NOTE: The following essay was written before the release of Bishop Spong's most recent book. In many ways I think it represents, better than my review (National Catholic Reporter, Apr. 7, 2000) of the book did, what I truly think Spong is trying to to accomplish and the difficulties his attempt involves. And if the following appears a bit more critical of the bishop, it can be read as a caution to but not a repudiation of what I wrote in the conclusion of my short review about the lessons to be learned. In the following essay I have also corrected the mistake (repeated twice in the review!) that placed Spong in Trenton NJ rather than in Newark. (RWK 4/9/2000)


Bishop Spong and the Perils of Demythologization

The news that John Shelby Spong, the Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, will have begun his retirement on January 31, 2000, will have probably brought something of a collective sigh of relief to many of his coreligionists. Although the term "infant terrible" may seem like a singularly in appropriate term for America's most senior Episcopalian bishop, the departure of this outspoken and controversial cleric from his official post of leadership will no doubt be greeted with something of the same amount of regret -- which is to say, among conservatives, very little -- as the mysterious disappearance, of the equally controversial, but by then defrocked, Bishop Pike in the wilds of the Judean desert back in 1968.

No doubt Spong's critics were most upset by his advocacy of gay rights within the church and his ordination of openly gay men to the clergy. This, for many more conservative communicants of a church already upset over the ordination of women, was no doubt the last straw that sent not a few into the arms of the Roman Catholic Church -- whose not inconsiderable number of gay clergymen are expected to not only be resolutely celibate, but also to remain, at least as much as possible, discreetly in their closets.

However, Bishop Spong, ever young at heart, will not be silent. Immediately upon his retirement he will have taken up the post of lecturer at Harvard University where his theological views will command even greater attention than those which he has expressed regarding sexuality. Indeed, the two are quite closely connected, as he illustrated in an interview in conjunction with the 1997 Lambeth Conference of the whole Anglican Communion, where he lambasted the African Bishops (who were to prove the greatest obstacle to "progressive" ideas about sexual morality) for their not having faced "the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein" and their tolerance of "a very superstitious kind of Christianity" among their people. (In fact, Spong had already dismissed one of his gay priests who ended up repudiating monogamy -- the very bedrock of Christian sexual ethics that some of these African bishops have been questioning when it comes to applying this Christian ideal to their own flocks!)

To top this off, in his 1998 "Call for a New Reformation" Spong, apparently seeing himself as something of a modern-day Luther, in effect proclaimed twelve theses as advanced in his book published that same year, Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Among them are singled out various items in the traditional Creeds, such as the Virgin Birth of Christ, the Resurrection of Body, and even the Resurrection of Christ. And although Martin Luther himself is no doubt turning in his grave over Spong's open rejection of so much of what Luther himself stood for, Spong's new autobiography goes so far as to be titled after Luther's famously defiant statement before the Diet of Worms: "I can do no other: Here I Stand"

Demythologization: Tracing Spong's Theological Roots

To understand what Spong is up to is not all that difficult. He openly credits the influence of the Anglican theologian J. A. T. Robinson whose 1963 book, Honest to God, Spong says "changed his life". No doubt it was this book that had not a little influence on the late Bishop Pike as well. What Robinson was up to was, in effect, to bring before the English speaking public (and not just scholars who were long familiar with what was going on) the impact of the work of the German scripture scholar, Rudolph Bultmann, whose call for the "demythologization" of Christianity already seemed so threatening to the Christian world. Bultmann, having come to the conclusion that the long search for "the historical Jesus" had proved fruitless, instead had been pioneering a radical new approach to Christian faith. And to do this, Bultmann insisted that it was absolutely necessary that Christians wean themselves away from dependence on belief in what amounts to a good deal of religious "myth".

Not just conservative, but even middle-of-the-road Christians, of course were almost immediately threatened by this. The use of the word "myth" has a lot to do with it. The idea that such doctrinal claims such as the Virgin Birth were but "pious legends" or (to use a fancier term -- "theologoumena" -- poetic ways of talking about God or God's actions) were, and still are, very threatening to a religion whose foundations are seen not to be in pious fables or a mystical philosophy, but in historical facts. If Christ has not actually risen from the dead, is not our faith in vain? Indeed, it would seem so. And so the reaction to Bultmann's program was quite understandable. In Europe it expressed itself in the "neo-orthodoxy" of Karl Barth which basically took the road of defying, as much as possible, all reliance on human reasoning, and in reenforcing our belief in God's supremacy to accomplish anything he wills. In America, the reaction has been that even the Evangelicals have become, by far and large, practically indistinguishable from outright fundamentalists.

