My kinda Christianity, my kinda Bishop

I rarely agree with anyone on matters of religion. Most people who do not fit into a traditional mainstream religion are the same, as are those who simply wish not to surrender their personal beliefs to the dictatorship of a human organisation. However, after a long long time I have recently discovered some Christian leaders whose teachings I can begin to agree with.

It has to be said that in Sri Lanka, I have always admired Bishop Dulip De Chickera for his inclusivism and courage. He is a practical man who leads by principle and example. Although I suspect he sympathises with Christians from the liberal side of the spectrum, I have rarely heard him speak on theological matters. This is perhaps because I think he believes his calling lies elsewhere. Therefore, although he inspires me whenever I listen to him speak, for me at least, he has not been a source of solutions to difficult theological questions. 

Recently I discovered Bishop John Shelby Spong, a member of the Anglican (Episcopalian) church, who is a liberal theologian and a lecturer at Harvard. The discovery marked the end of a eight year period of doubt and searching. His views have helped me figure out what I believe and don’t believe and has given me the courage to reject things that I have been fed on and have held on to from the time I was a baby – things that I was nervous to completely reject for fear of falling.

Here is an excerpt from a question and answer session by Spong in his regular newsletter, and below that is an excerpt from Spong’s call for a another reformation of Christianity.

“Steve Langley from the Internet writes:
“I am a 63-year-old man who was raised in the Pentecostal Church until I rebelled and forced my way out at about age 14. I subsequently have lived my life with the existence of God as an open philosophical question to me and with utter contempt for all religious structures and teachings. I have always thought they were self-serving as institutions and for the people who wrap themselves in those teachings. I once had a conversation with two doctors who were both raised in the same Muslim faith. One remains devout in the most human way. The other has drifted from the religion of his birth. He now believes that ‘democracy’ is the best religion. I have thought about his concept and your teachings as I have read them in your newsletter and several of your books. Democracy, in its purest form, and the Christ experience as you ponder and teach it. What a marvelous concept. In a pure democracy there would be neither ‘man nor woman’ nor any other of the differences that exist now in our world and religions. For me, my recent reading of your teaching on Paul and the scripture quoted above seems to make ‘democracy’ and humanity the best religion. As for the Christ experience and your teachings not just of faith but humanity in the Christ experience, it is something I have started to think about. I must thank you for a lifetime of faith, work and all that goes into it so that one day I might pick up your writings, read them, and begin to think about WHY AM I HERE DOING THE GOOD ‘CHRISTIAN DEEDS’ IN MY LIFE WITHOUT THE SUPPORT OF RELIGION OR EVEN A BELIEF IN GOD BECAUSE I BELIEVE THEY ARE RIGHT?? Maybe there is a new Christianity that would reveal itself in me, but perhaps not in my lifetime. Thank you for reaching out to people like me. I look forward to each newsletter.”

Dear Steve , Thank you for your letter and a description of your pilgrimage. You are certainly traveling in the same direction that I find myself walking. I think faith is a journey to be undertaken not a set of propositions to be believed.Religion always seems to begin in childlike immaturity in which God is portrayed as a being, supernatural in power, eager to bless, protect and care for us in our childlike fear. As we mature, the need for the parent God fades and the divine, as being itself or as that experience of transcendence, comes into focus. The boundary between humanity and divinity also fades and the two seem to penetrate each other, making the way into the divine and the journey into self-awareness quite similar. The goal of the Christian life then becomes not rescue from the bondage of sin, but expansion into a deeper sense of what it means to be human.

This approach represents, I believe, a significant shift in consciousness. It also makes it clear that the content of the traditional religious myths is no longer operative. Facing the end of traditional religious systems, we fear that nothingness dwells at the heart of life and that drives us to create security systems to protect us from our fear. Some are religious and they always claim to possess inerrant truth or to be guided by an infallible authority. Others seek to lose themselves in the pursuit of the idols of alcohol, drugs, sex, wealth and pleasure. Still others sink into the despair of being alone in an impersonal universe. I believe there is a better option.

My sense is that the Christianity of the future must be willing to let go the content of yesterday in a far more radical way than people have yet imagined, but to do so without sacrificing the experience that created yesterday’s content. Only then can we begin the slow and laborious task of developing new content to make sense of the eternal experience of being human.

