Wednesday 5 September 2007

An interview with John Shelby Spong: "I am very orthodox after all!"

by Scott Stephens

My friend Scott Stephens, who recently posted a scathing critique of John Shelby Spong, also caught up with Bishop Spong for a Eureka Street interview. A small excerpt from the interview was published in today’s Eureka Street – and Scott has kindly allowed us to have the full transcript here. It’s a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation – they discuss Benedict XVI, Rowan Williams, Paul Tillich, Peter Jensen, religion, gay ordination, fundamentalism, evolution, and – of course – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

SS: Bishop Spong, this year has seen the publication of Benedict’s much-anticipated book, Jesus of Nazareth, as well as your own, Jesus for the Non-Religious. It would be difficult to imagine two more different treatments of the same subject, and yet both have generated a lot of public interest. I can’t resist asking whether you’ve had a chance to read Benedict’s book?

SPONG: I’m in the process of reading it now – probably about two-thirds of the way through.

SS: What do you think so far?

SPONG: I don’t think he and I live in the same century; certainly not in terms of biblical scholarship. It seems to me that he falls back on a kind of neo-fundamentalist mentality that says that you’ve got to test the truth of the Bible by the Bible. That is, you’ve got to view it as a whole, so that if you get a verse that doesn’t make much sense you’ve got to bring the whole Bible to bear in order to find out what the will of God is. To me, that’s simply a defensive mechanism that avoids facing the truth.

My publisher in America, HarperCollins, is going to put out the paperback edition of my book – probably in the second half of next year – and on the cover they’re going to market this book as “A Radical Alternative to Pope Benedict’s book on Jesus”! Now, I’m sure there will be a lot of people who disagree with me just like I disagree with the Pope. But that’s not what’s important to me. What’s important to me is that, if there are two polarities within the Christian world, the debate has to continue between these to polarities in order to get us closer to what I think is the realistic world we must enter as Christians in the twenty-first century.

SS: I can just picture getting on and discovering that you can purchase Benedict’s book and your own for a single low price if you buy them both together!

SPONG: [Laughs] I hadn’t thought of that! I’m not much into marketing. I just write. HarperCollins came up with the idea, and I told them to run with it.

SS: In your latest book, you reiterate the same pronouncement that you’ve been making for some years now: “The religion called Christianity is dying, the casualty of an expanded worldview. The God experience of Jesus – that experience upon which Christianity was built – is newly dawning and will in time create new forms through which that new vision can live.” I wonder, from your vantage point, are you heartened or rather more concerned by the recent prominence of such militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens?

SPONG: Oh yes, it gives me great heart. But so does the rise of this ultra-conservative, fundamentalist Christianity. As I see it, there are three responses to our contemporary crisis of faith. The first is the reaction of those extreme fundamentalists who close their minds and remain so fearful that they will ban or try to silence anybody that disagrees with them. The second is the emergence of what I call the “Church Alumni Association,” which is by far the fastest growing Christian movement – certainly much faster than right-wing fundamentalism in America, and I would bet in Australia too. These are people that can’t see an alternative to fundamentalism, and so they say that they just don’t want to be part of that whole ‘religious thing’. And the third response is this new wave of militant atheists who see religion as a positive evil. Now this is an enormous ferment, and I think it’s really an alive and fruitful and exciting time to be someone who is publicly addressing God and Christ and theological issues.

What I keep trying to find a way to do is to build a community between radical fundamentalism, or maybe rabid fundamentalism, and this disillusioned secularity. I happen to be what I would call a Christian humanist, because I think that the Christian faith, when fully understood, has got to be about enhancing the humanity of all people. I don’t believe that the way we’re proclaiming it today does that. My marching orders are in John’s description of Jesus’ purpose: “I’ve come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” I think that everything that the church does must be measured by whether it enhances life or diminishes life for anyone. That is central motivation behind my advocacy on behalf of homosexuals, and my struggle against the judgement that these are deviant people (as the Pope says) or that these are evil people (as some American evangelicals say). This is so desperately opposed to what I understand the Christian faith to be, that when I hear these kinds of declarations it is like a dagger to my heart.

While we’re on the subject, let me say that I’m a little jaundiced when it comes to people who threaten to split the church over these issues. I grew up in the South, and when black people came into the church there were all sorts of predictions that the church was going to split because white people weren’t going to put up with black people. And when we ordained our first women there were threats of a church split because Jesus didn’t have any female disciples, and this was a violation of two thousand years of sacred practice – I regard it as the lifting of two thousand years of sexist oppression. When we made women bishops there was outrage, but now we’ve elected a woman as presiding bishop, as Primate of the Episcopal Church in America! And then there was the furore surrounding the election of a gay man as bishop of New Hampshire…

Now, I know my church too well, Scott. I know that Gene Robinson is not the only gay bishop in the Episcopal Church right now. I won’t name the others, but I will say that among these gay bishops are some of the most homophobic voices that are raised within that church. I sit back and look at these people with bewilderment. I could name the gay bishops in the Anglican communion in England without any trouble. I know them! So it’s not that we have this new thing called a gay bishop. The only thing that’s new here is that we have an honest gay bishop. I won’t even begin to tell you about the feigned outrage and outright hypocrisy that surrounded Gene Robinson’s eventual election. And so when people threaten to leave the church over these kinds of issues, I feel like handing them their hat and saying, “What are you waiting for?” I’m not into blackmail.

Like I said, I grew up in the South, and I know that when there’s a moral principle involved – like slavery – you don’t compromise on that. Slavery is either right or it’s wrong. And you don’t keep unity in the church by keeping the slave owners happy. You’ve got to take a stand somewhere. The same principle holds today. I’ve said this to the Archbishop of Canterbury in person. If the issue were slavery he wouldn’t be waffling like he is. In my opinion, the issue of homosexuality is just as strong and just as morally serious.

