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.