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Liberal Christianity: Don’t bet on it

Posted by Ron George on January 22, 2016

Fundamentalist vision of modernism by E.J. Pace (1880-1946)

Fundamentalist vision of modernism by E.J. Pace (1880-1946)

One sunny morning in the fall of 1973, the Very Rev. O.C. Edwards, acting dean of Nashotah House Theological Seminary and professor of New Testament, expounded in class at some length on the topic, “Why We Can’t Be Fundamentalists.”

Historical-critical study of Christian scripture, he said, challenges Christian pastors with insights into the origins and nature of ancient writings that can’t be ignored in preference for literal interpretation. How the Bible means, he said, is as significant for contemporary understanding as what the Bible says. Interpreting scripture for contemporary congregations, he said, is a difficult undertaking – and, more often than not, clergy don’t go there.

Someone asked, Why not? Because their congregations don’t want to hear it, he said. Most of you, he said, will leave this seminary and ignore what you’ve learned in these classrooms.

I wonder now whether everyone else in that classroom was as anxious as I was about being able to learn the basics of theology, scripture, church history, liturgics and pastoral care. We weren’t in seminary – not that one, anyway – to be educated as much as to be formed in a classical sense by the disciplines of corporate and private prayer and life in community. Academic study was important but not central to seminary life; nevertheless, our classes were rigorous and taught wholly within the context of their providing a foundation for ordained Christian ministry.

For 33 months, the seminary faculty worshipped daily with us and presented academic material challenging every pious opinion we had about God, Jesus and the church. Most of us had arrived at seminary with naive notions. The faculty seemed bent, as they ought to have been, to disabuse us of pat answers. They confronted us with a knowledge base demonstrating that Christian apologetics – explaining and defending Christian faith and practice – is no field for fainters. In many ways, they challenged us to grow up not unlike the way of I Corinthians 13.11: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

Seminarians’ response to all this varied. Some simply ignored the message, eager to return to childish ways. Some complained about the “headiness” of the curriculum, as in “How is this relevant to practical ministry?” Some felt called away from vocations in the church: Modern biblical and theological scholarship seemed to have torn away childhood verities leaving nothing of faith in place. Still others committed themselves to the struggle of making sense of Christianity in a critical, scientific age.

John Shelby Spong: A call for liberal reform of Christianity

John Shelby Spong: A call for liberal reform of Christianity

I found myself in the latter category. I returned to one of the most conservative dioceses in America in 1976 bound and determined to integrate what I’d learned in seminary with traditional ways and means I’d embraced as a college student in the mid-1960s. Frankly, it was a lot like pouring new wine into old wineskins. (See Mark 2.22)

One gets a sense of such tensions in the published works of retired Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong.

Spong has made a name for himself by advocating radical change in his own denomination and Christianity in general. He’s published at least 24 books since 1973, each challenging conventional Christian beliefs and offering alternative ways of understanding Christian tradition. Spong’s fundamental premise is that traditional Christianity is dying and that it must change in order to survive.

Spong is especially eloquent when attacking Christian fundamentalism (Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture) and proposing new ways of understanding Christian scripture; e.g., The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. He reaches out to Christians who have left their church behind (Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile) and those who may have dismissed Christianity from the get-go (Jesus for the Non-Religious).

Spong envisions a kind of Christian humanism (God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism, with Anthony Freeman) that is compassionate, non-judgmental, non-exclusive and non-theistic in any conventional way. He’s lately been calling for dialogue among all stripes of Christian by expounding via the Internet 12 “theses” through which he would inspire a new Christian reformation. These were first published as “Twelve Points for Reform” in Spong’s diocesan newsletter in 1998. Generally, they call for a de-theologized Christianity. Spong elaborates the matter in A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born, published in 2002.

Theism, says Spong, is meaningless; traditional Christology, bankrupt; the biblical creation myth, nonsense; supernaturalism – e.g., the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles, bodily resurrection and ascension – impossible. No heaven. No hell. No judgment day – and no exclusive claims of salvation. 

