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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Spong, John Shelby (1931 - )
"Theism, as a way of conceiving God, has become demonstrably inadequate, and the God of theism not only is dying but is probably not revivable. If the religion of the future depends on keeping alive the definitions of theism, then the human phenomenon that we call religion will have come to an end. If Christianity depends on a theistic definition of God, then we must face the fact that we are watching this noble religious system enter the rigor mortis of its own death throes."

-- John Shelby Spong


The Right Reverend Dr. John Shelby Spong (born in Charlotte, North Carolina) is the retired Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark (based in Newark, New Jersey).

Background
Spong was educated in Charlotte public schools. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina in 1952, and received his Master of Divinity degree in 1955 from the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. That seminary and Saint Paul's College have both conferred on him honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees.

He served as rector of St. Joseph's Church in Durham, North Carolina from 1955 to 1957; rector of Calvary Parish, Tarboro, North Carolina from 1957 to 1965; rector of St. John's Church in Lynchburg, Virginia from 1965 to 1969; and rector of St. Paul's Church in Richmond, Virginia from 1969 to 1976. He has moreover held visiting positions and given prominent lectures at major American theological institutions, most prominently at Harvard Divinity School. He retired in 2000.

Writings
Spong is the bestselling liberal theologian of recent times. Like most liberal theologians Spong's writings rely on biblical sources, but are also influenced by modern critical analysis of the biblical sources (see especially Spong, 1991). As such he is representative of a stream of Christian thought with roots in the medieval universalism of Peter Abelard and the existentialism of Paul Tillich. Many readers find Spong's distinctive theological voice more accessible than more specialized authors of liberal theology like John Hick, John Cobb, and the aforementioned Tillich.

One prominent theme in Spong's writing is the need to rethink the basic ideas of Christianity to make them consistent with a postmodern understanding of the universe. He believes, as did his theological predecessor, Bishop John A.T. Robinson, that theism has lost credibility as a valid conception of God's nature, preferring something more akin to panentheism.

He identifies himself as a Christian because he believes that Jesus fully expressed God's presence and that Jesus was resurrected by God to "God's right hand", and that this is the meaning of the early Christian slogan of "Jesus is Lord" (Spong, 1994 and Spong, 1991). He rejects the historical truth of some Christian doctrines, such as the virgin birth (Spong, 1992) and the bodily resurrection of Jesus that he claims would define the resurrection as the literal resuscitation of the corpse of Jesus (Spong, 1994).

New Reformation
Spong has also been a strong proponent of feminism, gay rights and racial equality within both the church and society at large, while maintaining a strong and paradoxical antagonism to the aspirations of Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, vis-à-vis the State of Israel: in his memoir Here I Stand (by which title Spong implicitly characterises himself as the 20th century's Martin Luther) Spong describes Palestinian Christians in Israel in terms of acute distaste. Towards these ends, he calls for a new Reformation, in which many of Christianity's basic doctrines should be reformulated. These beliefs are most fully outlined in his book A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born. He briefly outlines these beliefs on his web site as follows:

Martin Luther ignited the Reformation of the 16th century by nailing to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 the 95 Theses that he wished to debate. I will publish this challenge to Christianity in The Voice. I will post my theses on the Internet and send copies with invitations to debate them to the recognized Christian leaders of the world. My theses are far smaller in number than were those of Martin Luther, but they are far more threatening theologically. The issues to which I now call the Christians of the world to debate are these:

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 writ 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.

Spong's work on the textual evolution of the role of Judas Iscariot as the betraying Jew of Jesus in the Gospels has garnered particular attention by social scientists concerned with roots of anti-Semitism in the New Testament. He holds fundamentally that the expanding detail given to Iscariot’s betrayal from the synoptic gospels through to the Gospel according to John is a result of active embellishment on behalf of the those authors postdating Mark and the Q document, as a result of ideological tension resulting from initially unforeseen and increasing hostility between Jews and Christians in the early history of the church.

Criticisms
Many of Spong's critics charge him with hypocrisy, saying that a bishop who argues against church doctrines that he swore in his ordination vow to defend lacks integrity, especially when being paid by the church. Some, such as Brent Hardaway, would argue that Spong's beliefs are not even Christian. The God of the Christian Bible is a theistic God, and if one does not believe in a theistic God, then he cannot be called a Christian.

Gerald O'Collins, Professor of Fundamental Theology, Gregorian University, Rome argued that Spong’s "work simply does not belong to the world of international scholarship. No genuine scholar will be taken in by this book. ... What is said about a key verb St. Paul uses in Gal. 1:15f. shows that the bishop [Spong] has forgotten any Greek that he knew. [Spong argued his case based on a Greek word that is not even in this passage] ... [my] advice for his next book is to let some real experts check it before publication." [Review of Resurrection: Myth or Reality, London Tablet, 30 April 1994]

One critical book is entitled Can a Bishop Be Wrong? Ten Scholars Challenge John Shelby Spong, edited by Peter Moore.

The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a response to Spong's 12 points in 1998 while he was the Bishop of Monmouth. "[...] I cannot in any way see Bishop Spong's theses as representing a defensible or even an interesting Christian future. And I want to know whether the Christian past scripture and tradition, really appears to him as empty and sterile as this text suggests."

Quotations

"Theism, as a way of conceiving God, has become demonstrably inadequate, and the God of theism not only is dying but is probably not revivable. If the religion of the future depends on keeping alive the definitions of theism, then the human phenomenon that we call religion will have come to an end. If Christianity depends on a theistic definition of God, then we must face the fact that we are watching this noble religious system enter the rigor mortis of its own death throes."

"A major function of fundamentalist religion is to bolster deeply insecure and fearful people. This is done by justifying a way of life with all of its defining prejudices. It thereby provides an appropriate and legitimate outlet for one's anger. The authority of an inerrant Bible that can be readily quoted to buttress this point of view becomes an essential ingredient to such a life. When that Bible is challenged, or relativized, the resulting anger proves the point categorically."

"They amuse themselves by playing an irrelevant ecclesiastical game called "Let's Pretend." Let's pretend that we possess the objective truth of God in our inerrant Scriptures or in our infallible pronouncements or in our unbroken apostolic traditions."

"I could not believe that anyone who has read this book would be so foolish as to proclaim that the Bible in every literal word was the divinely inspired, inerrant word of God. Have these people simply not read the text? Are they hopelessly misinformed? Is there a different Bible? Are they blinded by a combination of ego needs and naïveté?"

"What the mind cannot believe the heart can finally never adore."

 
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