Shaping the face of a new Christianity
When it comes to retired Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong, there seems to be no middle ground. Either you love him or you hate him. Just a quick gander at the reviews posted on Amazon of his new book, A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born, reveals just how polarizing his brand of theology can be.
But the reactions from both sides are hardly surprising when one realizes what Spong’s agenda is all about. Anyone who calls for abandoning the theistic God of our religious forefathers is bound to bring down the ire of evangelical Christians and garner the praise of the disaffected who find traditional theology inadequate in their daily lives.
A brief perusal of his new book reveals thoughts and ideas that most mainstream Christians (and possibly all fundamentalist Christians) would find if not offensive, downright heretical.
Since I do not see God as a being, I cannot interpret Jesus as the earthly incarnation of this supernatural deity.
I do not believe that this Jesus entered this world by the miracle of a virgin birth.
I do not believe that the experience Christians celebrate at Easter was the physical resuscitation of the three-days-dead body of Jesus.
I do not believe that human beings are born in sin.
I do not believe that homosexual people are abnormal, mentally sick, or morally depraved.
Tell someone unfamiliar with Spong, but acquainted with the basic tenets of Christianity that these words were uttered by a man who served as the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, N.J., for 24 years, and you can understand why the mainstream church is ambiguous at best toward Spong, and why the fundamentalists believe he is the incarnation of Satan.
So, if mainstream Christians regard Spong as “out there” and fundamentalists hold him in the lowest regard possible, who is Spong’s audience?
“I think my audience is a fairly narrow swath,” Spong told Whosoever in a recent telephone interview.
That may be true, but the audience is growing if Spong’s calendar, filling up for the next few years, is any indication.
“Increasingly, I find myself being invited into what I call the more conservative areas of the country: Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama; Texas; Iowa; and Nebraska. Heartland places where big crowds gather,” he said.
“I drew 400 people a night in Ames, Iowa. That’s a big crowd for a little town. We drew about 600 people in a Methodist church in Omaha, Nebraska. So, I’m encouraged. I think there’s still an enormous amount of religious hunger in this world and the organized churches are so brittle and so bound to a world that doesn’t exist that I’m not sure they will ever meet this audience.”
That’s impressive given that Spong’s message is one meant to wrest the theistic God from the very heart of Christian belief. Spong defines the theistic God as “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside the world and invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will.” That theistic God was born “as a way of dealing with the trauma of self-consciousness,” Spong writes. “It was devised as a tool that enabled human beings to keep their hysteria, a by-product of self-consciousness, at bay.”
In other words, we’re all scared children searching for that eternal father figure who will kiss the boo-boos we get in the world and make everything all right.
Thinking this way cripples us, according to Spong.
“It assumes that a supernatural parent figure lives somewhere above the clouds and comes down periodically to do things in the world,” he said. “What happens in religion is when things don’t work out and hurricanes come and earthquakes come and children are killed by drunk drivers, people have to struggle to make sense out of the theistic God. Sometimes they do so by saying, ‘I just have to accept God’s will.’ Well, I’m just not interested in worshipping a God that wills the death of little children by drunk drivers.”
Spong believes the theistic God has been dying for 500 years, and if anything can show that this God’s death should be hastened it would be the events of September 11.
“The first thing is you realize (after September 11) is that the theistic God isn’t there,” Spong said. “On September 11th there was no god that stuck the divine hand down and stopped those planes. There was no god who saved the people who were praying on those planes. Chance determined whether you lived or died that day. There’s no plan about that, that’s chance.”
The evils of theism are not just apparent in the aftermath of the attacks, it’s part of what prompted the terrorists in the first place. Theism gives people the illusion that their religion contains truth, with a capital T. The men who hijacked the planes had that belief. It was the mentality of “us versus the great evil” that threatened their god’s very existence and power in the world. They must destroy the evil to survive — a similar philosophy that now fuels the U.S. response.
“In religions that believe they have the truth, they go out to impose that truth on people with the highest of motives. Because we have the truth, we must share it because if they don’t have the truth, they will die eternally. So we fool ourselves into thinking that our hostility is really righteous,” Spong concluded. “That’s where religion has almost lost its soul more than once in history.”
In order to save its soul, it is Spong’s belief that Christianity must shed this obsession with a theistic God. That is, of course, a tall order. Christianity is so rife with theism that the very thought of separating it from the other elements of the faith is unbearable for many people. Instead, we seek the security that a theistic God provides — that sense that someone is in control of the universe working out some master plan of which we only catch an occasional glimpse.
