Friday, January 28, 2005

Christianity with no redemption story?

For the last couple of days I've been reading a book by John Shelby Spong called Why Christianity Must Change or Die. It has told me absolutely nothing that I don't already know. What makes it fascinating is that he describes many of the most devistating arguments against God and against Christianity and agrees with them, but he doesn't come to the conclusion that Christianity is bunk. He still describes himself as a Christian believer.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter entitled "Jesus as Rescuer: An Image That Has to Go"(which I read at 3:00am this morning in a fit of insomnia):

What would the concept of a primal fall of human life into sin possible mean to those creatures who only recently evolved into the stage of the world and who give no evidence that their stay will be permanent? How can there be a fall into sin if there has never been perfection from which to fall? What kind of deity is it who would require of us a sacrificial offering to overcome a chasm that is now understood to be non-existent? Why would anyone be drawn to an image of a divine rescuer who, with his self-sacrifice, would pay the price of sin? The traditional understanding of salvation history and the various theories of atonement all come tumbling down at this point, and this includes the interpretation we have traditionally imposed upon the cross of Calvary.

Wow. That is a mouthful. I can tell why this guy is controversial--about 4-5 years ago if anyone started telling me this stuff I would have likely stuck my fingers in my ears and yelled "lalalala I can't hear you!" It would have been such a negation of my worldview I wouldn't have stood for it.

He traces the "salvation story" of Christianity from the Garden of Eden all the way to the letters of Paul and the Gospels, as I've always heard it described. (Like I said, he has said nothing I don't already know.) Then he suggests that this is all interpretation that has been forced onto the biblical story and the life of Jesus by theologians from the first century to the present--that it is a story based in "pre-Darwinian superstition and post-Darwinian nonsense" and needs to go. But he also thinks that if Jesus had been therefore nothing but a "good teacher or a good example" that the devotion to him would not lasted nearly as long as it has.

Yet the Jesus portrayed in the creedal statement "as one who, for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven" simply no longer communicates to our world. These concepts must be uprooted and dismissed. If the Christ experience is real, then we must find a new way to talk about it.

Call it conditioning if you like, but I’m having a hard time separating Christianity from this salvation story he is calling “pre-Darwinian superstition.” This is one of the reasons I don’t believe in Christianity. The evolution of the human race means no literal fall, no literal original sin, no need for salvation from sin, no need for a self-sacrificing savior. It is very fascinating to me to see a Bishop honestly try to adjust his religion to be consistent with modern knowledge of the world. I’m only about half-way though the book now, and I’m looking forward to finding out what he has to say next.


Ruthie said...

Good old Bishop Spong :) I'm glad you're enjoying him, he is deliciously controversial, and imo he makes some excellent points and generally tries to be humane in his approach. BTW, if you enjoy Spong, you might also enjoy Marcus Borg.

You might find Jewish perspectives on "The Fall" story interesting to look into. Most Jewish thinkers haven't seen the fall as a literal event stemming from mankind's disobedience to God's somewhat capricious rules thereby invoking his eternal wrath and earning themselves an eternity in fiery pit (that's just the Christians ;P)

I think the Fall can be understood as a story about adult development, the realisation that things are not black and white, that good and evil grow on the same tree and live in the same person, and are present in ourselves. The reality that life is not all beautiful and that we have to work if we are to eat, the need to come to terms with one's own mortality, to invest in adult relationships and to be productive within our communities.

I came across this take on it by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I really enjoyed his take on the fall as giving dignity to our humanity, our immortality and the birth of love and the life that it brings. Meh, I'm starting to sound corny, Sacks puts it far better than I ever could, just check out the link :)

There are other, more creative and helpful ways of understanding the cross than this bizarre idea that Jesus blood satisfied God's wrath thereby making it possible for us to go to heaven when we die - I might have a flick around some of my stuff and see if I can find something that you might find interesting. My own take is very much incarnational - the idea that on the cross God identifies himself with suffering humanity. Let me know if you're interested, sometimes I get a bit over enthusiastic about these things (old evangelical habits die hard sometimes, lol)!

