Thoughts About and In “Unbelievable” by John Shelby Spong

9780062641298_p0_v2_s550x406I was gifted Bishop John Shelby Spong’s latest, and reportedly last, book Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today by a parishioner.  He was her childhood priest who presided over her wedding, and I am grateful to have such a close connection to a theologian who is as kind as he is controversial.  We all should be.  Too many are either/or.

An exciting heresy is better than a boring orthodoxy, as my now sainted Systematics professor once noted, and Spong is the embodiment of the former.

Except, as this book points out, he might actually not be so heretical in the eyes of the future.  He may be right on the money, though a bit ahead of his time. I hate to be too fanatical and fanciful about it, but Spong might be for theology what Galileo was for astronomy: saying the inconvenient truths that will be the cinder blocks of future foundations of faith.

If you polled pastors, and probably many pew-sitters, Spong’s theological formulations may not be not far off for anyone who has spent more than a few Christmas Eves and Easter mornings pondering the subject. He systematically walks through the dogma of the Christian creeds, deconstructing and reconstructing them in a gentle but firm manner.

His Christology and thoughts about the after-life (parts IV and XIII) will certainly be the most controversial parts of this book for the majority of Christians, but that is no surprise.  Spong’s disregard for Jesus’ eternal divinity may cross the theological “Maginot Line” for many.  But I encourage you to hear him out before you slam the book shut.  The fact is that he has no need for a know-it-all and endure-it-all Jesus, not to mention the golden gates of heaven, or the fiery pits of hell. And makes you ask whether you do, either.

Perhaps you do. Maybe you don’t. Regardless, think about it for a hot second.

Read his thoughts about the Christ.  Ponder his ponderings on what it means to enter the eternal.  Engage rather than be enraged.

In all honesty, my own thoughts about these topics have evolved over time, too.

I will miss John Shelby Spong when he’s gone.  He speaks things that the church is often afraid or unready to say, though I have hope that we will one day be able to say them before it is too late.

And I guess, that’s my major take-away from this book: we must become more and more unafraid to say what we believe, no matter how heretical it might seem, if we’re going to be a church that has a future.  The push and pull of psychology, sociology, and biology will only shrink theology if we do not grow as a discipline alongside these other ones.  Spong’s parting shot at orthodoxy doesn’t graze the bow, and neither does it sink the ship.

Rather, it sets out to remind all of us sailing in the Christian boat out on the waters of the world why we’re sailing at all and where we’re going.  “Are we in the right kind of ship for our destination?” we might ask, not to belabor the metaphor for too long. “Is this ship the one that will take us where we need to go?”

Below are some of the most interesting (and controversial!) quotes I came upon in the book.  I do not agree with all of them, but they all made me stop and think. I commend the book to you.  Do not be afraid to have your faith deconstructed and reconstructed.

Is denial of theism the same as atheism? Is there no other alternative?“-pg 38, “The Challenge of the Copernican Revolution”

Before Darwin we thought of ourselves as ‘just a little lower than the angels,’ but after Darwin we began to think of ourselves as ‘just a little higher than the apes.‘” pg 44 “The Impact on Theism from Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin”

Truth, no matter how challenging, can never finally be determined by either majority vote or a court case.” pg 45 “The Impact on Theism from Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin”

One only has to look at our God language to validate Freudian insights.  The theistic God was a being like us human beings in all details, except with human limitations removed. We called God infinite and immortal because we knew ourselves to be finite and mortal.  We called God omnipotent and omnipresent because we knew human life to be powerless and ultimately bound by space. We called God omniscient because we knew ourselves to be limited in knowledge.  Only a deity not bound by our weaknesses could address the anxieties of our limits and provide us with the security we sought. Then we named this deity ‘Father’ or ‘Almighty Father,’ which served to make Freud’s insight all but irresistible…The religious institutions then sought to control these anxieties by keeping their adherents in a state of dependency which, like children, they did not worry about what they did not or felt they could not understand. People were exhorted to be ‘born again,’ never to grow up, never to take responsibility. It was no wonder that the parental word ‘Father’ became the name for the church-appointed representative of this theistic deity.“-pg 52, “Dealing with the Insights of Freud”

God is not a noun that needs to be defined. God is a verb that needs to be lived. It was and is an ancient idea, but perhaps because it is not always a satisfying idea, it never grasped the core of our humanity.  ‘Being itself’ does not offer us a lifeline to security. It does not promise us aid in time of need. It does not put the supernatural at the service of the human.  It does not teach us how to manipulate the divine for the benefit of the human…it suggests that we are part of the Holy.“-pg 60 “A Place to Begin–Being Not a Being”