Long after fundamentalist churches have moved away from their excessive but uninformed zeal and long after Benedict XVI has discovered that no one can return to the Middle Ages without committing intellectual suicide, a still, small voice will speak and a new reformation will begin on the edges of yesterday’s religious systems and slowly begin to make its way into the center of our reality. I live for that day. — John Shelby Spong”

And here’s Spong’s call for another Reformation and a debate on these 12 points:

Martin Luther ignited the Reformation of the 16th century by nailing to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 the 95 Theses that he wished to debate. I will publish this challenge to Christianity in The Voice. I will post my theses on the Internet and send copies with invitations to debate them to the recognized Christian leaders of the world. My theses are far smaller in number than were those of Martin Luther, but they are far more threatening theologically. The issues to which I now call the Christians of the world to debate are these:

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.

2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.

9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.

10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.

11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.

12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination


29 thoughts on “My kinda Christianity, my kinda Bishop

  1. While I myself am not a Christian, the so-called call for “reformation” strikes at much of the heart of what is today accepted as Christian teaching. Asian Christians are generally far more traditionalist that western ones and might interpet Songe’s call as a direct attack on the theology of Christianity. I am surprised that there is no call for reform on the (Catholic) Church’s view on contraception which has had catastrophic consequences with regards to HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Philipines. Ditto for abortion and masturbation.

  2. Who is this almighty who created this infinite universe in 7 days? Oops, pardon me that should be 6 days, he rested on the 7th. In addition, he had enough stamina left to carve individual fates of all humans past, present & whoever will be in the future. Wow! 0_0

    Why the hell is he placing people on earth in abundance? What is he trying to achieve?
    Is he still working the 6 days or does he just rest & watch admiringly at his creations & feel proud? hmm…..
    Anyway, if he is still working, can the pope who is sanctioned to approach ‘him’ ask ‘him’ to correct the ozone layer & the melting of the Antarctic, as his babies are in crisis? (or is the almighty a lady? Hmmm….Nah can’t be. Then she would have made the blokes have periods & give birth)
    I think it is logical to believe He is still working. He has to be! Otherwise, how can He to be on top of Satan’s dirty tricks?

    Now, let’s all get philosophical & gooey.

    Geez Videshi, give it time. These are just early days & baby steps. After all, we are talking of the same belief that suppressed the western civilisation for about 1000 years.

  3. BTW, Bishop Spong also authored the book “Why Christianity must Change or Die” – saw it at at the newsagents but haven’t read it.

  4. I think he covers much of the same ground in a more recent book: A New Chrisitianity for a New World, which I’ve read. Highly recommend it to anyone who’d interested.

  5. Isn’t it pretty clear that I don’t really that I son’t share mainstream Christian beliefs. I am a liberal Christian. My parents are Buddhist and Anglican.

  6. Yes it is quite clear that you don’t share mainstream Christian beliefs. I would say more secular humanist rather than “liberal Christian” :-p

    In my experience, Protestants in Sri Lanka seem to be more liberal minded than Roman Catholics. Although I have to say the Catholic Church has made quite an effort at nativism, which is a good thing in my opinion.

  7. Javajones – It depends on how you define God. If you define God as the “Ground of All Being” as Spong does it says something very different, to saying that man was created in God’s image. In fact, it is equally the other way around.

  8. Videshi – yes, according to beliefnet I am more a secular humanist than a liberal christian. But I am more a universalist unitarian than I am a secular humanist. Everybody shares beliefs other religions to lesser or greater extent, even if they choose to ignore it.

    I sympathise with the Buddhist way of looking at attachment and craving, consequent suffering, impermanence, non-existence of soul, and being responsibility for your own happiness. I also like the symbolism in Hinduism as a way of describing God. Of all the mainstream religions, the Hindu model is the closest to the concept I now have of God.

  9. LOL. Did you take that beliefnet quiz too, Ravana?

    I myself prefer Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism) over Abrahamic Religions (Christianity, Islam). I find the approach towards spirituality in the former group to be much more appealing, but this is a personal preference. The Dharmic religions are similar but there are large difference as well. I have studied Christianity out of my interest in world religions, but have struggled with the concept of a personal God. Hinduism is such a vast spiritual group that it is quite difficult to define in a few sentences.

  10. This is what you say Spong says “12. All human beings bear God’s image…”(see the last point of your post) and this seems pretty clearly to indicate that all of us bear ‘God’s’ image – which is what I was objecting to.

    You go on to say, “It depends on how you define God”, but this has nothing to do with Spong’s statement referred to above.

