Soon after I finished The Gnostic Gospels by Dr. Elaine Pagels (1979) — a richly detailed and historical page-turner — I stumbled across a colorful book called A New Christianity for a New World by Bishop John Shelby Spong (2002). I was familiar with Spong’s reputation for controversy, but I grabbed it up and started in on it right away, somehow thinking it would be lighter in tone and more inspirational in nature. Little did I know that this new book was a dramatic and emotionally significant call to action, asking Christians around the world to put down the outdated, theistic (Father) concept of God and embrace a new vision of the church.
Not what you’d consider light reading.
In fact, I spent hours re-reading certain sections in an attempt to truly unpack the implications and revelations contained inside the words.
This is a book I wish I had discovered much earlier, as it has illuminated for me the necessary steps I must take as an individual in honoring the death of the theistic God — thanking “Him” for his service, and putting him to rest once and for all. It also shows me that there is still much work to do in lovingly and respectfully engaging in open dialogue with Christians who are seemingly uninformed about the history of their own Orthodox Church and also in rehabilitating those Christians in exile — who have become disillusioned with their faith as they, as individuals, have changed and grown so much, only to see their creeds and institutions (once viewed as a reliable bedrock) become insufficient, small-minded and small-hearted.
What was exciting for me, and divinely-timed, was that the book also offers a framework of not only Spong’s call for reformation and a new “Ecclesia” (Greek for “assembly” or “those called out”), but references the writings on “Creation Spirituality” by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox and the picture of the historical Jesus drawn by the work of John Dominic Crossan. This framework examines the life of Jesus, the teachings of The Christ and the gospel of the resurrected Christ Jesus in a truly integral way.
Spong’s call for reformation is heartfelt and well-researched, and is clearly written by someone who has lived and loved his own faith for many decades. It is a cry for change and reform from an insider of the Orthodox Church — someone the world would agree is an expert on the subject. I find it interesting that this book follows a previous work entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1999). As if the publisher said, “Jack, we just need something a little more positive. A little more upbeat.” Indeed, we need the “antidote to toxic Christianity.”
For those that identify as practicing Christians and those that have been frustrated with the bloody and barbaric rhetoric hurled from the pulpit, reading this book may very well cause you to walk out of your home church once and for all. For church leaders, reading this book should be required. It could very well start significant changes within the organization — baby steps to be brought up at the next board meeting — and at the very least, it has the potential to create conversation.
Most likely, though, it will be met with scorn and indifference by the institution we now know as the Christian church. And therein lies both the problem and the thesis of this book.
It breaks down like this, the teachings of the historical Jesus (shared eating, charity, compassion, indiscriminate love for humanity, a direct communion with God as the source of Being), have been taken out of context or ignored outright by the orthodox Christian church we know today. The orthodox church opts instead to teach conditional ideas like salvation (most times only through the Christ figure, or the church itself), baptism (primarily to cleanse one from Original Sin), reinforces the concept of a wrathful Father God (the punitive parent demanding a blood sacrifice), as well as presents a distorted or inaccurate version of natural history as historical fact.
Spong’s argument is that the generations raised in this kind of doctrine- and creed-based church environment, become closed-minded, racist, sexist, homophobic adults who are ignorant to the facts so clearly visible in the known universe.
Ultimately, what he recommends is the creation of a new church — not Christianity 3.0, but a full re-boot. A Christianity that returns us to the original teachings, mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Spong writes, “I must look at new ways the church can worship with meaning as we live beyond the exile, purged by the reformation that is upon us and redefined as the body of Christ in what will surely be a death and resurrection experience. What will that church and its liturgy look like, and what are the steps we will have to take and the path we will have to follow to get from where we are now to what the church must be in the future? … We may not even call that new post-theistic institution a church.”
It’s a bold and well-articulated statement that is worthy of discussion in every Christian church around the world. How influenced by the theistic concept of God is the Christian myth of Jesus? And, when you move beyond theism to post-modern understandings of The Christ, are you still considered a Christian?
Spong doesn’t leave us alone entirely to wrestle with these questions. He provides some details of what his vision for the new “Ecclesia” will be. The qualities of this new church/not-a-church will include things like: community (people gathering and finding meaningful connection), sacred stories (myths), a sense of ecological and biological interdependence (Gaia, web of life), self-consciousness and self-awareness in individuals, an emphasis on human welfare (universal compassion), and the importance of ritual (religious and spiritual practice) for individuals and families.
There are those within the church who say that Spong’s vision does not describe Christianity at all — that he is actually a Humanist (or a Unitarian Universalist) in denial. But Spong continues to identify (strongly and emphatically) as a Christian, “God is real to me, and Jesus is my doorway into this reality.”
His twelve points for the reformation of the Christian church are as follows:
- 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 written 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.
Spong has an exhaustive body of work, and frankly, I find it interesting that he has not gained more traction among the progressives and modern/contemporary Christian churches. Then again, maybe he has. Maybe there are classes being taught and book discussions being held right now by church members totally amped-up for a new and fresh version of Christianity for the post-modern age. If you’re out there, I want to hear from you.
What do you think of Bishop Spong’s “Ecclesia?” Do you think that by stripping the Jesus story of the orthodox baggage, we arrive at a purer form of God-experience? And, do you think that we can still call that experience Christianity?