So I see all these battles that we’re now caught up in, both inside and outside the church, as very exciting, even invigorating.

SS: Rowan Williams is an extraordinary theologian. And yet he seems to have refused to take that same acumen, that same imagination that distinguished him as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, and bring it to bear on the current crisis over gay ordination that is ravaging the Anglican Church worldwide. You must be disappointed.

SPONG: Very much so. I’ve known Rowan a long time, and he has been one of the strongest voices in support of ordaining gay people. He has ordained gay people. I don’t mind saying just how disappointed I am with him, and how disillusioned are the hopes that we had for him. The day that Rowan was appointed, I wrote a column for the newspaper saying that he was the best qualified Archbishop that we’ve seen for many decades. Maybe William Temple would be his equal. But we haven’t seen someone with Rowan’s academic ability and theological sophistication in that office in a long, long time. Not to mention that he was young – fifty-two years old – and so he could be Archbishop for maybe twenty years. I wrote that he has the opportunity really to shape the Anglican communion. But I closed that column by saying that I have only one anxiety: does he have to courage to stand up against opposition? I’ve never seen him able to do that. If he can’t, then he’s going to be a great disappointment.

In my opinion, he collapsed the day after he was appointed. He wrote a letter to all the Primates saying that as the Archbishop of Canterbury he would not act on his personal convictions but only on the Lambeth resolutions, which in effect gave away his leadership ability. The previous Archbishop, who was extremely homophobic, would never have done such a thing. He would never have said that he’s not going to act on his principles, because he believed that his principles were directly from God and it was therefore up to him to impose them on others. Liberals are always weak. Liberals can see two sides of an issue, and therefore are reluctant ever to impose a position on anybody. But if Rowan would just say: “This is my personal witness. I will try to preside over this institution with all of its foibles, but I need the world to know that discrimination against gay and lesbian people is wrong, and I think the church is wrong to be compromised on this issue…” This sort of position would still respectfully acknowledge the more conservative branches of the Anglican communion (for instance, in Nigeria and in Sydney), but it would severely limit them, cut off their ability to grow by refusing to be constrained by their bigotry.

So, yes, I am disappointed. Rowan has done some things that I find almost unconscionable. On account of his inconsistency, which at times borders on hypocrisy, he has infuriated liberals and the right-wing crazies in almost equal measure. I just don’t see how you can do leadership when you basically offend everybody because you don’t stand for anything!

SS: Let’s turn to your own work for a while. I often wonder about the ethical consequences of your version of Christianity, and why it is that your work has such appeal for so many people. Karl Marx was very aware that there is a kind of religious impulse or logic that is at the heart of capitalism. In other words, there are expressions of religion which are diabolically compatible with our modern self-centredness. These kinds are religion are idolatrous because they pose no real challenge to the way people live. For instance, aren’t Western Buddhism and even Pentecostalism disgustingly bourgeois forms of religion? With all of your talk of “being all that one can be,” of “the search for God as the search for oneself,” isn’t your vision of a “new Christianity” pandering to the same bourgeois temperament?

SPONG: I think that’s probably a legitimate criticism, because that’s the kind of world I’m trying to speak to all the time. And I probably do couch my message in language that is resonant with that way of life.

But let me say that I think human beings are helplessly and hopelessly religious creatures. The reason for that is that we are the only self-conscious creatures in the world that we know of. And to be self-conscious means that you feel the ache of loneliness in a great big world that you don’t feel a part of, that you feel separated from. Human beings know that they’re going to die. All living things die, but only human beings anticipate it and plan for it. And so we have to live with the shadow of our mortality, which is one of the things that fuels this religious impulse. But maybe on a deeper level human beings also live with the question of whether life has any meaning. So we are driven to seek meaning because there is something about life that, if it’s meaningless, then you might as well commit suicide and get it over with. So the quest for meaning is also a deeply religious thing.

I don’t believe that the world will ever be a religion-less world. I think that what happens is that religion is always going to be changing its face and changing its forms. We’ve done that before in the Christian tradition. Just think of the various theological re-incarnations that have taken place in response to an ever-expanding worldview: the birth of Christianity in the Jewish world as part of the Jewish understanding of God, Augustine’s translation of the Christian faith into Platonic terms, Aquinas’ reconciliation of Christianity with Aristotelian thinking, the Reformation’s wrestling with the Renaissance, which represented a huge influx of new ideas about God and religion and the world from the East.

Since that time there has been another revolution that changed the whole way that we see the world, and Christianity has got to redefine itself in terms of this new world. Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo destroyed the dwelling place of God above the sky, and in effect the theistic definition of God with it. After the destruction of this God, we’ve got to find a new way of talking about God beyond theism. The only alternative to theism that our world seems to know is atheism. We’ve got to find a way of getting beyond that opposition. We’ve got to find a new way of talking about God.

SS: That, of course, is the very problem that Paul Tillich grappled with.

SPONG: Oh yes. Tillich is one of my shaping theologians. The next person in this revolution was Isaac Newton, who showed us that the world operates according to very precise natural laws. There’s not much room in the world for miracles and magic. And finally comes Charles Darwin, and he changes the way we have to look at human life.

I’m working now on the subject of life after death, and I’m convinced that Darwin is the chief person who punctures the conviction that there is life after death in the Western world because he relates us to animals. Before that we had thought of ourselves as created in the image of God with an eternal soul, but now we see ourselves as just a little higher than the apes. We had never attributed any value to animal life, and now we see ourselves as identified with animals.

