On the weekend of Dec.1-2, Bishop John Shelby Spong, retired Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, visited the First Unitarian Church of Toledo, Ohio. His visit convinced me that I shall have to become better acquainted with his work. My comments here are mainly based on eight pages of notes from his two Saturday lectures, with following question and answer sessions, and his Sunday sermon. Quotations are given verbatim from my notes, except for a change of one verb form. I estimate that First Church members constituted perhaps 100 of about 250 attenders at these events, indicating that Spong’s talks aroused wide community interest.
SATURDAY MORNING LECTURE
Spong’s talks took as background his recent book “Jesus for the Non-Religious”. His Saturday morning lecture focussed on the Bible, addressing an aspect in which many modern churches follow the Reformation, the exaggerated reliance on the Bible (sola scriptura) as authority, treated in a way which ignores the past two hundred years of critical and historical scholarship, and thus failing to interpret the Bible in terms of the places and times of origin of its various sections. The Bible has been terribly misused, he feels; it is based on many assumptions which we can no longer share, and cannot be the ultimate source of religious authority, he stated. As a reaction to a different source of authority, he referred to the concept of the “gap-filler God”, the notion that religion is relevant mainly to areas of scientific ignorance.
Spong recalled the Genesis creation-legend of Adam and Eve, and how the story of their disobedience had been transformed into a view of perpetual human guilt, original sin. Since the recognition by Darwin of human evolution, this interpretation of the creation-legend must be abandoned. Your “humanity is not enhanced by making you feel guilty,” he stated. The question then arises, “Can we retell the Jesus story in terms of modern knowledge?” If not, it is the death of Christianity, he felt.
In the question period, I posed a question in which I recalled Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s response to the “gap-filler” concept. He wrote in a 1944 letter from prison that “We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know”, with further clarification that by this he implied the need to base religion on scientific knowledge as well as addressing specific human issues such as death, suffering and guilt. In his response, Spong elaborated about the person and situation of Bonhoeffer for the mostly lay audience, and the significance of his declaration quoted above. Spong himself was comfortable in his agreement with Bonhoeffer’s view.
SATURDAY AFTERNOON LECTURE
In his Saturday afternoon talk, Spong pointed out that the beginning of the misuse of biblical traditions was not recent, taking as an example Paul’s distortion of the creation story of Genesis in his version of the concept of original sin. Spong was concerned as to just how religion is to be combined with science, and whether difficulty in doing so means that the age of religion has passed. Participation in organized religion has declined drastically in Europe, and the United States is anomalous in the Western world in terms of the importance given to religion in public life. What is the significance now of the religion which stems from the Jesus traditions, in a world in which background assumptions have changed greatly, he asked. Church life is seen by him as a complex in which first-century Jewish traditions about Jesus are combined with a liturgy which comes from the medieval Western world.
For Paul, he said, God was in Christ. But what did the term “God” mean at different times, and what is the significance of the liturgy meant to placate him? How much risk of not placating God are you exposed to if you change that liturgy? The tribal mentality in parts of the Bible in terms of which “God favors my guys” in opposition to other groups who have their own gods, is quite current in the modern world. With the emergence of monotheism, God is seen differently. Theism he sees as a human creation, but this very fact points out the possibility of a non-theistic alternative.
In turning to the traditions of the NT, Spong pointed out the coexistence of multiple different concepts of Jesus’s divine character (christology), partly incompatible, in the writings of the evangelists and Paul. For Jesus to be the personalization of God was different from the notion that he was the Christ or Messiah, anointed to be king of the Jews (a dangerous political claim under the Roman empire). The comparisons of him to Moses and Elijah bring in yet other elements. In an extension of this christological discussion, Spong injected deep personal interpretations of the relation of divinity to humanity, saying that “Humanity and divinity are not distinct categories. Divinity is a description of what human nature can be when it is fully human.” If these views are accepted, he felt, there must be new answers to the question of what it means to be a Christian in the twenty-first century.
Rather than asking whether the gospel stories really happened, Spong recommends that we should ask, for instance, why did the authors construct their stories thus to make Jesus the fulfillment of the Messiah stories? It may be unclear how he reconciles this with his membership in the Jesus Seminar, a group which in part of its work has aimed at the assessment of the historical value of the surviving traditions about Jesus. Both directions of inquiry have their value. On the other hand, he refused to be drawn into detailed discussion of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, stating “I’m not into certainty. I think Christianity is not into certainty.”
