Unbelievable (John Shelby Spong) - A Review

UNBELIEVABLE: Why Neither Ancient Creeds nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today.  By John Shelby Spong. San Francisco: Harper One, 2018. (paperback edition: 2019)

                What kind of Christianity is left when much that has been traditionally affirmed as marking the essence of Christianity is deemed "unbelievable"? John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop, who has a lot in common with another radical Episcopal Bishop—James Pike—has made a name for himself by challenging traditional beliefs and practices, even as he served as a leader in one of the most traditional of Christian denominations. Nonetheless, he offers us in this book a manifesto of sorts, calling on Christians to abandon the old ways and follow a different path. As the declaration on the book’s cover, attributed to "Booklist," puts it: "Luther launched a reformation with 95 Theses. Spong would launch another with 12." I expect that there will be much pushback on that assertion, but Spong tries to make his case here that something new is needed in the Christian world.  

As with earlier books, Spong offers his take on a form of Christianity that will meet with rational explanations. While it is suggested that he would offer us the foundation of a new reformation, it seems to me that what he offers is awfully old hat. In fact, it would seem to resonate with John Toland and Matthew Tindal, two early Deist writers from the seventeenth and eighth centuries, figures who are largely forgotten to everyone except perhaps a few philosophers and historians like me. Nevertheless, there are still those out there who seek a more rational form of faith, one that meets with scientific scrutiny. 

His premise, as laid out in Part I, is that modern men and women can no longer be believers. Traditional theism doesn't fit with current understandings of reality. What was once believed has died and must be buried. When I read Spong, what I discover is that the concerns he has have largely been rethought and restated decades ago. He seems stuck in the 1960s, with a theology that is largely reflective of Paul Tillich. Now Tillich might have much to teach us, but it’s not new.

He offers us twelve theses, beginning with God. He declares that God is not a being. Instead, God is something akin to Tillich's "ground of being." He seems to embrace a form of panentheism, but he doesn't use the term, nor does he mention Process Theology or a person like Jürgen Moltman. He does, have a chapter on Darwin and Newton, as well as one on Freud. Whatever God is, Spong’s vision of God is a bit ambiguous. His second thesis focuses on Jesus Christ. Here he wants to rid the church of the idea of incarnation, suggesting that it is a 4th century invention. For someone who wrote a book on the Gospel of John, I'm surprised he forgot about John 1:1-14, which declares that the Word of God became "flesh" and dwelt among us. Nevertheless, he finds the idea of incarnation problematic, along with the traditional salvation story. In fact, he's not too interested in salvation at all, though the idea of salvation has been reimagined by many, in ways that might even appeal to him. But he seems unaware of these discussions.

Thesis three throws out original sin, and for some reason he focuses on the question of the virgin birth, though many have rethought original sin outside these older formulas. Thesis 5 looks at Miracles. He suggests that these are described in few places in Scripture, beginning with Moses, then Elijah and Elisha, and finally Jesus. I expect there are other places where miracles appear, but again, he might want to look at what even a John Crossan has to say about the miracle stories. After all, Jesus is portrayed as a healer in the Gospels. In Thesis 6 he rids us of "atonement theology," but then again, he's not alone in finding traditional penal substitution and satisfaction theories problematic. In a chapter titled "incomplete—not fallen" he speaks of his vision of humanity in evolutionary terms. Again, most mainstream theologians have made peace with evolution, but see the creation story as having important symbolic value. In addition, John Hick long ago drew from Irenaeus to produce a rather similar vision of humanity as innocent and needing to grow in knowledge.

Theses 7 and 8 deal with Easter and the ascension. Regarding the resurrection, he sees it as more an opening of the mind to a new vision of reality. While he mentions Paul's reference to the witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15, he seems to pass over Paul's declaration that if the dead are not raised, we are most to be pitied. So, it seems that Paul has more in mind here than simply a new way of thinking. Then there is the Gospel of John and Thomas putting his fingers in Jesus' wounds. But he doesn’t address these passages.

