Why Christianity Must Change or Die, John Shelby Spong

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Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile, John Shelby Spong, Harper San Francisco, 1998, ISBN 0-06-067536-5, $14.00, 257pp.

I was raised Baptist, dunked at the age of 10 or 11, and felt a “calling” around 13. But as I read more and more scholarship, I fell out with the “institualized” church because I could not believe the Bible as the literal word of God as promoted by the Southern Baptist Convention. (This change was mainly brought about by a bit of evangelical propaganda against the Mormon church, in which the writer pointed out all the difficulties with the Book of Mormon. I don’t think the writer anticipated that I would take those arguments and put them against the Bible itself.) I hesitate to call myself an atheist, which is why this book seems important–Spong tries to craft a distinction between a theist (one who believes in a single supernatural being) and a believer in God (not a “who” but a “what”). I cannot define God, and I feel that the institution of a Church is doing most people a disservice by attempting to do so–the ineffable needs to remain undefinable. By claiming infallibility (as one large denomination holds) on religion, you leave yourself wide open for errors. Instead, one should be open to new ideas and new concepts, to learn to live life with uncertainty. To be certain is to be dogmatic, and this is not a good thing in my book.

To begin with, I have to agree with his assertion that modern people cannot say the Apostle’s Creed with any honesty (the Creed is not something publicized by Southern Baptists, but “taking Jesus into your heart” prior to the baptismal procedure is probably the closest). The creed does not agree with the current world view because that view has changed in the hundreds of years since the creed was formulated. God is not a father, which implies a male patriarchal figure. Heaven is not “up there”–up is a relative term depending upon where you are. Etcetera.

To defend part of his thesis (that Christianity must be flexible enough to change to fit new information about our world), Spong uses as illustration the exile of the Jews into Babylon (sixth century B.C.E.). He says that, at that time, Jerusalem was seen as the holy city, the only place where the three great festivals of Judaism could take place. It contained the temple built by Solomon, which was God’s home on Earth. God did not live among the people, he lived in the temple. When the Babylonians got pissed off by the Israelis for the last time, they not only killed all the king’s sons before him (and then gouged out the king’s eyes so that was the last image he saw), they totally razed the city, including the temple, and then force marched any Jew who was more than a peasant to Babylon. Spong says that the Jews had to reformulate their religion, because no longer could they say God was in the temple (the temple was gone, so did that mean that God was gone?), nor could they celebrate in their holy city, which was denied to them.

The other part of his thesis is the belief that Theism is dead. Spong feels that there is no “being” called God; instead, God is all being. The depth of life, the ground of all being, is God. In the past, people viewed God as a “heavenly father,” a parental figure “up on high” that judged and protected us. As rational people, we know that concepts such as “heaven,” “father,” “up,” and “judgement” are all culturally laden–“up” is a relative term (what is up for me in Washington, D.C. is not the same direction as up for a resident of Beijing), “father” is a remnant of patriarchy, etc. We must reformulate our concept of God. In doing so, we must also reformulate the meaning of the Christ, prayer, and the church.

His basic advocation is that we throw out liturgical concepts that have become outdated (the concept that homosexuality is a punishment by God for sin, that God causes natural disasters, that God is GOD–a being) and instead live our lives through the fullness of the human experience. (Basically, a reformulation of Jesus’ command to “love one another as thyself.”) Prayer is achieved by constantly striving to achieve the fullness of life for all by removing barriers, fighting prejudice, and creating happiness. The Christ provides an example of a life lived to its fullness; the church becomes a place to share this fullness of life.

One argument against Spong is questioning how can we, as humans, reformulate our religion just because of science. To many, this smells of revisionism, of avoiding the hard choices of religion just because you might not agree with them. In this case, I have to agree. That is exactly what we are doing. But this is nothing new. Humans have been “revamp[ing] the person, character, words, deeds, and implications of Christ to fit a currently fashionable worldview” since 30 C.E. As my wife pointed out, Spong is leading a new reformation of the church. As a former Baptist, this word did not ring the same with me as it did with her, a Lutheran. I don’t think Spong has the chutzpah to personally compare himself to Martin Luther, but his publisher certainly does. And then there’s always the original formulation of the Christ message as constructed from 30 C.E. to 100 C.E. by the writers of the New Testament.

I think the reason I liked what Spong says so much is that he embraces the inconsistency of Christianity, pointing out that he is well aware of the problems that rational people have with the Bible as the literal word of God. He even goes further, showing that it doesn’t quite work on a metaphorical sense, either. But, instead of giving up, he then uses it to show that there is an “ultimate” message that can be obtained from it.

Personally, I’m not sure I can agree with everything he writes and believes. But I certainly am closer to him than I am to the pastor at the last church service I attended.

As an added bonus, and as I am having trouble putting some of my feeling about this book into prose, here are some quotes from the text itself:

“The opening phrase of the Apostle’s Creed speaks first of God as the ‘Father Almighty.’ Both of these words offend me deeply…. The word Father is such a human word–so male, so dated. It elicits the traditional God images of the old man who lives beyond the sky. It shouts of the masculinity of the deity, a concept that has been used for thousands of years to justify the oppression of women by religious institutions. That history and practice repel me today. The Christian Church at times has gone so far as to debate whether women actually had souls and whether girl babies ought to be baptized…. Even the recent ecclesiastical breakthrough in some faith communities, which has allowed women to be pastors, priests, and bishops, is embraced by only a small minority of the Christians of the world. The Church dedicated to the worship of a God who was called ‘Father’ has consistently justified its rampant discrimination against women as the will of this patriarchal deity or, at the very least, as something idolatrously called the ‘unchanging sacred tradition of the Church.’ I do not care to worship a God defined by masculinity.” [page 5]

“[quoting the creed] ‘[Jesus] was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.’ Certainly if that phrase is to be understood literally, it violates everything we know about biology. Do we not yet recognize that all virgin birth tales–and there have been many in human history–are legendary? They are human attempts to suggest that humanity alone did not have the ability to produce a life like the one being described. All virgin birth stories, including the ones about Jesus, were fully discredited as biological truths by the discovery in 1724 of the existence of an egg cell.” [page 12]

Later in the book, Spong goes on to explain what he means by this. Basically, the idea of Jesus’ birth being immaculate was to establish that he was “born without sin” because he did not inherit it from any human. But that only works if you believe, as they did up until the 18th century, that the man is the sole producer of new life (the woman acting only as a receptacle for that life to grow in). As soon as we realized that both man and woman contribute to the egg, that means that Jesus could have been born with sin from his mother. This explains why Pius II in 1854 formulated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, in which Mary becomes born without sin by the glory of God, thus not passing any sin to Jesus.

Spong also goes into heavy evidence that the virgin birth story was crafted by later gospel writers, rather than having been an accepted story from the beginning.

This book is Spong’s manifesto, gathering together most of the separate thoughts of his previous books (which “rethought” the church’s views on sexuality, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the origins of the Bible). Now that I’ve finished this one, I think I may go back and look at some of his others, plus some of those of his “mentors,” to get some more in-depth coverage on topics that Spong only covers briefly here.

[Finished July 1999]

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