Dr. Watson’s Wednesdays @ Whatever November 11, 2020
If I were to put out a survey and ask people to name the one person in America today that best represents progressive Christianity, the most likely to be named is Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong was the Bishop of Newark, New Jersey from 1979 to 2000, and is now retired. He has written a slew of books. (Please do an online search for his book titles.)
From the titles alone, one can see that Spong is not content with traditional views of God or Christianity, which has garnered some criticism. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, has condemned Spong as a “heretic,” claiming that he has “denied virtually every major Christian doctrine.” I’m sure Spong sees Mohler’s condemnation as a badge of honor.
Spong does a lot of what I call “deconstruction.” (This morning I read where someone referred to this as “sledgehammer theology.”) I have done a fair amount of deconstruction in my educational and vocational careers.
Years ago, someone close to me said, “Jimmy, if you are going to do so much deconstruction, you need to do some reconstruction.” If I have one criticism of Bishop Spong it is that he needed to have done more reconstruction. But you need to start somewhere, and for Spong that means a lot of deconstruction of traditional views of God and Christianity.
Today, I will begin talking about Bishop Spong’s so-called “Twelve Points for Reform.” This list was originally published in The Voice, the newsletter of the Diocese of Newark, in 1998. Spong then elaborated on this list in his book A New Christianity for a New World:
- Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk today is meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
(By referring to a “new way to speak of God,” he is admitting that we need to reconstruct what we have deconstructed.)
Let me just say before I get too far into all this that few or none of Spong’s points will likely ever become the norm in Christianity. Any change that takes place will likely be excruciatingly slow, especially any change in the way people think about or define God. I’m sure Spong knows this, but he also knows someone needs to be a “voice crying in the wilderness,” so to speak.
“A new way to speak of God must be found.” Most people, of course, are comfortable with the “old” way, or at least, “their” way of speaking about God. But being comfortable doesn’t necessarily equate to being correct. (I’m comfortable with my golf swing, but that doesn’t mean it is a good golf swing.)
Most theologians agree with Spong that we can, and should, work to improve our “God-talk,” even if they don’t necessarily agree with him about what that would look like.
At the very least, Spong suggests we can no longer speak with credibility about God “as a Being supernatural in power, dwelling above the sky and prepared to invade human history periodically to enforce the divine will.” We refer to this as an “interventionist” God, and many scholars agree with Spong that this kind of theology, called “theism,” is no longer credible.
An interventionist God perspective is difficult to escape, because almost everyone gives it “lip service.” Almost everyone uses that kind of language to talk about God, but let’s be honest: Do we really see, perceive, or experience God intervening in human history? If we say, “yes,” then the onus is on us to provide clear incontrovertible examples. Where do we see God flexing God’s divine muscles? That’s a really good question.
Spong believes we lose credibility with people when we make these claims. By the way, of course God doesn’t literally live in the sky. We need to make sure when we talk about God that people know we are speaking metaphorically (when we refer to the “old man upstairs”). We need to be careful when we speak about God so that we don’t sound naïve or moronic.
- Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So, the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
This point is bound to tick off a lot of people, but I see what he is trying to do. He’s employing logic to his analysis by saying that if point #1 is empty, then point #2, which is built on point #1, is also empty. So, what is he criticizing here, exactly? He is criticizing the notion that God is intervening in human history through the flesh and blood person known as Jesus of Nazareth.
Christology, the doctrine of Christ, is a very difficult subject. (I know, I tried to write a book about it.) It is also, like all theology, highly speculative. There is no way to prove any of it. At the same time, some theological points seem more, or less, credible than other points.
Spong, and others like him, understand that any speculation about the doctrines of God or Christ will be in error (to one degree or another). We will therefore err on one side or the other. Spong and other progressives want to err on the side of caution, which means they will likely downplay the unprovable supernatural elements of theology and accept what they feel is most likely, that Jesus was a human being with “strong ties” to God. (How one defines those “strong ties to God” is the question.)
I’m going to stop here for today because I know that I am rocking some boats and ruffling some feathers. Spong is not easy to digest for those of us who have been spoon-fed traditional theological views our entire lives. Nevertheless, what I appreciate about Spong is his willingness to hold our feet to the fire. Someone needs to do that so that we don’t become overly naïve or moronic.
Next week I will continue sharing more of Spong’s Twelve Points for Reform.