Thesis 9 focuses on Ethics. His thesis is that "the ability to define and separate good from evil can no longer be achieved with appeals to ancient codes such as the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount." He focuses his attention on the Ten Commandments, but never really tells us why the Sermon on the Mount might be passé. Regarding the Ten Commandments, I felt he failed to set them in their context as the covenant stipulations, which would seem to be an important point. Of course, his point is that we need to look beyond Scripture for ethical guidance. While he is correct that we need to adapt what we hear in Scripture, that doesn't mean it is without value. Many of us, who would be much less liberal in our theology understand that love needs to be our guide and that what Scripture seems to speak to, it might not address (such as with LGBT persons). 

Thesis 10 speaks to the question of prayer, and that is a conundrum for many. God isn't simply a dispenser of goods nor does God step in and solve every problem we ask for, but there is something about prayer as the means by which we connect with God (however we envision God). Thesis 11 has to do with Life after Death. It is true, that our beliefs are not scientifically verifiable, but I would suggest that there is something innate within us that desires a continuation of existence beyond the grave. Religious traditions might differ on what that is, but it has been with the human species from before the major religions even took form. At the same time, I think most mainliners like me don't see the promise of heaven (whatever heaven might be) as a means of social control. 

His final Thesis has to do with Universalism. This he believes is the message of Christianity. That is, we are all one. There's nothing here really to object to. I don't know that adherence to creeds and ideas such as incarnation mitigate against such a vision. It is interesting that he can embrace and reject the Trinity at the same time. Of course, a doctrine like the Trinity cannot fully define or describe God, but it is an explanatory piece that helps us understand both the Scriptural witness and our own experience of God.

As for me, I have no need or desire to push Spong out of the Christian faith. I’m not into heresy trials. I take him at his word, that he is a Christian, just one who has issues with many of the traditions of a church he served as bishop. Indeed, I find it ironic that he used his position as a bishop to deconstruct the Christian faith. Nevertheless, he was elected a bishop and served for quite some time. However, I find him to be, as a theologian and biblical scholar, somewhat sloppy. So, I would offer a word of warning. Be careful as you read through the text. He makes plenty of statements that lack support, and thus require discernment. At the end of the day, while Spong thinks traditional Christianity is dying, it seems rather vibrant in much of the world outside Europe and North America. In fact, the form of Christianity that continues to win the day in much of the world isn't Spong's reasonable Christianity, but Pentecostalism. In fact, I would venture to say that most persons who might embrace his vision of Christianity probably wouldn't find much reason to stay with it. That it works for Spong is fine, but, again, it does seem rather dated. In fact, John Toland might find common cause! As for me, well I have found other voices more convincing.


Unknown said…
Yes, I would say the problem with Spong is not that he's so incredibly wrong (though I disagree with him on many points), but that he doesn't really do his homework. It may be hard, though, to find a respectably scholarly rebel!
Unknown said…
I like Spong. He reassures me that there is room in the extremely liberal end of Christianity for me, because he's further in that direction than I am.

That said, I agree with you that there's really nothing in what I've read of Spong so far (which doesn't include this particular book) which would incline me towards identifying myself as Christian, and I'm rather close to Spong in that I also find it impossible to believe in supernatural events (though I preserve epistemic humility enough not quite to disbelieve in them). I may need, for myself, to reimagine concepts like Original Sin and Incarnation somewhat, but I don't think you can throw out those and so much else and still have much in common with the tradition.

That said, I'm sure there are some people who are merely culturally Christian for whom he might have some traction.
Robert Cornwall said…
Chris, what I find interesting with Spong is that he presents himself as a vanguard of liberal Christianity, but what he offers is really old hat. In fact, most of his references in the book are to things written in the 50s and 60s. There's nothing wrong with that. I quote folks like Barth and Bonhoeffer quite regularly, but I'm also aware of more recent stuff.

But, he does give some in the church who aren't sure they belong someone to hold on to.

I just wish he would do his homework!
Unknown said…
Spong is not and never has been a Christian.
Christopher Miller said…
Is it just me, or is Thesis Four missing from this blog?
Robert Cornwall said…
Christopher, I think you caught me on that one!

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