Religious honesty requires the admission that certainty in religion is always an illusion, never a real possibility. Religion, which was born in the need to provide security for self-conscious creatures wrestling with issues of mortality, finitude and meaning, now finds itself forced to admit that it has no security to offer. Radical insecurity must now come to be seen as a virtue, which we must learn to embrace as central to our religion.“-pg 70 “Our Definition of God: Evolving, Never Fixed”

An evolving Christianity is not our fear, but our hope.“-74 “Our Definition of God: Evolving, Never Fixed”

No one prior to the writing of Mark in the eighth decade ever seems to have associated miracles with Jesus. This fact surprises many. Paul, who wrote between 51 and 64 CE, never spoke of Jesus as a worker of miracles.“-81, “Escaping the Idolatry of the Incarnation”

The second and last Pauline reference to Jesus’ birth was in Romans, written in the middle years of the sixth decade of the Christian era. Her Paul writes, making a messianic claim, that Jesus ‘was descended from David, according to the flesh’ (Romans 1:3). Since royal descent was always through the male line, there is no way Paul could have written this line if he had ever heard of or entertained any idea of a virgin birth.“-pg 105, “The Story of the Virgin Birth”

The virgin birth was never universally believed even in the earliest developing Christian tradition.  Of the five major writers of the New Testament, two, Paul and Mark, appear never to have heard of it.  Two others, Matthew and Luke, offer quite different versions of it.  The last, John, appears to have dismissed it.  Our task is not to believe it, but to understand it.“-pg 117 “The Actual Details Behind Jesus’ Birth”

After centuries of laboring to understand stories that made no sense to us, we now discover that the problem was that we did not know how to read those stories.“-Pg 152 “Messiah Miracles–The Final Clue”

Jesus did not die for your sins or mine! This distortion of Christianity, atonement as traditionally conceived, must be lifted out of the unconscious realm of our faith story, challenged, and expelled.  It stands between us and any possibility of rethinking the meaning of Christianity.  it is so deeply part of our religious jargon that precise, radical theological surgery may be required, for, like a malignancy, atonement theology has wrapped itself around vital Christian organs.“-pg 159 “Renouncing ‘Jesus Died for My Sins'”

Resurrection, I now believe, was not a physical act. No formerly deceased body ever walked out of any tomb, leaving it empty to take up a previous life in the world.  For Paul for the other early Christians to whom Paul says Jesus ‘appeared,’ resurrection was, rather, a moment of new revelation that occurred when survival-driven humanity could transcend that limit and give itself way in love to others, including even to those who wish and do us evil.“-pg 182 “Paul’s List of Resurrection Witnesses”

Resurrection, you see, was not just something that happened to Jesus; it is also something that happens to and in each of us.“-pg 184 “The Gospels’ Understanding of Easter”

The Easter experience in the New Testament, contrary to what we have traditionally been taught over the years, is not about bodies walking out of graves. It is far more profound than that. It is about God being seen in human life.“-pg 188 “The Gospels’ Understanding of Easter”

The ascension story is both powerful and real, but it is not, and was never intended to be, literally true.“-pg 196 “Elijah Magnified”

We can safely conclude that the Ten Commandments were never themselves meant to be an eternal code. They changed in history; they were edited. The ethical life has always been an adventure.“-pg 213 “How the Ten Commandments Have Changed Through History”

Do we dismiss the great codes of the past? Now, but we also do not endow them with the status of ultimate and unchanging laws. We do, however, ascribe to them the wisdom of the ages, and we give to our ancestors, who codified those laws, the courtesy of our attention.“-pg 220 “Meet Moses’ Father-in-Law”

Prayer is not about the attempt to change reality; it is about approaching reality in a dramatically different way.“-pg 243 “Prayer: An Act of Being or of Doing?”

All of this is to say that the Christianity of tomorrow will set aside the literal formulas of our Christian past, but Christians will not ever set aside the power of the experience that expressed itself in scripture, creed theology and liturgy. We honor each, but we literalize none!“-pg 279 “The Marks of Tomorrow’s Christianity”

I am a disciple of Jesus. Why? Because when I look at the life of Jesus, as that life has been refracted to me through both scripture and tradition, I see a person who was so fully alive that I perceive in him the infinite Source of Life.“-pg 287 “My Mantra: This I Do Believe”

My Annual Reminder: Confirmation isn’t Graduation

matte-product-navy-325Different churches have different schedules for Confirmation.  Some have a three-year class, spanning 6th-8th grade.  Some invite 9th graders to confirm their faith.  Some, like the church of my childhood, put it all into one year for 6th graders.