I also think that Darwin challenges the primary way in which the Christian story has been told. Before Darwin we told the story of the Christian faith in terms of human beings that were created perfect in God’s image, but who disobeyed God and fell into sin, thus corrupting the whole created order. Human beings couldn’t save themselves. The law tried and the prophets tried, and finally God enters the world in God’s good time in the form of a saviour-rescuer. And that’s the story about Jesus, how he pays the price for sin on the cross, and so restores the fallen creature to what God intended them to be in the first place. That essentially is the theology of the incarnation and atonement that we’ve talked about for years.

But it doesn’t work, and it’s not true. We never were created perfect in God’s image. We were created as single-cell units of life and we evolved over four-and-a-half to five billion years into various stages until at least we achieved self-consciousness. We are survival-oriented people because we wouldn’t have made it through the evolutionary process if we hadn’t been survival-oriented. And so we are radically self-centred, survival-orientated creatures, and we had to be to win the battle of evolution. But once we’ve won the battle, then there’s no more enemy except ourselves and so we turn our survival-instincts against one another – in genocide, for example. What got us to this position of dominance in the world is not sufficient to get us to whatever the next stage is. What Darwin suggests is that none of us need to be rescued from a fall that never happened, or restored to a status that we never possessed. That whole way of telling the Christian story simply doesn’t work.

So instead of seeing Jesus as the divine saviour-rescuer who pays the price of sin, I think we’ve got to turn our whole Christology toward seeing Jesus as the kind of humanity that enables us to get over being the kind of survival-oriented creatures that we are and begin to give our lives away. I think that is dramatically powerful, and something to which people would be willing to give themselves if they understood it. And this is beginning to address your question.

SS: Yes it is. I find what you’re saying extremely interesting…

I don’t think that what I’m advocating is an easy sort of bourgeois feel-good gospel. I think what I’m advocating is a new humanity that will deliver us from our deeply competitive, tribal, prejudiced attitudes toward other human beings, and indeed toward other religions. So I think the role of the church is not to rescue the sinners, but to empower people to become more fully human. This is why Christ is so important to me.

The way I see Christ is not as the incarnation of a theistic deity, but as so completely human that he becomes a channel through which the way I define God can live completely and perfectly. So I still have here Christ as “fully divine” and “fully human”, but I get at it in a very different way because I define God as the Source of Life, the Source of Love, the Ground of Being – all my Tillichian stuff comes out here. When I look at Jesus I see a human being that is so fully alive that the Source of Life is visible in him, so loving that the Source of Love is visible in him, so whole, so capable of being himself that the Ground of Being is visible in him. And then I watch him live out a new kind of humanity.

When I look at the cross I don’t see a sacrifice where a victim pays the price of sin. I see a life that is so whole that he can give himself away completely. It’s a tough battle, but I think we’ve got to get people out of tribal religion and get them into a redemptive process that enhances our humanity instead of rescues us and makes us grateful.

I think when we become fully human, then we share in the very meaning of God. It means that we live with God’s Life and we love with God’s Love and we are with God’s Being. The problem with humanity is that there is no one that we love more than ourselves. I look at Jesus and see that he is able to lay down his life “for the least of these.” That’s God presence to me; that’s not human. And when he’s dying, he’s not whining or begging or cussing or fighting or screaming. He’s saying, “God forgives you for nailing me to this cross.” He says “God comforts you in your own mortality” to the thief. He says “God cares for you” to his mother. He’s giving his life away! And I don’t care if those biblical portraits are accurate or not. That’s the way that the early Christians remembered Jesus: as the whole one who could give his life away.

And, just to finish up this sermon [laughing], Mark’s image in the fifteenth chapter of his Gospel to me is a very powerful image. Jesus is dead and limp on the cross. A gentile soldier, who violates the boundary between Jew and Gentile, stands at the foot of that cross and points to that life and says, “That’s what God is like.” We translate that, “Truly this man was the Son of God,” as if he had just passed a test on Nicene orthodoxy. He didn’t know a thing about that kind of stuff. He was saying that in the kind of life he witnessed in Jesus, where he could give himself away, that’s the doorway that opens onto the way that God is and that’s the ultimate affirmation that God was in Christ. So you see I am very orthodox after all! I come back around to what is a very traditional, orthodox position, but my evangelical friends don’t see it because they see me as ‘eroding’ all of their security systems in the process.

SS: I’m going to have to pull you up here, because what you’ve just proposed is very different from one of your previous positions. If I may be perfectly blunt, your chapter on “Original Sin” in A New Christianity for a New World gave me a lot of trouble. In it you present a disturbingly New Age, quasi-Jungian image of the human being in which “God and Satan, light and darkness, good and evil, Jesus and Judas” etc. must be embraced as part of some greater “wholeness.” Now, I’m with you in your rejection of the traditional notion of original sin, and I am deep agreement with you in placing the Christian story against a Darwinian backdrop. But I don’t see how you can reconcile your compelling picture of human-animals caught in the survival-instinct, from which we must break away in Christ, with this amoral description of human wholeness. You’re saying very different things here, aren’t you?

SPONG: That was the most difficult chapter that I wrote in that book, and I was wrestling deeply with Carl Jung’s book, The Answer to Job. I am convinced that you don’t become whole by simply suppressing your dark-side but by accepting it as part of your being and redeeming it and living through it. And that’s really what I was trying to say in that chapter. I don’t know how it fits together. I’ve had people say, “That’s the dumbest chapter you’ve ever written,” and others say, “That’s a profound chapter that moved me more than any other.”

Retrospectively, I’m not sure that I knew what I was writing, to be perfectly blunt back at you. Except that I still believe that Jung was right when he said that it was a great day for Christianity when the Roman Catholics promulgated the doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary, because for the first time Mary was lifted into the sense of the divine. And then he said that God will finally be complete when the devil is lifted back into God and so God’s dark-side is also embraced in what is ultimately holy. That’s what I was trying to say about human life.

