Confessions of a Believer in Exile
by Peter A. Young

  • John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998. 288pp. $24.00 (cloth).

For most of my adult life, I have lived at the edges of traditional Christianity, seeking a spiritual home in one protestant church or another, yet never fully comfortable with theological language. Early on, it became clear that what I was hearing was not mixing particularly well with what I was thinking. I remember in my late teens being stunned when a Presbyterian minister, during a hot summer service, asked parishioners in the back row to close the door, since Jesus had just taken a seat among them. Everyone turned around, presumably to determine where the Savior had decided to sit. I also remember a popular Welsh minister holding his congregation in thrall with a tale of a young boy who, when he wandered from home and fell off a cliff, was saved by God in the form of a stray branch that caught and held him long enough for the local fire department to rescue him. God talk from the pulpit was as persistent as it was incomprehensible. Although I loved that lyrical phrase from John 3:16 -- "For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son. . . . --" I was at a loss to comprehend the meaning and reality of both God and Son. I was thus easily persuaded by John A. T. Robinson's controversial 1963 book, Honest to God, that, among other things, "we should do well to give up using the word 'God' for a generation, so impregnated has it become with a way of thinking we may have to discard if the Gospel is to signify anything" (7, 8).

In time I became what Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong describes in his latest volume, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, as a "believer in exile," one who "wants to believe but who increasingly lives in exile from the traditional way in which Christianity has heretofore been proclaimed" (20). Not surprisingly, many Episcopal bishops and priests find the book offensive. Reviewers in the religious press make no bones about their considerable distaste for the views of the controversial Bishop of Newark. Some feel sorry for him; a few pillory him for "downgrading the church"; and others, like Robert William Duncan, the Bishop of Pittsburgh, see him as a counterfeit "errant brother," a "shepherd-become wolf" who sows "pain and confusion" among "my people."

My reading of Why Christianity Must Change or Die led me to wonder if the reviewers and I have in fact experienced the same book. What I found inspiring, they found reprehensible. Where I found confirmation, they found heresy. Where I discovered language to which I could relate, they found distortions and falsehoods.

As a Christian struggling to understand the contemporary meaning of ancient language, I have never been particularly comfortable reading the creeds, which speak of Christ's coming down from Heaven, His descending into Hell, and His ascending into Heaven. The Gospel writers had no problem envisioning such cosmological comings and goings. In those days, all manner of human/divine activities were read in the movement of the heavens. But I do, and so does Spong, who begins by picking the creeds apart, questioning the meaning of "God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and Jesus Christ His Only Son, Our Lord"; he concludes that the words of the Apostles' Creed, and the later formulation known as the Nicene Creed, were "fashioned inside a worldview that no longer exists." In fact, the creeds are "quite alien to the world in which I live." Urging the church to start a dialogue with those who can no longer accept "premodern theological concepts," Spong suggests that "the time has come for the Church to invite its people into a frightening journey into the mystery of God and to stop proclaiming that somehow the truth of God is still bound by either our literal scriptures or our literal creeds" (21).

In a letter I once wrote to a Presbyterian minister, with whom I was acquainted, I questioned how a loving God could allow a bolt of lightning to strike a child, disease to conquer life, good people to die, and bad people to prosper. "What kind of God would allow these things to happen?" I asked. "Can one be a Christian and not believe in such a God?" My own guess at the time -- I never did get an answer from the minister -- was that, Job notwithstanding, God was not out there anywhere or everywhere, that God was not an external presence but more likely a stirring within each of us, a love force whose perfect human manifestation had been Jesus of Nazareth.

Spong argues that theistic thinking was born at the exact moment when human self-consciousness first emerged from the evolutionary process, that it became the inevitable human response to the terrors of self-consciousness. "Powerful divine figures could also be placated, bargained with, flattered, or appeased," he writes. "Frail and frightened human beings thus could ingratiate themselves with these external powers so that instead of being victimized by them, they could move the deity to protect or spare them instead" (52). Contending that "human beings have evolved to the place where the theistic God concept can be and must be cast aside," Spong searches for "another God language," enlisting support from the likes of Alfred North Whitehead ("the divine process coming into being within the life of this world") and Paul Tillich (for whom God was "Ground of Being," an "internal reality that, when confronted, opened us to the meaning of life itself") (63, 64).

"Is God, so defined, any less personal than a theistic deity?" Spong asks. His answer: "Does not the being of God manifest itself in intense personhood? Can one worship Tillich's Ground of Being in any other way than by daring to be all that one can be? Can one worship the Source of Life in any other way than by daring to live fully? Can one worship the Source of Love in any other way than by daring to love wastefully and abundantly? Are there any categories that could be said to be more personal than those calling each of us into being, into living, and into loving? Would a life that reflected these qualities not be seen to reveal the image of God that is within that person?" (68, 69).