    Since you wondered, my personal definition of “God” would be on the lines of ‘infinite energy pervading all’ and not some old guy in the sky.

  11. “I sympathise with the Buddhist way of looking at attachment and craving, consequent suffering, impermanence, non-existence of soul, and being responsibility for your own happiness. I also like the symbolism in Hinduism as a way of describing God”

    Yeah but do they have cool beards?

  12. “Since you wondered, my personal definition of “God” would be on the lines of ‘infinite energy pervading all’ and not some old guy in the sky”

    So a bit like Star Wars then eh 🙂

  13. Videshi – no argument.

    Javajones –

    Damn it I lost the long reply I had nearly finished.

    I don’t want to paraphrase Spong for fear of misrepresenting his views. I’ll tell you how I see it.

    “Infinite energy pervading all.” So God is a part of everything. It is the ultimate reality of everything that exists. Everything in the universe is interdependent, are comprised of the same ultimate building blocks, and obey the same laws. Consciousness is undeniably part of the universe, because humans, at least, are conscious. If you believe modern science, we all came from the same thing: nothing. Millions of years ago the earth was a rock, and today it sings opera. I find this mindblowing.

    However, we can never hope to understand this ultimate Ground of All Being – God – perfectly. We only see things through a glass darkly (i’m stealing phrases). We thus limit God to our human understanding. If horses had gods, they would look like horses.

    Even within the human species, definitions of god differ depending on our personality, situation and experience. A Hindu friend in school used to pray to Saraswati, the goddess of learning because her priority was doing her A-levels well and she undentified with the gender of the deity. We all choose our god, inadvertently or otherwise. We choose what we wish to prioritise and we worship something that embodies what we hope is a panacea to our individual struggle.

    Sorry, I’m getting off point – I’ll finish that train of thought on another post devoted to it. But on your point, Java, I think what Spong means is that all human beings embody god, and therefore every human being is sacred. Of course, everything else embodies god as well. But as human beings, what is closest to us, is closest to our understanding of God. In a sense, we have created God in our image.

    Tariq – Sorry man, I didn’t mean to leave Islam out in my kudos rounds. Islam I admire for its brotherhood of humanity ideals (what Malcolm X admired when he visited Mecca), and the understanding that God cannot ever be understood completely through human images.

  14. To each his own, I guess! Hey, did you check out my bit on this subject and the ‘afterthought’ – the more positive aspects of it? I’d be interested to hear/see your views – I’m on the same kinda trip, though!


  15. Umm.. ur beliefs are closer to buddhism/secular humanism than any sort of christianity. perhaps u just need to have a christian societal identity, while believing in totally non-christian teachings. hypocrite.

  16. Justmal ma man – you are just too muching fuck! You come across as a guy with great wit, a far-out style of expressing your views with those catchy turns of phrase, but you also come across as real aggressive and also pretty much on the Sinhala chauvinist trip. What’s up? I enjoy reading your stuff and some of the exchanges with that Lucifer dude get me chuckling too. Lighten up bro.

  17. I would argue that these are not non-Christian teachings, Just Mal. These are beliefs influenced by a background of mainstream Christianity and produced by reading Richard Dawkins, Spong, Michael Dowd, Bertrand Russell and Buddhism. Spong and Dowd arre both Christain priests and they teach this stuff. You should educate yourself about liberal Chrisitianity.

    Buddhists tend to look at the most conservative / mainstream Chrisitians when they decide to look down on Christians as unintelligent or needing a God-crutch. In actual fact, most actual Buddhists also use a crutch, and can be looked down upon from the same intellectual scientific standpoint. They believe in reincarnation, karma and that bad things will happen to you if you do bad things. Also, many ask Hindu gods for favours and believe in things like astrology. They also tend to have a relatively individualistic approach to securing the ultimate goal in religion. These are things I do not identify with. And, yes, I know, you may argue that this is not pure Buddhism, it’s just the way people tend to practice it because the true message has got corrupted. Surprise, surprise: that’s exactly the argument I would make for believing in my interpretation of Christianity.

    I don’t believe the ultimate goal in religion is to secure Nirvana for yourself. The point of religion for me is to make things better. I would not identify myself as a Buddhist because of these reasons, as well as because I have been raised a Christian and feel more comfortable within the religion of my upbringing, naturally. If you wish to see me as a Buddhist or a secular Christian, please feel free to do so, and I will thank you for it.

