Bishop John Shelby Spong: heretic or visionary?

John Shelby Spong is an Episcopalian Bishop (retired) who is one of the most important and revolutionary Christian voices in the world today. He is the author of several provocative books such as Why Christianity Must change or Die and Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. He has aroused much controversy not only because of his stances supporting gay marriage and the ordination of women, but also because of a theological viewpoint which challenges such things as the virgin birth, miracles and the physical resurrection of Christ. Spong has even charged that theistic religion itself is outdated and must change. Here is a list of 12 provocative assertion which Spong has challenged Christians to debate:

1.) Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
2.) Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
3.) The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
4.) The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
5.) The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
6.) The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
7.) Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
8.) The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
9.) There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
10.) Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
11.) The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
12.) All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

To me, reading Spong is like breathing pure oxygen but to to conservative Christians, needless to say, he is seen as a radical, an "atheistic Christian, " a heretic, etc.

I’d like to get a debate going here on Spong. I welcome both conservative and liberal Christian views. (Polycarp, since you, yourself are a liberal Episcopalian I’d especially like to get your take on Spong) I’d also like to ask atheists and agnostics if they find Spong’s rationalist views on Christianity to be more appealing to them than the more traditional dogmatism

Not a Christian, but I kinda like this one.

With luck, cjhoworth will also show up. She’s one of our many intelligent and compassionate Christians, and a liberal Episcopalian to boot.

Point (1) intrigues me the most. I presume he never found it. So what does he believe in? I’m at an immediate loss here.

Well, I agree with most of his points … but that is why I don’t consider myself a Christian. I’m somewhat confused as to why he would self-identify as a Christian, but if it makes him happy to do so, well, that’s his business and not anybody else’s.

(Goodness, that sounds passionate, doesn’t it? I guess that’s why I don’t post in religious threads very much.)

I served on the committee which brought him to my parish church for a teaching weekend, and made his (casual but real) acquaintance through that.

The first thing I need to say is that if the Evangelical definition of Christian as one who has accepted Christ as Savior and Lord is to be our working definition, he is firmly within the Christian camp. He himself is a devout man of prayer for whom God and Christ are living realities.

But he is also a very deep thinker who refuses to use the time-honored definitions of the faith when they no longer “work” for people today. Our good friend Mars Horizon will no doubt have no problem with my identifying him as a card-carrying member of what a tongue-in-cheek Spong calls the Church Alumni Association – the people who used to be active church members and aren’t any more, because the terms and traditions have lost meaning for them, and they cannot in good conscience believe in abstract concepts they don’t relate to. Spong is outspoken for these people, and wants to address their needs.

There are some particular elements of his character that need to be brought into the mix here as well. First, he was raised in a fundamentalist Episcopalian church in Charlotte, NC, where he was taught not to question doctrine. He also had a quite distant and stern father who died when Spong was quite young, despite his heartfelt prayers for him to recover. In seminary, he found himself drawn to the work of Paul Tillich. And on graduation, after a short interim as vicar of a small church in Durham, he became rector of a large church in Tarboro, NC, which was dealing – and not dealing well – with the civil rights movement. He became outspoken as a defender of equal rights regardless of race or any other distinguishing characteristic, something that has carried over to the present.

I bring all this up because it fits into my grasp of him. To start with, what he rejects in proposition #1 is not what most of us would understand by “theism” – the belief in a god who can be perceived and related to – but rather Tillich’s rather specialized use of the word as describing a transcendent Deity “up there” in Heaven who “looks down on” a secular earth and humanity. It is this he rejects – for him, while God is Other, He is also omnipresent, and working largely through those whom He has called and invested with the Holy Spirit. For Spong, the Tillichian theistic god coalesces with the fundamentalist stern lawgiver and the father who was distant and uncaring though a provider and who died on him, along with the god who let him die – and this concept is to be rejected in favor of a God who is present with us, sharing our joys and sorrows, aware of our feelings, doubts, temptations, and difficulty in grasping the reality of Him, and who loves us despite all that.

With regard to thesis #2, I have only this quote to offer at the moment:

Here is a link in which Spong addresses the issue of nontheistic Christianity. He is not atheistic (although he is often accused of it) but it sounds like he is still working to define his nontheistic view of God.

I agree. My biggest problem with A New Christianity for a New World was that it wasn’t – he’s able to articulate clearly what’s wrong, but not to make clear what should replace it.

Spong sounds like an atheist/former-christian who just can’t let go of that “christian baggage” due to guilt. I agree with his statements, but he provides no answers for how to reform christianity. The very nature of a religion is that it cannot be reformed. It is based on an ancient text which is, by definition, the immutable word of god. You can’t change it. You can toss it in the trash, though. Easier for some than for others.

This is actually one of the things I rather like about him. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He admits it if doesn’t know the answer to a question. This is rare in religious writers.

FWIW, though, Spong claims to be working to articulate his vision of a “New Christianity” in what he says will be his last major book. He has said that this has been his most difficult project and I admire his honesty in admitting that his views are problematic to articulate. People who always have an answer should be avoided.

Perhaps I should not have responded, then, since you clearly understand him much better than I do, and anyone who claims to be a Christian is not a Biblical literalist is just fooling himself, according to your standards.

Please continue; I look forward to your explanation of what Bp. Spong has to say. :rolleyes:

kalt*-The very nature of a religion is that it cannot be reformed. *

Tell it to Martin Luther. :slight_smile:

This point I don’t understand:
11.) The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior. **

Reward and punishment are greed and fear based. It seems to me that guilt is an alternative to heaven/hell not equivalent(though both techniques are presently used).

