The Right Reverend John Shelby ("Jack") Spong, retired Bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Newark, New Jersey, is a Christian leader of the old school, the kind of preacher or prophet who considers their mission to be: "To comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable."
The "afflicted", those receptive to Bishop Spong's message are "believers in exile": those Christians who, for whatever reason, find themselves marginalized or excluded by their churches, such as women and homosexuals, and liberals who have been offended or put off by the racism, sexism, intolerance or just sheer stupidity of their churches, and thus no longer attend or support organized religion. (Spong calls this latter group the "Church Alumni Association"). The "comfortable" who seem most distressed by Spong are conservative Christians inside and outside the Episcopal Church. Spong seems to have a very confrontational relation with his Anglican peers outside the United States.
Spong was born in 1931 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Thus, this same town produced both the liberal Spong and the conservative Billy Graham). Spong was raised in a conservative, fundamentalist household, and felt called to the ministry. He received a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Masters in Divinity from the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia. He served the Episcopal Church in North Carolina in various capacities until he was called to lead the Diocese of Newark, and consecrated as a bishop in 1976, a position he held until 2000.
Spong emerged as a leading spokesman for religious liberals in the United States during the 1990s, publishing many books and articles and participating in some high profile controversies regarding the role of gays and lesbians within the Episcopal Church.
In a word, Spong calls for modernizing Christianity. Modernizing begins with acknowledging scientific and social progress: that Galileo was right about the Copernican revolution, and the Church was wrong about slavery, about treating women as property, and it remains wrong about sexuality and abortion and contraceptives. Most Christians, with the exception of an odd few, like Christian Scientists, would not take an epileptic child to a holy man to have the child's demons "cast out". We have made many different compromises with our simultaneous belief in modern science and pre-modern myths and miracle stories. Spong, however, does not allow for compromise, or for division of our beliefs and allegiances between "secular" and "religious" worlds. Spong calls for a wholesale repudiation of superstition and an acknowledgement that the Bible's value to us is in the stories (myths) it tells, not as a repository of literal, factual or historical truth.
Spong recognizes that we cling to pre-modern worldviews because they are more comforting. We cling to a theistic notion of God as a person, as a loving parent, who will take care of us if we behave like good children, because it is terrifying to think that the universe doesn't care what happens to us. Here I think Spong is probably on to something, just as the fellows of the Jesus Seminar are on to something when they say: “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you”. Robert Funk, et al., The Five Gospels—The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (1993) at 5. Like most liberal, educated Christians, Spong calls for "demythologizing" the Gospels: reading the miracles as literature, as stories. Spong, however, seems to understand the implications of this better than most. Along with recognizing that the stories are just stories (that Baby Jesus in the manger is as much a myth as Santa Claus) must come an adult recognition that God doesn't literally answer prayer, anymore than Santa Claus actually brings Christmas gifts.
None of this is new, of course. Rudolph Bultmann first proposed the concept of demythologizing the New Testament in a 1941 lecture, and it has been hotly debated in seminaries and academic circles ever since. Spong isn't an original thinker, he isn't a literary genius like Soren Kierkegaard, or a systematic philospher or theologian like Jean Paul Sarte or Paul Tillich. His arguments have horrific logical holes in them, and sometimes his examples have that "I thought of this when I was shaving this morning" feel of sermon illustrations given by a professional preacher. What makes Spong different is that he demands that these ideas be adopted by organized churches and (*gasp*!) actually applied to real concerns in church life.
Spong brings these otherwise obscure religious ideas into the forefront of very public arguments about controversial issues like the role of homosexuals in the Church, by appearing in unholy places like "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News.
Spong compares himself to Martin Luther (he entitled his autobiography Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality: an explicit reference to Luther's heroic and semi-mythical response at Augsburg to the demand that he recant his writings). The comparison seems apt given Spong's flair for controversy and his astute use of the media (Luther would have relished appearing on "The O'Reilly Factor" and "60 Minutes", as Spong has). More substantively, Spong calls for a new "Reformation" of Christianity, and has even with nailed "theses" for debate on a Cathedral door (both literally and more practically, on the internet):
Spong's 12 Theses
- 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.
Regarding some of his "theses", Spong has published an entire book. For example, regarding the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, Spong wrote Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Virgin Birth and the Treatment of Women in a Male-Dominated Church. (HarperCollins, 1992). Surely there is a lot to discuss here. As in the case of Luther, however, the public response to Spong has been mostly disappointing. Generally, persons who have responded directly to Spong's theses have either not read the books or deliberately refuse to understand the points he is making, for example, deliberately misunderstanding the nontheistic approach to God as an atheistic approach.
Spong also makes more apt and less provocative comparison between himself and John A.T. Robinson, the English bishop of Woolwich, who wrote a book called Honest to God, published in 1963. Like Robinson, Spong desires to reform Christendom, not abandon it. Like Robinson, Spong risks being misunderstood, by setting up vague, repellant truths over against a firm, attractive falsehoods about God.
Robinson was not able to halt the mass exodus of liberal, thinking people away from the mainline Protestant churches, and if anything, the strident responses he received from the establishment seemed to confirm that the task was hopeless. It remains to be seen whether Spong will do any better, but he has reason to hope that we are closer to a new reformation now than we were in 1963. For one thing, in 1963 there were no women in the Protestant clergy, and now female clergy are quite numerous. Churches are still, for the most part, the most racially segregated insititutions in the United States, but there seems to at least be a widespread acknowledgement that this is wrong, and worth devoting substantial church resources to change.
Polls show that those who profess to believe in God and/or desire some sort of "spirituality" in their lives, but don't participate in any organized religion, are the fastest growing group in the United States, out-stripping even the supposedly burgeoning ranks of Christian Fundamentalists by a very wide margin. Thus, there are many ears out there ready to hear what Bishop Spong has to say.