    I did the beliefnet quiz and I’m more a liberal Christian than I am a Buddhist, so I am not being hypocritical even in a non-societal way. I don’t know enough about secular humanists to call myself one.

    Java – yeah, I wil check it out and let you know. Gotta run now though.

  18. There are no parallels to criticize Buddhists’ belief in astrology, as Buddhist don’t believe in their fate being written by a creator God…… Karma, ‘yes’ Fate, um it’s for blind followers. They (karma & fate) are somewhat differing points, if you take ‘forewarned is forearmed’ theory into equation. Hence, the need to know predictions of the future.
    As for worshipping Hindu Gods- that could be twofold. After all everyone is only human & weak & looking for divine protection/help,

    “They also tend to have a relatively individualistic approach to securing the ultimate goal in religion.”
    If by the above you meant, to acquire merits for the next life & ultimate nirvana, then the same theory could be applied to the Christians. Christian approach of doing right by God to get into his good books & ultimately a pass to heaven is the same. Christian spirit to help the ‘church family’, or help the less fortunate in barren Africa (for eg) which btw…….. was God’s will to design it thus, to test the more fortunate practice the teaching of the Gospel. These are not my sayings but the priests of the Catholic Church.

    In SL being a Christian is far more fashionable than a Buddhist, or Hindu. What you when you attend a service on a Sunday, is not a gathering of the faithful. Rather men showing off their new cars/wives (I mean wives jewellery)
    Same with women, they are more interested in coming in the latest fashions to outshine the other.
    The taking-off shoes & the simple dress code, in Temple,Kovil,Mosque are not that fashionable.

    The worse one can do if they want/need to follow some form of belief system/s, is to judge them by the followers of any particular faith.

    I don’t understand the need to label oneself with ‘Secular Christian’ Liberal Christian’ etc

    I believe in karma. Why?
    When I look at the individual fortune or doom & gloom of our existence, karma makes sense to me. (Still, I am open for anyone who can debunk this with plausible theory)
    I think I can believe in reincarnation. Why?
    It goes parallel with Karma. Though, (for me) the jury is still out on that concept.
    I believe in higher power. (Not a creator God) Why?
    It is humbling to believe there is something/someone higher than me.

    So, let me get trendy & call myself something fancy. Hmm…. I think I will call myself a ‘Global mystic’.

    Then again, Let’s all follow in Madonna’s footsteps & find the most obscure faith ‘Kabbalah’ & try to be hip.

  19. Liberal Christian? That is a load of bull. You are more like a secular theist or an agnostic who is terrified of losing his Christian identity/label. If you reject the fundamentals that define the basis of Christianity you could no longer call yourself a Christian, liberal or otherwise qualified.

    Lol@Java. I love you too, but nigga please…

  20. I am not an agnostic. I do not believe in the existence of a supernatural, personal, theistic or deistic god. If you define god this way, then I am most definitely an atheist. It all depends on how you define god.

    I’ll take the opinion of the beliefnet quiz over yours, Justmal. I am more a theravada Buddhist than a mainstream Christian, but I am more a liberal Christian than a theravada Buddhist. You should check out the quiz.

    No, Just Me, that’s not what I meant when I said that Buddhism is relatively more individualistic. And I find your comments about Christian followers and their dress sense specious. Been to the Gangaramaya temple and checked out the head priest’s collection of antique cars lately?

  21. He could have come from a very wealthy family & inherited all those. Lol

    If we were talking of the fundamental non-attachment of the Buddhist monks, then I would have mentioned how they renounce all worldly pursuits & possessions in practice, aaand of the monks & occult deeds, aaand of how monks abstain from alcohol aand…………….

  22. Pingback: Just Mal ~
  23. Ravana, Buddhists do not believe in reincarnation; this is a Hindu belief. Buddhists believe in rebirth, however. They are two different things. This is one of the things that distinguishes Hinduism and Buddhism.

    Secondly I agree with Just Me in that “In SL being a Christian is far more fashionable than a Buddhist, or Hindu.” Far from Buddhists or Hindus looking down on Christianity, in my own experience the opposite has been true. Christianity claims it is the only one true faith and that the only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ alone. Thus, it is an exclusive ideology that has engendered feelings of superiority among sections of Christian followers. We only have to look at our own experience in Sri Lanka under the colonials to realise how Buddhists and Hindus were ill treated because of their beliefs. ‘Pagans,’ ‘heathens’ and ‘idol worshippers’ are all rather derogatory terms that have come up alongside Christian theology to refer to people who do not follow the Christian faith.

