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on 19 February 2008
Writing 2 years after exploring a non-theistic Christianity in Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile, Bishop Spong seems to have little to add to that work. An opportunity, perhaps, to re-state where he had come to in his thinking. A good chapter on the role theism had played historically in helping humankind deal with the trauma of self-consciousness and a challenge to any emergent Christianity that it be able to help us counter the hysteria that seems to be emerging due to the dying of theism. But little theological advance in this book and one wonders if one would do better to turn to Tillich, however less accessible he might be, or to Bonhoeffer. Is knowing God as "the Ground of All Being" adequate to sustain one? Is meeting Jesus as the Gospel writers presented him adequate to inspire? Spong seems unsure just what form any "New Christianity" will take although he seems to know what forms it should not take. Although committed still to his image of Jesus, he does not even seem certain whether Christianity will survive as a viable religion for those believers in exile he has sought to reach. Given that, it seem s surprising that he has not ventured away even a little from Jesus. He does speak of conversations with Buddhists and others, but he seems unwilling to let go of Christianity for a while and try Buddhism or any other faith. Were he, for example, to at least study and practice some form of Buddhism, say Chan Buddhism, he might see how that religion evolved so as to let go almost entirely of the historical Buddha, instead turning to creating legends of new Chinese Buddhas based on such Chan Buddhist masters as Hui-Neng and Lin-Chi.
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.