MUST CHRISTIANITY CHANGE OR DIE?
A RESPONSE TO BISHOP SPONG
THE REV. LEANDER S. HARDING, PH.D.
The first of Bishop Spong’s Theses that we will take up is thesis number 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.
Theism is the belief that there is a God who is distinct from and not dependent on the cosmos. Christian Theism is the belief that this God has revealed himself in creation and history and perfectly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who has taught us to call this God,” Our Father.” In order to understand more clearly what John Spong means by his theses I have consulted his book, Must Christianity Change or Die? Harper Collins, 1998
Spong believes that the God described by traditional theism is the product of a pre-scientific, primitive, patriarchal culture and that as a completely culturally determined by-product of a passe world view should be and is rejected by contemporary people. In the world of Newton and Einstein and Darwin it is impossible to believe in the God described both in traditional theology and in the Western Philosophical tradition. The God of Theism is Spong says, “personal, external, supernatural and potentially invasive being. This God Spong describes contemptuously as the external, super parent in the sky.” (p.46) Spong particularly objects to the idea that God is distinct form the world and can intervene in history. He seems to think that any intervention by an independent God into the affairs of humanity would be by definition arbitrary and capricious. As an alternative to the God of Theism Spong develops the ideas of the late Paul Tillich. God is the innermost depth of things, the Ground of Being. God is not the highest person imaginable but that dynamic at the heart of all things which calls us forth into personhood. God is that which calls us into life and love. The right question about God is not who is God, which Spong thinks a dangerous question because it leads automatically to anthropromorphism, but what is God. God is the source of that ineffable experience of presence to which all the great mystics attest. This presence at the heart of things is the source of life, love and personhood. We can never achieve more than an imperfect knowledge of God but we can honor this spiritual dimension of reality by being, “all that we can be” and by helping others be all they can be. Self-fufillment is thus the ultimate form of the spiritual life.
I hope this is a fair if necessarily brief summary of what John Spong has to say about Theism. I think that the bishop has missed one of the gravest challenges to contemporary to theistic belief in our time and that is the division of the world into a world of public facts arrived at by the use of ‘objective” standards of investigation and a private world of beliefs and values in which there are no objective standards of truth. G.K. Chesterton said that when people stop believing in God it isn’t that they won’t believe anything but that they begin to believe everything. I am not sure that Spong’s reading of the culture is entirely au courrant. I also disagree with his understanding of the theological significance of some current trends in science. The quantum universe of chaos theory is far more friendly to traditional theism than the Newtonian world view. Spong often caricatures the tradition as when he accuses classical theism of gross anthropromophism i.e. that it teaches God as a super parent in the sky. This is just plain inaccurate. For example the principle of analogy, that God is always both like and unlike any analogy, a human father for example, is a principle of theology made famous by St. Thomas. (God as the Ground of Being is also from St. Thomas and given a famous contemporary interpretation by Tillich and I believe misread by Spong in such a way as to turn God into, as my systematics professor, Joop Van Beek used to say, “God the good and kind gas. “)
Bishop Spong’s conclusions do follow from his assumptions and from his way of doing theology. It may be that the greatest service of this book is that it makes explicit the implicit conclusions of some popular contemporary assumptions about God and religion and of a way of approaching the question of God.
Bishop Spong notices the power of world view. Every culture has assumption about the nature of reality that are not proved but assumed to be self-evident. Many aspects of a culture’s understanding of ultimate reality, meaning and morality flow from these uncritically held assumptions. The world view of the Bible is different from the world view of contemporary secular culture. So far, so good. All belief systems proceed from fundamental assumptions and we can not escape basing our thinking about anything, including God, on first principles which we can not get behind. Modern experimental science proceeds on the assumption that the universe is intelligible and the human mind can discern its order. (I think it can be shown that this is an idea that is dependent on a theistic world view but that is another issue.) Science can’t get behind this first principle. Spong acts as though this problem only affects the world view of ancients and does not affect his own. If you argue that the view of God proposed by the Bible is merely the epiphenomenon of culture, then what is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander, your own view of God must be held suspect as being no more than the epiphenomenon of culture. If you would live by the sword of cultural relativism, you must be willing to die by the sword of cultural relativism.
Spong seems to assume that world views evolve by some automatic process from less adequate to more adequate and that the trustworthiness of a world view can be established by establishing it date. With world views newer is necessarily better. It is hard to see why a world view which is marked by a reductionistic materialism and radical moral relativism is inherently superior to the world view of the Bible with its sense of the reality of the supernatural and of moral absolutes. We are entitled to be suspicious, by the bishop’s own lights, if a person deeply imbued with the values of a self-indulgent culture proposes to us a vague God whose message, to the extent that it can be deciphered, is, “be all you can be.”
