BISHOP SPONG AND THE FALL
THE REV. LEANDER S. HARDING, PH.D.
The second thesis of John Spong we are taking up in this series is the third in his manifesto: The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
Spong treats the concept of the fall and the story of Adam and Eve in a chapter in his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, entitled, “Jesus As Rescuer: An Image That Has To Go.” He quite accurately outlines the traditional story of salvation history which begins with a good and loving God freely creating a good creation and as the pinnacle of that creation God creates the man and the woman in his image and likeness. God places the man and the woman in the garden and gives them dominion over the earth. Then the snake appears on the scene and tempts Adam and Eve to break the one commandment that God has given them. Sin enters in and the original relationship with God is broken. From this original sin evil spreads. Traditional theology says that we are all affected by Original Sin and stand in need of an antidote for this sin. God deals with sin and evil by calling Abraham and by giving the law through Moses, by sending the prophets and in the fullness of time, Christ to be the sacrifice for sin. By his death and resurrection Jesus Christ restores our fellowship with God and gives us the gift of eternal life. This basic narrative of salvation Spong calls “Jesus the divine rescuer” which is “dead wood of the past” which “must be cleared out so that new life has a chance to grow.”
There are obvious problems with a literalistic reading of Genesis. My own way of saying this is that the story in Genesis is not about geology or paleontology but about theology and anthropology. It is an inspired story that tells us something about human nature, the nature of God and the relationship between God and humanity and about cosmology in the sense of the purpose of the world. Spong is quite explicit in rejecting such a theological reading of Genesis. He rejects the very concept of sin, which he understands as a fall from an original perfection. There was not an original perfection from which to fall. Indeed according to Spong it is meaningless to speak of the creation as good. The cosmos is not fallen. It is imperfect and evolving. Human beings are not sinful they are incomplete. Our lack of wholeness represents our struggle to become our “deepest and truest selves.” when we get caught in a struggle for survival, “our highest instincts collapse” and “our radical self-centeredness causes us to engage in a tooth and claw struggle all over again.” We struggle with the baggage of evolution. Spong is particularly offended by the way he believes the doctrine of Original Sin has been used to demonize sexual instinct and to control people with guilt and shame. Spong also questions the idea that human life has a unique and eternal significance. All religious systems may err in overemphasizing the significance of the human. Life, (with a capital L), may be able to go on quite well without us. For Spong, exaggerated feelings of guilt are not appropriate for an insignificant species engaged in a simple struggle to be, “our truest and best selves,” and deal with, “the baggage of evolution.”
Spong uses the terms “Darwin, Darwinism and evolution” interchangeably without really defining what he means by these. He seems to not recognize hotly debated questions about the boundary between scientific theory and philosophical speculation. Spong also seems to take for granted that a recognition of the vast time and intricate process involved in the appearance of human life argue against a special creation of the world and humanity by a loving God. John Polkinghorne, the physicist turned priest, writes of how secular minded scientists looking at the long chain of improbable events that are required for the appearance, first of life, and then human life raise the question of intelligent design under the title of the “anthropic principle.” For many close students of the evolutionary process, the process seems to beg the question of design and a creation by a creator. I have recently been given a book by Michael J. Denton, a Senior Research Fellow in Human Molecular Genetics at a New Zealand University with the title, Nature’s Destiny: How The Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose In the Universe. It is certainly overreaching to present this question as decided and closed within learned discourse.
There is a further problem with Spong’s approach to evolution. He assumes that the process suggests its own meaning and purpose. Meaning and purpose are categories which depend on revelation. If you knew nothing of time, the most detailed description of the working of a watch would never disclose to you its purpose. When the watchmaker tells you the purpose of the machine then it all makes sense. You can see at once what the numerals and the hands are for or why the digital numerals change in the sequence in which they do. Arguments from design are of this sort. They argue that the notion of a creator gives a credible meaning to careful observation. Concepts like “our truest and deepest selves,” or our, “higher instincts,” are categories of purpose and meaning which are brought in from elsewhere. They are ideas which depend on an understanding of what it means to be human that takes human dignity and significance for granted. They are really borrowed without annotation from the tradition of Christian humanism. An automatic evolution which progresses without divine guidance and which naturally evolves the standards and values for a truly human life is as much a myth as Genesis and one which is a less credible explanation of purpose and meaning. The purpose and meaning of human life can never be discovered by the investigation of natural processes alone. Purpose and meaning by their nature must be disclosed. They must be revealed. Without a doctrine of revelation we are locked in a meaningless universe. Spong has no credible doctrine of revelation. This is the main rock upon which Spong’s argument becomes shipwreck.
