John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal Bishop, has a radical idea for reforming the Christian religion–one that would remove God from the picture. Spong refers to himself as a nontheist, which he argues is not identical to being an atheist. He claims to believe in a God which is not supernatural, but is rather a philosophical concept in the tradition of Paul Tillich’s Ground of Being.
The book leads off with a quote from a letter by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian martyred for his opposition to Hitler.
Our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. … He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.
This sets the tone for the “death of God” theology which inspired Spong when he first became a pastor in the 1960′s. Spong considers as his guiding light John Robinson, an Anglican Bishop who in 1963, published Honest To God, a book which shook up the Church of England by denying the existence of the traditional God, and ruined his career in the process. While the 73 year old Bishop Spong considers himself a follower of the now-deceased Robinson, Spong does not make clear whether he himself has any proteges within the Episcopal Church.
In 1998, Spong posted to the Internet twelve theses in, as he describes it, “Luther-like fashion.” With such radical theses, one might reasonable question whether Bishop Spong can claim to be a Christian at all. Indeed, he expresses anxiety that he is following the path of colleagues like Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering, and Robert Funk who he regards as having become post-Christians. Spong is reluctant to follow them that far.
How can one be a Christian without believing in the divinity of Christ? Perhaps in the same way one can be a Keynesian without believing in the divinity of John Maynard Keynes. One may reasonably question whether the historical Jesus considered himself to be God. But is there any question that Jesus believed in God? According to Spong,
It is important to document the fact that Christianity, at its inception, was pretheistic and only later and with slow developments was it, along with its Lord, overwhelmed by theistic concepts.
Perhaps this is sloppy writing. Critics of the development of Trinitarian Christianity argue that Jesus’ concept of God would have been the conventional Jewish one of a supernatural unitarian God, and his apotheosis into God himself came as Christianity spread out of the Jewish community to pagan Greeks and Romans. It’s hard to imagine that Spong’s nontheistic interpretation of God corresponds to that of the historical Jesus.
Spong is willing to retain the traditional language of Christianity. While a nontheist, he is willing to speak of God, and to Jesus as the Son of God, and even to a “resurrection,” though not one which physically occurred.
Perhaps it does not bother me as much as it should. I welcome the changes as they come, but I have learned not to literalize liturgical words. I treat them as poetry, symbols, or illuminating phrases used by our forebears in faith to articulate their deepest yearnings.
What is the value of retaining such language? Frankly, it seems inauthentic. Why doesn’t Spong just chuck it and become a post-Christian? Perhaps because he is reluctant to leave behind other nontheistic Christians, those whom he calls “the church in exile.”
Will Spong’s attempts at reform flourish? This seems doubtful. The fastest growing churches currently are the Pentecostal ones, those with the greatest emphasis on supernaturalism. The belief in a loving God and an afterlife are clearly the greatest “selling points” for religion.
Why is it that a simple theism, stripped of toxic elements such as the belief in the exclusive legitimacy in one particular path, is so hard to sustain? Theistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Greco-Roman paganism all have beliefs of obviously legendary character. These legends are clearly false, with the possible exception of those of the one True Religion, and likely false in all of them. Yet what unites these religions is that there is an unseen power responsible for the existence of the universe, and that it is possible to have a personal relationship with it. Could that basic intuition of so many people be true?
If there is, there are few religious options to serve it. The most liberal denominations, such as Unitarian Universalism and Reform Judaism, are like Bishop Spong, doubtful about a theistic God. Less liberal denominations retain traditional liturgical formulations. Those who have theistic intuitions have little choice but to accept the baggage of traditional denominations.
Is there a need for a reformation of Christianity which would purge it of obvious superstition? Yes. These superstitions are not innocent tales, but form the basis of excluding others from care and concern. Has Bishop Spong found the right formulation for a neo-Christianity? No. His vision is too austere to win over the masses. It is an enlightened secularism which fails to provide an alluring alternative to the appeal of superstition and obscurantism.