Why Christianity Must Change or Die

A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile by John Shelby Spong, HarperSanFrancisco, 1998

Reviewed by Lloyd Geering in Newsletter 26

This is the book Bishop Spong promised when he visited New Zealand in 1997. Two or three chapters, including the first, are substantially the lectures he gave here. Now we are able to appreciate them in their full context, for the book is a unity and reads well. I found to my surprise that I had misunderstood the frequent use he made, when here, of the term "believer in exile". I thought he was referring to himself and others like him, who feel somewhat exiled from the church because of their radical views. What he meant is this; he had chosen the image of the Jews in the Babylonian Exile, as a metaphorical description of the state of the Christian faith in the post-modern world. Those who are still Christians find themselves now exiled from the kind of the world in which traditional Christian images and beliefs were wholly convincing and, consequently, they do not how to sing the Lord's Song in this strange new world, so foreign to their inherited tradition.

As an illustration he writes, "The understanding of God as a theistic supernatural parent figure in the sky has now been rendered inoperative". In a later chapter he deals more fully with what he calls the end of traditional theism. It is a pity he had not given that chapter at our SOF Conference instead of the one he did (namely, the first chapter -- "On Saying the Christian Creed with Honesty", which many people judged to be rather old hat).

Four chapters of the book are devoted to exploring the significance of Jesus for the new cultural situation we are in. These partly draw upon and extends what was already in his earlier books. The image of Jesus as the divine rescuer has died: but Jesus as the spirit person is more convincing and makes God real, not as a personal being but as a presence. There is a chapter on the meaning of prayer if there is no external deity, one on the basis of ethics in the new age and two on the changes necessary in the church.

Bishop Spong writes with the same kind of passion as when he speaks, and his words do not always stand up to critical examination. The only chapter I find quite unsatisfactory is the last, "Eternal Life apart from Heaven and Hell". In summarising this he says, "I do believe there is an eternity that lies beyond the limits of my human finitude and in which I can participate", although he goes on to distance himself from the traditional belief in life after death by saying "the content of this reality of life is so radically different from anything previously proposed that it is all but unrecognizable".

This kind of declaration means very little, for unless one can give at least some positive description of this supposed life after death, there is no way of distinguishing it from there being no life at all and it merely becomes an empty pious wish. Bishop Spong rightly dismisses the reality of any kind of post-mortem heaven and hell but in rejecting these places of reward and punishment he seems to miss the moral significance of the myth of the Last Judgment. Its continuing value as a myth is that, in a vivid and symbolic way, it is affirming that, in this life, every decision we make, and every act we perform, do have lasting moral significance. In other words it does matter how we live our lives. This is well illustrated by the Book of Job. Job was not interested in living another life after death; rather he wanted to be assured, for his own spiritual satisfaction, that he had not been wrongly judged immoral in this life. The myth of the Last Judgment, even as a myth, attempts to give that satisfaction.

Most people, whether on the theological right or left of Bishop Spong, will find this book well worth reading and discussing. Those to the right will feel he has gone too far. Those to the left will feel he is still hanging on to things, even if by a thread, which he must be prepared to let go. But this is the dilemma which Christianity itself faces.

Lloyd Geering