Responding to questions after his Saturday afternoon lecture, at times Spong was pessimistic about church organizations, stating in response to one question as to whether he saw successors coming in his direction of progessive Christianity, “I don’t expect the Church ever to be Christian. If you expect the Church to be Christian, you’ll be disappointed.” Later he elaborated in a more positive way about how he conceived the tasks of the church. “The job of the Christian church is to transform the world. . .” and to “help people become more human, and not to help them become religious.” He has mixed responses to those who have recently revived the 18th century Enlightenment attack on Christianity, among whom he likes Richard Dawkins.
SUNDAY MORNING SERMON
In his sermon on the second morning of his visit, Spong acknowledged the coming of Christmas by discussing the birth of Jesus. This is treated only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, not in the basic one of Mark. The divergent treatments in Matthew and Luke agree mainly in showing that by the time of their writing, Jesus’s paternity was an issue which had to be addressed. Spong, who is an advocate of women, handled this in the case of Matthew by considering the summary of Jesus’s genealogy in the first chapter, commonly considered the most boring passage in the Bible. Spong elucidated the significance of the four women before Mary referred to in Jesus’s genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. He pointed out the late and secondary character of the story of the virgin birth, stating that it apparently was not known to Paul. By the time of the gospel of John, the issue could be ignored.; John’s focus was on christology. Overall, Spong drew from the genealogy of Jesus in Matt. 1:1-17, not christological conclusions, but that “the love of God is sufficient to overcome any human frailties”. On a level of meta-interpretation, Spong’s sermon illustrated the significant conclusions to which one may be led by consideration of an apparently barren text on a critical and historical-literary basis, as suggested in his introductory considerations on the Bible.
At the beginning of his Sunday sermon, Spong had commented with amusement on the difficulty of finding a Bible in a Unitarian-Universalist church as he was preparing for his talk; he had to settle for the King James Version. When he caught sight of me at the lunch which followed his Sunday sermon, and came over to shake hands, I jokingly told him that he had asked the wrong person for a Bible, showing him the pocket Greek NT in which I had followed his discussion of Matthew. He seemed surprised but appreciative.
Before the sermon, I had awoken in the morning to the faint powder of snow that had fallen during the night, hearing echoes in my mind that I finally recognized as coming from a sermon by an unknown medieval Byzantine churchman whose work is wrongly attributed to Epiphanius (circa 315-403 AD), the Bishop of Constantia. I first encountered this work, which is both rhetorically skilled and learned, several decades ago when I was reading through all of the earliest Old Bulgarian texts (originally from the 9th and 10th centuries AD) and their Greek originals, which was an education in Greek Christian literature and thought. I was stunned when I came to the line in this sermon which reads: “I have taken up a pen, that I may sign freedom for the human race.” The sense of this text cannot correspond to a modern political interpretation. Instead, its context comes from Colossians 2:14, looking back to Paul’s view of the abandonment of Mosaic law as liberation, in Galatians and elsewhere. In the thinking of the sermon’s unknown author (called pseudo-Epiphanius), as in Paul’s view, it referred not to a political event but to a shift away from a broad theological point of view which they regarded as imprisoning the human mind and life.
Spong acknowledged that on various occasions he had been invited to join the UU movement, but he had declined to do so. He emphasized the long-term continuity of the Western Church, saying that “Episcopalians are Catholics who can’t speak Latin”. Like the scholar Erasmus (1469(?) - 1536 AD), who saw clearly the defects of the Catholic church of his time, but did not accept invitations to leave it to join the Reformation, Spong prefers to work from within, saying “You can’t change your church from the outside.” Further, he stated that “Any Christian tradition that believes it can no longer be challenged has already died”; some of his Episcopalian colleagues counter by declaring him heretical.
One member of First Church asked me at Sunday lunch whether my admiration of Spong meant that I had reached the same religious conclusions that he had. I cannot do so in a general way, because of many other issues that he did not address. If I did, then I would have to become an Anglican. I will learn more about some of Spong’s views by informing myself better about his publications. There may well be important limitations to his point of view. However, Bishop Spong probably has enough to deal with in his own role as a contributor to and advocate of progressive Christian thought. He has, after all, taken up his pen to sign freedom for the human race, not as part of the differentiation of Christianity from Judaism, but as part of a major further advance of Christanity beyond its traditional character, and that is enough of a task for anyone.