Friday, February 18, 2005

Meeting Spong


The retired Episcopal Bishop, John "Jack" Shelby Spong gave a talk on sexuality at one of our local universities. He addressed attitudes of homosexuality, sexism and ageism, and our attitudes toward sex itself.

Instead of demanding either marriage or celibacy for
young adults (who come to puberty younger than they used to, but delay marriage to complete educations), homosexuals, or aged widows and
widowers, for whom marriage can cause financial hardships (loss of Social Security benefits or family squabbles over inheritances), the emphasis should be on maintaining a
loving, dedicated, monogamous relationship, Spong
said.

Whether one is homosexual or heterosexual, promiscuity
diminishes one's self and others, he said, adding,
"Sex is a precious gift that should only be shared in
a deep, committed relationship."

The church should be there to "walk beside you,
someone to talk with as you make decisions," he said.

Spong believes all people in such committed
relationships should be able to come to the church to
have their unions blessed, whether or not they seek a
wedding license.

He sees time as healing many things, and for
homosexuality to be debated in the church today means
homophobia is having its last gasp. Maybe this is true, although homophobia certainly still has a stronghold in this part of the world.

The church will move forward, Spong believes. "When
the church moves, some adjust, some drop out," he
said. It is not a painless process.

"I'm not interested in being part of a racist,
patriarchical-sexist, or homophobic church," Spong
said.

My reaction: Amen! and Amen!

I covered the lecture for the newspaper, which gave me the opportunity to interview him earlier that day.

Spong is pretty much vilified by all the local clergy for his views. I asked him about his theological beliefs.

I reported on it as follows:

Conservative elements within the Episcopal Church and
other denominations accuse retired Episcopal Bishop
John Shelby Spong of failing to adhere to basic
Christian tenets. In an interview before his Jan. 31
lecture at Stetson University, Spong answered
questions about his beliefs.

To charges he doesn't believe the Nicene Creed, the
basic statement of faith in the Episcopal Church and
other churches, Spong replied that the creed was
adopted late in the fourth century after Christ. He
chooses to look at the Bible itself and its Judaic
background for answers, not to something written
hundreds of years later, he said.

"How was Jesus understood in the Jewish world?" he
wants to know.

Spong said he doesn't accept the virgin birth, the
physical resurrection of Christ, or the atonement. But
when asked if he believes in the divinity of Jesus
Christ, Spong said, "Yes."

He explained that in the Gospel of Mark, divinity
descended upon Jesus at the time he was baptized, with
no mention of a virgin birth; also, the epistles of
Paul talk about a "declaration" of divinity, not a
virgin birth.

Accounts of virgin birth in the Gospels of Matthew and
Luke were written much later, in the ninth decade
after Christ, Spong said. He added, the Gospel of John
doesn't address how the mix of human and divine came
together in the physical form of Jesus, but talks
about the Word being with God "In the beginning."

Stories of miraculous births abounded in cultures of
the time, always with human mothers who were
considered simply receptacles, and divine fathers. The
knowledge we have, that the mother contributes 50
percent of the child's genes, makes the idea of virgin
birth unlikely, according to Spong. Modern
understanding of physics makes the idea of physical
resurrection unlikely in Spong's estimation, as well.

As for the atonement, which is the belief that Christ
died for our sins, Spong said he can't fathom a loving
God demanding this kind of sacrifice to pay for his
children's sins.

"It's the woodshed theory of atonement," Spong said,
the act of a cruel and punishing God, not the loving
God Spong finds in the Scriptures.

He quoted John 10:10: "I came that they may have life,
and have it abundantly."

"In this Jesus, I met the Holy God," Spong said, and
Jesus is "the life in whom and through whom we meet
this loving God."

Spong refused to be pinned down on a definition or
description of God. He said, "God is a whole lot
bigger than any of us imagine."


While I found Spong engaging, I guess I fall more toward the traditional in theology -- I don't see the need to make God mundane, as many modern theologians do. God is a supernatural being who controls physics, space, time, and the natural, and can make changes in all, just as a composer can conduct his or her own music and throw in riffs and variations to suit the composer's desires.

So, I see the logic of Spong's arguments about the virgin birth and the resurrection and so forth just don't feel compelled by them.

Spong was most gracious in talking with me, which I appreciate. My ex-rector sent an e-mail to the publisher attacking me for "bias," and being overly favorable toward Spong. And for not calling him and asking his opinion on Spong, though he didn't even attend the lecture. A little hubris showing?

Oh, well, just goes to show -- you can't please 'em all.

10 comments:

Jim said...

I wish you were writing for the Washington Post, which is our "local paper" here. Excellent capture of some well-thought-out theology with good reasoning behind it. I wish more clergy had the honesty that +Spong shows.

Mumcat said...

You wrote well and stated fairly what you heard and what was said. It has balance and that's also a very good thing.

I agree with Jim -- +Spong does have an honesty about what he believes and why. Of course, many consider that to be a fatal flaw, but probably many saw Jesus' message as a fatal flaw. It got him killed, so +Spong's ahead of the game.

To me, the devil is in the details, and +Spong outlines precisely those details. Virgin birth stories were not uncommon; the Caesars had them as did heroes from other cultures. It added to their status. Was Jesus resuscitated or was it a spiritual resurrection?

Are either of these more important than a person's relationship with this Jesus? Is Jesus going to ask "How much doctrine did you believe"? or is it going to be "How well did you do what I told you to do?"

Saint Pat said...

Are either of these more important than a person's relationship with this Jesus? Is Jesus going to ask "How much doctrine did you believe"? or is it going to be "How well did you do what I told you to do?"Mumcat, you nailed it on the head. Jesus, or Yeshua, his Hebrew name, as a friend insists we should call him, is that He is, and He is who He says He is. This I know.

Theologians can argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or argue the virgin birth until the cows come home. And He will still be who He is.

The Lord of the universe and of my life will be much more concerned about how we carry out His Great Commission than these arguments. After all, I never heard Him talk about, "My mother, the Virgin Mary." So which is more important to Him?

If we could only find the obedience to love each other a fraction as much as He loves us.

Jim, thanks for your comments, too. Can you put in a word at the Post for me?
:) UnSaintly

RiverStone said...

Very cool! I would love to meet +Spong. I think my husband (who is very anti-organized-religion) would really enjoy meeting him, too. Your writing was fair and clear. Good on you!

P.S. My blog host closed up shop in January, so the RiverStone Journal is now at http://www.riverstone.blogdrive.com .

Jake said...

Spong's argument for the birth narrative being primarily midrash is rather convincing.

I don't think I buy the definition of atonement he refutes either. There's at least four other models in our tradtion, however.

As one of your commenters pointed out, Spong speaks to those who have had to walk away from Christianity in order to hold on to their intellectual integrity. The message they hear is that they have to buy a whole bill of goods to be a Christian. For those folks, Spong's message is a breath of fresh air.

Personally, I prefer Marcus Borg; same ideas, but presented with less "in your face" language.

Anonymous said...

You might check out the writings of John Dominic Crossan, another member of the Jesus Seminar.

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