These days I appear be to rediscovering my Christian background with a lot more creativity, life and compassion than before. I hope that you find something in Spong that helps you better appreciate what it is you're finding along the way.


Mikayla Starstuff said...

Thanks Ruthie! I like the Rabbi's interpretation. That does make sense . . . it's like when a child grows up and "loses their innocence" it's a necessary thing, even if it's painful sometimes. Adam and Eve gained the knowledge of good and evil because they had to know about it to live in the world. Interesting . . .

BTW, the link is You'd left the "m" out of "htm".

Mark said...

Spong's neo-eloquant assertions are just his method of attempting to cozy-up to what he perceives as the coold kids he wants to hang out with. Unfortunately, he is dallying with the "powers of this world."

It all boils down to this: do you believe in the supernatural world or not. To me, theories of evolution, Darwinian or otherwise, are a distraction to this central question. And if your answer is that you do believe in the supernatural, then your discussion implicitly enters a different plane, which post-enlightenment scholastic reasoning is only feebly able to address.

Anyway, so sum up: Saddening to hear of people describing themselves as former Christians, since this to me means not that they "discovered Christianity to be invalid" but that the way it had been presented to them by the culture they grew up in was mostly invalid.

If there is a God who loves his creation, then he would be interested in establishing communication with it, and in our solar system, it is through the Orthodox Church.

Ruthie said...

Ooops, sorry about the link Mikel & well done for figuring out what I'd done wrong.

MarkHu - I very much doubt that Spong is trying to be one of the cool kids. He didn't start some kind of rave in the nave for goodness sake. I think Spong is simply honest about where he is coming from, the problems within the Christian church and the need for us to grow up a little bit. If he wanted to be cool, he wouldn't have been a bishop.

On one level, I agree with you, that the presentation of Christianity can be largely invalid, and that there are many who describe themselves as 'former Christians', who might still find hope, inspiration and enlightenment from the Christian story and from the teachings and life of Jesus.

I don't believe in the supernatural - I believe that God is a presence within the natural world, not some curious outsider who set it all off and might intervene if he feels like it. And also - why would God communicate through the orthodox church? Why not just communicate to everyone in every way?


PS. Apologies for bombarding your blog in response to MarkHu, hope you don't mind :)

Mikayla Starstuff said...

Anytime, Ruthie. Bombard away :)

Mikayla Starstuff said...

To MarkHu,
For one thing, belief in the supernatual does not make one either a Christian or Orthodox. Speaking of which, to which version of Orthodoxy do you refer? Jewish, Eastern Christian, Catholic, Methodist, Nazarene, Hindu, one of the various forms of Baptist . . . Orthodoxy is no guarantee of truth (neither, of course, in unorthodoxy). Ideas must be judged by their merit, not by whatever view is in power at the time.

Oh, and I don't belive in the supernatural, BTW. I would be happy to change my mind if I found any convincing evidence for it though.

coffee goddess said...


I always look forward to your blogs...oh what fun I am having in this read.

With reference back to that kitchen table chat I had with one Bishop Spong some years ago, I can personally attest that he is hoping to be anything but cool. The turmoil his life has been in since 'outing' his views is not something someone would choose to endure for the heck of it. There are far easier roots to popularity.

For the very fact that my father (Anglican Canon and then principal and chancellor of an Anglican College) refused to intervene and cancel a lecture Bishop Spong had been invited to give at the university my father faced everything from acts of vandalism to death threats. How ironic that these 'Christian' acts were in the name of saving the faith. Sigh.

Has the threat of change ever been seen as popular or cool?

Mikayla Starstuff said...

Thanks for the kind words Robin :")
And a good observation about bringers of change. I know there are lots of people out there who would love to do Spong the same way that they did Thomas Paine back in the late 1700's. Shame.

Heather Ann said...

