Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Eternal Mystery

Eternal Life: A New Vision
Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell
by John Shelby Spong

I think Bishop John Shelby Spong will be remembered as a man whose ideas were ahead of his time. He has long been revered or vilified (depending on perspective) for his openness to homosexual leadership in the Episcopal church, his liberal interpretation of scripture, and his aggressive challenge of theological orthodoxy. I agree with a great many of Spong's ideas, and find him engaging even when I do not. Eternal Life is likely his last book, as he states in the preface. He is close to 80 years old now, and doubts that he has the time left to exhaustively research another topic and bring a book on it to fruition. I hope he is wrong, though. I would like to continue to hear from him, as so many of his thoughts are liberating and energizing.

Having said that, I do not think Eternal Life is his best work, even though it is clearly the product of much work and thought. One of the issues is that there are several sections that are largely a rehash of the theology he articulated in his previous book A New Christianity for a New World. Friends of mine for whom Eternal Life was their first exposure to Spong were enthralled, but a lot of it felt repetitive to me. Another thing that bugs me is that Spong way overgeneralizes about people, what we believe, and why we believe it. He creates an unassailable argument when he says that humans only believe in the traditional notion of a personal God because we are frightened and insecure and need someone to take care of us. He says that we praise God in order to "manipulate" God and beg God to do what we want. I would describe my theology as fairly traditional, yet flexible and open. Very few doctrines are deal breakers for me - if I found out tomorrow that the physical resurrection of Christ did not happen, I would continue to love God, love Christ, and show up for worship the next Sunday. Likewise for the virgin birth. I am convinced that other faith traditions have at least a portion of the truth. So, I am not a rigid ideologue by any stretch of the imagination. However, I often feel dismissed by Spong's construction. Moreover, he says that all of this human neediness is mostly unconscious, if not entirely so. When I argue with Spong in my head, I practically hear him saying, "See, you really are a mess like I say, you just don't know it." On the one hand. he's right. I'm a mess. We all are. But I don't think it makes me a theological child to think that something/someone out there cares. Maybe that Being cannot solve my problems, and that is part of the way things are. But I trust that Being to sustain me through whatever comes my way.

Spong points out that the West has opened itself more to non-traditional theology and is more willing to jettison our former ideas of a supernatural, theistic God than some of the developing world. That is probably true, but the reason he gives for that is that "the West has engaged the intellectual revolution more than any other part of the world." I think this is a strategic mistake. Whether he intended it or not, such a statement comes across as "We in the West are just smarter than those poor souls in developing countries. Once they expose themselves to our ideas they will see that we are right." This is unfortunate, because many of Spong's ideas are on target and deserve a hearing - but the quickest way to alienate people is to say that they are not smart, or not intellectual.

Spong works as hard in Eternal Life to prove that things like the bodily resurrection of Christ and the virgin birth DID NOT, COULD NOT happen as the most rigid fundamentalist does to prove that they did. He is no more successful in disproving than they are in proving. Spong's greatest strength is that he opens us to mystery. He leads us to consider alternative possibilities, as well as acknowledge that any view of God that we have will naturally be influenced by our own needs and desires. We will never fully know who God is until we meet God face-to-face (a metaphor that Spong would probably abhor!), but we can learn pieces of the truth from one another. Just bringing us to that place is a real gift, and one of the things for which future generations of seekers will thank him.

Reverent Reader


At 4/25/10, 7:29 AM , Blogger Saying Grace said...

I am one who thinks the most ethically congruent thing Spong could do is give up his office as Bishop of the faithful, this is an excellent, fair review.


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