Unbelievable

Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today

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John Shelby Spong
  • New York, NY: 
    HarperOne
    , February
     2018.
     320 pages.
     $27.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780062641298.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

For a generation, John Shelby Spong has produced books that challenge prominent features of Christian belief and practice. His most recent book, Unbelievable—which he says is his last—draws themes from his previous writings into a set of theses. Neither the biblical and theological objects of his scrutiny, nor the intent of his criticism, prove surprising. In Unbelievable, as he has in the past, Spong insists that Christianity must undergo a contemporary reformation or face extinction. He believes that his insights and emphasis frame the necessary reforms. 

Like Spong’s other books, Unbelievable is not a scholarly work intended to satisfy the academy. It taps reputable, albeit dated, sources that can be conformed to his intention. In his treatment of God, for example, Spong insists that old theistic categories must be abandoned if Christianity is to be credible now. He cites works by Altizer and Tillich that appeared a half-century ago. Yet for the sake of contemporary belief, there is no engagement with current writers speaking of God from diverse perspectives. 

There is no apparent grasp of the work of David Bentley Hart, Roger Scruton, John Philip Newell, or Rob Bell. Their works join the academic to the pastoral and popular as Spong seems to wish, but they do not inform Spong’s work. There also is a striking absence of current biblical scholarship and, for an Episcopal bishop, no recourse to works by noted Anglican authors, such as N. T. Wright. 

How then could Spong’s work be categorized? In one respect, Unbelievable aspires to what John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua achieved more than a century ago. It is the summation of a clerical, personal, and intellectual journey, though of a different sort than Newman’s. Spong recalls how an undergraduate philosophy professor shook his assumptions. As an Episcopal priest, he encountered doubts and questions among parishioners. He also faced their struggles, including illness and death, for which pat theological answers did not suffice. Spong resolved to challenge his pastoral charges. The project intensified when he became a bishop. A commitment to articulating what could be believed became his vocation. 

Spong’s writing embodies what a progressive minister might offer in a parish’s adult classes. Judging from the popularity of his books, a considerable audience absorbs his ideas. In part, the fact of a bishop raising probing faith questions and rejecting familiar dogmas appears to have broad appeal. But more than clerical cachet is involved. Spong’s animus for what he labels “traditional” Christianity seemingly taps a wellspring of popular religious energies. 

How does Spong’s intended reformation of Christianity proceed? In essence he returns to the Liberal Christian project of a century ago: first-century Christianity has been obscured by creedal statements and mishandled by church authorities. The Christ experience, as he puts it, must be extracted from dying, past explanations. Christianity as it has been known may die in order to be reborn. The notion that doctrine, the faith, and the church appropriately develop with contextual variations is missing in Spong’s treatment.

For Spong, Christianity is an amalgam of outdated doctrines. He wants to repeal such categories as original sin and miracles as variances from scientifically-based natural processes. Christianity tries to answer questions fewer people ask now, one of his daughters insisted to him. Spong objects to atonement theology, though he grants that it points to a longing for wholeness. But for Spong, atonement theology is “the pervasive sickness,” the church “fetish,” that undercuts Christianity. “If Christianity is to have a future, the paradigm must shift from being saved from our sins to being called into a new wholeness from our sense of incompleteness” (166).

Similar criticism fuels his treatment of the Ten Commandments. The legal approach to ethics that he perceives must give way to a relativity that is contextually defined. What this means is not explained fully. A chapter on how the Ten Commandments have changed historically refers mainly to experiences Spong has had with group discussions in church settings. He urges that what was considered evil in one generation may be viewed differently in another, with sexuality as an illustrative category. But, as in much of this sweeping narrative, specifics and reliance upon current secondary literature are lacking. Inevitably the criterion of viable biblical and theological interpretation is Spong’s own predilection. 

There is a constructive intention to Unbelievable. In his treatment of prayer, Spong urges that it must be lived and not simply spoken. This affirmation becomes the doorway through which Christianity must proceed. Believing that God is being itself, never fixed but evolving, he affirms that Christianity is “a home in which I dwell happily” (71). The faith he envisions is a growing capacity to achieve knowledge and insight. It advances as people encounter one another authentically, embraced by the power of love that comes from beyond themselves. In this light a new reformation becomes possible. 

It could be argued that a different sort of reformation is already underway, one not conditioned by doctrinal reinterpretation. The percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation ( the “nones”) suggests that increasing numbers of people, especially young adults, have not absorbed distorted religious ideas, but rather none at all. Churches and clergy are less authorities to be confronted than unfamiliar entities. The Bible, for example, needs prior definition before it can be challenged and reinterpreted. 

For many of the nones, and Americans of all generations, the key religious category now is “belonging” more than “believing.” Belief is not dismissed, but it must follow the onset of participation in a local faith community. There the practical dimensions of faith are tested, then perhaps embraced, often idiosyncratically. Litmus tests of belief remain in segments of religious America, but they must be seen as part of a changing social experience. Despite his fervor, Spong has missed this leading edge of religious life. Perhaps the real reformation has passed him by.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William L. Sachs is Priest Associate at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000, has been a visiting lecturer at Harvard and at more than 500 other universities all over the world. His books, which have sold well over a million copies, include Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy; The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic; Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World; Eternal Life: A New Vision; Jesus for the Non-Religious, The Sins of Scripture, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?; Why Christianity Must Change or Die; and his autobiography, Here I Stand. He writes a weekly column on the web that reaches thousands of people all over the world.

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