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Angela Tilby: Spong was attacking a caricature

24 September 2021

Scott Griessel/Creative Commons

Bishop John Shelby Spong, in 2006

Bishop John Shelby Spong, in 2006

AFTER his death on 12 September (News, 17 September), I set myself to read Bishop John Shelby Spong’s 2009 book, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond religion, beyond theism, beyond heaven and hell (HarperOne). It is a rather wonderful book in some ways, composed in his late seventies, but full of energy, fluency, and passion as he looks back over a long life of teaching, ministry, and writing. His main theme is death, and what we can hope for when we speak of eternal life.

For decades, Jack Spong was the voice of progressive Christianity in the United States and beyond, pitting science and reason against not only biblical fundamentalism, but any kind of creed-based faith. In 2010, in imitation of Martin Luther, he called for a new Reformation, nailing his “12 theses” to the internet, in which he denounced theism, the incarnation, the Virgin birth, miracles, the atonement, the empty tomb, and the ascension. Finally, he condemned any prejudice against human beings on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Spong’s first experience of Christianity was of biblical fundamentalism, and he never got over his rage against the inhumanity of the teaching that he absorbed as a child. Even when he joined the Episcopal Church, he rebelled again, this time against the authority of the Church, and its history of creeds and councils. This seems ironic, given that, as a bishop, he came to embody that authority. (But, then, think of John Robinson, and even Richard Holloway).

Spong was a self-confessed “left-brainer,” freely acknowledging that his ideas were driven by fact, logic, evidence, and data. Whatever the virtues of that approach, I think that it made him impervious to the elusive quality of religious language. He never seemed to see the whole picture: the “right-brain” vision that depends on metaphor, imagination, and humility.

But there is no denying that he was a master of rhetoric. Reading his last book, I felt driven on by his endless questions, breathless for a satisfactory denouement. But, in the end, I found nothing much. God is within. Mysticism has the answer. Eternity is now. I had read it all before, more profoundly in Paul Tillich, more tentatively in John Robinson, and more sharply in Don Cupitt. But Cupitt followed the logic of his convictions and left Christian worship; Spong stayed on.

Spong’s supporters loved his deconstructionist approach to belief, but, by the end of his last book, I’m afraid I found it only irritating. I am sure that he was a good man, a pastoral priest, a warm friend. But the faith that he attacked seems to me to be a caricature of what Christians actually believe. His writings show him to be attached to the idea of the divine image in humanity, but, shorn of belief in God, this strikes me as rather sentimental. I find it difficult to find such a reductionist Christianity plausible, or even interesting.

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