Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Glimpse into the Future of the Episcopal Church

For over 40 years Episcopalian Bishop John Spong has been on the cutting edge of the development of theological thought in the Anglican Communion. He has always been a controversial figure simply because he is always out in front proclaiming the heresies that will be taken as conventional wisdom a decade later by the mainstream of the Episcopal Church. He has been on a journey in which the boundaries of what is tolerated within the Church are ever expanded outward in a never-ending movement toward paganism.

Of course, it is taxing to find enough outrageous things to state so that one can stay ahead of the wild and whacky world of Anglican thought and practice. But to give the man credit, he has never been confronted with an envelope he could not push. Creativity is his strength and he never seems to run out of ways to upset even the most left-leaning mainstream leaders of his church.

So if you want to see what the Episcopal Church (and whatever is left of the Anglican Communion) will be saying in 10 or 20 years, you should listen to John Spong today. Several decades ago he was denying the authority of Bible and Creeds when it was not taken for granted in liberal circles. And three decades ago he was pushing homosexuality when it was still controversial among liberals. And he was unitarian before unitarianism was cool. So it pays to note where "the cutting edge of progressivism" is going in the future.

Bryan Owen has a report on a recent lecture by Spong over at Virtue Online:
I see from the Episcopal Divinity School Fall 2011 newsletter that Bishop Spong gave a lecture in St. John's Memorial Chapel back on October 21 entitled, "Shifting the Paradigm - From Rescue to Expanded Life." Here's some of what the newsletter article reports: In his address, Spong declared Christianity's "old symbols increasingly are bankrupt ... [and] the new symbols have not yet fully arisen so that they are recognized." He compared the present day with that of Augustine, Aquinas, or the 16th-century Reformers - a moment of "paradigm shift" that "calls for the death of what has been and the birth of what is to be - and that is never a comfortable time." In particular, he said, the titles "savior," "redeemer," and "rescuer" applied to Jesus in liturgies, hymns, and sermons have "become bankrupt, useless, and even distorted ... I think all of them have got to go."

"What is the problem with these titles?" Spong asked. "They all imply a particular definition of human life, which I think is false. ... [W]e are constantly insulting our humanity out of a particular theological frame of reference. We are beggars approaching God. We are telling God how unworthy we are." Such a theological construct, said Spong, is "simply not true. ... It is therefore bad anthropology, and no one can build good theology on bad anthropology."

"Our problem is not a fall into sin," maintained Spong. "It is that we have not yet achieved our full humanity."

The source of acts of evil, said Spong, is found in humanity's survival instinct, "the evolutionary baggage that every one of us carries." Because it is part of human nature, "our only hope is that we are lifted beyond it. We have to be called, we have to be merged into a humanity that somehow finally escapes survival as our driving force."

Words like savior and redeemer and rescuer "simply lock us into the old paradigm," Spong argued. Instead, telling the story of Jesus "as the source of love calling us to love beyond every boundary, to love wastefully, to give it away, to never stop and count the cost: that's a new image of what it means to be human."
Spong is always good for a laugh: "no one can build good theology on bad anthropology." Why is he still interested in theology again?

But he has a point about "redeemer" and "saviour" language. Why liberal Protestants would hang on to that sort of language is hard to understand. If they are going to be consistent, they need to join the Humanist Association and wind up the whole church things altogether. But that would be too big a step to take all at once. First, deny the authority of Scripture. Second, deny miracles. Third, deny the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. Fourth, focus on the social gospel and dismiss the soul, heaven and hell as "out-dated." Fifth, start turning Christian morality upside down and affirm everything Christianity says is sinful and condemn everything Christianity says is good. [This is where liberal Protestantism is now.] Clearly, the future is to eliminate every trace of a religion of redemption from sin by the grace of God in Christ. Then Pelagius can become a saint, Augustine a heretic and the Bible-burning can commence.

Don't try dismissing Spong as a crank or an extremist. That used to work back in the days when nobody thought an actual church accepting the goodness of homosexuality was even worth talking about as a possibility. Now he must be regarded as a barometer of liberal Protestantism. He is not crazy; he can just see over the next hill.

The only fresh horizon he won't share with you is the one consisting of a vast lake of fire which burns eternally but never burns out. He will keep that one to himself until it is too late for you to turn back.

1 comment:

DanO said...

Hey Craig,

Saw a link that may interest you -- a piece written by an Evangelical fellow who is currently doing a PhD at Princeton. Here's the link:

I think you may appreciate it since he engages Badiou and Evangelicalism -- and I know you are fairly invested in the latter and have mentioned the former -- so this might enrich your understanding of both.