I recall some years back being asked to serve as a deacon with a Presbyterian church in Connecticut. I accepted, and at our first deacons' meeting, eight of us gathered around a circular conference table to get acquainted. An assistant minister led us in prayer and then asked each of us to describe in some detail "when and where we had first met Jesus." When my turn came around, I declined to respond, explaining that I didn't really understand the question. Metaphorically speaking, I wasn't sure I had yet met Jesus; I didn't feel I had a very clear perception of this man from Nazareth. To me, Jesus was a mystery wrapped in enigmas, a faintly perceived historical figure about whom quite astonishing things had been written in the centuries since his death. One thing I was sure of was that Jesus was not physically with us in the twentieth century, although his message was certainly alive and well.

This experience came to mind as I read Spong's chapter on "Discovering Anew the Jesus of the New Testament," in which he explores the apostles' experience of Jesus, what there was about him that made his disciples assert the astonishing claim that God was in him. How, asks Spong, can one separate the experience from the theistic explanation, then reject the explanation without rejecting the experience? Asking such questions, he adds, is to take "a first step toward the Jesus reality" and away from the myth of "a supernatural redeemer who enters our fallen world to restore creation" (82).

Spong believes that the ultimate gift of Jesus to the world was his life-giving spirit. "Beyond the boundaries of theism, which have limited us for so long," he writes, "we discover a startling revelation of God at the very center of human life, and Jesus, the spirit person, stands at the heart of that revelation." Unfortunately, Spong's choice of terms suffers from the same kind of fuzzy imprecision that must have plagued Tillich. (Try explaining to someone what Ground of Being means.) He rejects a theistic God, yet posits a "God at the very center of human life." What God is this? He writes of a "Jesus reality" and Jesus as "spirit person," then struggles to clarify his terms, noting, apologetically, that "spirit is a nebulous, hard to define, totally subjective concept. . . . amenable to a wide variety of interpretive data" (101). Having admitted the failings of language, however, he gamely goes forth, noting that the earliest Christians first referred to Jesus as a "spirit person," that Paul believed "the spirit present in this Jesus was able to enhance and even to bring to birth the spirit that was present in each of those to whom he wrote" (102), that to "walk by the spirit" (Gal. 5:22) meant to walk in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and even faith (Gal. 5:22).

During the Sunday morning service at Christ's Church, in Rye, New York, I often focus on a full-length figure of Jesus, portrayed on a Tiffany window behind the altar. I try to imagine what this man must have been like, what a magnetic presence he must have been, how his sense of love and fellowship must have resonated with those who followed him -- "a humanity," writes Spong, "that seems to escape the boundaries of the human" (129). There was clearly an enormous love force present in this life, one that embraced Jesus' disciples after his death, causing them to believe they were the inheritors of a special power, that they were alive in a new way. Thus, they shouted, "Jesus lives" (116). If I read Spong correctly, we are all the inheritors of this love force, to which we may, if we prefer, assign the name God.

I remember reading in college Jonathan Swift's Tale of the Tub, a fable about three brothers, Peter, Martin and Jack, who inherit precious garments. Peter and his brothers initially add all manner of embellishments to the garments. In time, however, Martin and Jack rebel, and Peter kicks them out of the house. In the interest of reason and common sense, Martin removes his medals and epaulettes; Jack tears at the embellishments, shredding the fabric. In this burlesque of the history of Christian dogma, Swift was warning the Church of England of the absurdity of religious movements that turn away from the center, from the power of human reason.

Was there ever a pure, experience-based faith? I suspect there was among the early followers of Jesus. Was it debased and compromised by the accretions of the established church? No doubt about it. Witness the absurdities that led to the Protestant Reformation. Not surprisingly, Spong has identified himself with Martin Luther, going so far as to post on the Internet his own twelve theses, calling for a new Reformation "far more radical than Christianity has ever before known," one that "will dwarf in intensity that of the 16th century." Naturally, critics have delighted in debunking the Internet posting. "Bishop Spong, You're no Martin Luther," read the headline on the cover of the June 1998 issue of Foundations, a monthly devoted to "reclaiming and renewing the Anglican way." The cover illustration shows Spong, in Lutheresque robe, nailing the theses to his Wittenberg door. On page 11, under the heading, "Knowing Right from Spong, The Church Meets Its Dennis Rodman," Paul R. Buckley, assistant religion editor for the Dallas Morning News, argues that "Luther was far closer to his opponents than Spong is to his -- but it is hard not to transfer to the bishop that endearing epithet which the Reformer received from the Pope: 'a wild boar in God's vineyard.' "

In his PBS interviews with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell urged religious seekers not to switch faiths in their search for substance, but to go deeper into and perhaps beyond the faiths with which they had grown up. As one involved with the subject of archaeology, I like to think of excavating my religious heritage. What do we discover when we strip away, go beyond, the layers of theology and tradition, the declamations of the popes, the fourth-century creeds, the writings of Paul (whose Christology created a new Jesus), or even the Gospels themselves. Spong calls them that "first century filtering of the experience of Jesus." He is careful to remind us that the Gospels are not in any literal sense holy or historical, but that "they are rather beautiful portraits painted by first-century Jewish artists, designed to point the reader toward that which is in fact holy, accurate, and real" (108).

