John Shelby Spong, Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven…, Harper One 2009, Hardcover 288 pages. (Under $20 on the internet.)
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Bishop Jack Spong takes his readers on a long journey to “Eternal Life“. His vision of eternal life is broad: it includes a plan for the church’s mission in the world, a plea for mysticism, and a vision of human beings transcending the limitations of the individual for a oneness with God and with others. Overall, I like his vision.
Eternal Life is a rollicking ride of the sort we have come to expect from Bishop Spong.
Jack Spong believes that religion has prevented us from seeing the grand vision by keeping us in unhealthy dependence, waiting on a father who knows best, and who in fact often manipulates us into even more dependency.
This paternalistic dynamic played out in the news as I was reading Eternal Life. It was sad to see the wonderful and feisty Sisters of St Joseph waiting on a Papa in Rome to declare that Mary McKillop was sufficiently saintly. The Sisters already consider McKillop a saint, and it appears demeaning for them to be forced to wait while a far-off authority decides whether post mortem miracles are valid or not.
Eternal Life is in part an engaging memoir. Spong traces his journey from an evangelical home in North Carolina through his teenage years in a more “catholic” Anglican parish. At each step of the way from deacon to priest, to pastoral work in parishes and to diocesan Bishop, Spong’s intellectual curiosity deepens. He is no longer content with the church’s easy answers. He liberates himself energetically from the literalist view of the Bible he inherited. More importantly, he discards the triple-decker universe of the Bible, and along with it, the concept of the transcendent God. For Spong, God is not beyond us; God is within us.
Bishop Spong describes the church’s journey as it moves from childhood to maturity and invites others to join this journey. I sense some impatience on his part with those who haven’t travelled his particular road, or who are perhaps embarked on a different journey. In interviews he often says that his intended audience are those who have left the church unable any longer to swallow the literalism and infantilism they have experienced in the church.
He criticises priests like me who understand his journey, but in order to avoid offence, sometimes cloak our language in ambiguity. I do understand the Spong dilemma, but I am trained as a pastor and educator: I try to communicate by taking people with me.
Spong is an iconoclast. He tears down superstition and pre-modern thought and clears the way for a Christianity with intellectual integrity in the modern world. Like all iconoclasts, the Bishop skirts the edge of orthodoxy. However, if a Panel of Triers in a diocese somewhere tried him for heresy, I have no doubt that he could show that all his theology accords with scripture and can “be proved thereby” and thus satisfy the canonical claims of the Anglican Articles of Religion. Iconoclast he may be, but not apostate.
I agree with Bishop Spong that the church stands on tiptoe at the edge of great changes. We need iconoclasts like him to undo our tight grip on inadequate concepts of the past, but we also need gracious guides who will inspire us and lead us confidently into that future. Spong is the first, but not, crucially, the latter.
Bishop Spong convinces me that all scripture is poetry, but fails to read scripture with the depth and sympathy that would make it sing anew.
He is keen to remind us that God is not “up there”, and demonstrates that we should instead look within to find God. This, as he says, is Mysticism 101. But he does not account for our need to reach outwards to find God. Even if the proper direction is not up, most of us feel impelled to look outwards to our fellow humans and the wondrous creation, and to listen there for God speaking to us.
He is enthusiastic to show us that faith and science are compatible, but ignores science’s scepticism for its own methodology and conclusions. Even the brashest scientists admit that science doesn’t have all the answers. Blind belief in science will not serve faith well.
Maybe all these expect too much of Bishop Spong. We should accept that his ministry is more to tear down our conceptual idols than to build up our spiritual future. We should read Spong and clear our minds, and we should also listen to our hearts and shape our own mature vision of God and God’s future. Of that, the Bishop would approve.