By Steve Parker
Bishop John Shelby Spong visited Adelaide recently to deliver a series of three public lectures promoting his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. Spong is a controversial figure evoking enormous amounts of criticism from the evangelical end of the theological spectrum, in particular. I went along to hear all three of his public lectures to try to find out what his essential message is for myself. Spong has a very negative message about traditional Christianity and a positive* message about what he sees as the true meaning of the Christian message.A "negative" message about traditional ChristianitySpong makes the obvious point that we are now living in a different time to those when the biblical books were penned. Whereas the first century believers accepted a three tiered universe that stopped just above the roof of the sky, we now know so much more about the universe and how it works. Science has increased our understanding of the natural world to such an extent that, according to Spong, the language used to express the first century believers’ experience of God is outdated, irrelevant, and unbelievable.For Spong, we can no longer talk, for example, of a virgin birth, a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus, or miraculous healings. According to Spong, none of these beliefs make sense to a modern person living with the knowledge we have of the world and the universe. He also rejects the substitutionary model of the atonement (that Christ died for humanity’s sins instead of humanity dying).Spong also believes that fundamentalist Christianity, in particular, represents a narrow-minded belief system that is unwilling to move forward in its understanding of the original meaning of Christianity. He believes that Christian fundamentalism is exclusivist and promotes racism, sexism, and homophobia. Much of Spong’s life has been spent focusing on social justice issues around these themes. He is a vocal defender of the equality of humanity, the right of women and gay and lesbian people to serve as equals in the Christian Church, and the acceptance of homosexual people within the church community as living a legitimate lifestyle, consistent with their unchosen orientation, in the context of loving relationships similar to monogamous heterosexual relationships. He is highly respected by many for his work in this area.It is easy to see why Bishop Spong has evoked such emotional outrage from fundamentalist Christians and significant criticism from others. His teachings strike at the heart of much that is held, by many Christians, to be essential in defining Christianity. This is the "negative" side of Spong’s message. Spong also has a "positive" message about what Christianity has to offer.A "positive" message about the Christian messageA constantly recurring theme in all of Spong’s lectures is that Christianity, rightly understood, has an incredibly positive message for society. Spong reassures his audiences that he is a committed Christian, believes in God, and prays daily. Clearly, this language has a specific meaning for Spong. For Spong, God is a presence which suffuses the world. The God presence found its highest expression in the life of Jesus Christ. For Spong, the life of Jesus provides the clearest expression of God’s intentions for humanity:
- to live life fully
- to love wastefully
- to be all that one can be
This is a "mantra" for Spong that expresses the essence of the gospel. Every one of his lectures finishes with the reiteration of these three themes. And excellent themes they are!
Very few Christians, I imagine, would disagree with these emphases. Unfortunately, for many Christians, they are overshadowed by Spong’s "negative" message to such an extent that they are not heard. And for those on the other end of the theological spectrum, the "negative" message is so powerful for them that the they wonder why bother with Christianity at all. They would argue that you don’t need Christianity to assert the value of living life fully, loving wastefully, and being all one can be. (Following one of Spong’s lectures, I had a conversation with an ex-Christian who made precisely that point.)
For traditional Christians, the literal, historically embedded beliefs about Jesus Christ (eg, the virgin birth, miracles, the resurrection) are indispensable in defining Christianity as distinct from other religions. Thoughtful and honest Christians can surely agree that new forms of expressing the gospel of Jesus Christ need to be found for the 21st century. And they can surely agree that Jesus’ life shows humanity what it means to live in the presence of God and be empowered, by the Holy Spirit, to live fully, love wastefully, and become fully human.
But many Christians will also want to argue that this can only be done by a God who is able to work supernaturally - any lesser God is not enough and, without such a God, Spong’s vision of living fully, loving wastefully, and being all one can be will be an unfulfilled yearning - a God-shaped hole in the human heart that only God can fill. There is a challenge here for traditional Christianity: the Church, which is often the worst advertisement for Christianity, needs to live out its good news in everyday living so that God is, indeed, understood to be a loving God of infinite mercy who accepts all and empowers them to live fully, love wastefully, and be all that God intended them to be.
* I am using the terms "negative" and "positive" to indicate that Spong is critical of Christianity and yet wishes to affirm that Christianity has a significant message for the modern world.
Steve Parker heads the Adelaide, Australia, Adventist Forum chapter and blogs at Thinking Christian where this report originally appeared.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4142