How often does one hear a bishop question whether the collective act of worshipping a supernatural all-controlling God has harmed the cause of humanity in modern times?
Probably not that often. But there is one American bishop who does it routinely in print, over the airwaves, and in speeches. His name is John Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopal Bishop from the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey. Spong is one of the most progressive voices in the Episcopal Church today, daring as he does to confront fundamentalist Christian theology and go toe-to-toe, verse-to-verse with conservative Christian leaders in public debates. He has even called institutional Christianity to account for its part in the wholesale oppression of African Americans, women, and homosexuals, and for fomenting hatred in the hearts of believers. Needless to say, Spong has his critics. But they haven’t succeeded in quieting him down one iota.
Spong, who will speak at Trinity Episcopal Church on Wednesday, May 2, has written 14 books on various aspects of Christian theology. His two bestsellers are This Hebrew Lord and Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. In his newly published book, Jesus for the Non-Religious, he paints a portrait of Jesus from a Jewish perspective, emphasizing his humanity as opposed to the miraculousness of his being, highlighting Jesus’ practice of breaking through tribal barriers to embrace all people- gentiles, Samaritans, prostitutes, tax-collectors, even the Romans who were to eventually kill him.
There is a lot about Spong to inspire the hordes of alienated Christians who hang about home Sunday mornings watching “Meet the Press,” turned off by the historical sins of organized religion and by what they believe to be fantastic Biblical stories fabricated by stodgy, angry theologians in the first and second centuries. It isn’t just Spong’s disavowal of theism that appeals to disaffected Christians, but the way he tries to separate religious myth from historical fact while still hanging on to what is holy and mysterious in the Christian tradition.
One of Spong’s twists on tradition I found personally freeing is the way he speaks of God as a personal experience. “No human being can tell anybody what God is like,” Spong said over the phone from his home in New Jersey. “All I can do is experience God, and I think I experience God as life empowering me to live, love empowering me to love, what [theologian] Paul Tillich called the ‘ground of being empowering me to be all I can be.’”
In addition to conservative Christians, Spong has also drawn criticism from some of the higher-ups in the Episcopal Church, including Rowan Williams, who is now Archbishop of Canterbury-head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Spong actively supports the ordination of gays to the priesthood and the Episcopate. He doesn’t understand why gays and lesbians can’t marry. Science has long since determined that homosexuality is a state of being, not a personal choice, he said.
But it’s his vision of Jesus that infuriates conservatives more than anything because he does not believe Jesus is God, per se. “We need to look at Jesus not as a divine invader from outer space,” Spong said, “but as a human life that is so completely full, he becomes a channel through which all of what we call God can flow. And he can flow in you and me.”
John Shelby Spong will speak Wednesday, May 2, at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1500 State St., 965-7419.