The issues aren’t new. Christian theologians have been in an often-contentious dialogue with secular philosophy from the beginning. The advent of evidentiary science, especially since the Renaissance, has generally intensified the conversation; e.g., but by no means limited to the theory of biological evolution. Liberal theologians have tended to accommodate scientific insights while fundamentalists have tended to deny it. Overall, though, the dialogue between faith and reason has had an enormously complex history, and it’s within that complexity that Spong’s theses have come about. Scholars have debated these issues for centuries; now, Spong wants to generate serious, productive discussion among non-specialists.

God the Father, by Cima da Conegliano, c. 1515

God the Father, by Cima da Conegliano, c. 1515

Spong claims not only that it is possible for Christians to de-theologize their tradition and continue to practice their faith but that he, personally, has lived upon such a standpoint for decades. He writes:

God is, for me, the Ground of Being seen in the being of every living thing, the source of love found in the ability to love present in every creature and the source of life calling everyone everywhere into the fullness of life. This is the God I see through the lens of my time and place in history, the God I believe I have met in Jesus of Nazareth. That is why he is Lord for me. So as theism passes into post-theism, we experience the same God, but in the accents of a new century. I believe that this expanded consciousness, this rejection of theism, this openness to what lies beyond theism, is finally a better way to honor the Christ who is called by those of us who seek God inside the Christian perspective “the Son of God.” (A New Christianity for a New World)

All of which sounds familiar to anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with 20th-century Christian scholarship, much of it, now, considered dated: New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann, who called for demythologizing Christian scripture; systematic theologian Paul Tillich, whose language of God as “the Ground of Being” figures prominently in Spong’s work; Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, suffering under German Nazism, speculated on the value of “religion-less Christianity”; Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung, an ecumenist who, among other things, published a book in 1971 rejecting the dogma of papal infallibility. Spong says he was inspired by – and he certainly is aligned with – John A.T. Robinson’s perspective published in Honest to God in 1963, which Robinson once described as a synthesis of Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer and Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1966).

The problem seems to be that mainline Christians in the pews have tended not to embrace liberal theological insights. Mainline denominations have been in steady decline for decades for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that they may have attempted to become more “relevant” (a favorite 1960s word) as their theologians grappled with making theological sense in dialogue with quantitative and qualitative sciences. Meanwhile, conservative and fundamentalist denominations have grown, although the trend seems to be slowing down, according to recent studies; moreover, many mainline congregations have returned to a far more conservative, even fundamentalist, standpoint.

The bottom line: Most Christian believers don’t want their scriptures demythologized, and they don’t want their God de-theologized. They want their supernatural miracles and, in some cases, every word of their creeds. It ain’t broke, they seem to be saying, so don’t try to fix it. Spong says otherwise – but he is, indeed, like a voice crying in the wilderness. Some flock to his message; but, generally, his call for a new Christian reformation falls on deaf ears. Spong acknowledges that his quest might fail, that it might not be possible to de-theologize Christianity without becoming atheistic.

It might be well, as the bishop approaches his 85th year, to recall Reinhold Niebuhr’s maxims in his book The Irony of American History.

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

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2 Responses to “Liberal Christianity: Don’t bet on it”

  1. Jim Abbott said

    Ron, I don’t get it — the title — are you looking for a “post Liberal” Christianity?  But thanks for some more info on Spong.  I had his brother Will for pastoral v]care &. CPE.  workimg from my iPad at the annual gathering of ELCA pastors from. TX & LA

    • Ron George said

      Yep (sorry for the ultra-late reply). From the article: “Interpreting scripture for contemporary congregations, he said, is a difficult undertaking – and, more often than not, clergy don’t go there. Someone asked, Why not? Because their congregations don’t want to hear it, he said. Most of you, he said, will leave this seminary and ignore what you’ve learned in these classrooms.” Actually, you might say I’m looking for a post-theistic Christianity — but I’m not counting on that, either. Sounds too ridiculous on its face, but there it is. Guess I’ll just keep muddling through.

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