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Bishop John Shelby Spong and consumer-friendly religion


Bishop John Shelby Spong and consumer-friendly religionSTEPHENS: In your latest book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, you reiterate: 'Christianity is dying ... The experience of Jesus is newly dawning and will in time create new forms.' Are you heartened, or concerned by, the prominence of militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens?

SPONG: It gives me great heart. But so does the rise of fundamentalist Christianity. I keep trying to build a community between radical (or rabid) fundamentalism, and this disillusioned secularity. My marching orders are in John's description of Jesus' purpose: 'I've come that they might have life.'

STEPHENS: I often wonder about the ethical consequences of your version of Christianity. There are expressions of religion which are diabolically compatible with our modern self-centredness. Western Buddhism and even Pentecostalism seem to me to be disgustingly bourgeois forms of religion. Isn't your vision of a "new Christianity" pandering to the same bourgeois temperament?

SPONG: That's probably a legitimate criticism. Religion is always going to be changing its face in response to an ever-expanding worldview. Darwin challenges the way in which the Christian story has been told. Before Darwin we told the story of the Christian faith in terms of human beings created perfect in God's image, but who disobeyed God and fell into sin. Finally God enters the world as a saviour-rescuer. But it doesn't work. We never were created perfect in God's image. We were created as single-cell units of life. We are radically self-centred, survival-orientated creatures, and we had to be to win the battle of evolution. I think we've got to turn our whole Christology toward seeing Jesus as the kind of humanity that enables us to get over [survival] and begin to give our lives away.

STEPHENS: 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.

Bishop John Shelby Spong and consumer-friendly religionSPONG: That was the most difficult chapter. You don't become whole by simply suppressing your dark-side, but rather by accepting it as part of your being and redeeming it and living through it. 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.

STEPHENS: 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. 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. 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 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.

If the only motivation in my life is that I'll get the reward of heaven or escape the punishment of hell, then it's still nothing except a self-centred act. That is a form of idolatry that must be overcome. If we can get to the place where life-after-death is not just about reward or punishment, then I think we can start understanding what such a life-after-death really is. 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.



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Existing comments

I've anyone is interesting in reading the full interview, they can find it at http://faith-theology.blogspot.com/2007/09/interview-with-john-shelby-spong-i-am.html

Scott Stephens | 06 September 2007  

...holding to a form of godliness but denying the power (of God). What empty, meaningless, humanistic dribble.

gbend | 06 September 2007  

Bishop Spong's statements remind me of the philosophy behind St Michael's Uniting Church in Melbourne, where Francis Macnab's philosophy is close to Spong's.

Having found that St Michael's made a return to Christianity possible for me, I cannot condemn either of these men.

I've come to believe that St Michael's forms a space which overlaps the secular world and the church, a sort of halfway house between the world and the Church proper, and it seems to me that Spong's books create a similar space.

It's a huge leap from an emphasis on personal development and growth to a belief in a crucified God, and one which most people will never consider making, but the move to belief in the possibility of a Spirit of growth at the heart of life can be a vital first step on the faith journey.

At St Michael's and in Spong's philosophy, a place where the darkness and ambiguity of life is excluded will prove inadequate in the end, but the power of the Holy Spirit should not, I think, be underestimated.

Many people have come into St Michael's and have learned there to hold themselves out before God in surrender of all they are, have, dream and long for each day, and once that journey has begun, a move towards a belief which is adequate for the grimness and ambiguity of life has begun as well.

Let's not forget the percentage of God's loved people who are outside the Church, searching for fulfillment in "lifestyle" and plasma television screens. Let's be glad of anyone who brings them part of the way home.

Gwynith Young | 07 September 2007  

I have just read the book Jesus for the Non-Religious by Bishop John Shelby Spong and have to say I agree with him. Whole book is fantastic.

DRAGAN AJVAZ | 24 April 2008  

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