This is quite understandable. Once you start dividing scripture up between what might be taken "figuratively" as against what must be taken more or less literally, where do you stop? This is of course THE problem of biblically-based religion. In fact, it is even more basic than that: what books belong in the Bible to begin with? -- but we'd best not get into that! Suffice to say, "demythologization" appears to many, if not most, as a sure way to the "deconstruction" of Christianity, a kind of demolition by scholarship.

Worse than that (and this is in the eyes of traditionalists) it is not people like Bultmann who have done the most damage, as they remained academics writing in scholarly journals in language (usually German) so dense that average people are unlikely to even try to understand. It has been rather the indiscriminate spreading of these ideas, by people like Robinson, Pike, Spong and others like them -- who are not so much ground-breaking theologians as popularizers who are seen the greatest threat. They are, in the words so often used by hierachs the world over, the kind of people who "disturb" the "simple faith" of the "average Christian" and cause them to question the truth of the doctrines we all hold so dear. The fact that the failure the Church (or churches) to give more solid food to those the people whose minds are more inquisitive, or whose education makes it impossible to believe much of this doctrine more or less literally, really doesn't seem to concern them all that much. As long as the bulk of the faithful continue to "pray, pay, and obey", most church leaders seem content to let things be, or even -- as Spong accused the African bishops of doing -- aiding and abetting "superstition".

But need it all come down to that?

Faith and Belief

A large part of the problem that Christianity faces in these matters is a failure based on a confusion of beliefs with faith. Faith, in the biblical sense of the word, consists in a loving trust, a commitment to, or even familiarity with God. It is primarily an affair of the heart.

Belief, on the other hand, is primarily a matter of the mind or intellect. It is an attempt to formulate in words, the reasons for which we have faith and the object (or better, the subject) of our faith. While faith believes (or has faith) in someone, belief(s) express (or try to) why we have faith in someone, or what it is about them that so motivates us. And like all formulations of reasoning, beliefs often fall woefully beneath the reality they attempt to describe.

No doubt Barth and neo-orthodoxy admits this too. In fact, the transcendence of God beyond our ability to comprehend him and his ways is a cornerstone of their appeal to taking biblical and creedal doctrines at their face value and not worrying too much whether or not the statements make all that much sense. Behind or beneath the positive statements of belief there lurks a sense that when all is said and done, there is a hidden, largely unattainable reality which can't be reached directly by our reasoning, no matter how hard we try. In other words -- perhaps without saying it enough, however -- there always remains a certain "beyond" that remains untouched and incomprehensible.

But isn't this also exactly what Bultmann himself ultimately had in mind? While some may contest this, it is generally acknowledged that Bultmann was inspired by Heidegger's existentialism and the latter's radical questioning of the meaning of human existence. In fact, there is a passage in Heidegger's writing that could be very well singled out as a major clue as to what prompted Bultmann's radical program of "demythologization". In it Heidegger says:

Theology is searching for a more original interpretation of man's being toward God, prescribed by the meaning of faith and remaining within it. Theology is slowly beginning to understand again Luther's insight that its system of dogma rests on a "foundation" that does not stem from a questioning in which faith is primary and whose conceptual apparatus is not only insufficient for the range of problems in theology but rather covers them up and distorts them. (Heidegger, "Time and Being" see Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell, Harper & Row, 1977, pp.51-52)

If this be true, then it is clear that Bultmann was not embarked on some kind of program bent on destroying the credibility of the Bible but rather a way of cutting through the confusion of beliefs, many of them based on a misunderstanding of the Bible, to the bed-rock of pure faith. But whether or not Bultmann chose the best way of going about this task is quite another matter -- one which we must now confront.

Myth and Faith

Contrary to popular misunderstandings, myth (or "mythos" in Greek) meant a sacred story -- one usually considered to contain a profound truth, one which cannot perhaps be expressed any other way. Or as a somewhat waggish definition has put it, myth is "a truth that never happened" -- if by "happening" we mean it in a historical sense. This may seem obvious when it comes to a sacred story like that in the first few chapters of Genesis, where the story form (we should say "forms" -- because there are distinctly two of them) are borrowed from more ancient near-eastern mythologies, which if taken literally, would not only be in direct conflict with science and reason, but even yield a meaning that would be outrightly childish. So too with the story of Noah and the ark, the Tower of Babel, and such like.

