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.