Institute on Religion and Democracy
February 9, 2000
He is America's most media savvy bishop, and he's finally retiring. John Shelby Spong of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark became a fixture on Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey during the 1980's, and more recently gravitated towards Larry King and Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.
Thanks to a steady stream of books for over 20 years that advocated acceptance of homosexuality while speculating about Mary's virginity and St. Paul's sexual preference, Spong became the most prominent theological provocateur of the Religious Left. Both The New York Times and Sixty Minutes are paying homage to Spong's retirement with lengthy good-bye stories.
Perhaps emboldened by the close of his ecclesiastical career, Spong has become even more outspoken over the last year. Not content to tout gay issues or express saucy skepticism about church tenets regarding Christ's resurrection or the afterlife, Spong now disputes "theism" itself.
"The God of the biblical story has become inoperative," Spong recently announced. "Theism became all but irrelevant with laws of cause and effect that governed the natural universe." He says he is trying to save the church by making it relevant, but admits that if Christianity were to fade away, "I don't think it would be a disaster."
Spong's critique of the faith has never been particularly innovative. He thinks the discoveries of Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Freud have made belief in a personal God absurd. His argument against the Deity is not any more creative than what might be expected from a typical village atheist with some education. Spong's New Testament theology is merely boilerplate seminary liberalism that dates back at least a century.
What has made Spong unique and successful are three things. He is a bishop in the highly diminished but still prestigious Episcopal Church. His message is focused around homosexuality at a time when the popular culture is going gaga over the rhetoric of "sexual orientation." And unlike most liberal church leaders, he does not pretend to be a very nice man.
Spong does not waste time employing the buzz words of full inclusion and mutual tolerance. He thinks traditional religious people are "neurotic," stupid and "immature." And he does not hesitate to say so. Traditionalists do not merit dialogue. They need to be silenced or sent packing.
Last fall, Spong addressed the Jesus Seminar, who are as collectively media savvy as he is in gaining attention for their "discoveries" about what is no longer valid in the Christian faith. It was, of course, a lovefest between the revisionist bishop and the revisionist academics who are united against a common enemy: the God of the Bible.
"A supernatural deity who lives beyond the sky watching over this planet keeping a record book for final judgement and periodically invading the earth has become unbelievable," Spong told an applauding crowd. "The security found in the Christian tradition that we are in possession of divine truth revealed directly by this theistic God in either Scripture or tradition has been obliterated."
Spong does not waste time trying to be diplomatic. "The whole Christian enterprise is tottering," he insisted. The Eastern Orthodox Church has become a "benign irrelevance from another age." The Roman Catholic Church is dominated by priests who are "extremely conservative security seekers who will not engage modern learning." Third World Christians are captive to a "pre-modern superstititous literalism." American evangelicals in the South and Mid-West are running a "big business."
He refuses to go into Christian bookstores, which tell you how to "properly beat your children.how women should be second class citizens and gay people should be bashed." Spong does not believe in traditional prayers, which are simply "adult letters to Santa Claus." He has likened the posture of praying on one's knees to a "beggar before someone who has the ability to give him his next meal, a slave before a master, a peasant before a king." And although he still wears a cross over his vestments, the stories of Christ's sacrificial death on it are "nonsensical."
Traditional Christians who still believe that Christ died for their sins are touting a Gospel that is "strange, bizarre and finally repelling." Amid laughter and applause, Spong opined that the world will not accept Christ's atoning death, "I don't care how many bloody hymns we sing in worship. These thread bare concepts are simply not worthy of eliciting worship. They have become grotesque." Spong wants the church to stop telling people they are sinners and "stop dumping the church's ancient pathology on modern people."
The fundamentalists will "finally go down in flames," he assured his audience, while liberals who are seeking to salvage parts of the traditional faith will "expire with a pitiful whimper." Unless Spong's "radical reformation" is accepted, "death appears to be Christianity's destiny." But if the church is to survive, then it must "abandon the mythological framework that portrayed Jesus as a visiting, saving divine figure."
Spong insists he wants to save the church from its imminent self-inflicted death. It is not clear why. "I long ago ceased to be an Episcopalian by identity," he has admitted. But he seems to see the church as a useful tool for promoting "justice" causes like gay rights.
Ten years ago Spong became the first Episcopal bishop to defy his church's teachings on sexuality by ordaining a practicing but supposedly monogamous homosexual into the priesthood. Within a few weeks the new priest renounced monogamy, forcing Spong to defrock him. But fifteen percent of the Newark Diocese's priests are now openly homosexual. (Fewer than five percent are racial minorities, lending credence to the theory that gay advocacy is primarily a hobby for wealthy white liberals, a species in which the Episcopal Church specializes.)
No doubt distressed over Spong's support for homosexuality and assisted suicide, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Newark has called Spong's diocese a "church without morals."
A bishop since 1976, Spong has had nearly a quarter century to usher in his "radical reformation" in northern New Jersey. And what are the results? In 24 years the diocese has lost 42 percent of its membership, surpassing even the nearly 20 percent loss suffered by the Episcopal Church nationally during that time.
When Spong predicts the death of the Christian church, he knows whereof he speaks. He has tried to implement it. Of course, Spong is not fully retiring. He will begin lecturing at Harvard, which should be a perfect match.
It is just too bad for the Diocese of Newark that Spong did not go to Harvard 24 years ago.