Why Christianity must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile
by John Selby Spong (HarperCollins, 1998, 257pp, RRP $19.95)
In his latest book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Bishop John Spong addresses the fact that, as he sees it, Christianity is on the brink of extinction.
Bishop Spong of Newark, New Jersey, is part of the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church in the USA which has declined dramatically in the number of its adherents in recent years.
The author makes clear his aim in writing the book: to reformulate Christianity (p. 227). This means discarding all those beliefs which make someone a Christian and replacing them with other beliefs, and then labelling the believer "Christian."
"I define myself as above all things a believer" (p. 3), says the Bishop. Having thus spoken, Spong lists lots of things in which he does not believe: the articles of the Apostles' Creed, the sacraments (p.191-196), heaven (an "ancient spot just beyond the clouds", p. 205) and hell, etc. The Bishop is a great nonbeliever in Christian doctrines. Why? Because, he says, we live in a thought-world which is incompatible with that of the authors of the Bible.
But wait a minute. Let us examine the meanings which Spong gives to each doctrine. For example, he does not believe in "God the Father Almighty" because the word "Father" elicits the notion of "an old man who lives just beyond the sky" (p. 5), a notion which justifies the oppression of women.
Here one sees Spong's technique at work, one which he employs throughout his book. He gives a caricature of a belief of Christians, pours scorn on it, declares it to be out of date, and then proceeds to provide his substitute.
Another example from the Creed: "born of the Virgin Mary". Spong thinks, or says he thinks, this means that God acted like a male human who deposited his seed in the female. This notion, he says (p.12), was discredited when the female egg cell was discovered in 1724!
The notion "violates everything we know about biology". It certainly does, but it is not a Christian belief. Why? Because Christians do not have a belief about how the Holy Spirit brought about the conception of Jesus, for the very good reason that the New Testament has nothing to say on the matter. Seeing that the Holy Spirit is Almighty God, Christians have always considered that it was no great problem for the Holy Spirit to solve.
So, if Spong is denying caricatures of Christian beliefs, does it follow that he must hold true Christian beliefs? Not at all. With the aid of his heroes – the Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, and non-believers such as Michael D. Goulder and Don Cupitt (Anglican priests turned atheist) he has developed a body of beliefs especially tailored to replace Christian ones. Holding these beliefs, he is able to describe himself as "a passionate believer" (p. 3).
Bishop Spong's main attack is directed at the Christian notion of God.
First, he rejects what he calls "the theistic God". What is Spong's brand new replacement? Well, "this God can never be enclosed by propositional statements" (p. 4; cf. p. 47).
Were Spong to take himself seriously, that would be his final statement about God. Unable to be consistent, he goes on to enclose God in lots of propositions. "The God I know is not concrete or specific" (p. 4). God is not a being. It [not he] is the Ground of Being [following Tillich], "a presence discovered in the very depths of my life, in the capacity to live, in the ability to love, and in the courage to be" (p. 132). God has none of the attributes of a person: it is impersonal, as impersonal as a rock (p. 60). God does not help us (p. 59), is not located in an external place (p. 59) (as he thinks traditional Christians believe).
Doctrine of God
Some years ago a Filipino Catholic bishop ordered all the teaching agencies in his diocese to spend the next year studying the doctrine of God. Whilst one might have expected the teachers in the diocese to have devoted much effort to explicating and defending true notions of God, the bishop had discovered that the "faithful" often had vague or false notions of God. Having a true notion is important, for as English philosopher, Peter Geach, somewhere remarked, "To worship a false God is to worship no God at all."
Ignorance of God, of course, is not confined to the Philippines. Results of the Catholic Church Life Survey for my own parish show that 22% of Mass attenders do not believe in God; that is, they identify God with something which is not God. They worship "no God at all", as Geach said. I am not surprised, for I have not heard a homily explicating the notion of God for 25 years.
So the flourishing replacements of Christianity, like Fr Morwood's Tomorrow's Catholic, and much feminist writing, begin by creating a God more to their authors' liking - thus reversing the Miracle of Cana, by turning wine into water.
How does Bishop Spong speak about Jesus Christ - is he God's "only Son", thus sharing God's nature? Remember, God is the Ground of Being. What is "it"? Our author's fragments of description of the Ground of Being include: "the very core and ground of all that is" (p. 64), "the infinite centre of life" (p. 64), and "that which calls people into life" (p. 65), "not separate from us" (p. 165).