I think the problem with liberals is that they always minimize evil. It’s a historic problem for liberals, and I don’t want to be guilty of that. Evil is very apparent to me in this world. I think human beings do awful things to each other and they do these things so often in the name of “God”. Evil is easy enough to document, but the real question is what is its source, what is its cure? In the same way that President Bush will never destroy terrorism by killing terrorists, I don’t think Christians will ever reduce evil by condemning it. Christians can only reduce evil by understanding its source, by addressing its causes.

SS: I want to press you a little further on this. You most often refer to God, following Paul Tillich, as “the Ground of Being” and insist that we participate in God by becoming fully ourselves, by being all that we can be. But even Tillich was keenly aware that there are ways of “being” which are in fact delusional, inauthentic, even idolatrous. In your previous work you don’t seem to have factored in this aspect of Tillich’s thought. Haven’t you left the door open for all kinds of self-seeking idolatry in the name of one’s search for God?

SPONG: I don’t know quite how to respond to that. But I may have the makings of an answer. I’m currently working on the question of whether someone with my theological understanding can have a belief in life-after-death. And my answer is yes. Now, I’ve got to figure out a way of saying that, and I think that will be my next book. But along the way I’ve examined what life-after-death means to most people, and it is a fiercely self-centred kind of idolatry. Only recently, within the last month, I’ve reached the place in my thought about this subject that I don’t need life-after-death to be authentic, and I can let it go. But I still believe in it.

If the only motivation in my life for living fully and loving wastefully and being all that I can be is that I’ll get the reward of heaven or escape the punishment of hell, in whatever form you might look at either of those things, then it’s still nothing except a self-centred act. It’s a survival-oriented act, and I think the only way we get humanity to a new place is to get it over every part of its survival mentality. That is a form of idolatry the must be overcome.

If we can get to that place where true humanity is found not in just surviving but in freely giving its life away, and if we can get to the place where life-after-death is not just about reward or punishment, or even about the completion of an unfinished life, when it is something that we can say we no longer need, then I think we can start understanding what such a life-after-death really is.

SS: Bravo!

SPONG: I keep telling my publisher that I’m trying to describe something that is beyond time and space, and I haven’t yet found a language for it. And so this may be a one paragraph book! It’s easier to say what life-after-death isn’t rather than what it is. Maybe that’s the way I’ve got to go, and then leave the final paragraph of the book vague but hopeful. Not only is that the next step in my writing, it’s the next step in my personal pilgrimage, which I think is increasingly beyond any theological system into a kind of wordless mysticism.

SS: To conclude, I really must ask you about your relationship to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The title of your new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, is clearly invoking Bonhoeffer’s vision of a “religion-less Christianity.” And you are even presented as the heir to Bonhoeffer’s theological legacy. But here’s my problem: what Bonhoeffer means by “religion” and what you seem to mean by “religion” are two very different things. You seem to have in mind received orthodoxies, rigid church structures, organised religion, and so on. But, for Bonhoeffer, “religion” referred to the way that a complicit church and cheap grace had been absorbed into the bloodstream of German culture. The problem with “religious Christianity” was that it emptied the Christian faith of its ethical power and conviction, and became a way of indiscriminately baptising all of the godlessness of culture. And so, for Bonhoeffer, the solution to the perversion of religion was to make Christian liturgy less obscure, to make the Christian faith more concrete by wrapping it around “the Crucified” and the love for one’s neighbour. You however, in Bonhoeffer’s name, seem to be wanting to make the Christian faith and our understanding of God more obscure, more abstract. Don’t you think Bonhoeffer would have been opposed to your revision of the Christian faith?

SPONG: We may very well be working at cross purposes. I don’t know. The title of this book was certainly inspired by Bonhoeffer, and the idea of the Christian faith that had to emerge out of Judaism at one point and that now has to emerge out of religion in order to live is very appealing to me. But I really do think of myself much more as the heir to John A. T. Robinson than I do Bonhoeffer.

But let me say something about church structures, just to be absolutely clear. I am deeply committed to the church. The fascinating thing about my life, Scott, is that I don’t believe you can change the church unless you’re in it and I don’t give up on its structures. And I’m comforted by the biblical images that it only takes a saving remnant to be the salt in the soup and the leaven in the lump. You don’t have to win over the whole body. And out of the dying institution there always emerges the new “reformation” – whatever that word might mean.

In the Jesus Seminar in America, of which I’m a member, Marcus Borg and I are regarded as the two conservatives because we really believe that the church can be redeemed. For if you don’t have some kind of incarnate structure then everything about our faith dissipates into vapidness. It just disappears. I don’t believe you can ever start a new church. I think you’ve always got to evolve out of what you are into something new. And I don’t worry about whether it’s a big movement or a little movement so long as it’s a faithful remnant that will keep alive the hope of ultimate reformation. Maybe that’s the point where Bonhoeffer and I intersect.

You see, Bonhoeffer lived in a place where the Catholics were silent and the Lutheran Church was generally coopted by the Nazi government. So he saw no hope for religion as he was experiencing it. But I think Bonhoeffer was also a voice that rose within Lutheranism, and that in his death he acquired a greater pulpit than all of the other cooperative German Lutherans ever could. And that’s what I keep coming back to.

John Robinson said something in one of his last books that I agree with – I certainly think it’s true of me. He said that in another generation or two, the criticism of John Robinson or of me will not be that we went too far, but that we didn’t go far enough. It is up to the next generation to press boundaries that I cannot even imagine going beyond. That’s why I insist that the church is an evolving institution. If you stop the evolution, it dies. And that’s why the negativity of the right-wing is so frightening to me. They want to stops things where they are, which would be a death sentence over the church.