Archaeology is bringing us ever closer to the social and political worlds of Jesus and his followers. While it can never assess the impact of Jesus, Paul, and the early Apostles on the hearts and minds of their contemporaries, it has provided the raw material for a far-reaching historical reassessment of first-century Judean and Galilean life. The latest excavations in Jerusalem have deepened our understanding of the social world of Jesus and his followers. Evidence of the sudden material wealth of the high priesthood and the Herodian aristocracy has been linked to the disintegration of Judean society. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer; many were disenfranchised as small family holdings were bought up by priests and aristocrats. Political agitation against the Roman and the Judean elite was inevitable. This would seem to have been the social context of Jesus' ministry and of the day-to-day lives of his followers, for whom the hoped-for Kingdom was hardly an abstract spiritual concept.

Add to archaeological investigations the work of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars that has been attempting to distinguish what Jesus probably said and did from what he probably did not say or do, and we begin to approach the Jesus of history. For me, it is the only perspective that makes any rational sense. Only by coming to grips with the love force that was present in Jesus can we hope to identify the inherited potential for intimate human fellowship that resides within us.

"So being a disciple of this Jesus," writes Spong, "does not require me to make literalized creedal affirmation in propositional form about the reality of the theistic God who supposedly invaded our world and who lived among us for a time in the person of Jesus. It only requires me to be empowered by him to imitate the presence of God in him by living fully, by loving wastefully, and by having the courage to be all that God created me to be. It does not mean that I must turn away from life to make contact with the holy, for the holy is within me. It does mean that I will commune with God only to the degree that I can give my life, my love, and my being away to others. One cannot be a worshiper of the God I am beginning to understand without being simultaneously an agent of life to another."

An Episcopal priest that I know criticizes Spong for taking the mystery out of the practice of faith. "I didn't go to theological school to become a rationalist," he says. I would argue that Spong, far from taking the mystery out of faith, has tried to fathom the mystery of divine/human interaction, the divine being defined as one's inherited potential "to love wastefully," as he puts it. "Are those qualities that we call human and divine mutually exclusive?" he asks. "Or do they penetrate each other? Is the divine simply the depth dimension of the human? Or are these two entities perhaps two sides of the same coin?" (130)

Spong asks readers to join him on "a frightening journey into the mystery of God." It is frightening because in giving up the comforting image of a loving, external deity we are thrown upon our own resources. Many of us, imbued since childhood with the idea of God as father protector/punisher, are sometimes hesitant even to challenge such theistic images. Somehow, we still feel we might get punished. According to Spong, because we can encounter the divine within ourselves, we are the only ones who can ask the questions. In Judaism this notion of a conversation between human and divine is more common. Christians tend to remain piously quiet, albeit inwardly fuming.

Remember A. A. Milne's "Vespers," from When We Were Very Young?

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on the little hands little gold head.
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

My mother read it to me, and I have read it to two sons and two daughters. The childlike simplicity of its theism -- God bless Mummy. . . . God bless Daddy. . . . God bless Nanny and make her good. . . Thank you God for a lovely day. . . . and God bless me -- lingered with me into adulthood, until the questions began hammering away. What is God's blessing? To whom or to what is the little boy praying? What, in heaven's name, is prayer anyway? Spong's idea of prayer is far from Milne's. He interprets Paul's command to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17) as a call "to live as if everything we say and do is a prayer, calling others to life, to love, and to being," adding that it is "the conscious human intention to relate to the depths of life and love and thereby to be an agent of the creation of wholeness in another."

"The deity I worship," he concludes, "is rather part of who I am individually and corporately. So praying can never be separated from acting. Prayer is the recognition that holiness is found in the center of life, and that it involves the deliberate decision to seek to live into that holiness by modeling it and by giving it away" (147/148).

It has been said that we cling to our childish Jesus/God fantasies because they are, perhaps, the last such fantasies it's okay to keep. Faith, we are taught from our first day in Sunday school, is all that counts. I would argue, with Spong, that a rational, grown-up faith must contend with a God that is an integral part of who we are, the love force that knits us to our neighbors, and offers the only hope for human salvation.

PETER A. YOUNG is Editor-in-Chief of Archaeology magazine.

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 4.