Two comments are in order. First, these descriptions are calculated to sound profound. Second, they have no meaning. What, one might ask, is "the infinite centre of life"? And if the Ground of Being (God) is not separate from us, would it go out of existence if all humans ceased to exist?
Of course, Spong has covered himself by saying his God (Ground of Being) is "not concrete or specific". That being the case, God could be, well, anything. So it is no trouble to formulate a doctrine of the divinity of Jesus.
Jesus Christ is a "spirit person" (p. 100). What is spirit? "Spirit is a nebulous, hard to define, totally subjective concept" (p. 100). "This word appears to point to a presence that is assumed to be real but cannot be easily described". Notice it "appears" to point to something and "it is assumed to be real". "He differed [from you and me] only in degree, the degree to which the God-consciousness came to fullness in him" (p. 131) - though what that means escapes this reviewer.
There are three notable deficiencies in this book.
Firstly, it contains examples of illogicality:
(a) Language "can never capture truth" (p. 225) - which entails that what Bishop Spong has just said cannot express the truth.
(b) Planet Earth evolved to its present state over billions of years, therefore, God did not create it.
(c) The Gospels are very unreliable, but Spong refers to them frequently for confirmation of his views.
(d) "In the presence of the Spirit, the human community was to be universal" (p. 124). Could it be anything else?
(e) Belief in miracles belongs to a primitive past, but Jesus performed miracles (p. 125).
Secondly, one notes the author's abuse of Scripture.
Spong regards himself as a Bible scholar and spends most of his time attacking biblical fundamentalists. But Christians (and Jews) in all ages have been sophisticated inter-prefers of the Bible. Is it possible that Spong does not know this fact - can he be so ignorant? The other possibility - one I hesitate to entertain - is that he is gambling on the presumed ignorance of his readers.
Scriptural errors abound in this book. Contrary to what Spong says, Jesus did not appear to his disciples "out of the clouds of heaven (Matt. 28:16-20)" (p. 115). John 7:29 does not report any saying of Jesus. In his conversations with the rich young ruler and with the woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not "give himself to others to a remarkable degree" (p. 126). "You are the Christ, the son of the living God" does not mean that Jesus had "the ability to live, to love, and to be" (p. 166). Mark 3:21 does not report that Jesus's mother was seeking to "put Jesus away" (p.109).
Spong seems to think Christians hold they are bound to believe all that is in the Old Testament. So he gloats at their apparent abandoning of the Bible as irrelevant (p. 154). But the New Testament witnesses to the fact that Christians believed they were a party to a new covenant, only parts of which coincided with the old covenant. The rule of faith which they had received from the Apostles was the standard by which to judge the contents of the Old Testament.
Now Spong must know all this. So what is he up to? Writing an excessively long propaganda tract comes to mind as an answer.
This conclusion is confirmed by noting the many ways he belittles opponents. They are: "upholders of defining stereotypes of antiquity", "anxiety filled", "immature", manipulators of guilt who use the Sacrament of Penance, etc, as "guilt levers".
Thirdly, Spong's book contains non-sense writing: "It is the being of each us, our full humanity, that also will finally connect us to the meaning of God" (p. 132). "The deity I worship is rather part of who I am individually and corporately" (p. 147). "Prayer is what I am doing when I live wastefully, passionately, and wondrously" (p. 147). "Death which opens all things to new possibilities ..." (p. 147).
Perhaps Spong is right when he says he is "a God-intoxicated human being" (p. 3)
Modern liturgists, however, will be struck by a flash of Spong perceptiveness. He notes that "Free standing altars have turned the priest around to face the God in the midst of the people" (p. 182); and that people no longer kneel during a Eucharist. He interprets these facts as a recognition that the traditional notion of God is dying.
The American, Father Andrew Greeley, was once asked for the formula for the success of his steamy novels. He replied that a story focusing on priests and their sexual exploits could not fail. Similarly, Spong cannot fail, for what could be more exciting than a Christian bishop who is hell bent on destroying Christianity?
Frank Mobbs, Ph. D. (Syd), M.A. (Oxon), M.A. (Birmingham), M. Litt. (UNE), B. Ed. (Qld), B. A. (Syd), Dip. Ed. (LlNE), has taught at several universities in Australia and overseas and writes on theological topics for a wide variety of journals.