Spong’s rhetoric is not only anti-Christian it is anti-human. It says that we are not yet human. We are only on our way to being human. Humanity lies off in some distant evolutionary future. In the present we are imperfect and incomplete beings struggling against a powerful instinct for self-preservation at any cost with fragile higher powers. Our higher consciousness is just beginning to emerge. It is hard to make out why Spong thinks the higher instincts valuable. What if they have no survival value? This was exactly the basis of the Nazi repudiation of the Christian value of compassion. It made people and the nation weak. Should not life belong to the strong? It is hard to see how you avoid falling into fascism with this kind of thinking about evolution. With this ideology you will be very tempted to sanction the unevolved for the benefit of the more evolved. Why should less developed life forms hold back the evolutionary process? If humanity lies in an evolutionary future, won’t you also be tempted to eugenics, to hurry along the process by selective breeding? This line of reasoning about human nature poses as liberal and humane but is in reality proto-fascist. It is to trade a story which has love as its fundamental value for a story which has power for its fundamental value.
Another irony of Spong’s argument is that after complaining, I think unjustly, of the way in which sexual instinct is made sinful in traditional theology, he ends by locating the source of evil in the body. Evil and sin are located in the lower instincts and human goodness is a matter of the higher consciousness. This is a view of human nature which is very similar to the Greek view that matter and the body is evil and mind and spirit are good. The view of traditional Christian theology which is based on the biblical narrative is I believe more profound and offers a more profound appreciation of what it means to be human. We have been made good by a loving God. On this view the body in its entirety including sexual instinct is inherently good. Human nature in its entirety is inherently good. Into God’s good creation comes the spoiler, the evil one. Satan is a rebellious spirit who according to Milton “would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.” This figure of the devil is very important and Spong passes over it in his retelling of the biblical story. The figure of the devil says that evil does not start with us. We are tempted to evil. We fall for evil and now a world in which people have fallen for evil is the only world we can be born into.
As a result of the fall all of human nature is affected. Our higher instincts are as much a problem to us as our lower instincts. Pride, vanity, Greed and lust for power are sins which involve our highest capacities. It is human beings who are the product of a high civilization who are capable of germ warfare and atomic weapons and genocide. Body is not necessarily bad and mind and spirit good. It is more complicated than that. The fall is a compelling account of the human problem. We are not in a struggle with our lower instincts but with sin which has its source in a powerful otherworldly evil. If we do not take the otherworldly character of evil seriously we underestimate our need to rely on God in the fight against evil. We also tend to demonize either some aspect of the body or some group of people. The notion of the a fall which has its origin in a otherworldly tempter protects the dignity of human nature. We have solidarity with each other in original goodness and significance as creatures specially created by a loving God and we have solidarity in our fight against common enemies. We also know enough to look for the working of sin in all that tempts us toward lack of charity toward our fellows.
We inherently sense that we have betrayed our humanity and that the way we live is not the life we were meant for. We are less than we are meant to be, less than we can be. Guilt and shame can be artificially manipulated but that does not explain away the deep sense that we have of spoilt chances. Cranmer’s prayer for forgiveness of “our manifold sins and wickedness. . .the memory of them is grievous unto us and the burden of them is intolerable” more powerfully interprets our experience as individuals and as a race than talk of a struggle with “the baggage of evolution.” We know that to be human is to be responsible. We know we are not right with God and with each other and can not make ourselves right with God and with each other. God in Christ promises us not the victory of some part of human nature over some other part but that we will be transformed into the fullness and likeness of Christ. Human nature was made for eternal fellowship with God in a community of mutual love and service. Jesus as rescuer who takes away sin and conquers evil is good news because it answers the deepest cry of the human heart to be restored to the life for which we were made and from which we have fallen away. The biblical story of creation, fall and redemption is a more powerful and realistic vision of human promise and peril than Spong’s watered down religion of inevitable progress.
Postscript On The Cosmic Fall
The traditional reading of Genesis also tells us that the creation is a fallen creation. The life of nature bears witness to being the creation of a good God but it too bears marks of being distorted by the power of evil. There is much cruelty and gratuitous suffering in nature. The traditional doctrine says to us that it was not meant to be so. As beautiful as nature is it shall be more beautiful yet. Part of the promise of Christian Doctrine is that in the Resurrection of the Body nature itself shall be raised. St. Paul says in the ninth chapter of Romans, that “the whole creation groans in travail as if in the pangs of childbirth” “For the created universe waits with eager expectation for God’s children to be revealed.” Taking the cosmic fall seriously gives us a powerful motive for fighting illnesses like cancer. They are not part of the plan and will be excluded from God’s eternity. This vision also allows us to protest against cruelty to animals, to protect the weak and resist the temptation to assume that just because something is “natural” it is good. It is hard to see how on the basis of Spong’s religion of evolution you could develop a similarly robust ethic of life.
©Leander Harding+ 2000