Christianity’s Next Reformation — Part 3, John Shelby Spong’s Ideas, part 1
This is the next article in a series, originally inspired by an article by Keith Michael. The general theme is what needs to be done to achieve a further Reformation of Christianity. In the previous article I introduced the late Bishop John Shelby Spong into the discussion; he was a fervent advocate for such a Reformation, as elaborated most obviously in Why Christianity Must Change or Die¹ and A New Christianity for a New World². Now I’ll begin to explore these two books in more detail.
In chapter 1 of the first book he describes himself as someone who lives “in a constant and almost mystical awareness of the divine presence”, “one who swims in the infinite depths of the sea of God”, and “a God-intoxicated human being”. He says that “this God is shrouded in mystery, wonder, and awe”. Given that he rejects much of what Christians believe, we could easily think therefore that he might be someone who describes himself as ‘spiritual but not religious’, a pantheist perhaps, or even a pagan. This would apparently be a mistake, since he remained committed to calling himself a Christian all his life. It will be interesting to discover what aspects of Christianity persuaded him to do this.
He then makes a highly significant statement, that the Christian Creeds “were fashioned inside a worldview that no longer exists. Indeed, it is quite alien to the world in which I live. The way reality was perceived when the Christian creeds were formulated has been obliterated by the expansion of knowledge”. He says therefore that it is “increasingly difficult to remain members of the Church and still be thinking people”, and that the Church has consistently resisted new knowledge.
At first sight, one might think that Spong is referring to modern scientific knowledge. Actually he was not doing this; he was referring rather to conceptions of the nature of divinity, for example the supposed omniscience of a male theistic Creator, and ‘His’ questionable morality. Elsewhere, however, he does speak favourably of Darwin, calling The Origin of Species a “masterpiece”, and Freud, whose thought “would be added to the forces destroying the premodern understanding of life that had shaped the religious systems of the Western world”. He later accepts without hesitation one of Freud’s highly speculative theories, that “the birth of theistic religion grew out of the trauma of self-consciousness”.
I think that Spong is on dangerous ground here. Have Darwin’s and Freud’s theories been proved beyond reasonable doubt? Do they qualify as science? Spong seems to use ‘premodern’ as a pejorative term, and to have been seduced into an unquestioning acceptance of the modern ‘scientific’ worldview. By assuming that newer or later is necessarily better, however, there is a great danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The ‘Enlightenment’ with its accompanying scientific progress may have been an important development, but its worldview is not the source of ultimate wisdom. On the contrary, it has led humanity into a spiritual wilderness. During the Industrial and Scientific Revolution, as Stanislav and Christina Grof wrote: “rationality became the ultimate measure of all things, rapidly replacing spirituality and religious beliefs. In the course of the Scientific Revolution in the West, everything even remotely related to mysticism was disqualified as left over from the Dark Ages”³.
There is much value, however, in so-called premodern ideas, even in the field of science — see, for example, Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. Many modern people are turning back to a belief in the ‘Ancient Wisdom’ of Eastern religions. I, for one, will be advocating a return to some premodern ideas in the needed Reformation of Christianity.
When contemplating the origin of religion, it is surely risky to rush into an acceptance of the speculative theories of a dedicated atheist. It is ironic that the founder of Psychoanalysis was unwilling to analyse himself and explore his own unconscious motivations. The job was done for him by the psychoanalyst Paul C. Vitz in Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious⁴, where he says: “What I attempt to do here is to show how Freud’s anti-religious beliefs and theories are to be understood as an expression of his own unconscious needs and traumatic childhood experiences. This explanation of Freud’s rejection of religion is not an interpretation restricted only to him; the analysis is general enough to have applicability to the motives of many who reject God today”. That was the theme of his later book Faith of the Fatherless⁵, where Vitz explored the psychological background of many figures hostile to religion, including Freud. (I’ve written about this in more detail here.)
Turning now to the evolution question, Alfred Russel Wallace had come up with the theory of natural selection independently of Darwin, who managed to gain the spotlight and take the acclaim. This theory was then taken up enthusiastically, and elaborated upon, by materialists and atheists, right up to the present day. The best known expression of this comes from Richard Dawkins: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”. Why would any Christian want to adopt such a theory?
Towards the end of his life, Wallace went on to write The World of Life: a Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose, clearly showing that he was a believer in what we now call Intelligent Design. Wallace once said: “Materialism is one giant foolishness. I think it will soon pass from the mind… There are laws of nature but they are purposeful. Everywhere we are confronted by power and intelligence. The future will be full of wonder, reverence, and calm faith, worthy of our place in the scheme of things”⁶.
Wallace’s book was republished in 2020, with a long and excellent introduction by Michael Flannery and a foreword by William Dembski⁷. One might think that someone who claims to live “in a constant and almost mystical awareness of the divine presence” would be more likely to consider this book a masterpiece rather than The Origin of Species. (I have written about Wallace in more detail here.)
There is no obvious need to include the ideas of Darwin or Freud in a reformed Christianity. I think, on the contrary, that they should be rejected. As I said above, Spong seems to have been seduced into an unquestioning acceptance of the modern ‘scientific’ worldview.
Here is another striking example of Spong’s unwarranted preference for all things modern. He says that “epilepsy and mental illness are no longer understood to result from demon possession, even though Jesus was portrayed in the Bible as believing that they did”. Many modern people would undoubtedly agree with him, but anyone who does should read Wilson van Dusen’s The Presence of Other Worlds⁸, especially the chapter ‘The Presence of Spirits in Madness’.
Furthermore, exorcism remains a reality in modern times. The film The Exorcist may have been based upon a novel, but the novel itself was based on real events⁹. A more serious examination of the whole issue of possession and exorcism can be found in Adam Crabtree’s Multiple Man: Explorations in Possession and Multiple Personality¹⁰. I assume that Spong never read these books; if he had, he might not have been so convinced of his hasty conclusion. (I wrote about van Dusen here, and exorcism and Crabtree’s book here.)
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.
- HarperSanFrancisco, 1998
- HarperSanFrancisco, 2002
- Spiritual Emergency, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1989, Introduction Pxi
- William B. Eerdmans, 1993. The quote is in the preface, Pxii.
- Spence Publishing, 2000
6. interviewed by The New York Times, October 8th, 2011
7. Intelligent Evolution, Erasmus Press, 2020
8. Wildwood House, 1975
10. Grafton Books, 1988