03 March 2008

theology is dead, long live theology

Posted by at 4:23 AM Read our previous post
Over at Faith and Theology there was a post about an interview with Richard Rorty. At the end of the post a question is asked:
Is this not, in fact, the precise goal of many theologians (e.g. Cupitt, Spong) – “to produce a version of Christianity so wishy-washy that nobody will be interested in being a Christian anymore”?
The comments section of that post have made me realize just how much of a persona non grata Spong is to a big cross-section of evangelicals, who tend to brush him (and Cupitt) off as some wild-eyed radical bent on destroying Christianity.

I think this is most unfortunate. I've read some of the work of both of these gentlemen and I feel that whoever would say that their "precise goal" is to discourage people from becoming Christian has simply not read their work. Either that or maybe folks just find such honesty so unnerving that they reflex and react by charging it with heresy, throwing darts at it, so revolting they find it. Ad hominems fly.

When rhetoric becomes vitriolic, though, I am convinced that it invariably reveals much more about the speaker than it does about the object of the scorn.
Every time.

Spong's work belongs in the tradition of people like Cupitt (who was actually formally tried for heresy—he was vindicated), or like Meister Eckhardt (who was formally charged with heresy as well—he was also vindicated—if you ever get a chance to read his response to the charges, do yourself a favor and read it, it is very good) or like Paul Tillich (who wasn't formally tried that I know of, but who Spong is clearly deeply influenced by).
I highlighted something of Spong's not too long ago which I think goes right to the heart of the matter:
" ... the inadequacy of the explanation does not invalidate the reality of the experience. Paul, like anyone who dares to speak of God, discovered that there is no such thing as a god language with which to process a God experience. The language we use is human, culturally conditioned, and incapable of doing more than pointing to that which it can never fully embrace. To attribute ultimate reality to the constructs of our language, to make religious claims for the human explanations for the God experience is to become idolatrous, and foolish. ...[...] ... The church must recognize that its first-century biblical explanations, its fourth and fifth-century creedal explanations and its later developing system of doctrines and dogmas are human creations, not divine revelations and none of them is either finally true or eternally valid ... [...] ... The ultimate heresy of Christianity lies not in its inability to explain adequately the Christ experience. It lies in the claim uttered through the ages that human words could not only define for all time something called orthodoxy, but that the ultimate and saving truth of the God experience could actually reside in the theological explanations."
I happen to think that he's absolutely right on the mark there. If that makes me a liberal in the eyes of anyone, then, as my friend Drew says, "Flame On!" - :)

And I would add that anyone who would find the work of Spong or Cupitt "heretical" is probably that kind of "word-worshipper", the kind of "explanation-worshipper", that Spong is talking about.





  1. Anonymous2:30 PM

    Spong has certainly made it clear that he believes he's saving Christianity, not destroying it. But he is certainly not orthodox in any way that Irenaeus, Athanasius, or Gregory the Theologian would recognize - in fact that seems to be his point. I fail to see how labeling this "heresy" is throwing darts at him. Indeed, if one accepts that there is such a thing as Orthodox Christianity (defined by the standard creeds), Spong is, by definition I think, outside of its bounds.

    Your post has certainly got me thinking, and caused me to recognize my own theological debt to Spong.

  2. Hi rtj;

    Yeah, I hear what you are getting at, but I don't think he is so much a denier of Irenaeus (and patristic company) per çe as he is a denier that the "language" employed by those writers is insufficient to define an orthodoxy-for-all-time, insufficient to impose mandated pastoral-codes-for-all-time.

    Your comment-" ...if one accepts that there is such a thing as Orthodox Christianity (defined by the standard creeds), Spong is, by definition I think, outside of its bounds ..."-is fair and accurate, but only if "one accepts that there IS such a thing. You're right. I guess that I would place myself into the category of one who doesn't think there is such a thing as Christian "orthodoxy" then.

    Christianity (as far as I can see) was demonstrably variegated across a wide range in its crucial beginning stages. Walter Bauer's classic Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity was very foundational in illustrating to me that what would eventually become an undisputed "orthodox" authority was only one of a handful of christianities, all coexisting, each thinking the others heretical. He makes a very strong argument that, particularly in the eastern provinces of the empire, the first exposure to Christianity that some communities in the second century had was to the Montanist variety or the Marcionite variety. It would take time and effort on Rome's part (whose principal advantage was its early realization of a crucial need to consolidate, unify and organize an ecclesiastic model around its liturgy) to finally extend its influence into these communities and ultimately overcome these rival doxies.

    Personally, I remember the moment that I realized that "apostolic succession" (and the claim that eyewitnesses somehow vouchsafe the traditions) is a sacred cow with no verifiable basis. It is simply rhetoric—taken for granted but unsupportable by anything but a claim to church tradition. It's based on the most tenuous of textual evidence.

    Though I think that Spong does get angry occassionally and that he can hurl a barb with a quick turn of phrase, I don't think he ventures into vitriol (though I obviously have not read all his work). I suggest that he "seems" ascerbic on firt-reading because of the wight and novelty of some of his suggestions: e.g. that a virgin birth is a mythical construction, that the scriptures are human constructions full of not only errors but that it also contains much vindictive and hostile sentiments that are obviously not of God, etc. To the mind raised on "orthodoxy" pronouncements like these seem audacions and even caustic, but did he really use invective? When does passionate opposition become ad hominem?

    I think that anger directed at an obstinate "orthodoxy" which tries to shield itself from criticism or change using exclusivist claims to "scriptural accuracy" might be justified sometimes.

    The following is the opening of a Robert Price essay in which responds (to Stephen C. Davis in this case) to the charge that he is sarcastic or otherwise abusive in his rhetoric:

    "Yes, I write with sarcasm on certain matters simply because I believe that to withhold deserved disdain from certain notions is to lend them undeserved credibility. I will not give the “benefit of rhetoric” to the other guy. For the record, I do not object to the dripping piety that understandably characterizes some apologetical discourse, so I think I may be allowed my own heartfelt tone. In short: get over it.
    But there is a bit more to it. Davis dismisses my comparisons of Evangelical resurrection belief to belief in Santa Claus, etc., as mere sarcasm, and that is just not so. I think they are damning comparisons, but serious and right on the money. Clutching one’s skirts and exclaiming, “Why, I never!” is just a way of trying to avoid dealing with them.
    What is inaccurate in claiming that for Jesus to be “walking and talking” with millions of individuals at the same moment is no different from believing that Santa delivers toys to millions of children in a single night? What is facetious about pointing out the problem of a genuinely human, still personal individual Jesus aging over 2, 000 years? I’d prefer answers to these objections to condescending finger-wagging. Am I caricaturing Christian beliefs? Please tell me how.

    I agree.

    The crucial thing is the delineation I asked about before.

    Where does passionate zeal cross over into ad hominem?

    It makes a world of difference.

    Thanks for commenting.



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