What abandoning the theistic God requires of us is responsibility, Spong said.
It provides us with the opportunity to step boldly into the fullness of life. It is an invitation to give up the pitiful human quest for security, which we all at some level know does not exist except in our pretense, and to experience the power found in the acceptance of the fact that radical insecurity is the very mark of our humanity.
But radical insecurity is not something easily embraced. Faced with taking responsibility for our faith walk, and handing our lives over to the theistic God, many choose the latter with great gusto. That, Spong concluded, is the reason so many fundamentalist churches are experiencing packed pews every Sunday.
“Half of us are hysterically clinging to this God we don’t really believe in because we’re afraid if we let this God go there is a bottomless pit underneath us and we’ll just fall,” he said. “That’s what the fundamentalists are — they’re really hysterical. That’s why they get so angry. It’s an hysterical response. They don’t really believe it but they can’t stand the image of not believing it. So they hysterically cling to it and want to kill anybody who makes them question it.”
One of the biggest threats to the safety blankets fundamentalists wrap around themselves in the form of theistic religion is the reality of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians. But Spong believes “the battle for gay rights is won, but I don’t think everybody realizes it yet” — especially not among the radical Christian conservatives who still believe homosexuality is a choice, or an illness that can be cured.
“That old saying that I hate the sin but love the sinner, I never met one of those sinners who ever felt loved!” Spong declared. “Homosexuality is not your doing, it’s your being. They do hate your being I don’t care what they say. They can change. I changed. I grew up homophobic. I can remember as a little kid, I didn’t know what the word homosexual meant, I just knew when I said, ‘you queer,’ I was being naughty, but you learn.”
It’s a slow, plodding sort of learning, though — and some might not ever learn. Coming out, however, is what Spong called “the secret weapon” that will finally defeat homophobia.
“We all know gay and lesbian people and we love them and we don’t even know they are gay and lesbian,” he said. “But, the day will come when they will all come out of the closet and we’ll have to say, ‘You? But you’re a nice person!’ and then our prejudices will all die.”
As people must learn to let go of their individual fears and phobias, so too must the church learn to grow beyond its current belief structure. It must learn to let go of its fear, its hatred, its exclusiveness, and most of all its theistic view of God — a view Spong believes is only an historic overlay on the life of Jesus.
“Theism is a definition of God created by human beings out of our evolutionary history and is not an adequate explanation any longer,” Spong said. “If God is real, then the experience of God is an eternal experience. The definition is not eternal. The definition is imposed upon the experience in generation after generation based upon that group of people’s understanding of reality. We’re at a place where the old definition is dying and what I’m trying to do is to find a new set of words. My words aren’t going to be any better than anybody else’s in 100 years because every generation has to do this for themselves.”
But as long as religion holds us captive in a childlike state, dependent on a Father God to will rescue us worthless wretches, we won’t find the courage needed to shed the theistic God.
“Paul suggested that we call people into the fullness of the stature of Christ Jesus that is within them. That’s a very different concept of being childlike and dependent,” Spong said. “We need to get rid of all parent words — ‘Father God,’ ‘Mother Church.’ We need to say to people, ‘The only hands God has to bring life to this world are your hands, you have got to be the God-presence, the God-bearer. Don’t be a passive wimp waiting for God to rescue you, go out and bring life and love and being into the world.’ That’s what the worship of God compels you to do.”
Once one embraces the idea of being that God-presence to others, it sheds new light on the life of Jesus — who Spong believes was a human “who was so totally open to God that he becomes a perfect vessel through which the presence of God enters into the human story.” He is not, in a word, divine or any physical incarnation of God. Instead, Jesus is that “God-bearer” that we’re called to emulate.
“Jesus is the God presence for me because when I look at his life I see a life fully lived. I see love wastefully given, I see one who has the courage to be all that he can be so I say, ‘that’s where I meet God and I want to become a disciple of that God that I meet in Jesus,’ ” Spong emphasized. “The way I become a disciple is not to convert people to Christianity because I don’t think God is a Christian. The way you do it is you build a world where everybody has access to God by having access to life, by having access to life, by having access to being.”
That sort of action is what will finally strip Christianity of its theistic trappings and uncover the essence of true Christian belief.
“The essence of Christianity is whether you remove barriers and knock down prejudices and stop diminishing life and making people less capable of loving and saying you cannot be who you are,” Spong concluded. “The essence of Christianity is that you might have life and have it abundantly.”
Whether one agrees with Spong’s process or not, that’s a conclusion with which hardly anyone who considers themselves a Christian can honestly find themselves in disagreement.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.