bishop Spong does not represent all of us. And while there's the precedent of St. Nicholas punching heretics in the face, I'm quite sure that even those of us who strongly disagree with folks like Bishop Spong will do the right thing and continue seeking and serving Christ in all persons. Including Bishop Spong.

The Underground Pewster said...

False teachers like Spong will always be with us. They are useful examples for the rest of us of how easily we can be led astray. Their attacks should be used to sharpen our defenses.

Rick said...

"But Bishop Spong does not represent all of us."

If the denomination allowed him to retain the title "bishop", and he is speaking at a denominational institution (I assume it is associated with the denomination), then he does, in a sense, represent you. I am not sure those within the denomination realize that such tolerance is what is being communicated to the world.

Although I think Matthew M. does not help things by mentioning such action, the passion of his concern is correct. You creedal Episcopalians do not seem to take this problem that seriously, at least that is how it is coming across to those outside the denomination. It is assumed that the ones who are taking it seriously have left.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the reminder, Underground Pewster, that false teachers can serve a useful purpose in the life of the Church. The critical thing, I think, is how we respond.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Rick. I get your point about how, "in a sense," folks like Spong do represent the Episcopal Church. But the question is: what is the norm or norms against which one can measure whether or not any given leader in a particular denomination does, in fact, adequately represent that denomination?

I would respond by comparing what that person teaches and preaches with what we find in The Book of Common Prayer. Comparing what Bishop Spong says in his books, lectures, sermons, etc. to the liturgies, creeds, catechism, etc. in the Prayer Book, we find little but dissonance and contradiction. Almost nothing Spong says theologically measures up to the authorized norms of The Episcopal Church. Therefore, Spong does not adequately represent The Episcopal Church. On the contrary, he at best represents a segment within The Episcopal Church that embraces heterodoxy, heresy, and anomie when compared to the authorized norms.

"You creedal Episcopalians do not seem to take this problem that seriously, at least that is how it is coming across to those outside the denomination."

I can see how this impression could be out there. The truth is that, for some time now, the leadership of The Episcopal Church has, indeed, tolerated things that should not be tolerated. Norms and boundaries are necessary and life-giving. But in our desire to be "inclusive," we've sometimes failed to acknowledge that there are very real limits to inclusion. I hardly think it's too much to ask that clergy do, in fact, faithfully live into the ordination vow to "conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church," and for bishops in particular to "guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church." And while I realize that there are (perhaps too many) who take a very lax approach to this matter, I'm also aware of others for whom this is a very real and important concern.

Rick said...

Bryan-

Thank you for your response.

You asked:

"what is the norm or norms against which one can measure whether or not any given leader in a particular denomination does, in fact, adequately represent that denomination?"

I would say that the response by the denomination to that given leader would be a measure. The fact that The Episcopal Church has not taken much, if any, action against him indicates it is fine with him representing the denomination.

Likewise, the authority of The Book of Common Prayer is greatly diminished.

We are not talking about secondary issues. I lean towards Oden's paleo-orthodoxy in regards to theology, therefore I try to be careful about what I consider (in the words of Keith Drury) which beliefs should be written in penic, ink, and blood. For those holding firm to the early creeds, Spong has trampled over the beliefs written in blood, and a denomination that talks about creeds and tradition allows it to continue.

Which takes priority- holding to the beliefs, creeds, etc... or the holding to the decisions (or lack thereof) of the denomination?

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Rick. I agree that the lack of action against folks like Spong who openly reject and at times ridicule the faith of the Church as articulated in the Prayer Book, the catholic creeds, Holy Scripture, etc., is very troubling. It suggests dysfunction and spiritual sickness. And a loss of core identity.

"The fact that The Episcopal Church has not taken much, if any, action against him indicates it is fine with him representing the denomination."

That may very well be true in some cases. In other cases, it may be a lack of courage, a case of conflict avoidance, or a misguided understanding of what genuine "inclusion" entails.

"Which takes priority- holding to the beliefs, creeds, etc... or the holding to the decisions (or lack thereof) of the denomination?"

That's an important question! I can imagine cases in which the answer is not clear. However, when talking about Spong, I think the priority lies with affirming the faith of the Church over and against her detractors.

The question then becomes how do you do this when the powers that be are unwilling to take any kind of constructive action? One answer is to simply leave The Episcopal Church. But for those of us who continue to feel called to serve in this particular (and very small) part of the Universal Church, walking away is not an option.

Rick said...

Bryan-

Thanks again for your response.

I am certainly not in your shoes, nor can I imagine the difficulty.

A question. You wrote:
"But for those of us who continue to feel called to serve in this particular (and very small) part of the Universal Church..."

What is the "part"? Is it a location, a group of people, or is it the denomination?

Could the "part" be served without TEC, and/or are you hoping to help transform the TEC?

Bryan Owen said...

Rick, the "part" I am referring to is, indeed, The Episcopal Church. And yes, I do believe that one can serve the Universal Church in ways other than being an Episcopalian.

I've never thought of myself as someone on a mission to "transform" TEC. But as an Episcopal priest, I do see myself as someone who is called to be loyal to the faith of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church that we Episcopalians have received. While I no doubt do that very imperfectly, I understand living into that loyalty as an intrinsic part of what it means to be a priest.

Rick said...

Bryan-

Again, I appreciate your response.

Although I admire your sense of loyalty, I do wonder why that loyalty to a faith has to be served in the context of an organization that allows criticism and the promotion of views that are antithetical to that faith.

Would loyalty to that faith not be better served in another context (organization, such as the newer north american Anglican groups)?

Bryan Owen said...

Would loyalty to that faith not be better served in another context (organization, such as the newer north american Anglican groups)?

Rick, I think the answer to that question is largely a matter of conscience. Faithful Christians have given different answers to it. While it grieves me to see people leave, I am in no position to pass judgment on those who, for conscience's sake, have left TEC for another Anglican group or for a completely different denomination. At the same time, I respect the conscience of those who remain in TEC, in some cases serving in contexts where staying is very difficult.

Of course, I have no idea what might happen in the future. 15 years ago, if someone had said that I would become an Episcopal priest, I would have laughed out loud. God can call us to places we never imagined. In the meantime, I am called to serve in TEC.

Rick said...

Bryan-

I appreciate your desire to adhere to your calling, and I certainly would not want to criticize that.

I hope your (and like-minded people) promotion of the creeds and overall orthodoxy ripples throughout TEC.

Again, thanks.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, Rick. I appreciate your comments and questions. They've been quite helpful to me! And I covet your prayers for my ministry and for TEC.