John Spong Jesus for the non religious: recovering the divine at the heart of the human New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN 13: 978 0 73228495 4.
This is an odd book by John Spong, retired bishop of The Episcopal Church and prolific author of books urging change to Christianity. For starters the title is wrong. This book is not about ‘Jesus for the non religious’ but about ‘a non religious Jesus for the religious’. Then there is the question of what the book seeks to achieve. Is Spong saving Christianity from irrelevancy, from an inevitable death if it does not change its mode of believing (p. xiii), or articulating an alternative to ‘the Christianity that is now emerging in America and in the Third World … with which I do not choose to be identified’ (p. 7)? Christianity cannot both be dying and already renewed in its life! This is not an idle jab at a trivial piece of inconsistency. The hectoring tone in the book – most Christians past and present are hysterical, insecure, and defensive – presumes the urgency of Spong’s rescue. But Christianity is alive and well. If we accept this fact which Spong himself recognises however briefly, we may wonder if the hectoring tone means Spong is actually the hysterical one as he kicks against that which he does not like.
Certainly Spong goes to extreme lengths to distance himself from normative Christian understanding of Jesus as he strips him of traditional beliefs in order to reveal the attractive and inspiring essence of Jesus. Off go the nativity stories, Joseph and Mary and her virginity, the Twelve Disciples, all the miracle stories, the crucifixion narrative (‘liturgy masquerading as history’) and (of course) the resurrection in respect of any thought of its literalness, physical reality, or basis in an empty tomb. Revealed is the wonder of Jesus the person in whom the divine is perfectly and completely at one with his humanity. Thus encountered, Jesus beyond death transformed the outlook of the disciples (the true resurrection) and inspired the gospels and epistles, along with the development of the Christian movement. For Spong, this essential Jesus, is what all humanity, religious and non-religious needs to (re)discover in order that we might be transformed beyond the racism, chauvinism, homophobia, etc which restrict our experience of the ‘abundant life’ promised by Jesus. Certainly Spong arrives via this route at a very attractive Jesus. The odd thing is that he appears to have no ability to understand that Christianity full of the beliefs he strips away is just as able to arrive at the same conclusion.
In fact Spong repeatedly demonstrates his inability to acknowledge that there are other possibilities to consider at each significant point in his argument. Thus the reader, through Spong’s undoubted cleverness in logic and clarity of writing, is easily led to think that Christianity is clueless and irrational. How can miracles have happened since, if they have taken place, then God is exposed to the charge of evil neglect of all the sick people who are not healed? Stupid traditional Christianity! But it is Spong who is neglectful, failing to widen his discussion to present the reader with the possibility that miracles are intended as signs confirming the truth of God’s message rather than as arbitrary acts of an ultimately cruel God. Or, we might consider Spong’s theory of the composition of the gospels as largely driven by the needs of the early church to create an annual cycle of readings and thus prone to invent stories to fill the gaps. Here Spong relies heavily on the work of Michael Goulder, a brilliant British scholar, available to the world of scholarship for over thirty years. But the reader receives no inkling of the fact that Goulder has not persuaded the majority of scholars, and thus that other explanations should be considered.
But the deepest flaw is Spong’s approach to the role of ‘theism’ in the development of both Scripture and the history of Christianity. Theism is the notion that God exists beyond humanity, independently of any projection of human need for ‘a god’, yet is involved in human life. For Spong, theism originated from the fear of primeval humanity which projected the existence of a god with power to overcome human insecurity. At precisely this point of positing projection as its origin Spong begins to falsely characterize theism, so that before long theism is responsible for all kinds of evil in humanity such as racism, chauvinism and homophobia. Thus Spong defines ‘theism’ with no acknowledgement that other definitions might be less susceptible to his withering scorn. Then Spong argues that the essence of Jesus is the unity of the human and the (non-theistic) divine (cf. the second half of the title, ‘recovering the divine at the heart of the human’). On Spong’s presupposition this Jesus quickly got overlaid with theistic miracle stories in order to express his divinity, and the Christian movement which followed became bedevilled with theistic theology. Only now (with a bit of help from theological predecessors such as Schleiermacher and Tillich) is the true ‘God-in-Christ’ revealed through Spong’s scholarly investigations.
The rich ironies here seem totally lost on Spong. How pathetic is the Spongian God that (s)he should have been lost for such a long time? Given his acknowledgement of the greater power of secularism than Christianity in overcoming (in large measure) evils such as racism, chauvinism, and homophobia (p. 229), why does he remain a Christian (let alone a bishop of a Christian church)? If Spong is correct, and virtually all of Christianity, past and present is wrong, is he not himself a great and wonderful saviour, not only of Christianity but of the world himself?
But beyond humour when reflecting on these ironies is this serious issue: does Spong’s God exist beyond the bounds of humanity? It seems from this book that ‘God’ is indistinguishable from the perfection of human life and has no existence other than the projection of human desire. If this is so, then Spong’s stripped down Jesus is troublingly inconsistent with his new apostle’s devotion, for the unstrippable characteristic of Jesus is that he served, spoke for and prayed to a theistic ‘God’. Further questions arise. Why Jesus? When such hard work is required to penetrate through the theistic forest to the pure essence of Jesus, the reader is entitled to wonder whether better examples of the divine encountered in the human could be adduced (St Francis, Buddha, Ghandi, Mother Teresa?). Which Jesus? In common with many others who have sought some version of the real Jesus lying behind the Jesus of Scripture (apparently always a false Jesus!), the discovered Jesus bears uncanny resemblance to its discoverer! The reality of Jesus, however, has always been that he has been an uncomfortable figure, challenging all who attempt to adjust the picture of him to better fit some version of current reality. In the end Spong’s reading of Jesus is a failure because he predetermines that Jesus will be coherent with Spong’s vision of how the world should be. The real Jesus always asks people to follow him and not the other way round!