“Religion in America today embarrasses me,” said Spong, 75, who will speak in Rochester next week. “If that’s what Christianity is all about, then I’m not really interested in that.”
Of course the question is clearly just what Bishop Spong thinks Christianity is actually about. Frankly, while Spong is one of the more popular characters in modern liberal Christianity, he is by no means the most thoughtful, in my view. In fact, when it gets right down to it, I don’t find his historical reconstructions I find him one of the least credible of the writers on the historical Jesus.
He makes one excellent point, however, in the interview I cited, when he tells us that the problem comes in when someone claims that their way is the only way it can be. I’m one of those “embarrassments” who believes in the resurrection. Once I’ve swallowed a doctrine like the incarnation, it hardly seems a matter of concern. Could I be wrong? Of course I could! I’ve been wrong before, am quite probably wrong about many things right now, and I suspect I will go right on being wrong until I die.
Especially in matters of theology we do well to walk and talk humbly, simply because when dealing with the infinite we are by definition infinitely ignorant. We have to recognize that very often the more rational option is to simply admit that we don’t really know. But I, and others like me, have a category of experience to describe, and it is religious language and even religious doctrines that describes it.
For Bishop Spong, however, and for many in the Jesus Seminar, one has to ask just how Christian their Jesus actually is. I do not arrogate to myself the right to judge whether they are Christians or not, or what their relationship to God might be. My question is simply one of picking up their views and making them my own.
I recall the series of stories by Isaac Asimov which are set at the dinners of the Black Widowers. Each guest was asked one major question: How do you justify your existence? I think the question that needs to be asked of Spong’s Jesus is the same one: How do you justify your existence? When one limits oneself to a purely historical reconstruction, and one done with a seriously skeptical turn of mind, then the resulting “Jesus” is often rather weak, and one has to wonder why anyone should care whether such a person lived.
In the historical sense, one might make the question instead whether the Jesus one has discovered by historical research would be likely to have had the impact that he had. The one thing I always find when I think about Jesus in purely historical terms is that in the end I’m certain that Jesus must be more than what I can prove him to be historically, otherwise there is an excessive effect for the cause involved. In some ways, however, the Jesus of Spong fits well with American Christianity–tepid and not terribly challenging.
There are a number of things about American Christianity that do embarrass me, though they don’t primarily have to do with doctrinal beliefs.
- that we have so many buildings and so much real estate that tends to be idle during the week. I believe we could improve our use of that property for building up our communities.
- that we now have almost as many definitions of heresy and orthodoxy as there are denominations. At least the inquisition worked from one script. Now I can be fundamentalist, orthodox, heretical, and an atheist all at the same time. Just ask my critics!
- that we still permit discrimination and even foster it in our society–any discrimination that considers something other than the ability of the person in question.
- that we are depending more on political and temporal means than on the transforming power of the gospel.
- that for so many Christians church is just a social club. We debate the spiritual gospel and the social gospel, but while we do so the “comfy chair” gospel is often winning in churches.
- that so many of us couldn’t even discuss the issues that Spong is raising, because we have no clue what we believe or what our church claims to believe in the first place.
- that our faith is so weak and so poorly grounded that we have to get into a real tizzy about every new book that comes out about Christianity.
I’m embarrassed, but I don’t dwell on it, except for posts like this. Mostly I just try to help alleviate that situation in the little corner where I am.