    Christianity in Sri Lanka has only recently turned towards nativism. And this too, mainly in the Catholic Church. Prior to this, people were taught to look down upon their culture (which was obviously influenced by Buddhism/Hinduism). It has served as an instrument of European ‘imperialism’ to some extent. A small example – Christians continue to use black as a colour of mourning even when this is simply a European custom and has nothing to do with Christianity (in South Asia the colour of mourning is white). Christians continue to name their children with western names even when there are plenty of South Asian ones (I’m waiting for the day when westerners call their kids Sanjaya, Arjuna, Kumari). The elitism that surrounded Christianity in Sri Lanka during the colonial period unfortunately still persists today, although it is refreshing to see certain (Catholic) priests injecting nativism into the Church and overcoming the Church’s historical negative view of the Sri Lankan ethos. I find it said how these particular brown skinned converts and their followers look down on others when there is little doubt that their ancestors were Buddhists or Hindus who may have died defending their Dharmic faith.

    Finally the sort of “liberal Christianity” (if it can be called Christianity since it rejects many of the fundamentals of this faith) that Bishop Spong epouses is quite far outside of mainstream Christianity today. Infact, the attention he receives is no doubt because of the highly controversial nature of his doctrine.

    On a side note, it interesting to note (again, my experience) that in Sri Lanka a marriage between a Christian and a Hindu/Buddhist will most likely end up with the children being raised up as Christians.

  24. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, responded to Spong’s 12 Theses while still the Bishop of Monmouth. The response is below. A bit lengthy but I think very very much worth the read. Enjoy!

    “Is it time for a new Reformation? The call has gone out quite a few times in the past three or four decades, and the imminence of the Millennium adds a certain piquancy to it.

    The Right Reverend John Spong, Bishop of Newark in the US, is right to say – as he has done in his diocesan journal – that his own version of this demand is of a rather different order from the earlier Reformation; and this surely makes it imperative that his bold and gracious invitation to debate these theses should be taken up with some urgency and seriousness, not least on the eve of a Lambeth Conference that will undoubtedly be looking hard at issues of Christian identity and the limits of diversity.

    So I had better say at once that, while I believe Bishop Spong has, in these and other matters, done an indispensable task in focusing our attention on questions under-examined and poorly thought through, I believe that these theses represent a level of confusion and misinterpretation that I find astonishing.

    He has rightly urged the Church to think more clearly in many respects about issues of sex and gender; but I am bothered by the assumption here that the Church has failed to think through a number of central matters on which quantities of fairly sophisticated literature have been written over the entire history of Christian theology.

    The implication of the theses is that the sort of questions that might be asked by a bright 20th century sixth-former would have been unintelligible or devastating for Augustine, Rahner or Teresa of Avila. The fact is that significant numbers of those who turn to Christian faith as educated adults find the doctrinal and spiritual tradition which Bishop Spong treats so dismissively a remarkably large room to live in.

    Doctrinal statements may stretch and puzzle, and even repel, and yet they still go on claiming attention and suggesting a strange, radically different and imaginatively demanding world that might be inhabited. I’m thinking of a good number of Eastern Europeans I know who have found their way to (at least) a fascinated absorption in classical Christianity through involvement in dissident politics and underground literature. Or of some American writers who will, I’m sure, be known to Bishop Spong, from Denise Levertov to Kathleen Norris, who have produced reflective and imaginative work out of the same adult recovery of the tradition. Is this tradition as barren as Spong seems to think?

    To answer that requires us to look a bit harder at the theses themselves. In a way, the first of them indicates where the trouble is going to come: for there are at least three quite distinct senses of theism current in theology and religious studies, and it is none too clear which is at issue here.

    At the simplest level, theism is, presumably, what atheists deny. Spong doesn’t appear to think of himself as an atheist, so this can’t be it.

    In a more specialist context, scholars of the phenomenology of mysticism have sometimes distinguished ‘theistic’ from ‘monistic’ experience – theistic experience being defined as focused upon a reality ultimately distinct from the self (and the universe), as opposed to a mysticism of final unification. I’m not convinced that this distinction is actually a very helpful strategy, but that is another matter; it may be that something more like this is what Spong has in mind.