As I began by saying, I think that we – both of these polar opposites within the church – really need one another. We must keep this debate going. And so I even feel very appreciative of [the Archbishop of Sydney] Peter Jensen! I had an experience just this week that’s worth sharing. There is a person I met – I won’t tell you his name because it would be immediately recognised in Australian political circles – who bought my book after some of Peter’s attacks on me. He read it and called me up on the last day that we were in Sydney, and invited Christine and me out to his house for dinner.

This was a genuine invitation from somebody it would be nice to know even if the conversation was dull, and so we went. Over dinner, this man said that he had been a comfortable atheist for twenty-five years, and that the church means nothing to him. But he said that when he heard Peter Jensen declaring that what I say ought to be banned from churches, he decided that maybe I was someone worth reading! So he went out and bought my book. Then he told us, “You destabilised my atheism, and didn’t think that was possible.”

I don’t know where all this is going to lead that man. But this man is very wealthy, very well known, and politically related. His wife is very well known, and she’s politically related. But for them to find that the emptiness of their lives still cries out for something, and the fact that I’ve given them at least the possibility that they might find it in the church, that’s what I live for.


Unknown said...

Very interesting. Thanks again to Scott for passing this along. I too found what Spong said about Darwin and the Christian story compelling, but I don't think it precludes the traditional, ancient story (creation — whether it be over a period of billions of years or whatever; fall; covenant; exile; restoration [sin, atonement, etc.]).

Anonymous said...

I find Jack Spong infuriating, and this interview is no different. I'm probably further left than he is on a wide range of social issues, but I get quite a bit out of reading Ratzinger. It sounds like he has read the Cliff Notes version looking for things to disagree with instead. I particularly take issue with his characterization of Ratzinger as a fundamentalist, and Spong's deep, deep misunderstanding of Catholic biblical theology. What a mess!

Anonymous said...

The one part of Spong's self-serving rant with which I have some sympathy is that I share a certain amount of disappointment in Rowan Williams' leadership since he became Archbishop of Canterbury. Spong focuses on Williams' partial caving to conservative pressures on GLBT inclusion and I agree, but I was even more shocked when he was invited to a Middle East Council of Churches' conference shortly after assuming his new office and he gave a completely pro-Israel speech which said very little about supporting the legitimate aims of the Palestinian peoples, including the Palestinian Christians!
Why does high office suddenly make prophets into pragmatic cowards?

Sam said...

SS: Yes it is. I find what you’re saying extremely interesting…

Is this a politely restrained understatement?

Anonymous said...

"The next person in this revolution was Isaac Newton, who showed us that the world operates according to very precise natural laws. There’s not much room in the world for miracles and magic."

Oh dear... it was all down hill from here, for me. Of course! All those fundies believing in "Jesus the magic Elf"! How could I not see the foolishness?

"I am convinced that you don’t become whole by simply suppressing your dark-side but by accepting it as part of your being and redeeming it and living through it."

Right. The church is about being a happy "Kumbayah"-singing community. Sorry about the unhelpful sarcasm, but I have no intention of even interacting with Spong. I find his "radicalism" quite boring, frankly.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an excellent, generous interview. Unlike many interviews, this is a real conversation, not just a prompted monologue. Even if Spong's theology is abysmal, he's clearly a nice guy.

Jonathan Marlowe said...

Michael, it is important to remember that Rowan Williams is not an Anglican Pope. It is not his job to impose his will on the Anglican Communion.

Now I would be all in favor of the ABof C imposing his will on matters that were of obvious moral clarity - for example in cases of racism or sexism. (there were female apostles mentioned in the NT).

But with homosexuality, there are honest people of good faith on both sides of this issue. The jury is still out, but the undeniable weight of biblical and church tradition is on the side of continuing to prohibit same-gender sexual activity. For the AB of C to impose dramatic changes in the church based on his private opinion would be very irresponsible, and that's why he hasn't done it. He is no coward. He has more integrity than John Spong could begin to imagine.

Ormonde Plater said...

This interview reaffirms my previous impression that Jack Spong has the largest ego in The Episcopal Church.

Anonymous said...

His tired anthroplogy is more intersestingly displayed in Ursula K. Le Guinn's children's book the Tales of Earthsea. The worrying thing here is whatever experience he may have had of some deity it's not that of the Saviour who saves from sins, whatever one's view of Original Sin (and experience supports the biblical data, whatever scientific theory reigns) why don't these intolerant people, and his criticism of Williams and desire to impose authority clearly declare the fascist, simply leave and start their own cult maybe the Church of the Scared Arse Kissers whose holy greeting would be 'kiss my Black, Oh brother I sooo identify, liberated black ass'. Silly, because no-one would publish or listen to the man if he wasn't standing in better peoiples' boots

Anonymous said...

I wasn't talking of Rowan Williams "imposing his will" on the entire Anglican communion, but of showing some leadership. And, I specifically gave an example that I thought was worse than Spong's example, because he was trying to broker peace between traditionalists and revisionists over GLBT matters. But what excuse could he have for coming to Palestine and echoing the Likud Party?

This is disappointing precisely BECAUSE Rowan Williams is a brilliant theologian and a vibrant Christian and Spong is a just a washed out, warmed over version of J. A. T. Robinson--without even Robinson's biblical scholarship.

I am no fundamentalist. I try to learn from liberals, including iconoclasts, as much as from the orthodox. But I find Spong's kind of minimalist faith and avante garde jumping on whatever theological band wagon comes along to be boring. It is a sign of how in trouble the Episcopal Church is that Spong was ever consecrated bishop.

Jon Trott said...

