John Shelby Spong
A Revolutionary, Rational Anti-Religionist
by Mark Liberator (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) [June 2nd, 2000]
Since the advent of modern religion, it has taken on a life of its own and been at war with scientists and those who use comparative reasoning skills. Those who reflect upon religions speculate that this conflict is by design and rests at the core of most religions. It is clear this popular view has merit because history reveals the role of various religions to be strictly dogmatic.
The term ‘modern’ when juxtaposed with religion is foreign to us. It is strange because there are few men who dare insist that religions allow reason to play a part in their belief systems. There are almost no men who have leadership positions within religious organizations who champion such a cause.
John Shelby Spong is one such man. He is a former Episcopal (Anglican) Bishop who has taken a very unique, provocative position regarding religious faith. He challenges followers to question current biblical interpretations. His insistence that people should critically think about religious tenets is striking.
To promote religious discussion, he has written many books. With titles like Liberating the Gospels, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, it is easy to see why his views have not gone unchallenged by the religious establishment.
Spong advocates equal rights for women and is not opposed to same sex marriages. These two views alone have sent religious conservatives in a rage. For hundreds of years, the church has never allowed women to gain leadership and has based this view on what Spong believes to be baseless and sexist. As for same sex marriages, Spong has admitted having to bless roads, farm animals and other equally unimportant things in the name of the church during his tenure as a bishop. Extending that logic, he has said that not blessing a loving couple despite the manmade religious gender rules that prohibits gay relations is unreasonable.
As far as homosexuality is concerned, Spong points straight to the church. He blames the church for creating a lifestyle that promotes homosexuality because priests cannot marry and often live in close quarters with one another. He also admits there has been at least one gay bishop that he has known. It is his view that denying the sanctity of marriage to any loving — even homosexual — couple is inappropriate and further demonstrates the church's hypocrisy.
He arrives at many of his views as a result of his opposition to biblical literalism. For example, Spong challenges the mainstream notions of a virgin birth and Jesus’ resurrection. He writes:
The best way to lose all is to cling with desperation to that which cannot possibly be sustained literally. Literalistic Christians will learn that a God or a faith system that has to be defended daily is finally no God or faith system at all. They will learn that any god who can be killed ought to be killed. Ultimately they will discover that all their claims to represent the historical, traditional, or biblical truth of Christianity cannot stop the advance of knowledge that will render every historic claim for a literal religious system questionable at best, null and void at worst. [Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal (Anglican) Bishop of Newark, NY, in Resurrection: Myth or Reality? pg. 22]
Even prayer has fallen under Spong’s microscope. He believes that asking a deity to perform a duty is akin to children sending letters to Santa Claus. His view on mass prayer explains his position. When reflecting upon his wife’s cancer, he once said that a god who would help his wife only because of his own popularity was a god not worth worshipping. He could never teach that a deity will perform services for popular people but forget those who were just as good but not as well known.
Spong is calling for change within Christian communities. In A Call for a New Reformation, he notes that scientific reasoning has made quantum leaps while Christianity has done little to reflect upon them and modify itself accordingly. He makes reference to the efforts of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Darwin along with the church's initial unwillingness to recognize these truths. Spong also mentioned Freud's analysis of church symbols and his conclusion that they are "manifestations of a deep-seated infantile neurosis."
The following twelve "issues to which I now call the Christians of the world to debate are these," according to Spong:
- Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
- 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.
- The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
- The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
- The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
- The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
- Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
- The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
- There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
- Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
- The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
- All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.
Religious conservatives have not been quiet about Spong's views. Some Christians view him as a heretic for his radical beliefs. Other Christians feel that his views are so opposite to church tenets that they seek to evict him entirely from the Christian domain as they would rational thought.
Spong's opinions have created many waves that have been challenged by traditionalists like Peter C. Moore who wrote Can a Bishop be Wrong? Christian conservatives like Moore feel that Spong's desire is to strip Christianity of all its tradition, thereby placing him outside the realm of the church. They cannot begin to fathom the gains he is attempting and label him as a Christian Atheist. I suppose these people would rather Christianity remain in the dark ages along with beliefs in a flat Earth, magic and a petty god that demands childlike prayer requests.
One fact is for certain: no matter which side of the debate one happens to rest concerning issues of religious significance, John Spong promotes further inquiry through comparative reasoning. He disturbs the status quo with a desire to reform the primitive Christian faith. His attempt to bring Christianity to maturity, although combated by traditionalists, is worthy of praise. This is one bishop who has won the respect of modern thinkers worldwide.
Here is one final quote that summarizes John Shelby Spong's noteworthy beliefs, which would have resulted in his imprisonment or death by the church had he made it a few hundred years ago:
Both papal infallibility and biblical inerrancy require widespread and unchallenged ignorance to sustain their claims to power. Both are doomed as viable alternatives for the long-range future of anyone. [Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal (Anglican) Bishop of Newark, NY, in Resurrection: Myth or Reality? pg. 99]
Diocese of Newark: Credentials/Information Westar Institute: Credentials ABCNews: CyberSex Writer Sun Media: Winds of change Answers in Genesis: What's Wrong With Bishop Spong? Amazon.com: List of Books by Spong Reverend Peter C. Moore: John Spong and the Christian Tradition
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