What are Christians to make of Jack Spong?
As the former Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., and a prolific author, John Shelby Spong has spent the last several decades trying to get Christians to see what needs to change about the faith to make it useful for today.
In that process, he has upset people left, right and center. He has used provocative language that sometimes makes it seem as if he's abandoning Christianity altogether. And he has come up with new ways of thinking about theological matters that at times are fresh, challenging and intriguing and at times fuzzy and annoying in their eager willingness to abandon tradition.
So now we have what Spong, who will turn 87 in June, suggests is his last book, to be officially published this Tuesday. It's called Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith in the 21st Century.
It is well worth a read even for those Christians who will reject nearly every analysis Spong offers and nearly every proposal for change he makes.
Because Spong is right at least in this: Christianity (in fact, every faith tradition) needs to be challenged, recontextualized for today and made to imagine not just a new future but also to imagine what went wrong in the past.
Name the subject within Christianity and Spong almost certainly has something to say about it as he proposes a new reformation some 500 years after the Protestant Reformation. If Spong's vision of a newly reformed Christianity comes out the way he'd like it to, a great deal of what Christians declare as articles of faith today will be abandoned, reshaped or reupholstered. (Far too much, for my tastes, but, on the other hand, there is in much of Christianity today a ridiculous unwillingness to consider any of what Spong throws against the wall.)
Spong insists more than once in these roughly 300 pages that he is happy to continue to identify himself as a Christian, but he wants the freedom to say precisely what that means.
If it means holding to the idea of "Original Sin," he says no because that's "a false premise." If it means imagining God as a "being," Spong's out, unless by that you mean that God is "being itself." If it means holding to traditional Christian understandings of "incarnation," Spong won't have it. Hell and heaven as most Christians now think of them? Nope. Resurrection? Not if, by that, you mean bodily resuscitation. And on and on.
But, he writes, "I am not willing to sacrifice my conviction that there is something real that draws me beyond myself, which I call 'God.' I am not willing to cease being a member of a church that has the courage to seek after the truth of God."
What all this means, he writes, is that "the Christianity of tomorrow will set aside the literal formulas of our Christian past, but Christianity will not ever set aside the power of the experience that expressed itself in scripture, creed, theology and liturgy."
I've met Spong and heard him speak two or three times (the photo of him here today is one I took a few years ago when he spoke at Unity Village) and I find him friendly, open, engaging and supremely self-confident. As a challenging thinker, he is what lots of faith traditions need -- someone to keep kicking the tires, to keep asking the hard, sometimes embarrassing questions. But that is far from saying that Spong is right about everything he thinks.
If Christians can move beyond fear of change and beyond a conviction that the faith defined by the church in the year 1054 or 1517 or 1950 or even 2017 got it all exactly right, they might be able to hear some useful wisdom from Spong, even as they agree that he's out in left field on this or that matter.
I sometimes, in only half-jest, say that the church needs its heretics. And, for sure, there are lots of people who consider Spong a heretic. But imagine where the church would be today without such challengers as Martin Luther, Menno Simons, Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr.
So read Spong's new book. And join the debate about what, if anything, he gets right and what, if anything, it means.
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CHRISTIAN VS. CHRISTIAN
If Jack Spong's new book is evidence of divisions within Christianity -- and it is -- here's more evidence: A group called "Red Letter Christians" plans to protest what its leader calls “toxic evangelicalism” and evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr. who support President Trump. That protest is to happen in April in Lynchburg, Va., the home of Liberty University, which Falwell leads. In some ways it's a sign of health when one group in a faith tradition speaks out against another group in that same tradition.