But jumping to the New Testament, dare we say the same about the stories of Jesus' conception by a virgin and his birth in Bethlehem? Many, if not most biblical scholars today (including quite middle-of- the-road Catholic moderates like the late Raymond Brown) would say so, and they argue their case not from some secularistic presuppositions (like virgins just don't have babies) or parallel mythologies (there are plenty of virginal plus divinely initiated conceptions in pagan mythologies) but from a careful comparison of the biblical texts themselves. On that basis the conclude that the two stories of Jesus' conception by the virgin Mary and his subsequent birth in Bethlehem in Judea (as found in Matthew and Luke, but which differ markedly in many details) are legends which were utilized to emphasize divine origin of Jesus, but quite unlike the radically different approach used in the Gospel of John.

The problem is (and this is what upsets people so): should this be pointed out? Do people have any real need to become so "biblically literate" -- to use the phrase used by Spong? And again, what happens when we apply the same kind of reasoning to the story (or stories -- as again, they don't entirely agree) of the resurrection of Christ and his "ascension" into heaven? Or again, when we speak of the "resurrection of the body" in the creeds, even Paul (who told us that unless we will rise, neither then did Christ) tells us that what rises is a "spiritual body" -- not the "perishable" or "fleshly" body that we now inhabit. Was not Paul engaging here in a bit of "demythologizing of his own?

What it all comes down to, in fact, is an argument as to how far to go and when. As people go through different stages of life, so too they move through different stages of faith, particularly as to their understanding of the beliefs which faith normally involves. As theologian James W. Fowler showed in his 1981 book, The Stages of Faith and his 1984 book, Becoming Adult: Becoming Christian (both published by Harper & Row) the mythic-literal stage of belief of small children comes naturally -- they have a need to take these mythic forms of belief as literally true. But need an adult take them as such as well?

This of course is THE problem. Apparently many adults do have a need to continue to take these stories literally, finding their sense of security which their faith afforded them severely compromised unless they can be assured that every one of their beliefs is literally true. And when this literalness of belief is challenged, they are quite apt to dig in their heels and become "fundamentalists", convinced that should they do otherwise their faith would be destroyed.

All this suggests that there is something else at work here other than faith. If nothing else, it suggests that Heidegger's insight that our "system of dogma" (belief) is something that is so inadequate to the task (of dealing with theological problems) that it ends up distorting and deforming the life of faith. But I also think it suggest more than that. It may very well be that the quest for security, assurance, confidence, or whatever it is that we might call the "pay-off" or immediate reward of faith ends up by destroying it!

The reason is really quite simple. Real faith, genuine faith, is directed toward God. The quest to achieve our own sense of security, confidence, well-being, is demanded by and directed toward fulfilling our own selfish needs. It is not that God would wish us to be insecure or lacking confidence, but when we seek these benefits through a rigid adherence to a dogmatic structure of beliefs rather than giving ourselves unreservedly over to loving trust in God we are, in effect, committing idolatry as surely as much or even more than if were bowing down before a golden calf or, more likely these days, our bank account.

Bon Voyage and Lots of Luck

Luther saw this same truth in his own day and fought it in his own way when he lashed out against a church that was only to willing to play on people's sense of insecurity with a system of salvation guaranteed by indulgences, acquired merits, relics and other pious security blankets. The problem is that his insistence on "the Bible, Grace, and Faith alone" can almost as easily (especially the Bible alone) be made into a shibboleth in its own right -- unless one is very careful and very determined not to let it become so.

This is where Bishop Spong's reformation will need more than just Luther's determination, and probably a lot more tact. Luther came on the scene with all the finesse of a sledgehammer and ended up tearing Christendom apart. Running around ordaining openly (noncelibate) gay men, or performing gay marriages (especially in places where the population has shown itself reluctant to go quite so far), or slamming African bishops (who at this point would be delighted if they could even prevent intertribal warfare) are not the kind of things that will earn him a greater hearing among those who need to hear his message most. This is, as one of his critics has said, a sure formula for discrediting liberal Christianity and driving the rest into the arms of the fundamentalists.

What we need from Bishop Spong, in his new position at Harvard, is a voice that can show the world that Christianity can enter the world of the twenty-first century in a way that is not only suited to the contemporary scientific understanding of the universe, but which is also alert to the various degrees of sophistication possessed by those who are bound to hear of his utterances -- thanks to the modern press and other modes of practically instant communication. In the ancient world, where literacy was not widespread, a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the basic doctrines could be quietly passed around among the more educated -- the "gnostics" or "those in the know". We do not have that quiet luxury any more. What is said in secret will be funneled in through the housetops (via CNN, PBS, NBC or whomever) almost immediately as it is said. And the more shock value it has, the more publicity it is sure to get. All this suggests that what the world needs at this point is not more popularizations of radical opinions, but a better interpretation of what is really going on inside the believer. Until people understand themselves better, more confusion is apt to result than enlightenment.

Richard W. Kropf 1/23/2000


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