Regardless of when it happens, it’s important to remember why we have Confirmation at all.  So pull up your (electronic) chair…

Confirmation is the part of the baptismal rite where people (youth or adults) take on the promises of baptism for themselves if they were baptized as a child.  It is, in practice, the reversal of the ancient rite.

In the ancient rite the Catechumenate would study for a year with someone from the church, learning the “stuff of faith” …for lack of a better term.  This came to include the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and the 10 Commandments, among other things.  This person they studied with, sometimes called a sponsor (you’ll recognize the term “Godparent” here…and not an honorary position you give to your brother because he’ll be offended if you don’t, but with real responsibilities), then presented them to the priest, or whomever was doing the baptizing, as ready to be submersed in the ancient waters, fit to join the community of Christ.

They were fit, mind you, not because they had “accepted Jesus into their heart.”  In the first church that sort of theological and biological gymnastics would be non-sensical. For me it still is non-sensical in most ways.

No.  They were fit because, having been moved by the Word of God as they met with the assembly, they saw that this community was living and acting in a way that changed them, and the world, for better.  Walking the pathway of Jesus was better than those other paths out there.

Part of the rite was a remission of sin.  In baptism God washes the baptized clean of any eternal ramification of sin.

But only part of the meaning of the rite was that.

The overwhelming balance of the symbol of the rite was acceptance into the community of Christ through the promises of God.

Now, in medieval times baptism became a one-trick pony: forgiveness of sin.  This was largely because, in the Christian world, baptism was basically a given.  You were born and then baptized. Christendom reigned and sought to keep control in the Western world, and what better way to keep control than to tell you that you are lacking something (righteousness) that only the church can give you?

But that’s not the fullness of the ancient symbol.  For more on this check out Ben Dueholm’s upcoming book _Sacred Signposts_.  He does a masterful job explaining this movement in his chapter on baptism…

Back to the topic at hand.

So the norm in the Catholic/Mainline world became to baptize first and teach later.  Which is absolutely fine, by the way, especially if the focus is on the promises of God and not the worthiness of the person.  Studying the “stuff of faith” does not make one holy, anyway.

Confirmation, then, is the fruit of this reversal in strategy.  We normally baptize first and teach later and then confirm the faith of the person who was baptized in their early years.

But here’s the thing: the teaching, while formally called Catechism, does not end at baptism for the ancient person.  It just starts to get put into intentional practice. And so it also means that it does not end at Confirmation, either.

It has only just begun.

Which means that, when you order graduation gowns for your Confirmands, have elaborate banquets for them, throw elaborate parties where cards full of money and whatnot are all part of the deal, you (the church) are effectively giving off a very different signal than what the rite actually means.

Confirmation is part of the growth of the Christian.  It is not the culmination.

Which is also why strict book curriculum, filling out worksheets, and tricky tests all give off the wrong impression, too.

If anything the test should be the same every year!  It should ask them to recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the 10 Commandments, and maybe give a bit of explanation about it.

But by and large, Confirmation should be about formation into the faith, not primarily information about the faith.  After all, those first Christians were forming themselves to one another in that year of study…hence why you did it with someone else in the church, and not on your own!

It wasn’t about inviting Jesus into your heart, it was about inviting the community into your life and being invited into the life of community!

I am frustrated that we have to explain this at all.

Back to the original point: the more you make Confirmation look like graduation, with academic robes, elaborate banquets, etc, the more you invite the Confirmand to imagine their work is complete…when it is only, really, beginning.

And, sure, we can explain that to them in all sorts of ways.  But if we keep up this tradition that basically mirrors the graduations that many of them will be participating in just a few weeks after, what with elaborate ceremonies and walking across stages and all, then we’ll be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

So, my advice as a pastor in the church: slowly phase out these subliminal messages and practices.  Slowly phase in new messages and practices.  Change the narrative to the more ancient one, and I bet we’ll find new life here.  Make it a milestone of the faith, not the culmination.

Confirmation is not graduation.  Let’s all stop giving off that impression.