Christianity’s Next Reformation — Part 2, John Shelby Spong, Introduction
This is the third article in what will probably be a long series inspired by an article by Keith Michael. In the introduction I separated those who seek a new Reformation of Christianity into three groups:
- those who seek a radical transformation of Christianity in a new, progressive direction
- those who think that the Christianity that has been handed down to us is deeply in error, and that we should therefore return to an even earlier version of what it could and should have been
- those who think that the Christianity that has been handed down to us is perfectly fine, but has been corrupted by later developments.
I placed Keith Michael in the second group, and summarised his position in the previous article. Here I’ll focus on someone from the first group, as far as I can tell the most prolific writer on this theme, the late Bishop John Shelby Spong.
In 1998 he published Why Christianity Must Change or Die: a Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile, which the front cover describes as “a new Reformation of the Church’s Faith and Practice”. He subsequently published A New Christianity for a New World, so we can see that he is a passionate advocate of a major transformation in Christianity. In this article I’ll summarise the preface of the first of those books, in order to gain some insight into his ideas.
He describes himself as “a bishop whose vows at the time of my consecration included both a promise to defend the faith and to guard the unity of the church”, but also “one who desires to worship as a citizen of the modern world and to be able to think as I worship”. I interpret the second statement to mean that he finds the Christianity that has been handed down antiquated and in need of updating, and that he should not have to accept unquestioningly the teachings of the Church. He spent his whole career arguing for this position. He therefore sees himself as “a resource for the religious seekers of our world who yearn to believe in God but who are also repelled by the premodern literalizations that so frequently masquerade as Christianity”.
The story begins with a public debate with rabbi Jack Daniel Spiro who, following the publication of Spong’s This Hebrew Lord, “asked me to explain to his Jewish audience just how God, the ‘Holy Other,’ could be said to have become particular and concrete in the person of Jesus of Nazareth”. His response was: “The Bible never says in a simplistic way that Jesus is God. Jesus prays to God in the Gospels. He is not talking to himself. Jesus dies on the cross. It makes no sense to say that the holy God died. The Bible only says that what God is, Jesus is; that God is met in Jesus; that to see Jesus is in some sense to see God”.
There followed a “drumbeat of hostility from conservative, fundamentalist, and evangelical circles”, who said that he “pressed the theological boundaries of the traditional understanding of Christianity”.
Other books followed: Into the Whirlwind: The Future of the Church, Living in Sin?: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Born of a Woman, Resurrection: Myth and Reality?, Liberating the Gospels. Some of the themes he covered were:
- the possibility that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke may have been created “to cover the charge… that Jesus was illegitimate”
- “the possibility that Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene”. He says that “a significant amount of New Testament data certainly points to the reality of that theory”. (I have discussed this idea myself in three Medium articles, here, here, and here.)
- the possibility that the resurrection should not be understood literally. He says that “viewing the resurrection of Jesus as a physical resurrection was a late developing tradition in early Christianity. I sought to demonstrate that primitive Christianity as represented by Paul, Mark, and I would also argue, Matthew made no such claims and that the original burst of life that accompanied the birth of Christianity was not dependent on this ‘orthodox’ theory”. (I’ve argued that the resurrection is better understood allegorically here.)
In Liberating the Gospels, agreeing with Keith Michael, he explained that the authors of the gospels were not eyewitnesses. (This is well known in academic circles, although apparently the opposite claim is still taught by various Churches.) “Nor were these Gospels even based primarily on eyewitness memories of the life of Jesus. Rather, these Gospels were liturgical works organized against the background of the Jewish liturgical year. Therefore, they must not be literalized, but their meaning must be probed from within that Jewish context”.
He says that each book, “found an enthusiastic audience of seeking lay people”. As one can imagine, however, his literary career has prompted a strong reaction from conservative Christianity. Spong says: “I have been attacked in books from the religious right by such people as Alistair MacGrath, N. T. Wright, and Luke Timothy Johnson”, but these books “were revealingly hostile and without saving academic merit”. There was also much misrepresentation in the media. (I believe Alister McGrath is the correct spelling.)
He says “I have lectured with guards protecting me… I have walked through shouting picket lines… I have endured a bomb threat… I have been the recipient of sixteen death threats, all of which came from Bible-quoting ‘true believers’ ”. We can note that all of these appalling people presumably claim to follow a man who preached love and peace, and unquestioning forgiveness of one’s enemies. These are obviously fanatical Christians, which reminds me of one of my favourite Carl Jung quotes: “fanaticism is always repressed doubt”.
Spong was inspired by three chief mentors and teachers: John Elbridge Hines, John A. T. Robinson, and Michael D. Goulder. He also spent some quality time with Don Cupitt, Keith Ward, physicist Paul Davies, scholar Karen Armstrong, professor Lloyd Geering, and others. To some he seemed a “hopeless conservative for remaining committed to the church and the Christian faith”, to others “a fellow pilgrim”. He describes himself as “a believer in exile”, but regards the controversy “as a positive sign of health and vitality. It represents a faith tradition in ferment, simultaneously dying and being resurrected. It reveals the willingness to explore the truth of God without seeking to protect God from the disturbance of new insights. It arises out of the sense that God must be worshipped with the mind as well as the heart. It also reveals that any god who is threatened by new truth from any source is clearly dead already”.
The motto of his theological seminary was: “Seek the truth come whence it may, cost what it will”. Spong obviously feels that he has sought to pursue this ideal to its maximum. He says that he speaks “to those lay people who have come to believe that their own sense of honesty requires them to close their minds to most of what they hear in church on Sunday mornings”.
In the next article I’ll discuss some of Spong’s ideas for a new Reformation.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). All but the most recent can be found there.