    But there is also the sense, recently discussed by writers like Nicholas Lash, of theism as the designation of that abstract belief in God independent of the specific claims of revelation that flourished in the age after Descartes – a sense quite close to but not identical with that of ‘deism’. It is in this sense that large numbers of theologians would say that classical Trinitarian orthodoxy is not a form of theism.

    I suspect that Spong is feeling his way between the second and the third senses. His objections seem to be to God as a being independent of the universe who acts within the universe in a way closely analogous to the way in which ordinary agents act. The trouble is that, while this might describe the belief of some rationalist divines in the modern period, and while it might sound very like the language of a good many ordinary religious practitioners, it bears no relation at all to what any serious theologian, from Origen to Barth and beyond, actually says about God – or, arguably, to what the practice of believers actually implies, whatever the pictorial idioms employed.

    Classical theology maintains that God is indeed different from the universe. To say this is to suggest a radical difference between one agent and another in the world. God is not an object or agent over against the world; God is the eternal activity of unconstrained love, an activity that activates all that is around God is more intimate to the world than we can imagine, as the source of activity or energy itself; and God is more different than we can imagine, beyond category and kind and definition.

    Thus God is never competing for space with agencies in the universe. When God acts, this does not mean that a hole is torn in the universe by an intervention from outside, but more that the immeasurably diverse relations between God’s act and created acts and processes may be more or less transparent to the presence of the unconstrained love that sustains them all.

    The doctrine of the incarnation does not claim that the ‘theistic’ God (i.e. a divine individual living outside the universe) turns himself into a member of the human race, but that this human identity, Jesus of Nazareth, is at every moment, from conception onwards, related in such a way to God the Word (God’s eternal self-bestowing and self-reflecting) that his life is unreservedly and uniquely a medium for the unconstrained love that made all things to be at work in the world to remake all things. Jesus embodies God the Word or God the Son as totally as (more totally than) the musician in performance embodies the work performed.

    I don’t find this bankrupt; I don’t find that it fails to make sense to those trying to learn the language of faith.

    And the same point about God not competing for space is pertinent to several of the other theses. Exactly how the presence of God’s action interweaves with various sets of created and contingent causes is not available for inspection. We have no breakdown of the relations between God and this or that situation in the world.

    Theologians have argued that the holiness of a human individual or the prayer of a believer may be factors in a situation that tilt the outcome in a particular way. This is an intellectually frustrating conclusion in all sorts of ways, but seems to be the only one that really manages to do justice to the somewhat chaotic Christian experience of intercession and unexpected outcomes (miracles, if you must). If the world really does rest upon divine act, then whatever you say about the regularities of casual chains is relativised a bit by not quite knowing what counts as a ’cause’ from God’s point of view, so to speak.

    Bishop Spong describes the resurrection as an act of God. I am not clear how an immanent deity such as I think he believes in is supposed to act; but if such a God does act, I don’t see why it should be easier for God to act in people’s mind than their bodies. ‘Jesus was raised into the meaning of God’; yes, but meanings are constructed by material, historical beings, with cerebral cortices and larynxes. How does God (or ‘God’) make a difference to what people mean?

    Spong clearly has no time for the empty-tomb tradition; so it is no surprise that he also dismisses the virginal conception (though why on earth this makes Jesus’s divinity ‘impossible’ I fail to understand). I am aware that there are critical historical grounds for questioning both narrative clusters and I don’t want to dismiss them. But I am very wary of setting aside the stories on the ground of a broad-brush denial of the miraculous.

    For the record: I have never quite managed to see how we can make sense of the sacramental life of the Church without a theology of the risen body; and I have never managed to see how to put together such a theology without belief in the empty tomb. If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker.

    The virginal conception looks less straightforward, if you are neither a fundamentalist nor someone committed to the principled denial of miracles. Is it possible to believe in the incarnation without this? Yes, I think so (I did for a few years). But I also have an uncomfortable feeling that the more you reflect on the incarnation, the less of a problem you may have. There is a rather haunting passage in John Neville Figgis about – as it were – waking up one day and finding you believe it after all. My sentiments exactly.

    Perhaps the underlying theme in all this is that if you don’t believe in a God totally involved in and totally different from the universe, it’s harder to see the universe as gift; harder to be open to whatever sense of utter unexpectedness about the life and death of Jesus made stories of pregnant virgins and empty tombs perfectly intelligible; harder to grasp why people thank God in respect of prayers answered and unanswered.

    Perhaps, too, it has a bit to do with the sense of utterly unexpected absolution or release, the freeing of the heart.