Very articulate questions, and as another poster mentioned, the interview was actually a real conversation. So helpful on that score. However, as an escapee from a church pastored by someone not much different than Spong -- that is, the life, death and resurrection as historical facts was said to be beside the point -- I have an allegeric reaction to Spong. He simply does not seem sincere to me. I cannot fathom any "Christianity" which does violence (and I use that word purposefully) to the gospel narrative. If Christ did not rise from the dead, our faith is in vain.

Yes, Darwin needs to be taken seriously, particularly the theological ramifications of this upon Genesis' creation / fall narrative (and so all that flows from that narrative, including Christ's own death). But if Christ is not a historical figure, and the gospel story is not rooted in real historical events, then any "Christian" faith is impossible in my meager opinion.

I'm baffled by those who see it differently... but of course I suppose I baffle them as well.

Again, thanks for the interview.

Halden said...

I find Spong's evaluation of Rowan Williams deplorable. Williams is taking the hardest road possible precisely because he is a great leader. He's refusing to pander to the ideologies of either side and instead doing what a churchman should do: seek to preserve communion.

Williams is not simply a smarth theologian, he is a great man and a Christian all should look up to. And I'm no closet Anglican, that's for certain!

Anonymous said...

I was also very disappointed in Rowan Williams over Palestine - pulling out of the Sabeel conference shortly after his election.

But on the present crisis in the Anglican communion I agree with Halden that he's "taking the hardest road possible precisely because he's a great leader." His situation must be an incredibly difficult one but it is precisely here that one sees his identity not merely as a leader of an organisation but as a bishop of the Church. For behind the crisis over "ethics" lies the challenge of ecclesiology and it is precisely in this situation that we see Rowan Williams' true identity emerging. He is no pragmatic liberal or conservative who uses the church for his own - or others peoples'- agenda, but a servant of the Tradition which he has received and which he is charged with handing on to others, more aware than many others of all the challenges that that involves...

I must confess that, as a Catholic, I'd love to see him as pope! If anyone can suggest any miracle-working saints...?

Anonymous said...

Hi Halden,

I have a good deal of sympathy with what you say. I have enormous respect for Williams, for his prayerfulness, wisdom, and compassion, and for his embracing the episcopal role of reconciler, of peacemaker (and one sign of a faithful peacemaker is that he usually gets shot at from both sides - and Williams has his share of purple hearts!). But Williams is a brilliant theologian, one of the finest of our generation, and probably the greatest Anglican theologian since Hooker. With such rare and precious gifts, should he not be exercising a teaching as well as a pastoral ministry? Should he not be, not disseminating ideological propaganda, but giving theological guidance on big issues like Israel/Palestine and same-sex relationships? Must the Archbishop of Canterbury cease to be a player and become a referee? Would he not be showing a proper respect for tradition as living by respectfully interrogating it? I still trust that Williams knows what he is doing, but I have my doubts, and I often think he has made a serious error of judgement in refusing the prophetic mantle. I really do hope I am wrong. Keep Rowan in your prayers.

Halden said...

I suppose I should say that I am not familiar with whatever the situation might have been with Williams on the Israel-Palestinian question. On that judgment, I'll demur.

However, on the same-sex issue, I think that Williams is taking precisely the prophetic role. Obviously you and I differ theologically on this issue, Kim and I understand the complex nature of these theological and pastoral problems on a personal level (i.e. I haven't just had to deal with this question in books and blogs, but in very face-to-face ways). I say all that, only so I won't come off as an ideolouge myself on this particular question.

As I see it there is nothing prophetic about saying homosexuality is wrong, but neither is it prophetic to claim that any kind of sex is fine as long as there's monogamous commitment. These are both ideological positions that have their respective cultural entourages and legitimacy within their own spheres. Neither supporting or condeming homosexuality is prophetic at all. To assume either of those mantles is simply to choose which cultural trend you want to jump on board with.

What is prophetic is saying that ecclesial communion is more imporant than sex and it would be better to think twice about our "rights" to do what we want with our bodies than to rend communion over an agenda in the manner that Gene Robinson has done. It is Williams who is alone in standing for the union of the church in contrast to both the tradtionalists and the revisionists for whom communion seems to be quite a dispensible matter. I don't see this as a rejection of the prophetic mantle, but its most radical embrace.

Anonymous said...

Hi Halden,

Spong may describe his position as "any kind of sex is fine as long there's monogamous commitment", but I don't think Williams would put it quite that way, do you? However Williams, as you know, is theologically on record as supportive of lesbian and gay Christians. And he has acted on his theological persuasions. As a personal example, when he was the Bishop of Monmouth I once met Williams in Swansea at the first annual conference of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement to be held in Wales, which he went out of his way to attend and support. Now are you saying that Williams' beliefs, ethics, and actions are purely ideological, that he has simply "jumped on board a cultural trend"? Or that he would see the issue in terms of "rights"? If not, if Williams' conclusions and commitments are prayerfully and theologically formed, informed, and held, don't you think he should share his thinking with us and guide us in a conversation about them, particularly as they are so differently framed than those of the revisionists and traditionalists alike?

Williams clearly and obviously judges that ecclesial communion is more important than sex, probably because, as he has rightly written, when we come to the New Testament keen to be informed about our obsession, it meets us with "a blank or quizzical face: why is that the problem?" The question is: what kind of communion. And I mean that in a deeper sense than just how might the different regional churches in the Anglican communion hold together institutionally, in the spiritual sense that Williams himself puts it in his brilliant essay "Making Moral Decisions", which he wrote when he was the Archbishop of Wales:

"So long as we still have a language in common and the 'grammar of obedience' in common, we have, I believe, to turn away from the temptation to seek the purity and assurance of a community speaking with only one voice and embrace the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided. The church's need for health and mercy is inseparable from my own need for health and mercy. To remain in communion is to remain in solidarity with those I believe are wounded as well as wounding the church, in the trust that in the Body of Christ the confronting of wounds is part of opening ourselves to healing."

