Sunday, September 14, 2008
John Shelby Spong's 12 Theses
John Shelby Spong, the former Anglican/Episcopalian bishop of Newark, New Jersey, created one of his signature whirlwinds ten years ago by proposing the following "12 Theses".
Modeled on the 99 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenburg door in 1517, Spong claims to have written these in the most provocative language possible in order to provoke internet debate. Here's just one link to some of the many responses he provoked. (I apologize ahead of time for the blaring background on that site....)
Spong has been accused of atheism and heresy, but his critics have difficulty attacking his arguments. They usually end up attacking the implications of his arguments.
Here are Bishop Spong's 12 articles for debate. All italics are mine.
1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found. In other words, it makes no sense to speak of God in terms of a personality with likes and dislikes.
2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt. Once you come to terms with the idea that God doesn't intervene, you're probably going to look into when the concept of the Trinity came into being. The answer is somewhere around 300 A.D., and it remained vague until 451 A.D.
3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense. Yeah, it's mythology, and it's nonsense, but most cultures have a creation story. These stories were useful devices for the patriarchy to blame women for the ills of the age - whether the story is of Eve and the apple, or Pandora opening a box and allowing sin and evil into the world.
4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible. If you accept the idea that God does intervene, I guess that it's possible. However, virgin birth stories were already in place long before the birth of Christ. Only two of the four gospels mention a virgin birth, and the apostle Paul acts like he never heard of it. Plus, the idea that it's the fulfillment of a prophecy is on very shaky linguistic ground. Most evidence points to the virgin birth as a late arrival in the Jesus story.
5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity. When you think about it, they do seem kind of random. Plus, after an astonishing number of his miracles, Jesus instructs bystanders to tell no one about the miracle. 40 years from now, people could write stories about Bill Clinton healing people in Rosebud, Arkansas. You don't remember Bill Clinton healing anyone in Arkansas? Of course you don't. He told us not to tell anyone about it.
6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed. Yeah, if I've offended you in some way, I can't make up for it by going into the back yard and slaughtering a few dachshunds. The substitutionary atonement idea doesn't hold up very well in the 21st century.
7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history. How can we know that Lazarus wasn't physically resurrected and that Jesus wasn't physically resurrected? The same way we know that a talking snake didn't trick Eve into eating an apple. It just doesn't happen. Perhaps I'm oversimplifying Bishop Spong's statement here....
8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age. We can look everywhere for heaven (and hell), but never find either of them.
9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time. By the time Jesus was born, parts of the Old Testament were already seen as barbaric, a pain in the rear to deal with, or a control mechanism. If Jesus (with Paul's help) hadn't found a way to circumvent them, someone else probably would have done so.
Many conservative theologians call these different time periods "dispensations", and argue that God has interacted with man at different times in different ways. They say that the Old Testament era was one dispensation under one set of God's rules, and the New Testament was another dispensation. Spong argues that we simply outgrow our theologies, and they need replacing just like we continually replace outdated scientific beliefs.
10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way. Well, it can be, but nothing comes of it. I can't conceive of an all-powerful God who would respond to a pre-game prayer for the health of football players, but who would not intervene to prevent the death of a child.
11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior. Plus, the eternal reward/eternal punishment concept was a fairly recent development in the Jewish worldview. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never heard of it. The idea that God will allow an eternal punishment puts him in a far worse league than Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or whoever was responsible for Abu Ghraib.
12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination. The Jews aren't God's chosen people, the Germans aren't the Master Race, China isn't halfway between earth and heaven, Men aren't necessarily superior to women, heterosexuality is no more normal than right-handedness, and God didn't curse the African race by turning one of Noah's sons black. End of story.
Some friends of mine lost a child to Leukemia this morning. I'm at a loss for something meaningful to say to them. Maybe that's why I'm seriously digging into John Spong again.
I wish I could tell my friends that their daughter's gone to be with God, or that there's a higher purpose involved here, or that this is all part of a plan.
The theology of my childhood seems like a random collection of superstitions and dogmas, and doesn't do me much good any longer.
I believe that someone named Jesus lived, taught, and died, and that he was probably killed for standing up to the religious system of his day.
I'm sorry, but I refuse to believe that any God wanted, or even allowed, Jesus to die.
I don't believe that the being known as "God" wanted my friend's daughter to die. I can't go there.
It's time for a new way of looking at the world.
The old one doesn't work any more.