    The cross as sacrifice? God knows, there are barbaric ways of putting this; but as a complex and apparently inescapable metaphor (which, in the Bible, is about far more than propitiation) it has always said something sobering about the fact that human liberation doesn’t come cheap, that the degree of human self-delusion is so colossal as to involve ‘some total gain or loss’ (in the words of Auden’s poem about Bonhoeffer) in the task of overcoming it. And that human beings compulsively deceive themselves about who and what they are is a belief to which Darwinism is completely immaterial.

    Of course, if you want to misunderstand Darwin as establishing a narrative of steady spiritual or intellectual evolution, you will indeed want to say that all existing ethical standards are relative. How, then, are you going to deal with claims by this or that group that they are moving on to the next evolutionary stage? In what sense can ethics fail to be about the contests of power, if there is nothing to which we are all answerable at all times?

    Of course the parameters of ethical understanding shift: but the shifts in Christian ethics on, for example, slavery, usury and contraception, have had to argue long and hard to establish that they are in some way drawing out an entailment of what is there, or honouring some fundamental principle in what is there. In other words, these changes in convention have had to show a responsibility to certain principles that continue to identify this kind of talk as still recognisably Christian talk.

    It makes for hard work – as is obvious with current debates about homosexuality or nuclear war; but it is hard work because of the need to continue listening to what is said and written.

    But then we discover in Spong’s theses that there is, after all, a non-negotiable principle, based upon the image of God in human beings. Admirable; but what does it mean in Spong’s theological world? What is the image of a ‘non-theistic’ God? And where, for goodness’ sake, does he derive this belief about humans? It is neither scientific nor obvious.

    It is, in fact, what we used to call a dogma of revealed religion. It is a painful example of the sheerly sentimental use of phraseology whose rationale depends upon a theology that is being overtly rejected. What can it be more than a rather unfairly freighted and emotive substitute for some kind of bland egalitarianism – bland because ungrounded and therefore desperately vulnerable to corruption, or defeat at the hands of a more robust ideology? It is impossible to think too often of the collapse of liberalism in 1930s Germany.

    It is no great pleasure to write so negatively about a colleague from whom I, like many others, have learned. But I cannot in any way see Bishop Spong’s theses as representing a defensible or even an interesting Christian future. And I want to know whether the Christian past scripture and tradition, really appears to him as empty and sterile as this text suggests.

    It seems he has not found life here, and that is painful to acknowledge and to hear. Yet I see no life in what the theses suggest; nothing to educate us into talking about the Christian God in a way I can recognise: no incarnation; no adoption into intimate relation with the Source of all; no Holy Spirit. No terror. No tears.

    Does he know that generations of believers have argued the need to separate hope for life after death from earthly rewards and punishments? They believe that the present and future delight of enjoying God’s intimacy made all such talk irrelevant.

    Does he see at all that the recognition of God’s image in everyone, in such a way as to drive people to risk everything for it (Wilberforce? Dorothy Day? Desmond Tutu? Bonhoeffer? Romero?), seems persistently to come from an immersion in the dark reality of God’s difference and in the uncompromising paradoxes of incarnation of the Almighty?

    Culturally speaking, the Christian religion is one of those subjects about which it is cool to be ignorant. Spong’s account of classical Christian faith simply colludes with such ignorance in a way that cannot surely reflect his own knowledge of it. I think I understand the passion behind all this, the passion to make sense to those for whom the faith is at best quaint and at worst oppressive, nonsense.

    But the sense is made (in so far as it is made at all) by a denial of the resources already there – to the extent that Spong’s own continuing commitment to the tradition becomes incomprehensible.

    Living in the Christian institution isn’t particularly easy. It is, generally, today, an anxious inefficient, pompous, evasive body. If you hold office on it, you become more and more conscious of what it’s doing to your soul. Think of what Coca-Cola does to your teeth. Why bother?

    Well, because of the unwelcome conviction that it somehow tells the welcome truth about God, above all in its worship and sacraments. I don’t think I could put up with it for five minutes if I didn’t believe this; and – if I can’t try to say this in a pastoral, not an inquisitorial, spirit – I don’t know quite why Bishop Spong puts up with it.”

    At the time of writing Rowan Williams was Bishop of Monmouth. Rowan Williams is now Archbishop of Canterbury.

    Transcribed and reproduced with permission from the 17 July 1998 edition of Church Times

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