The bishop over estimates the problem of cultural conditioning with regard to the image of God in the Bible and underestimates this problem with regard to his own proposal. He seems particularly unaware of the way his assumptions influence his understanding of revelation and his choice of sources and method in thinking about God. Spong seems committed to a rather unscientific understanding of the laws of science. The scientist would say that so called “laws of nature” are summary and descriptive and open to revision by continuing experimental investigation. Spong seems to think that such laws are prescriptive and describe not only what has happened to this date but all that possibly could happen. By definition nothing can ever happen which is not inherent in the normal processes of nature. If there is a God, God is constrained by these laws of nature and is so identified with the processes of nature as to be indistinguishable from the God of pantheism. God can only affect the world by the outworking of the natural process. This leads Spong to a kind of divinizing of the process of biological evolution and a poignant faith in inevitable progress that is belied by 20th century history. Spong’s world view begins to look a lot like 19th century Deism. The Deists saw God as a great watchmaker who had wound up the mechanism of the universe but could not intervene in the machine once it had been set in motion. Within such a world view the miraculous and the revelatory, anything which speaks in this world of another world is impossible by definition.
The important thing is to note that the antipathy to the supernatural, to the miraculous, to the appearance within the realm of nature of something which speaks of another world, another reality, all of this is an assumption not a conclusion. It is the place where this line of reasoning starts and it can finish in no other place than where it starts. This anti-supernatural bias is what philosophers call an a priori, something taken for granted, from the first. If you have an anti-supernatural, anti-miraculous a priori, you rule out miracles, the supernatural and a God who, as Spong says, intervenes from the beginning before any investigation, before any consideration of evidence. Anti-supernaturalism is not enlightened. It is exactly a prejudice, a conclusion reached before a fair consideration of the case.
With this world view, with these assumptions, with this a priori, there can be no such thing as revelation, as God’s self-disclosure. Within such a world view it makes no sense to speak of the Word of God. There is no such thing as an authoritative Word of God. If we can not give up the quest for God where will we look for God? We will look at the outworking of natural laws and processes and we will look to our spiritual and religious experience. Our interest in the Bible will not be in the Word of God but in the Bible as the record of the religious experience of others. Our gaze is directed not to almighty God but to ourselves and our own inner experience. The image of God that emerges will look suspiciously like the person who looks back at us in the mirror in the morning. Our theology, if we can give it that name, will be a romanticization of nature and instinct with lots of capital letters, like Being, Life, Love. The whole spectacle will chill the soul of anyone with enough historical memory to recall the transformation of liberal German Protestantism into the Volksreligion of Hitler. Spong pursues to their logical conclusions assumptions, sources and methods that are the common denominator of a great deal of contemporary religious thinking. He does us a service by showing us ahead of time the destination of this train of thought. To borrow a refrain from a Gospel song, this train ain’t bound for glory and if you want to get on there is no need to get holy.
Let us oppose to these assumptions another set of assumptions. There is a God who is wholly other and completely distinct from the creation, a God who does not need the creation but who creates eternally and continuously in sheer, gratuitous love. A God who, though above and beyond human understanding, wants to be known to the fullest extent possible and to have real and intimate fellowship with human beings. Such a God, just because He is a God of love, will work to bring human beings into friendship and fellowship with God. Such a God does not will to remain obscure. It will be the nature of such a God to intervene in our affairs with saving love. Such a God will reveal Himself to humanity. Such a God will speak. We assume that such a God has spoken in and through the words of the Bible and that such a God continues to speak to us in and through the words of the Bible. We assume that such God has called a people to Himself to be a light to the nations, so that all people may know and have intimate fellowship with God. We assume that this God who speaks continuously a word of love, in the fullness of time speaks this word perfectly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible recognizes Bishop Spong’s point about the hiddeness of God, even the necessary hiddeness of God. St. John says,”No one has ever seen God; but God’s only Son, he who is nearest to the Father’s heart, he has made him known.”(John1:18)
If we assume that there is a God of Love who seeks ceaselessly to communicate that love, we will expect a definitive, authoritative word from that God and we will look to the Bible as our source in doing theology. We will be interested not so much in experience as God’s self-disclosure in the supernatural Word of God which breaks into our world with words of judgment and grace. We will look to the Word made flesh first and foremost and our theology will proceed on the assumption that God is like Christ and that in Him(as Karl Barth says) there is no unchristlikeness at all. Our hope will not be in the self-fufillment of merely natural potentials but that the God of grace will transform us with His supernatural love until we have grown up into the fullness of Christ, until we are changed from glory unto glory. This train is bound for glory and if you want to get on you have to get holy.
The vision I have outlined flows as reasonably and self-consistently from its assumptions, sources and methods as Spong’s. The question is, when thinking about God; what are your assumptions, what are your sources and what are your methods. Which of these world views is most adequate to understanding the human situation and answering the deepest yearnings of the human heart? Which do you want to bet your life on? Which is most capable of sustaining a just moral order? Which of these visions can best sustain us in the face of the struggle with evil? Which vision will lead you to write hymns, create beauty and sacrifice self for the sake of others? Which of these visions most naturally gives rise to saintliness? Which of these visions do you want to bequeath to the next generation?
©Leander Harding+ 2000