John Shelby Spong has often been described as a controversial theologian, and by many conservative and fundamentalists Christians as being a heretic or to have left the faith completely. On the other hand, to many Christians, and myself (although I don’t self identify as <em>Christian</em>), he has had an influential hand in dragging Christianity out of the dark ages.
Bishop Spong died on September 12 at the age of 90. Perhaps he’s best known for promoting a non-literal interpretation of the Bible, for which he has also received the most criticism. But it’s necessary to remember that he has been a strong advocate for LGBTQI+ and women’s rights, including clerical roles within the Episcopal Church. Those that knew him recognised his message was one of love and justice – something that is often absent in the modern world, both secular and religious.
Spong believed that taking a literal interpretation of the bible was to miss the truth behind its teachings. In this he held similar ideas to those of modern theologians such as Don Cupitt and my favourite, Sir Lloyd Geering. However, such thinking is not new and there has been a long tradition of theologians who have argued that taking the Bible literally is to misunderstand the intent of the stories it tells.
The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, the dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary stated “What he truly came to understand is doctrine, dogma, doesn’t make us Christian. Doctrine, dogma, doesn’t make us church. What makes us church is respecting the sacredness of every single human being and creating a world that does that and making sure the church is leading the world in doing that.” With regards to doctrine and dogma, and creating a world that respects the sacredness of all people, I concur. Whether it’s the Church or some other social structure that does the leading is unimportant to me.
Bishop John Shelby Spong is survived by his wife Christine, five children and six Grandchildren.
16 Sep, 2021 at 3:48 pm
I think many of the churches forgot the true meaning of Christianity a long time ago despite still calling themselves Christian. It seems to be far easier to be anti something than for the person.
16 Sep, 2021 at 4:11 pm
It’s one of the reasons I identify as Quaker but not Christian. If all Christianity was more closely aligned to the understandings of Spong/Cupitt/Geering, then perhaps I wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable about being identified as Christian.
16 Sep, 2021 at 3:55 pm
Growing up, I attended a conservative church. But I did not take the Bible literally, because to do so was absurd.
Yes, I appreciated Spong, though I had deconverted before I had heard of him. Spong’s version of Christianity still makes sense. The conservative version of Christianity is still absurd.
16 Sep, 2021 at 4:33 pm
I grew up in a society where “Christian” was identified more as a way of behaving than holding to a theology. While my father was either atheist or agnostic (religion was not a subject he wished to discuss) my mother was a “closet Christian” and didn’t “come out” until she was in her fifties.
I often struggle to remember that “Christianity” is the belief of a significant majority in the US, and is hugely influenced by Fundamentalism, whereas here only a third of the population identify as “Christian” and a only minority of those could be classified as Fundamentalists.
I think that the religious cultural differences between the two nations go some way to explain why the gulf between theists and non-theists is much wider in the US than it is in NZ. Let’s face it, Geering would never have been awarded New Zealand’s highest honour (limited to 20 living persons) if his theology was not respected by all, even those who disagreed with him.
17 Sep, 2021 at 4:33 am
May he go well
17 Sep, 2021 at 1:21 pm
“What makes us church is respecting the sacredness of every single human being” — yes, more of this please… lots more.
25 Sep, 2021 at 7:29 pm
Bishop Spong was a real treasure and the ground-breaking work that he did for humanity will live on.
30 Sep, 2021 at 3:12 pm
Interesting article. …
As bold as it may sound to many Christians/Jews/Muslims, I (a believer in Christ’s miracles) believe that God may not need or desire to be worshipped; and that “houses of worship” may actually have been meant for the parishioners, divinely intended to be for the soul what health clinics/spas, even hospitals, are for the body and mind. Also, perhaps the Ten Commandments were/are not meant to obey in order to appease God but rather intended for His human creation’s benefit, to keep people safe and healthy.
Like many other theists, I perceive the Creator as not being in humanoid/singular form nor with gender; and Its nature is far beyond that which all monotheistic-faiths’ scripture (the Bible, Torah and Quran) describe It as fundamentally being. All scripture was written by human beings who, I believe, unwittingly created God’s nature in their own fallible and often-enough angry, vengeful image.
Also, I can imagine many institutional Christians even finding inconvenient, if not annoying, trying to reconcile the conspicuous inconsistency in the fundamental nature of the New Testament’s Jesus with the wrathful, vengeful and even jealous nature of the Old Testament’s Creator. (Really, why couldn’t Jesus have been one who’d enjoy a belly-shaking laugh over a good joke with his disciples, now and then?)
Perhaps needless to say, I believe that Christ was/is intended in large part to show humankind what Messiah ought to and needs to be; to prove to people that there really was/is hope for the many — especially for young people living in today’s physical, mental and spiritual turmoil — perceiving hopelessness in an otherwise fire-and-brimstone angry-God-condemnation creator. Fundamentally, of course, that definitely includes resurrection.
30 Sep, 2021 at 3:39 pm
Thank you for your contribution. I am not a theist, not because I oppose a belief in theism, but because I have found nothing that provides me with sufficient evidence that any deity – however one perceives such an entity – as existing. But having said that, I do have a sense of the Divine. What it is, I have no idea. I’m not persuaded it’s something that exists outside of the mind, but whatever it is, that mystical experience can (and in my case does) influence how one perceives the world and responds to it.
Thinkers such as Spong, Cupitt, and Geering have helped me understand religious writings in other than literal terms – literal forms I doubt very much the original writers intended.
7 Oct, 2021 at 2:17 pm
When I consider Christianity and animal slaughter/meat-eating, I tend to perceive the Biblical God as not requiring blood and pain ‘payment’ from Jesus (nor from anyone else); rather, it is the Divine’s animal creation that continue to literally have their blood shed and bodies eaten in mindboggling quantities by Man. And, therefore, maybe the figurative forbidden fruit of Eden eaten by Adam and Eve was actually God’s four-legged creation.
I can see that really angering the Almighty, and a lot more than the couple’s eating non-sentient, non-living, non-bloodied fruit. I’ve noticed that mainstream Christianity doesn’t speak up much at all about what we, collectively, have done to animals for so long.