Monday 3 September 2007

Bonhoeffer versus John Shelby Spong

A guest-post by Scott Stephens

When it comes to theological brand-names, they don’t come any sexier, or more marketable, than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The inherent nobility of his short life, his blistering intelligence, and his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis places Bonhoeffer among the unassailable luminaries of our time. Even Christopher Hitchens – who savaged Mother Theresa in a vicious polemic entitled The Missionary Position – can’t find anything bad to say about him: “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by Nazis for his refusal to collude with them.”

Because of his near universal appeal, it was inevitable that Bonhoeffer’s demanding body of work would be made more available for popular consumption and reduced to an “Everyday-with-Dietrich” style anthology of sayings, sermons and other morsels of spiritual advice. But every now and then, one comes across an appropriation of Bonhoeffer that is so perverse that one is compelled to put one’s foot down and say, “Enough is enough.”

Anyone who has read John Shelby Spong – whose books I’ve always found very easy to put down, and almost impossible to pick back up again – will by now be familiar with his pretentious appeal to Bonhoeffer’s “non-religious Christianity.” His strategy, of course, is to position himself as the heir to Bonhoeffer’s legacy, the realization of his dream. But nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is it outrageous to pass off the bilious swill that Spong mass produces as being in the same league as Bonhoeffer, but Spong effectively destroys his own intellectual credibility by failing to recognize that he is implicated in Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion. Let me explain.

An important touchstone in any consideration of Bonhoeffer’s attack on religion is his remarkable book, Discipleship, whose manuscript was completed exactly 70 years ago this week. Unlike Bonhoeffer’s earlier books, written effortlessly in the unmolested surroundings of the University of Berlin, Discipleship reflects a deep sense of urgency, as though it was demanded by the reality of an escalating crisis.

There had been, in Bonhoeffer’s reckoning, a chronic malfunction in the church’s life which all but neutralized any effective witness it might have to the world. Somehow “grace” had ceased being the power which binds us to Christ, which elicits the repetition of the drama of death and resurrection in the lives of members of the church. It had instead been cheapened, and re-tooled so as to consecrate indiscriminately all the banality, idolatry and godlessness of culture.

When the church peddles a form of “grace” aimed at making people “feel more secure in their godless lives,” it frankly ceases being the church, insisted Bonhoeffer. Having forsaken its duty to be “salt and light,” the church whored itself to the state, offering its wares in exchange for financial security and the benefit of a quiet and peaceful existence. It was thereby reduced to the status of a mere service-provider, the state-sanctioned dispenser of sentimentality and meaningless assurance. He writes: “We gave away preaching and sacraments cheaply; we performed baptisms and confirmations; we absolved an entire people, unquestioned and unconditionally.… When was the world ever Christianized more dreadfully and wickedly than here?”

This instrumentalization lies at the heart of what Bonhoeffer calls the “religion-concept” (Religionsbegriff). In so far as “religion” represents a mere expression of the human longing for transcendence and meaning, it can be employed by a culture as a pagan affirmation of the people’s inherent divinity. For Bonhoeffer, the shared category of “religion” was the means by which the church had been absorbed into the bloodstream of German culture, and thereby rendered complicit, impotent, idolatrous.

Bonhoeffer’s call for “non-religious Christianity” (Nicht-religiöse Christentum) had nothing to do with abandoning rigid dogma and other forms of traditional Christianity in favour of a more spontaneous communion with the Ground of Being. Instead, it stands for the church having the courage to be the church, to follow Jesus in his uncompromising concreteness, and not to seek refuge in the shadows of pseudo-theological, liturgical or ethical obscurantism. The irony, of course, is that the mishmash of pop-existentialism and flaccid pluralism that Spong urges upon the disaffected faithful is precisely the kind of cancerous religiosity to which Bonhoeffer was opposed. The following passage from Spong’s A New Christianity for a New World speaks for itself:

“God is the Ground of Being who is worshiped when we have the courage to be. Jesus is a God-presence, a doorway, an open channel.… These are the claims that will be part of the Christianity of tomorrow. I am hopeful that such a Christianity can be born and that with it an invitation can be offered to all people to step into their own humanity so deeply that they will find it a doorway into God.”

While Spong famously predicted that “traditional faith is dying,” Bonhoeffer would have pronounced this brand of “new Christianity” dead on arrival, a carcass from which the breath of the Spirit and the pulse of Jesus’ mission have long since disappeared.


