A Religious Liberal Blog

This site hopefully can provide some vehicle by which I can comment, complain, and once in a while praise the state of religion in this country and around the world from a liberal protestant perspective.

Sunday, May 22, 2005


This piece could be titled what's wrong with the thought of John Spong but there's a lot which is right. Spong, a former Episcopalian bishop of Newark, was for many years the most famous liberal protestant in this country. He was certainly the first one I ever read. I was a senior in highschool when his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism came out and it blew me away.

It was important to read someone in the church who raised and therefore validated the questions and doubts I had. When a bishop raises questions about the Bible, how Jesus has been conceived, and the like than maybe it means that I can work over these issues within the church instead of leaving it. I can imagine there are many who had that same experience when reading Spong, Borg, and others.

But Spong tends to be a demolisher and not a constructor. With skill he is able to show those destructive features of the Bible and the Christian tradition but when I started reading him, I came away not knowing what constructive possibilities existed in the tradition. It meant moving on to read other people's thought, which for me has been primarily in american philosophy. So my criticism of Spong's thought is over his constructive proposal.

A way to do this is to read his interview on Beliefnet. There he says "nobody knows who God is, nobody knows what God is" and then later he asserts "God is the source of life"...I'm not sure how these two might be reconciled. What method takes him from one claim to the other? He uses the phrase God experience but he never describes it (and reading his books I haven't found it either). What is a God experience and how do we know that it is a real experience and not a delusion which he claims is not uncommon?

It may be that God is that which "enhances life" but then a description, in fact a major piece of his work, ought to be over what he means by enhancing life, what does it look like, and why this ought to be understood as God? His form of argumentation when it comes to his vision can be odd as well. He argues that theism is dead because of a new "consciousness"..really? Is that a good way to measure the worth of an idea?

He never discusses whether it's a better idea to ditch a symbol versus reconstructing it, an important issue. Spong usually goes for the first option without a defense. Oddly when it comes to other matters he's very careful and lays out the evidence. Reading his case about the dangers of global warming, in his new book, The Sins of Scripture, he marshalls a number of disturbing facts. When critiquing the tradition he does his homework in laying out the ways the Bible or a symbol has operated for the worse in our society.

But when it comes to arguing for his vision, things break down. I post this not because his work is not important for the church. It's rather to encourage people, both left and right, to see him as an iconoclast, one who breaks down destructive notions. He raises the important questions. But he's not a resource for those who want to pick up the pieces, to imagine new ways of Christian thought and practice. For that, it's important to turn to contructive thinkers now and in the past who spent a lifetime working on such a project.

6 Comments:

At 8:56 PM , Blogger Mumcat said...

Just for clarification, +Spong is still an Episcopalian bishop although retired from active diocesan ministry. He has not been defrocked so he remains an Episcopalian bishop.

As for +Spong's writings, I among others owe him for teaching us that it is okay to question and ask big questions rather than just accepting what we are told. The gay/lesbian Episcopalians have had him as a champion for many years. The church has him as a lightning rod, someone they can point to and say "this is about as far as we can go in this direction and still remain...." but it doesn't seem to bother +Spong. His lectures are still well-attended and his opinions still sought as they were during the "Resurrection" program on ABC last Friday night. Granted, it was as a balance to the heavily evangelical/orthodox presence, but he spoke well, stated a position that quite a few of us hold, and yet made it clear that his faith is in the right place.

Lots of people don't like him precisely for the reasons you give, including Episcopalians. Still, if there weren't a Bishop Spong in this world we'd probably have to invent one.

 
At 8:43 AM , Blogger greg said...

I too found Spong first, and he blew me away as well. But he has always made me uneasy. He has a tendancy to declare things to be true, as though by making the declaration he can make them true. Still, I agree with both you and mumcat that he plays an essential and necessary role in the reformulation of Christianity that is occuring now.

I am just about to finish "Is Jesus God?" by Michael Morwood. I think that he does a slightly better job than Spong on the constructive side of things, especially in the second half of the book. To be fair to both of these guys, and to all of the other theologians struggling to understand Christianity in the context of the 21st century, no one of them is going to get it right, and that's OK. What will eventually get it right is the interaction of all of them with all of us and with the Holy Spirit, presumably over the next few centuries. That seems to be how the Holy Spirit works. And of course, even then it won't be "right," just one step further down the endless path toward understanding God.

 
At 3:35 PM , Blogger RBQ said...

Spong is a popularizer. I've never considered him much of an intellectual and suspect that may be part of his appeal.

While not very good at coming up with solutions and lapsing into occasional incoherence, he's still the first eye-opener for many and the author booksellers and librarians probably think of first when queried about alternatives to the religious right.

He also provides decent bibliographies for those inclined to go further. (If only he'd read the authors we prefer: Wieman, Kaufman, etc...maybe we should start sending him books?)

Spong also has guts and was something of a non-academic, unprotected voice in the wilderness for a time.

 
At 3:55 PM , Blogger PM Summer said...

And for further clarification, someone who denies the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, and the Resurrection, can hardly be considered to be "inside" the Church, regardless of which chair he gets to sit on when he's inside the church building.

 
At 3:55 PM , Blogger PM Summer said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
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