Personally I’d like a concept of enlightened self-interest but I’m not holding my breath.

Polycarp, if it’s the word of God it should be given its plain meaning. It means what it says. This goes for all religions, not just Christianity. The bible/koran/torah/etc. is not a la carte–you can’t pick and choose the parts you want to believe in and say the ones you don’t want to believe in “don’t really mean that.” I have more respect for the fundamentalists than the pickers and choosers.
CarnalK: Martin Luther reformed church practice, not fundamental christian beliefs.

You’re presuming that all Christian faith is derived from a belef that the Bible is the literal word of God. It is possible to read the Bible as a collection of religious literature written by imperfect humans. It is also possible to interpret or select out from the Bible that which is intuitively “true” or satisfying based on personal experience of “God” outside the Bible. it is perfectly reasonable, for instance, to begin with the proposition that “God is Love” (as Libertarian often asserts) and, taking this assertion as an axiom, to read the Bible for those passages which seem to be informed by that axiom and to ignore those that don’t. It is not necessary that the Bible be the word of God in this case, whether it is or not does not change the axiom.

Since this thread’s been started, I guess I have to dig out my copy of Why Christianity Must Change Or Die from wherever I’ve buried it. I hope I haven’t discarded it; I annotated it rather exuberantly.

At any rate, unlike my brother Polycarp, I have an extremely low regard for Bishop Spong, even though I’m definitely a liberal Christian.

This is one of the things about Spong that bugs me: he apparently has never gotten past his early background. In reading Why Christianity Must Change or Die, it appeared to me that he seemed to have one eye on the mirror at all times, viewing his heroic profile as he bravely took on the overbearing forces of conventional Christianity.

The problem is, the world changes, and a good deal of Christianity wasn’t like that in the first place. Some of us who don’t carry around the weight of an authoritarian family and church in everything we do, wish he’d kindly stop insisting that the rest of us see the world as he does. Not that fundamentalism isn’t real, but it is far from all that’s real, especially in his own church.

CarnalK - I know what he means by #11; I just don’t feel that’s particularly revolutionary (even if it can’t be done), given that Martin Luther said essentially the same thing nearly five centuries ago, when he insisted that we are saved by God’s grace, and not by any works that we can do.

The reason it can’t be done is that that’s how the world works, and this is different, and we can’t get used to it. That’s all. We always expect things to be along the lines of, “Here’s what you have to do to (get an A)/(get into a good college)/(get a good job)/(get that promotion).” There’s always rewards for doing the right thing, and punishments for doing the wrong thing.

In saving everyone who is willing to enter into a relationship with Him, Jesus has turned that completely upside down. But that’s old news within Protestant Christendom, so I don’t understand why he’s making a big deal about it. But if he’s got any wisdom whatsoever, he has to know that salvation and damnation can’t be “separated forever” from being carrots and sticks in Christians’ eyes, for the reasons I’ve just mentioned.

Let me talk about #8 for a moment.

Can we say ‘straw man’? I have no idea why, in Spong’s mind, the Ascension story’s three-tiered universe has to exist within this space-time bubble we inhabit. He identifies existing Christian belief with the notion that Heaven and Hell are in the physical ‘up’ and ‘down’ directions.

That’s not only aggressively condescending, but it’s stupid. I really have no idea why anybody takes this guy seriously. He’s like a left-wing Cal Thomas in many ways. One of them is that of going out of his way to put the spin on his opponents’ position that makes them look the stupidest, regardless of its lack of validity.

I think that’s enough for tonight. I’ve got a book to track down. :slight_smile:

I’m not sure what you’re objecting to here. If you’re asserting that Jesus did not literally ascend in to the sky, then it sounds like you agree with Bp. Spong. If you think that Jesus did rise up into the sky, then where was he going (since Heaven is not in the sky)?

I like Spong-he says a lot of things that make sense to me, is the best way I can put it.

I’ve seen fundies refer to him as “Serpent Spong”, so he must be doing SOMETHING right.

It appears to me that Spong is trying to make Christianity more appealing to educated and intelligent by systematically tossing out all of the more obvious horseshit that characterizes Christian beliefs. It’s a laudable effort to bring more people into Christian beliefs.

Sadly, I think it’s a lost cause. Dumping Christianity isn’t a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The baby got up an left a long time ago. Nothing left now but bathwater.

I’m in agreement with Spong on that. What I disagree with is his claim that the Biblical story of the Ascension is inherently tied to the alternative view.

Oh, and I’ve found my copy of Why Christianity Must Change Or Die. See y’all tomorrow! :slight_smile:

Kalt, the problem with your premise is in the first six words (after my screen name). It ain’t. It says so itself – see the first eighteen and last verses of the Gospel According to John. It contains an account of God’s dealings with mankind, along with a bunch of other stuff, including people attributing to Him what they didn’t want to take the blame for. But one can know Him independently of it, and use it to supplement one’s understanding of Him – and that requires sifting wheat from chaff. And that’s what I, and a lot of other Christians do.

The whole “salvation” thing is what I think Spong calls into question, not merely the reward/punishment aspect of it. We’ll need to get into that in more depth.

And I agree with RT on #8.

More later.

I guess I agree on number 8 too. I’m not sure why Spong does not concede the possiblity of intepreting the ascension metaphorically. This seems like it would be one of the easier passages for even conservative Christians to read allegorically. (Not even fundamentalists still think Heaven is in the sky, do they?)