Anonymous said...

An outstanding post, Scott - and not only in what you say - you perfectly catch the pith of both Bonhoeffer and Spong - but in the way you say it - with urgency and power (if theology is boring it cannot be theology).

We have, of course, been here before. Spong is J.A.T. Robinson for the noughties, though, as a Yank, he is in-your-face in a way the more modest bishop of Woolich wasn't. Robinson's theological mishmash Honest to God (1963) was quite astonishing, throwing Tillich, Bultmann, along with Bonhoeffer, into the same tasteless stew. As his reference to the ground of being suggests, it sounds like Spong is using the same old insipid recipe. Ecclesiastes 1:9.

So thanks for your essay. It was so tasty and filling that I shall probably skip breakfast!

derek said...

This was great. Scott you do a great job of showing what a caricature of Bonhoeffer that Spong relies upon to push his agenda.

Is this your 1st post on F & T? Whether it was or not, i hope to read more from you soon. Good work!

Ben Myers said...

Yes, Derek, this was Scott's first post here. But I reckon you'll be hearing more from him in future....

Anonymous said...

thanks for this fantastic post, scott!

Anonymous said...

Thank you,

Anonymous said...

An excellent post. The persistent purloining of DB has been a travesty of history.

Anonymous said...

Most of John Spong's criticisms about churchianity are true. Confirmed by my Spiritual Master in His published writings and unpublished talks.

That having being said why not put your attention on the possible causes of the psycho-pathology that caused the phenomenon documented and listed on this site.


Such psycho-patholgy being very much alive in large segments of right wing churchianity in the present moment.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's hard to know what's worse: when Spong compares himself to Bonhoeffer, or when he compares himself to the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers.

Matthew said...

"When was the world ever Christianized more dreadfully and wickedly than here?"

sheez, even I could've answered that one for him.

Richard Beck said...

This is kind of off topic, but somewhat related.

Is the Bethge biography considered the best bio of Bonhoeffer? I'm taking some undergraduates to Germany to explore the psychology and theology of the Holocaust, the Reformation, and the fall of the Wall. I want to build a reading list for them.

Any comments/help on good Bonhoeffer biographies?

bls said...

Way over the top.

Yes, Spong's theology is boring-to-nonexistent. Yes, he should have been directing his criticisms towards the institutional church itself, rather than towards the faith.

But Spong is certainly not about "making people 'feel more secure in their godless lives.'" He's been trying to upend the church, in fact, albeit in the wrong fashion. Many of his criticisms of the church and of how it's presented the faith are, in fact, true. He simply comes to the wrong conclusion: he ends up saying that the faith itself needs to be changed, rather than the church. That is backwards, I'll agree - but this article makes the same mistake, IMO. The criticism of Spong has certainly not been that he's after making people feel secure.

I'd frankly rather have a Spong than the complacency of the institution, which is so often the alternative.

bls said...

After all:

"Religion is regarded by common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful." --Seneca the Younger.

So how about criticizing some of the "rulers" - of which Spong is definitely not one; he's a fringe character - for their use and abuse of religion as a tool for manipulation, instead? Modern examples abound.

Anonymous said...

Lat's talk about a real hero of WWII: St. Max Mary Kolbe, he didn't just write and preach about faith - "doing good in return for evil" as he told his fellow prisoners - he lived it - sacrificing himself for another man, just like Jesus did. While Bonhoeffer was executed by the same bunch, he was killed for righting one wrong with another. I doubt we'll ever see Spong give himself like they did. But in heaven, St Max Mary showed what kind of saint he really is: 4 years to the day after his death, Japan surrendered, ending WWII and the monastery, which he established in Nagasaki, survived an A-Bombing of the city.

Anonymous said...

Having pitched in with a diatribe against Spong, can I belatedly put in a good word for him too?

While it is true that his theology is a dog's dinner, and that what there is of an ontology implicit in it is too thin to support a constructive ethics - and also that I confess to being ignorant of Spong's recent activities in the public sphere - nevertheless I will hazard that many of his moral commitments are ones which I and many non- and anti-theological liberals share, and that his virulent enemy, the Christian Right, is one which they share as well. I have stood shoulder to shoulder with militant atheists on peace marches and anti-racist demonstrations, and I'd be happy to have Jack Spong beside me as well.

