Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Williams on Spong

As I alluded to earlier in the week, controversial retired Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong is in town at the moment.

What I didn't know until today was that back in 1998 Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury (though he was then Bishop of Monmouth), responded to a list of twelve theses Spong had composed criticising various traditional tenets of Christianity, such as theism, the incarnation, the fall, all miracles (including a bodily resurrection), the ascension, and the role of prayer and the scriptures. The theses were an echo of Luther's famous ninety-five theses of 1517 and they are here, together with Williams' response. Despite expressing appreciation towards some of Spong's other contributions, Williams was not impressed, calling the theses confused, "uninteresting" and "the sort of thing that might be asked by a bright 20th century sixth former." In his conclusion, Williams says:

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.
I am sympathetic to those frustrated by their experience of church, who have not found life together in the Christian community to be a taste of God's future. I believe there is an important role to be played by a faithful opposition. But in my brief and limited experience, it seems like there are better critics, more insightful contemporary prophets, and more worthwhile conversation partners than Bishop Spong. Nonetheless, I'm willing to be corrected. Can anyone recommend Spong's best book?

CORRECTION: I initially misquoted Williams as saying that the theses were "poorly-thought through". My apologies for sloppy work. Williams used this phrase about the issues raised by the theses, agreeing with Spong that these issues need further thought, but still sharply criticising Spong's answers to them.
Archbishop Williams' image from the official Archbishop of Canterbury website. Bishop Spong's image from the Harvard University Gazette.


Dave Miers said...

i'd say his forthcoming book: The day I turned back to Jesus

thegreatswalmi said...

"best book by spong" may be a difficult one. I think that probably "why christianity must change or die" would be his most well-known, and would give you a good glimpse into who he is and what he thinks. Also, he wrote an auto-bio called "here i stand" (sounds familiar to me, somehow). Spong sees himself very much as the modern-day luther, challenging the church to change (or die). Unfortunately, the changes he suggests (to me) make the church unimaginable, or at best, completely unfamiliar, particularly when one looks at the early church!


David Castor said...

There's a small problem with your question, Byron. For someone to nominate the best Spong book, they would have had to read at least two works. I suspect most people don't get that far - and I don't blame them! I've recently read "Why Christianity Must Change or Die" and was pretty underwhelmed, even though I'd consider myself quite progressive. Mind you, I have a fairly lofty Christology which probably colours my view somewhat.

My advice is if you want to read up on your liberal Christianity, stick with Schliermacher or Tillich - Spong is simply taking their cues from them but argues far less impressively.

Matthew Moffitt said...

I did'nt know Spong is down under. What's he up to?

thegreatswalmi said...

David's right on the money. I've read a few of spong's works and his argument runs thus:
Christianity doesn't make sense anymore because of science, so we need to change everything so it harmonizes with the way we think and feel, and then we'll be at the truth.

tough reading...not hard, but annoying :)


Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Spong's early book, This Hebrew Lord has some good insights along with the chaff. And his, A Bishop Rethinks Homosexuality has much to commend it. But I don't find much of his work at all helpful.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Those are excellent responses by Williams. I would echo his "if a corpse clearly marked 'Jesus of Nazareth' turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker." Except I know too many Quakers with high and historic Christologies. So, I would change that to "become a Unitarian." But there isn't enough of a difference between most Unitarians and agnostic humanists.
So, I have to have incarnation and bodily resurrection not only to remain Christian, but to continue believing in GOD.

Anonymous said...

Spong's latest book "Jesus for the Non-religious" is, if i read spong correctly in his preface, primarily an up-dating and extension of his book the "The Hebrew Lord". So Byron why not read his latest elaboration on the Jesus question. If you are considering reading one of his with a broader focus, then I would agree with what some of the other contributors here have suggested "Why Christianity Must Change or Die" - although I would have a more positive view of it. Of course many of Spong's concerns are also talen up in a similar vein by Richard Holloway - but if the contributors to this discussion find both these views too unpalatable then i think a far more challenging liberal perspective is provided by Marcus Borg in what he claims is his last book on the historical Jesus; "Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary". Borg outlines a vision of an "emerging Christian paradigm" which will be or should be a challenge to evangelical and fundamentalist Christians and may well provide an important avenue of discussion with liberals.

psychodougie said...

MOFFIT: he's here for the common dreams conference, all about progressive religion (although there are hundreds of absenteeisms, with the only representatives being from liberal Christian denominations)

i'm actually a little hesitant to read a Spong book - i heard him interviewed on SBS's Insight program several years ago, and he had me going for quite some time - he really thinks things through, and is so subtle in the way he twists stuff. that is, until you work out where he's starting, how he's trying to justify himself by changing his theology (c/f 2Peter!)

but maybe his earlier stuff would be a getter read? or is it all rubbish?