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”

4 thoughts on “Thoughts About and In “Unbelievable” by John Shelby Spong

  1. I definitely disagree with a number of these, but I like the idea of keeping an open and evolving dialogue. I’m always open to hearing new interpretations.

  2. The “vital organs” quote got my attention. I have noticed that so many of thoughts similar to Spong’s work their way into sermons I hear in the church, but then we kneel and recite the old creeds and liturgy. I pause on phrases I no longer believe, doing my own excising.

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