What is he proposing as a different approach to Jesus, if not the Jesus-as-bringer-of-salvation model? Why else would we need him? Why else would Paul be so obsessed with it? Does he believe in the sin nature at all? Always interesting to see a new spin on things.

Mikayla Starstuff said...

Not sure, actually. Unfortunately since the semester is now picking up, I have had to delay continuing the book for now. I hope to pick it back up again later though.

coffee goddess said...

Technically, Bishop Spong would be classified as a Universalist - that everyone will experience salvation of some sort and that what you believe is irrelevant. All that really matters is that one act morally.

As for scripture, he rejects the notion that it is the literal word of god rather a book very much of the times it was written in and as such quite fallable. His main contention with what has gone wrong with Christianity today - and what endangers it from a future - is that the bible itself has become an idol (a golden calf persay).

As for his view of Jesus and the virgin birth, he proposes that Jesus was a godly/goodly man. He - and all Christians after him - became a 'son of god' thru baptism.

I grew up thinking all Christians were on this wave length. Never occured to me that people other than 'those' in the deep south (sorry Mikel - I was like 11 at the time, okay) had a fundemental view of scripture. It was only when I got dragged to a Pentacostal Church when I was on a sleepover that it occured to me that Fundementalism did in fact exist. It really scared me and I think it was a backwards 'epiphany' for me that Sunday morning. I have been a die-hard skeptic and had no trust in church ever since)

Mikayla Starstuff said...

Thanks Robin :)
I think Heather's question threw me a bit. I wasn't thinking of any need for an alternative, since I gave up on the idea that we need to be "saved from sin"--I was just seeing Spong's stuff as an alternate way of looking at Christianity. I just wasn't thinking in the terms of fact and alternative at the time. :)

However, I am wondering what Christianity is without the salvation story. Just another symbolic way of understanding the world? A set of rituals? In essence no different that any other religion? What is there to believe in with that sort of view?

I appreciate his attempt to subject his faith to reason and modern knowledge. But I do get where Heather is coming from, come to think of it. It is how I always wondered about liberal Christians when I was a believer--and when I first started losing my religion. Why believe in something if you don't really think it matches reality?

coffee goddess said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
coffee goddess said...

oops! I had to edit my post...

I think a lot of it has to do with comfort and a sense of community. I know that is certainly something I long for since I dissassociated myself with church. I had found it again with a women's circle I was part of in Saskatoon and realize that is what is again missing since I moved.

For most liberal Christians I know it is not so much about faith. It is not about I-do-this-because-it-is-written-and-commanded-that-I-do-so. Not having a literal belief in the scriptures does not mean that some still do not find hope and solace in them. For some, belief in the message is enough.

For me, its not about the message (which I am in agreement with Spong about - everything comes down to leading an ethical life) that I had to leave the church, rather it was the manner in which the message was transmitted.

Mikayla Starstuff said...

I agree with you 100% Robin! The language is confusing though. I guess the word "Christian" is even more ambiguous than the word "atheist." I don't see why we don't just call liberal Christianity a belief in ethical living with some inspiration from sacred texts. Religious humanism, I guess. The label "Christianity" has just become too confusing to me.

Ruthie said...


It appears my friend Laurence has taken a quote from this post and put it on a web forum we're part of :S

It may spark interesting discussion, so if you like check it out hereRuthie

Digger said...

Yeah I've read the book, he's definitely a great thinker, and good at articulating what he's thinking. It certainly made me ask some way tough questions of my faith-a process I believe can only make me stronger.

I too have a very incarnational approach to Jesus' death, it was done so through that he could fully identify with what it means to be human.

A mate of mine pretty much just says it was because he was such a troublemaker and stirred up the authorities too much-but thats too simplistic for my liking.

I've always speculated on the significance of why Jesus died-I'm not comfortable with the 'he died for our sins' idea, but am still forming my ideas as to what I do believe.

I also agree with how Spong speculates about how there must have been more to Jesus than being a good teacher, great point.