Joanna said...

Scott, I'm delighted to see you posting here - how come it took you so long?! Spong seems to provide precisely the same function for the so-called progressive wing of the church as someone like Pat Robertson provides for the so-called conservative wing of the church. Both attempt to sanctify a particular brand of modern politics/psychology as authentic Christianity. And both caricature the historical reality of the church (a caricature that the 'progressives' say they are progressing from and that the 'conservatives' are conserving.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Scott, what struck me about your post was the passage about cheap grace and religionless Christianity which highlighted not just the parallel with John Spong's culture-religion but also contemporary consumer religion.

Anonymous said...

This current piece against Spong raises many issues not the least being the dangerous lurch towards ad hominem argument (eg “… the bilious swill that Spong mass produces”) and innuendo (is it being suggested in a veiled way that Spong seeks to make people “feel more secure in their godless lives”).

A key issue is whether there are in fact points of contact between Bonhoeffer and Spong. As is well known in some of his last writings Bonhoeffer started to write about “what Christianity really is, or indeed, who Christ really is for us today.” Bonhoeffer acknowledged that his thoughts about these questions could cause concern for his friend (the recipient of his letter); “You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to...”

Bonhoeffer argued that the world had come of age, that there was no longer any need for the God hypothesis to explain how the world functioned. Indeed he argued; “Efforts are made [by the Church apologists] to prove to a world thus come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of ‘God’ … The attack by Christian apologetics on the adulthood of the world I consider to be in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third unchristian.”

Spong would agree with Bonhoeffer on this and takes up this issue in his recent book.

Bonhoeffer was not sure what language the Church could deploy to communicate the gospel to such a secular world; “It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming – as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom … Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right…”

By doing right, for Bonhoeffer, primarily sharing in and reducing the suffering in the world, Christians would give concrete expression to his (Bonhoeffer’s) answer to who Christ was for this world come of age, Jesus was the man for others!

It can be forcefully argued that what Spong and Bonhoeffer do have in common is a desire to make Jesus a man for others. For Spong this involves reducing the suffering generated by tribalism, stereotypes and religious, racial and sexual prejudice. Spong spends much space in the last third of his recent book trying to demonstrate how such efforts are congruent with the ministry of Jesus. Indeed, he argues it was part of the transforming power of the Jesus experience. Spong is completely in line with Bonhoeffer on this crucial issue albeit using different conceptual terms than Bonhoeffer would probably have utilized.

Mainstream interpreters of Bonhoeffer argue that his writings about the world come of age did not mean that the church should do away with dogma, ritual and piety and this is supported by his writings about the secret discipline that would continue behind the scenes and away from the gaze of the secular world. However, it can be argued that this was only a temporary solution until a new language was found to speak about God. Many will disagree with Spong’s choice of a non-theistic language to speak about God to the contemporary world and maybe even argue that it is not what Bonehoeffer would have supported but ultimately we were robbed of the opportunity of knowing. What we can reasonably conclude however is that they both seek to present to the contemporary world a Jesus that is a man for others.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Scott. Well said.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Theodotus I find your comments very illuminating.
When I first read my parents copy of Discipleship I thought it was the most terrifying book I had ever read and I still think so.

Spong always seemed to be unable to get out from under his fundamentalist upbringing. But he clearly like to draw fire and provoke, which I admire.

I would like to think that Jesus would enjoy sharing a meal with Spong, as he would enjoy a stroll with Bonhoeffer, and would enjoy a glass of wine with the writers of this blog.

Perhaps we should enjoy and admire one another more and employ our scathing words a bit less.

That said, I have enjoyed this discussion and its implications.

Anonymous said...

Nice work Scott. Whatever the points of contact between Mr Spong and Bonhoeffer might be, in substance they can really only be viewed as asking similar questions because whatever Bonhoeffer meant by "religionless Christianity, it was surely distinct from the Christianless religiosity that Mr Spong advocates.

Unknown said...

Great post. The word that comes to mind when I think of Spong is "delusions of grandeur." From titling his autobiography "Here I Stand" to this attempt to grasp at the heritage of Bonhoeffer, Spong continues to be his own biggest fan. It is a good rule of thumb to distrust anyone who claims such accolades for him- or herself.

Anonymous said...

Less enthusiasm, please, I'm Lutheran.

