On Belief

I think I had heard of John Shelby “Jack” Spong in years past but, if so, I paid little heed to what was said about him. Only relatively recently, when I heard the minister in my church, a church that accepts and welcomes atheists like me, did I pay sufficient attention to explore a bit more about the man. Now retired, Spong served as Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey from 1979 to 2000.

Except for his belief in God in some form or fashion that I cannot comprehend, his beliefs (or, perhaps, his approach to the universe) seem to mirror mine.  But his insistence on differentiating Christianity (even his newly-defined, modern Christianity) from other religions confounds me. Perhaps he feels it inappropriate for an “outsider” to speak to what other religions should or should not do. I do not feel similarly restrained, though; I think all religions should examine themselves deeply from the perspective of modernity and should transform accordingly. Moreover, I think those outside those religions should examine and criticize them without restriction.

In my view, the transformation Spong suggests might well involve dissolution. At the very least, it would involve abandonment of a literal translation of any old texts, including the Bible, the Quoran, the Torah, etc., etc. Most religions, in my estimation, value humanity and the world in which humanity flourishes in rather gentle, supportive ways. It’s the additive options tacked on by aftermarket suppliers that cloud the issue. That’s the way I view most individual denominations and discontented spin-offs: they are like auto dealers trying to sell undercoating, paint protectants, decorative side moldings, extended warranties, and upgraded synthetic oils with each oil change. The religious sects and the quasi-religious cults (think Evangelical Christian Fundamentalists, for example) are, to varying degrees, sleazy hucksters doing their best to slip their hands, unnoticed, into the pockets of the “faithful.”

But back to Spong and his insistence on treating Christianity separately from other major religions; I just don’t get it. And I can’t quite conceive of his view of “God,” inasmuch as he seems to think God, whatever that entity might be, somehow controls the world within which we live. Or maybe I just don’t understand. At any rate, Spong’s thinking is way outside the mainstream. Although it is my understanding he has a rather enormous following among progressive religious scholars and others disillusioned with religion in general. I suppose I am among “and others.” Though I’ve never (since childhood) been religious in the least, I’ve always thought collective conversations about morality and the practice of humanity in the world in which we live should be undertaken.

His “Twelve Points for Reform,” a call to change Christianity, was first published in 1998 in the Diocese of Newark in 1998:

  1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
  2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
  3. The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
  4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
  5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
  6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
  7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
  8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
  9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
  10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
  11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
  12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

I’ve recently learned of a subscription website, Progressing Spirit, that apparently was born under Spong’s guidance and continues without him (I gathered he ceased active involvement in 2017; well-deserved retirement, in that he is now 89 years old). I was interested in following the site, but when I learned it costs $4 per month or $40 per year, I decided against it. As intriguing as it might be, I think I’d rather spend that $40 on craft beer and habanero pepper salsas.

Speaking of habanero, the word is (as far as I can tell) a Spanish demonym meaning inhabitant of Havana. And while I’m on a demonymic roll, guantánamera (like the song) is a demonym for a woman inhabitant of Guantánamo (I surmise; I’m less certain of this, but certain enough to claim it as truth). Her male counterpart would be called un guantánamero.

Speaking of church, unless the weather insists that postponement would be appropriate, we will celebrate our achievement of being named a “welcoming congregation.” That recognition of our openness to people regardless of their sexual orientation or expression, race, socioeconomic status, etc, etc., etc. is simply a formal acknowledgement of what the congregation has been all along. I am delighted and proud to be an atheist member of that church.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes "Intimacy is never wrong. It can be awkward, it can be unsettling, it can feel dangerous, it can seem out of place, but it’s never wrong."― John Swinburn
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4 Responses to On Belief

  1. I was impressed with it, too, Meg. I am glad that, as I understand it, Dane managed to record the service.

  2. kozimeg says:

    Can I like this twice, or three times? As a fellow atheist (Humanist) member of the church, I’m happy to be part of a religious community that accepts the non-religious. I have just watched, and then re-watched parts of a very moving Sunday service from the UUA – If you didn’t catch it John, get on it right away. Parts of it are astounding! I found that it was recorded, but only for registrants, I think. Don’t miss the parts at 40 min, 45 min and 52 min. I’m going to re-watch the sermon, which starts 55 min. in, after I take a lunch break. Meg

  3. Pat, I’m only modestly familiar with Robinson and Tillich and Buber. I think I recall Robinson and Tillich from my college sociology days in discussions of situational ethics, but those memories are vague almost to the point of transparency. I loved talking about situational ethics, which I think I renamed (or maybe someone else renamed them) contextual ethics. I believed (and still do) that our moral codes are not fixed; they adjust to the world around us. One of my favorite arguments was with a friend, a brilliant guy named Paul Williams, in which I argued that infidelity in marriage could be successfully defended on the basis of responding to circumstances over which the “players” may have no control. I don’t recall whether either of us “won” the argument. I will continue to explore Sprong and Tillich and Buber and Robinson. Though I remain a devout(?) atheist, religion continues to interest me, as much because of my collegiate investment in sociology as my fascination with what I consider such widespread collective delusions of various flavors. Thanks very much for your comments! I truly appreciate them.

  4. Pat Newcomb says:

    Kate and I have been members of The Center for Progressive Christianity http://www.progressivechristianity.org (publisher of progressing spirit) since its inception nearly 25 years ago. I have been a follower of Bishop Spong going back long before that. He spends the amount of time on Christianity that you see because MOST of his audiences over the years have been staunch members of the mid-line Protestant denominations – and of those denominations, the ones that were brave enough to step away from a lot of “old” thinking – we go back to Honest to God (john a.t. robinson), I and Thou (martin buber), and Courage to Be (paul tillich) – He came of age during the existential movements of late 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and if hadn’t been such a good and gentle pastor, would have gotten himself kicked out of the Episcopal church over 40 years ago. He retired as a Bishop of the Episcopal Church (New Jersey, I think).
    He is (in my humble opinion) one of the great prophets of our day – specifically to those who found themselves more enamored of “church” than of the values and beliefs upon it was originally founded. If you can set this one issue aside for the moment and follow his thinking (see especially his most recent book “Unbelievable”), I think you will be well rewarded. I would be pleased to share more if you have an interest. good for you for delving into this amazing thought leader

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