What I'm saying is that because Williams is a theologian who thinks outside the usual boxes, he is precisely the Archbishop to give a lead on the humans sexuality issue - which of course is more than just about sex - in the context of an understanding of communion which amounts to an ecclesia crucis. Now that is what I would call "prophetic".

Enough. This great interview raises a lot of other questions than just human sexuality!

Anonymous said...

Spong gas a habit of being nasty to those who disagree with him. His letter writing habits in that regard are notorious (hey maybe you will get lucky after your review is published Ben and get a letter calling you 'neanderthal')

Here's Spong's latest missive to his "friend" Rowan (who is not a fan of Spong's theology) which has even upset his reappraising supporters.

Spong's ego knows no bounds.

May Christ save his church from "bishops" and "theologians" like him.


Michael-in-Norfolk said...

Most of you commentors dislike Spong. I on the otherhand believe that his vision is that of the future if Christianity is to survive long term in an increasingly secular world. Faith cannot forever close its eyes to knowledge and science.

As a former Roman Catholic driven from the Church by those hypocrites like Benedict XVI who want to turn back time by centuries, Spong helped me to find a way to remain a Christian. Increasing in the USA, the face of Christianity is dominated by the message of fear and hate put out by the Fundamentalist Protestants and the Catholic Church which look to divide, stigmatize and condemn large numbers of people who differ with their religious views.

Would that there were more thinking Christians like Spong, who while perhaps not always right at least is not afraid to think and analyze.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this extensive interview – it was very interesting. I do hope Scott Simpson sent Spong his piece on Bonhoeffer – it would be fascinating to know Spong’s response, especially considering the genial atmosphere of the interview.

An earlier comment criticised Spong for his remarks about Ratzinger. I do wonder, however, what descriptive terms can be used to name the mindset of someone who when Prefect for theCongregation for the Doctrine of the Faith attempted to destroy theologians of the stature of Kung, Schillebeeckx, Boff and others – so much intellectual blood on his hands – to be described as a neo-fundamentalist is surely a kindness.

Needless to say i agree with the post by Michael of Norfolk

Anonymous said...

My apologies to Scott, Scott Stephens not Scot Simpson

Matthew said...

I think the folks who bash Spong for being egotistical or dumb fail to see what he's trying to do.

For centuries, apologetics has been a roped-off corner of theology, where we occasionally try to make sense of the gospel for non-Christians. Spong seems to be saying that's not good enough ... that if the church is going to thrive, it must be able to present theology that rings true for all people, particularly for those who don't share our philosophical and metaphysical traditions.

Anonymous said...

Most of these comments, especially the negative ones are in effect auto-biographical snapshots of the author who wrote them.
Very revealing indeed.

PresterJosh said...

"It seems to me that he falls back on a kind of neo-fundamentalist mentality that says that you’ve got to test the truth of the Bible by the Bible. That is, you’ve got to view it as a whole, so that if you get a verse that doesn’t make much sense you’ve got to bring the whole Bible to bear in order to find out what the will of God is. To me, that’s simply a defensive mechanism that avoids facing the truth."

I wonder if Spong has actually had the chance to talk to legitimate fundamentalists before. If he did, I think he would find something strange: namely, that he agreed with their narrow interpretations of what scripture meant. The only difference being he that he believes scripture is wrong. In that respect Spong is like Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. in rejecting Christianity (or "traditional christianity") because they privilege a fundamentalist interpretation of scripture.

Anonymous said...

"self-serving rant"? "fascist"? "tired"? "boring"? "deplorable"? "infuriating"? These descriptions of Spong, who in this interview strikes me as genuinely and honestly trying to address the questions posed him, seem over the top. Although I've said in the past that Spong seems rather quaint to me, preaching an Enlightenment "rational Christianity" in a post-Enlightenment age, I can't but admire his desire to make Christianity relevant to the contemporary mind. What's the point of attacking him so ferociously? It seems needlessly churlish, and just a little sad: circling the orthodox wagons...

Anonymous said...

PS--Father Jake has what I take to be a judicious reading of Bishop Spong here:

Anonymous said...

"Very interesting. Thanks again to Scott for passing this along. I too found what Spong said about Darwin and the Christian story compelling, but I don't think it precludes the traditional, ancient story"

If you want to make a new religion, just go ahead and make it already, and base it on evolution or string-theory or whatever you like, but don't go around using the name of Jesus or claiming that it is Christianity. If you want to be an independent thinker, then by all means be an independent thinker. Don't be a lazy jackass slapping traditional names on newfangled ideas.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently attending St Matthew-in-the-City's (Auckland, New Zealand) Conference for Progressive Christianity. Here, Spong is guest speaker, basing his talks on his book, 'Jesus for the non-religious'.
Spong treats Scripture as layered myth superimposed on a lost, Jewish Jesus of the 1st century.
There is no disagreement with Spong that the Scriptures were written from a point of view. No material is written from a neutral point of view. I'm not sure Spong knows this. So it is not surprising that the Gospel writers were pursuing their take on Jesus life.
Among his deprecating (and somewhat disturbing) attitudes to other New Testament and Biblical scholars, Spong purports to have stripped away the layers of male, chauvinist, patriarchal bias from the Gospel record.
However, he only succeeds in adding his own middle of the road, humanistic and naturalistic layers.
For example he contends that the crucifixion did not take place in the northern spring (March) of 30CE. He claims, that the reason it was recorded as happening at passover is that the early church wanted to equate Jesus with the Passover lamb of sacrifice. And why not in spring? Because the people would not have had leafy branches to wave on Jesus procession into Jerusalem, a week before his death.
For someone who claims to be in touch with the world, who holds to the current popular, humanist worldview, he has little understanding of biology. It is the first month of spring here in New Zealand and outside most trees are sporting new, leafy branches! Furthermore, he claims that the type of branches used would have been myrtle and palms. Both these trees are evergreen!
In addition, he claims that the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree at that time of the year is strange, spurious and shows Jesus to be cruel. Spong claims that fig trees don't bear fruit in spring. Well, Mr Theologian, figs bear fruit for up to 9 months of the year and often hold their fruit over winter, and develop fruit before the leaf. It would have been easy for Jesus to see the the fig tree he cursed, was unfruitful and displayed no 'faith' in the summer to come.
And so he goes, one (cruci)fiction after another.