Actually, "religion-less Christianity" is at least somewhat about dogma. It is about acting in "a world come of age" without deference to authority, or seeking refuge in authority, even (and especially) the authority of the church.

Bonhoeffer did not encourage people to seek refuge in the church, or to find comfort in dogma. Quite the contrary. He encouraged "adulthood," people taking responsibility for their own lives. The clergy will use their "clerical tricks," said Bonhoeffer, to enforce a "religious" point of view, which he did not regard as a "good" thing.

Moreover, he was an historical critic, an intellectual, believed in evolution (it brings us closer to the animal kingdom, he said), and wouldn't have cared a fig for much of what passes for Christianity in the USA today.

Nance said...

excellent post, thank you.

Anonymous said...

John Petty has made some keys points, a few of which I also tried to make in a previous comment. In Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer argues that this process of the world coming of age begun in the 13th century is now complete. Consequently, there is no point the church trying to use remaining gaps in humankind’s knowledge of the world to cultivate a need in people for an interventionist God-of-the-Gaps. He was unsure how to speak about God to this non-religious world, and hence he recommended silence, prayer and participating in efforts to reduce suffering in the world so as to present Jesus as a man for others. Spong has made an effort to move this program forward (drawing on the work of others) – utilizing non-theistic language to talk about God and to show ways in which Jesus was a man for others and the church can be today, however, he has done this using contemporary concepts. Now I think Spong’s recent book is far from the last word on the matter, but how about some constructive engagement with his ideas rather than bellicose swipes against his person and broad brush critiques.

bls said...

"Many will disagree with Spong’s choice of a non-theistic language to speak about God to the contemporary world and maybe even argue that it is not what Bonehoeffer would have supported but ultimately we were robbed of the opportunity of knowing. What we can reasonably conclude however is that they both seek to present to the contemporary world a Jesus that is a man for others."

Theodotus the tanner, again I agree with a lot of what you are saying here. I especially thank you for laying out Boenhoeffer's idea about "Jesus as a man for others."

Spong has not succeeded, BTW, in speaking to the non-theist; he does help people damaged by Christian fundamentalism, though. I think also that Boenhoeffer's "God of the gaps" is not at issue today; nobody currently tries to make "God" the explanation for what science has not yet discovered; most people agree that religion and science are speaking to two different spheres of thought and experience. Perhaps that's where Spong is making some of his mistakes.

But I appreciate what you're saying here. Spong has his flaws and faults; he goes much further than it sounds as if Boenhoffer does on the topic of prayer, for instance. I've argued against him on several occasions on some of these points, in fact - but you're making good sense here, and I agree with a lot of what you say.

Dizma said...

Excellent analysis, Scott. God bless.

Anonymous said...

When I saw Dietrich Bonhoeffer listed on several sites as a good read, I figure his writings were probably just more of the Calvinist "once saved always saved so go sin and have lots of fun doing it" dribble that is so popular with our pagan culture. I was quite surprised by your little article here to find that this is not the case. I may have to look up some of his books.

Anonymous said...

A great one to start with is "the Cost of Discipleship". His contrasting of cheap grace versus costly grace is very clear. He could not understand how a church could remain silent as a large wagon rolled out-of-control down the road destroying lives without at least trying to throw a "rock in the crag" to stop the cart. This seems to resemble the unwillingness of the church today to accept the cost of defending the unborn humans with whatever means possible.

Anonymous said...

only the last 2 paras have some semblance of an argument.

1. spong is not trying to be bonhoffer.

2. you give no reasons for why spong's belief is a "mish-mash of pluralism".

this post says nothing.

Anonymous said...

Bonhoffer decided non viloence was not the answer and in the end really did believe God would not help. I admire him but I do not think he is the example eveyone seems to point. Spong does in fact sadly reflect the position of the final days of Bonhoffer. Where do you see a Supernatural god intervening? do you go to a doctor? do you expect miracles other than unexplained moments of fortune given to all? I konw you don't despite your FAITH>

matt said...

Well written article, although I'm confused by the Spong quote at the end, as it doesn't seem negative or anti-Bonhoeffer to me at all. The attack on Spong seems a bit unqualified in what is presented and I appreciate much of his theology and the contribution he has made to engaging with the process of an evolving Christianity. But I can understand why I lot of Christians find him intolerable.

Theodotus, thank you for your balanced exposition on the potential agreements between the two without denying their probable differences. Really, really great thoughts:)

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