A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born Paperback – 13 Feb 2003
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In this brave and important book, Bishop Spong continues his life-long quest for a living faith and church worthy of the Christ in whom we can find God in our time. His call for a new reformation is honest, deep, provocative, and needed--one hopes there are those with ears to hear. --Matthew Fox, author of Original Blessings and One River, Many Wells
About the Author
John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000. As a leading spokesperson for an open, scholarly, and progressive Christianity, Bishop Spong has taught at Harvard and at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He has also lectured at universities, conference centers, and churches in North America, Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific. His books include: A New Christianity for a New World, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and his autobiography, Here I Stand.
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Spong explains that theism was born in the beginning of civilization when people first experienced feeling unsafe and alone. Theism developed as a coping mechanism against trauma.
The author asserts that the theistic interpretation of Jesus was only added in the later Christian writings. Spong does not believe in much of the traditional Christian story. He does not believe in the virgin birth of Jesus or the idea that Jesus founded either a church or its sacraments. He says he does not have a problem with the faith - only with the literal way it is interpreted and described by some others.
Spong sees a need for a new faith that is not subject to the death of theism. God is real even though theism is dead. Can Christianity still live after theism is dead? It will, according to the author, if we are willing to move beyond our traditional ideas of Jesus.
Spong sees God as the source of all life, love and being. He views the church of the future as a place where worshipers will still seek the Holy and the Realm of God. They will search for an environment which allows them to increase their capabilities to love and embrace life to the fullest.
God is real and Jesus is the doorway into this reality. Spong still considers himself to be a Christian and he remains optimistic about the future. He is not sure where his new reformation will ultimately lead us but he is convinced we have to take the first step. If we do nothing, Spong believes that Christianity will surely die anyway.
Spong's attachment to his image of Jesus may be preventing his spiritual growth. Not that the life and death of Jesus and the stories that emerged of it are not important but that Spong may not be able to really see Christianity until he lets go of all of it. As it is, he seems to be desperately holding fast to his image of Jesus and unable to see how Christianity over the centuries may be something much more than Jesus.
Certainly a pearl may start in response to a grain of sand but it is the pearl that is beautiful and not the no longer seen grain of sand. Why try so hard to speculate on who Jesus was, even after abandoning the bodily resurrection and even the theistic conception of God? Spong may do well to turn his attention more thoroughly to Paul and the implications of his Christ experience as presented in his own letters. Spong's Jesus may be too much a matter of speculation and the next to be rejected by those very believers in exile to whom Spong appeals. If not a literal resurrection and not a literal God, why then such a literalized Jesus?
How selective has Spong been in forming the Jesus he presents? Perhaps Spong should focus on how he is able to respond to God and live more fully rather than keep trying to interpret the New Testament in a way that suits him better when he seems unsure himself what that way would be. Is Spong ready to advise others or is he struggling to work out a path for himself, a path that may lead him, despite his protestations to the contrary, beyond Jesus and beyond Christ? One might do well to read Thomas Altizer's much bolder forays in The New Gospel of Christian Atheism and Living the Death of God: A Theological Memoir. Spong needs to be bolder or many "believers in exile" will find guidance in others leaving only the timid to read Spong and believe they are being progressive by doing so: at least for the latter it may be a start.
I was privileged to attend a series of Spong's lectures a couple of years ago and, as the week progressed, I became aware of a growing 'twitch' among the audience who steadily began to realise that significant chunks of what they identified as their tradition were visibly crumbling in Spong's hands as he held them up to the scrutiny of his thesis. In that same way, this book can have a fascinating yet rather unnerving effect.
The book is Spong's attempt to address the question of what is left of 'the church' when Christianity is stripped of its mythology and its various historical and political accretions. Spong also makes a brave attempt to consider what can be offered in place of the beliefs, structures and liturgies which have emerged from the theistic concepts which he targets.
As with much of Spong's work, we are on a journey with him towards a destination which is not yet reached, probably not yet even fully constructed when you read how many aspects of Spong's post-theistic 'church' he acknowledges as unknown and unknowable. But it's a journey well worth starting and a territory well worth exploring - strange and unnerving though it may be for those of us prone to the odd 'twitch' when our familiar foundations start to crumble.
I would love to see a working model of a cohesive, post-theistic Christian 'ekklesia' which reflects some of Spong's core ideas. My suspicion is that his vision is something which is much easier to embrace as a private theology than it is to develop as a community-based faith - in effect, a personal journey rather than a shared pursuit. This is a critical factor for those who professionally manage those 'shared pursuits' which we presently call 'churches'.
I'm sure Spong will have more to say on this, and I do hope some inspiring models will emerge to show us a way forward.
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