Sorry for the disappearing act. It seems like every time I work up a good head of blog steam, something happens to knock me off track. This term is turning out to be unusually busy. But I did want to poke my head up to take note of this recent essay, at HuffPo, by John Shelby Spong.
Spong, a former bishop in the Episcopal Church, writes books with titles like Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and A New Christianity for a New World. He is very critical of all facets of traditional Christian belief. Frankly, his version of Christianity is so theologically liberal it seems awfully similar to secular humanism. My kind of guy!
Here’s the opening of his essay:
The contrast between the way the Bible is understood in the academic world and the way it is viewed in our churches is striking. I know because in my life as a priest and a bishop I have both served typical congregations and been privileged to study and to teach in some of the best known Christian academic centers in the world. In academia I discovered that issues and insights, commonplace among the scholars, are viewed as highly controversial and even as “heresy” in the churches. The result has been that the majority of people who have remained in the church have become more and more rigid and fundamentalist, while those who have left have become more and more dismissive of everything, good or bad, about Christianity. We also now have a crop of writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have totally demolished the fundamentalist approach to God with their clever and penetrating books, yet they are seemingly unaware that there are other ways to view Christianity.
From this you might think that Spong is making the familiar complaint that people like Dawkins and Hitchens are insufficiently respectful of moderate Christianity. You know, the kind that dispenses with a six-day creation and the story of Adam an Eve, but nonetheless retains traditional notions of the resurrection and of God’s existence and nature. But, as we shall see, Spong mostly discards every aspect of traditional Christian teaching. It is not just the fundamentalists against whom he is railing, but against far more moderate believers as well. The “other ways” of viewing Christianity Spong envisions are so far removed from orthodoxy that many would say his views are not Christian at all. Quite a lot of non-fundamentalists would claim that what is good about Christianity is precisely the part where it claims to be in possession of eternal truths that have been revealed by God.
In the world of Christian scholarship, for example, to read the Bible literally is regarded as absurd. To call the words of the Bible “the Word of God” is more than naive. No modern person can still believe that a star can wander through the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with it, that God actually dictated the Ten Commandments — all three versions, no less — or that a multitude can be fed with five loaves and two fish. No modern person understanding genetics and reproduction can believe that virgins conceive, nor can those who understand what death does to the human body in a matter of just minutes still view the resurrection as the resuscitation of a deceased body after three days.
From this it is clear that Spong simply dismisses any possibility of miracles, or of interventions by God into the natural order of things. I have met some pretty hard-core fundamentalists over the years, but not a one of them thinks that the dead can rise without some sort of supernatural intervention. Their belief in the items on Spong’s list stems not from misunderstandings of the relevant science (leaving aside questions now about Genesis and evolution), but from their belief that there is a supernatural realm that can influence our lives.
Of course, I agree with Spong that a sensible person should reject a belief in the resurrection, and in the other items he mentions. I don’t dismiss out of hand the possibility of miracles, but I will need far better evidence for them than anyone has ever provided. But pointing out that the various Biblical miracles conflict with science is not much of an argument, especially coming from someone accusing others of pretending they have discovered something new.
Biblical scholars know that the accounts of the crucifixion read in Christian churches on Good Friday are not eye witness reports, but developed interpretations of Jesus’ death based on a series of Old Testament texts selected to convince fellow Jews that Jesus “fulfilled the scriptures” and thus really was the “messiah.” These issues and many others are assumed in the world of biblical scholars, but are viewed by many church-goers, together with the vast majority of television evangelists and radio preachers, as attacks on divine revelation that must be resisted in order to save Christianity. They thus, knowingly or unknowingly, join in a conspiracy of silence, ignoring truth when they feel they can and viewing biblical scholars, strangely enough, as the church’s ultimate enemy. At the same time secular critics attack what Christian scholars know is nonsensical about both the Bible and Christianity and act as if they have discovered something new.
This paragraph illustrates something that is often frustrating about Spong’s writing. His specific points are all relevant and well-taken. But why the jibe at the end about secular critics? We point out what is nonsensical about the Bible and Christianity not because we think we have discovered something new, but simply because so many other people deny that there is anything nonsensical in them at all. We are simply expressing precisely the same frustration as Spong himself. So why the snideness?
There are some biblical facts that cannot and should not be ignored, if Christians really value truth. For example, the time separating when Moses lived (ca. 1250 BCE) from when the stories of Moses were written in the Bible (ca. 950 BCE) is about 300 years, representing 15 generations of oral transmission. Can anyone knowing this continue to be a literal believer? The gospels were written 40 -70 years after the crucifixion, which means that most of what we read about Jesus in the Bible was handed down orally for two to three generations before one word of it achieved written form. The gospels were also first written in Greek, a language which neither Jesus nor his disciples spoke or wrote! How can anyone claim “inerrancy” for such material? Other facts well-known in the academy, but seemingly unknown outside by either believers or critics, are that scholars can find no evidence that miracles were associated with the memory of Jesus before the 8th decade of the Christian era, that there is no mention of the virgin birth anywhere before the 9th decade and that the narratives of the ascension and Pentecost did not appear until the 10th decade. The New Testament does not agree on such basic issues as the identity of the twelve disciples or the details of Easter. Why has none of this been made available in churches or been discovered by those who pose as the church’s secular critics?
Here again we see Spong’s antipathy towards any notion of the supernatural. Anyone in possession of the basic facts of the Bible’s composition should reject any notion of inerrancy, unless they also believe that God was guiding the various scribes and compilers. In fact, it is a common apologetic argument to point to the supposed unity of scripture, despite its composition over thousands of years, as evidence of its divine inspiration.
I don’t think that’s a good argument, of course. But Spong has a lot of nerve accusing others of thinking they have discovered something new, when his whole essay here is a recitation of standard talking points. Powerful talking points, in my opinion, but still not anything that hasn’t been hashed out many times before.
And, with regard to that last sentence, I’m pretty sure the church’s secular critics are perfectly aware of the points Spong raises. We make them all the time. We need to keep making them precisely because so many people deny them.
Spong goes on like this for two more paragraphs. Then he closes with this:
Christianity is, I believe, about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity. It is not about closed minds, supernatural interventions, a fallen creation, guilt, original sin or divine rescue. I am tired of seeing the Bible being used, as it has been throughout history, to legitimize slavery and segregation, to subdue women, to punish homosexuals, to justify war and to oppose family planning and birth control. That is a travesty which must be challenged and changed.
And here I thought Christianity was about our need for, and the possibility of, redemption. It is a strange take on Christianity that makes no reference either to God or to Jesus. I am as tired as he of seeing the Bible used to justify immoral beliefs and behavior. What I don’t understand is why he persists in calling himself a Christian after vigorously discarding all of the major points of Christian teaching. What is there about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity, whatever any of that even means, that is specific to Christianity?