Last Sunday when I got home from worship, I learned that one of my theological heroes, Bishop John Shelby Spong, had died at age 90. Spong’s books played an important part in my return to church 20 years ago. So, today I am marking Spong’s death and giving thanks for his life as a follow up to last Sunday.
As I mentioned last week, the service that followed 9/11 at Kingston Road United in east-end Toronto 20 years ago helped turn me around with its anti-imperialist tone and with its spirit. But I still had a lot of reservations.
Spong helped with those reservations in the months and years that followed; and he played a similar role at Mill Woods United when his final book, “Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today” was the subject of a “Facing the Future” book review class in 2018. This was part of the process that led the church to rewrite its purpose statement in 2019, which now simply and boldly reads, “Mill Woods United Church: a spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place.”
Twenty years ago, I started attending Kingston Road United and joined its choir. Then, in the winter of 2002, a pop-up bookstore appeared in downtown Toronto near where I worked for 211 Ontario; and it contained lot of books by John Spong. This is the first one I bought there, titled “A New Christianity for a New World,” which Spong had published the year before.
There is a lot in this book. But for me the most important thing is its news that a non-theistic path within Christianity, which my father had struggled with since the late 1940s when he took a Masters of Systematic Theology degree at Union Theology Seminary in New York City, was still alive and well.
In 2001, Spong had recently retired from active work in the Anglican Church of the United States. He had been a parish priest in it from the mid-1950s to the 1970s in his native North Carolina and Virginia; and from 1976 until the year 2000 he was the Bishop of Newark, just across the river from New York City. In “A New Christianity,” as in most of his other works which I read over the next few years, Spong was committed both to the church to which he had devoted his life and to a non-theistic path first opened by thinkers like Paul Tillich, Bishop John Robinson, and the martyred German clergyperson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazi Regime one month before Germany’s defeat in World War II.
I didn’t love everything Spong wrote, but he had a sterling reputation within the progressive Christianity movement. As a theologian, he questioned some of Christianity’s fundamentalist doctrines, including the virgin birth and the bodily reappearances of Jesus. Those views infuriated some other Christian leaders who labeled him a heretic, although he was part of a long tradition of earlier thinkers who argued that taking the Bible literally was to miss the truth behind its teachings.
Sometimes, I find his writing too committed to an historical understanding of the role of Jesus of Nazareth as inspiration for the Christian church.
But I love his forthrightness in stating how one can treat God not as a being like other beings but as the very Ground of Being, to use the phrase from my father’s teacher in the late 1940s in New York City, the Rev. Dr. Paul Tillich.
Paul Tillich had been changed while serving in the German Army as a Lutheran pastor during World War I. The difficulties of that war led Tillich to take more seriously the challenges to church doctrine represented by thinkers like Charles Darwin with his theory of the origin of species by means of natural selection, and by post-Copernican astrophysics, which no longer viewed the earth as the centre of the solar system or universe. Despite these challenges, Tillich remained a Lutheran minister and a religion professor. In 1933, he was fired from his university by the new German Nazi government for his support for oppressed Jewish students. Tillich became a refugee, and he started work at Union Theological Seminary in 1934, which is where he became one of my father’s teachers in 1948.
Tillich preached a version of Christianity that turned its back on much of the Catholic and Protestant theology of the imperialist era of the church from the Fourth Century onward until his death in the United States in 1965.
The fact that Spong identified and advanced Tillich’s version of Christianity cheered me and made my transition back into church life possible.
I also became aware of how marginal Bishop Spong was when I took my first Masters of Divinity course at Emmanuel College as an auditor in fall of 2004. On the first class of Theology I, the professor, Harold Wells, wrote the names of a wide variety of theologians on the blackboard listing them from left to right as a way of describing their theological stance. When one of the students mentioned the name Bishop Spong, Wells said he was too far left to even fit on the board.
But despite Professor Wells’ theological orthodoxy, which seemed to rule out Bishop Spong whom I greatly admired, I loved that course and its eclectic and exciting group of students. I felt like I had found my tribe there.
I also found it possible over the next years to proclaim the Good News of Jesus while being firmly rooted in the world of Tillich, Robinson, Bonhoeffer, Spong, and Gretta Vosper.
I may not have liked everything Spong wrote. He was, for one, at the heart of the Jesus Seminar, a group, which for all its wonderful qualities, put its focus on the supposed historical Jesus. To my mind, their effort diminishes much of the mystical power of Jesus as a figure who is killed, and whose death and resurrection illustrates how ancient ideas of divinity and monarchy might be relevant to people today.
But I appreciated Spong’s courage, his presence, and his leadership in making room in the shrinking church of North America for thinkers like Tillich. Not only did I read most of his works, I attended a packed meeting of a United Church in Guelph Ontario at which Spong spoke in 2004 and went to the United Church retreat Centre in 2006 Five Oaks for a three-day workshop led by Bishop Spong.
I also enjoyed Spong’s evolution as he became more mystical in the last 20 years of his life. This included his new and deep appreciation of the Gospel of John, and in particular the verse we heard from John’s 10th chapter today: “I have come that you might have life and have it to the full.”
Spong was born into an American Church of the 1930s that still had weight in society. He died last week when denominations like the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and United churches are mere shadows of their former selves. But he saw how communities of faith could use the liberty of Jesus as Christ Crucified to create the post-denominational and interfaith communities we need today. He didn’t see many of them get built. But his work has helped a lot of us keep that dream alive.
I have now been an ordained minister for 10 years and the settled minister at Mill Woods United for nearly eight; and the truth is, I don’t have another eight years in my career to spend in this church. And as I contemplate my successor, I imagine they might be someone less drawn to the path of Spong (or Tillich, or Bonhoeffer, or Vosper) than me. And that is OK, I believe.
I simply remember how the existence of John Shelby Spong inspired me and helped me to grow into the type of Christian and minister I have become. And for that I am eternally gratefully.
Rest in peace, John Spong, good and faithful servant.