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Bishop John Shelby Spong and consumer-friendly religion

  • 05 September 2007

STEPHENS: 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