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John Shelby Spong – a humanistic bishop?



By John Coss


John is Vice chair of Stockport Humanists. In this article, he reviews the life and work of Bishop Spong and how his ideas relate to humanism.





John Shelby Spong (1931-2021) was the Episcopalian Bishop of Newark from 1978 to 2000. He identified himself as a Progressive Christian, though some traditional Christians question whether he was a Christian at all, as he thought of God not as a supernatural deity but as “the Ground of Being”. He saw humanists as his allies, indeed some even regard him as a humanist himself. A good introduction to his thinking is given by his address to the American Humanist Association in 2016 when he received their annual Religious Liberty Award. He noted their slogan – “Good Without God” – and said that he knew from experience that it was easy to be “Evil With God”: he thought the other two possibilities [i.e., “Evil Without God” and “Good With God”] were also there, so slogans didn’t always tell the whole truth.


Many of Spong’s other presentations are available on YouTube. And this obituary in the Church Times provides an assessment of his life and work from a more orthodox perspective.


“Bishop Spong’s theological perspectives align with many humanist principles.”

Spong’s theological perspectives align with many humanist principles. He often emphasised the importance of human experience in matters of faith and spirituality, and advocated inclusivity, tolerance, and a broader acceptance of diverse perspectives within the realm of faith. He was committed to justice, love, and ethical living, in line with humanist values that seek to promote human well-being and social justice for all, and he encouraged critical thinking and a reasoned approach to matters of faith. He rejected some traditional Christian doctrines and emphasised symbolic interpretations, and was open to interfaith dialogue and exploration of common ground among different religious traditions, a humanistic approach that seeks to find shared values and promote understanding across diverse cultural and religious contexts. Nevertheless, while Spong incorporated elements of humanist thinking into his theological framework, his views are situated within the broader context of Progressive Christianity.


Spong grew up in South Carolina, part of the Bible Belt. His mother attended the same church as Billy Graham and Spong himself delivered newspapers to the Graham household. He acquired the prevailing prejudices there as to racism, the superiority of men over women, and hostility to homosexuality, all justified by passages in the Bible.  He later changed his mind radically on these matters, and was also for a while an active supporter of assisted dying. He was ordained into the Episcopalian priesthood in 1955, served as rector in four parishes in North Carolina and Virginia, and was the Bishop of Newark for 22 years. He was the first Episcopalian bishop to ordain women and gay men, eventually including partnered gay men. After retiring in 2000, he engaged in an extensive world-wide lecturing career until he suffered a stroke in 2017. He also continued to be a prolific author: about half of his books were written after he retired.


Spong wrote over 30 books. Some focus on particular matters, such as the virgin birth, the resurrection, and attitudes to sex and relationships in modern conditions, while others relate to the wider issue of the future of Christianity, and why it needs to change. Three books in this latter category are particularly noteworthy: Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998); A New Christianity for a New World (2001); and Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today (2017).


Spong summarised his arguments in “Twelve Theses” (a reference to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses), which he modified from time to time after their initial presentation. The final version is the focus of his last book – Unbelievable. They are reproduced below in the form presented by Progressive Christianity:


1.    God

Understanding God in theistic categories as “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external to the world and capable of invading the world with miraculous power” is no longer believable. Most God talk in liturgy and conversation has thus become meaningless.


2.    Jesus – the Christ

If God can no longer be thought of in theistic terms, then conceiving of Jesus as “the incarnation of the theistic deity” has also become a bankrupt concept.


3.    Original Sin – The Myth of the Fall

The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which we human beings have fallen into “Original Sin” is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.


4.    The Virgin Birth

The virgin birth understood as literal biology is impossible. Far from being a bulwark in defense of the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth actually destroys that divinity.


5.    Jesus as the Worker of Miracles

In a post-Newtonian world supernatural invasions of the natural order, performed by God or an “incarnate Jesus,” are simply not viable explanations of what actually happened.


6.    Atonement Theology

Atonement theology, especially in its most bizarre “substitutionary” form, presents us with a God who is barbaric, a Jesus who is a victim and it turns human beings into little more than guilt-filled creatures. The phrase “Jesus died for my sins” is not just dangerous, it is absurd.


7.    The Resurrection

The Easter event transformed the Christian movement, but that does not mean that it was the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ deceased body back into human history. The earliest biblical records state that “God raised him.” Into what, we need to ask. The experience of resurrection must be separated from its later mythological explanations.


8.    The Ascension of Jesus

The biblical story of Jesus’ ascension assumes a three-tiered universe, which was dismissed some five hundred years ago. If Jesus’ ascension was a literal event of history, it is beyond the capacity of our 21st century minds to accept it or to believe it.


9.    Ethics

The ability to define and to separate good from evil can no longer be achieved with appeals to ancient codes like the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount. Contemporary moral standards must be hammered out in the juxtaposition between life-affirming moral principles and external situations.


10.  Prayer

Prayer, understood as a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history, is little more than an hysterical attempt to turn the holy into the servant of the human. Most of our prayer definitions of the past are thus dependent on an understanding of God that has died.


11.  Life after Death

The hope for life after death must be separated forever from behavior control. Traditional views of heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment are no longer conceivable. Christianity must, therefore, abandon its dependence on guilt as a motivator of behavior.


12.  Judgment and Discrimination

Judgment is not a human responsibility. Discrimination against any human being on the basis of that which is a “given” is always evil and does not serve the Christian goal of giving “abundant life” to all. Any structure either in the secular world or in the institutional church, which diminishes the humanity of any child of God on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation must be exposed publicly and vigorously. There can be no reason in the church of tomorrow for excusing or even forgiving discriminatory practices. “Sacred Tradition” must never again provide a cover to justify discriminatory evil.


Reference

The 12 Theses are reproduced, under a creative commons licence, in the form presented on their website by Progressive Christianity.

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