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A New Christianity for a new World,

Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born

John Shelby Spong; (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2000), ISBN: 0-06-067084-3 (hardcover), 255 pp.

JOHN SHELBY SPONG is the Bishop of Newark, retired. His academic credentials include: A.B., University of North Carolina, Degree in Philosophy, Minor in Zoology, Phi Beta Kapp; and M.Div., Virginia Theological Seminary.  He has held teaching positions at Chautauqua Institution: Chautauqua, NY - (5 times); Vancouver School of Theology, University of British Columbia (3 times); Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA, 1999; University of Alberta, Edmonton, St. Stephen’s College (3 times); Alaska Pacific University, Anchorage, AK, 1998; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, William Belden Nobel Lecturer, 2000. He is the author of fourteen books and co-author of three.

To me, developing a faith worthy of one’s life is like an artist who is working on a life-long project. The project begins in one’s childhood church, which provides young artists with a “coloring book,” the drawings all printed out on paper and numbers indicating colors.  Many believers never get much beyond this stage.  But some artists, more daring and thoughtful, insist on doing their own sketches and choosing their own colors.  They are constantly stepping back to view their work with a critical eye, always using the brush to add to, paint over, or change the scene.  Such artists are never completely satisfied with their work, and they are humble enough to seek suggestions from more accomplished artists.

There is no better source for such helpful suggestions than the writings of John Shelby Spong. Indeed, in his 2001 book, A New Christianity For A New World, Spong seems to be suggesting that we best discard our paintings and start over!  Thus the sub-title of the book: “Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born.”  He argues that “traditional faith as we usually conceive it is sorely limited, with outmoded beliefs that take a toll on human life.”  He insists that we begin our faith paintings with the understanding “that God and one’s way of understanding God are never the same.” T hat’s why we must be always stepping back from our paintings to see where changes are called for.

Some of Spong’s suggestions for radical changes in the way most of us have done our faith paintings are as follows:

  1. Spong agrees with Robert Funk, who says: “We have been betrayed by the Bible.  In the half-century just ending, there is belated recognition that biblically based Christianity has espoused causes that no thinking person or caring person is any longer willing to endorse” (persecution of Jews and witches, black slavery, suppression of women, a male dominated self-serving clergy, etc).  Spong adds, “The new reformation will not require Christians to abandon the Bible, but it will require that we remove from the Bible the tribal claims and the literalness that have so often been attached to Scripture.”

  2. He insists that the theistic God of traditional Christianity has got to go.  We must learn “to talk of a post-theistic God...not a being but the Ground of Being.”  That is, we must move beyond theism, but not beyond God.

  3. He argues that Christianity has traditionally interpreted the death of Jesus as a sacrifice offered to God in payment for our sinfulness.  He asks, “Is such a God, Who requires a bloody human sacrifice before He can forgive sinners, worthy of worship?”

  4. He says that a “fall in Eden” is not our condition.  Rather we are simply incomplete, “a work in progress.”  “The next step in evolutionary human development is selfless love.”  That is, “In Jesus we are called to be what we human beings have not yet ever been--a humanity without barriers.”  Thus in Jesus God calls us to a new humanity, a New Being.

  5. He says that Christianity needs to be set free from its exclusiveness, for the God disclosed in Jesus is a God Whose love is unconditional and all-embracing.  Thus “No sacred scripture of any religious tradition can any longer claim that in its pages the fullness of God has been captured...The idea that Jesus is the only way to God or that only those washed in the blood of Christ are ever to be listed among the saved, has become anathema...” We must also realize that ecclesiastical creeds “never capture the truth of God, all they can do is point to it.”

  6. He asserts that Jesus is not God, but a discloser of God.  As such he is “the standard by which we are to measure the God-presence in any other.”

One may not agree with everything in Spong’s portrait of “a new Christianity for a new world.”  But his portrait is worthy of an honest look.  He just might be the more accomplished artist whose suggestions could make our own faith paintings a truer work.

John Lackey, Reviewer

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