jackfate said...

Kerry said: "What's the point of attacking him so ferociously?"

Because Spong's points, valid ones in my opinion—I like him and agree with the positive posters here—threaten the security of many. Spong has said many times that religion is mostly a "search for security not truth." He seeks to change that motivation.

He has also said that we don't need to be "born again" but need to "grow up and become mature adults." I could not agree more. Most churches wish to keep us as dependent children it seems to me.

I feel his views are rational, logical and lead to truth.

Anonymous said...

One of Bishop Spong's key insights is that 'there is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time'. This seems to chime with the Pauline conviction that we see 'through a glass darkly' (I Cor 13:12). Consequently it is no surprise that the history of Christianity has been characterised by dissent, and the possibility of reaching universal accord in the future remains remote. Given this scenario, it is sensible to debate beliefs constructively in the hope of advancing understanding.

However, important as beliefs undoubtedly are, I venture to suggest that they are less important than the results that flow from them. Ideally these will be the fruit of the Spirit which St Paul has obligingly listed in Gal 5:22 - love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance. The list is not exhaustive. We might add grace, mercy, compassion, gratitude, generosity and forgiveness. In passing it is clear that these are practical virtues, not the prerogative of an abstract spirituality.

If our personal beliefs do not tend in this direction, be they ever so orthodox, we may arguably need to modify them. This is not a comment on the relative value of differing beliefs; rather it is a simple recognition of human diversity. I guess we all know people of transparent holiness whose views we could not possibly share! No doubt the divine can encompass us all.

Of course the quest is on-going. Whilst inevitably I do agree with Bishop Spong on every particular, I am deeply grateful to him for the invaluable help he has provided for my personal journey of faith.

Anonymous said...


The final line above should of course read 'Whilst inevitably I do NOT agree...'

Anonymous said...

Amazing the aggression and depth of feeling religious discussion can reveal. Yes, I'm another of Spong's fans. We have a world with no discernible intervention by an unknown God based on a book written 2 thousand years ago by people with pre-scientific mindsets trying to sell us their view of Jesus. (With the first half of that book full of God-sponsored violence). Spong at least gives us a way to retain our credibility as we search through Jesus teaching for true pearls of wisdom.

Take the sacrificial death as a perfect example of Spong shedding light on a strange ancient teaching. Why would a loving creator ever require death in order to forgive ? I couldnt work it out. UNTIL, Spong pointed out the evolutionary nature of this teaching. Primitive societies dependent on rain and sun to survive want to have some control over their environment. So they decide that they need to offer 'things' to their God. He will then look after them. Now they have control ! (I wont mention how debased this teaching became when Abraham was about to murder his son as a sacrifice). Such a simple and an obvious human response to our fragile existence. A religious theme that makes no sense if God is the supreme being but makes a lot of sense when viewed through history as a human invention. Thank goodness Spong explained it.

KnotOnABlog said...

Thanks for posting the entire interview. I found it interesting and revealing, however much I disagreed with it.

I think Bishop Spong is full of it. But I'm more amused than upset by his ideas, so I don't get some of the less polite objections expressed by commenters.

I never would have been attracted to the Xianity described by Bp. Spong -- just as surely as I wouldn't have been attracted to the Xianity described by John Hagee. I started reading the Bible to prove it wrong, and found it to be unexpectedly believeable (unlike Spong or Hagee).

Bp. Spong was polite in the interview because the interviewer was polite (and somewhat sympathetic, apparently). But, a few years ago, I saw Bp. Spong in an interview with a polite but clueless Diane Sawyer, where he was anything but polite in his opinions of those with a different view of Xianity than his. He was as condescending and uncharitable as any conservative Fundamentalist.

It's funny how those who twist things out of context, to make science appear to support a literal reading of Genesis 1-3, are called all sorts of insulting names. But Bp. Spong's complete twisting (and rejection) of orthodox Xian doctrine, to try to make it compatable with the latest scientific theories, is praised as progressive. But I think both kinds of Fundamentalism tend to ultimately be empty, ridiculous, unsatisfying, and damaging to many Xians' faith.

He believes none of the basic tenets of the Xian faith. So why use the name Xian? His explanation why rings very hollow. The claim that it's because he loves Xianity (or the Church) so much is just nonsense -- and, ironically, is just what the most obnoxious of his conservative opponents say when defending themselves. It's just another Fundamentalist using Xian/Biblical terminology, but making up their own definitions.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this excellent interview.

I always had trouble understanding Bishop Spong and his brand of believers, who somehow think that by changing Christianity into some sort of wishy-washy dispensible consumer-friendly New Age spirituality, this religion would be saved from certain doom. At least this interview has provided me with a little insight into his theology/philosophy, and with that a little more sympathy to his cause.

Still, I wish that he could somehow leave Christianity out of this... Can't help quoting this passage:

"But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."

I guess it's about time to assemble a New New Testament.

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