April 06, 2004

I started writing a response to Kynn in the previous post, but it was getting so long I thought I should make a separate entry. (Meanwhile, Jennifer wrote a comment that echoes my sentiments.)

I should say, I don't advocate somebody leaving their church over any old doctrinal disagreement. In fact, some time ago we were debating about Andrew Sullivan and I argued that disputing a church's sexual teachings alone shouldn't be enough reason to leave it. But there are disputes over theology and doctrine, and there are disputes over the very fundaments, and I think Spong is doing the latter.

I understand Kynn's point (and Rob's point) that being Christian is essentially to follow Jesus. However, there's another question underlying that one: who is Jesus, and what did he do? This is basically the first thing that the early church established as dogma: that he is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, who was crucified for our sins, died, rose again on the third day, ascended to heaven where he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.

If you don't believe that -- and Spong doesn't, so I gather -- you're following a different guy. As I said in this post, I agree with Kynn's objection to fundamentalist churches who teach that Jesus came to earth to die, which I think is a nasty outgrowth of substitutional atonement theory. But believing in the significance of his death, resurrection etc. recontextualizes what he did in his life. I mean honestly, if I took Jesus as simply human I would think him a hypocrite. He tells people not to judge but goes around judging everybody; he rejects violence but flogs the money-changers out of the temple; he says he comes to fulfill Jewish law but blithely tosses is out as it suits him. That's why I find him rather limited as a role model. He is in some ways, but in others he's only a role model if you think you're God.

Jesus' actions also look different if you look at him as working on an unfinished project. For instance, while he was alive Jesus spent a lot of time arguing with Pharisees, the conflict culminating in their plot to kill him. But after the atonement was complete, Jesus called a Pharisee (Paul) to become a leader in his church, signaling that even those enemies are forgiven and taken into the fold. As I also said in the above-linked post, I see a connection between the general atonement for sins and the ability to love one's enemies.

And as I noticed when I was reading Borg, disbelieving those credal statements also obliges you to disbelieve whatever Jesus said and did that indicates otherwise. This goes to the larger question of what texts you know Jesus through -- canonical, edited canonical, the Gnostic Gospels, the Quran, etc. Really, there are a lot of sources about Jesus, and they will give you very different pictures of the guy. Moreover, strip out the divinity and Jesus' teachings aren't hugely different from a lot of other people's, which is why it was perhaps inevitable that modern Unitarianism would de-center Jesus.

So anyway, all this is an incredibly long way of saying that I understand why the early church saw fit to define those particular heresies as heresies, while some other features of Spong's and the UUs' thought (universalism, symbolic and metaphoric readings of the Bible, the movements of the Spirit outside Christianity) were also around at the time but were not dogmatically rejected. The question of who Jesus is is the primary question of Christianity, from which everything else follows. So while Spong is a rather old-fashioned Unitarian (an orthodox Unitarian, if there is such a thing), he's still a Unitarian. In asking the Anglicans to reject the Trinity, he's asking them to throw over the unbroken lineage to the Apostles that they so treasure and to cast their lot with the heretics.

Posted by Camassia at April 06, 2004 09:04 AM | TrackBack

I see Jesus as a role model first in that he taught that love of God and love of your fellow man are equivalent commandments. Second, in that he showed that there is a point to the suffering and death that each of us inevitably face, so that these things can be endured without despair. I state these two reasons in full knowledge that any glib Stoic can shoot both out of the sky with ease.

Posted by: Rob on April 6, 2004 09:54 AM

Dear Camassia,

I think that your final phrase "(Spong's) asking them to throw over the unbroken lineage to the Apostles that they so treasure and to cast their lot with the heretics" gets right at the heart of the matter. Being "Anglican" (or "Catholic" or "Lutheran") means accepting certain communal relationships, a historical schema of Christian belief, and a common language of faith through which the presence of God becomes transparent. It then also means recognizing that one owes a certain consequent accountability to these things. Here's Rowan Williams ('Making Moral Decisions'):

"An ethic of the Body of Christ asks that we first examine how any proposed action or any proposed style or policy of action measures up to two concerns: how does it manifest the selfless holiness of God in Christ? And how can it serve as a gift that builds up the community called to show that holiness in its corporate life? What I have to discover as I try to form my mind and will is the nature of my pre-existing relation with God and with those others whom God has touched, with whom I share a life of listening for God and praising God. Self-discovery, yes; but the discovery of a self already shaped by these relations and these consequent responsibilities. And then, if I am serious about making a gift of what I do to the Body as a whole, I have to struggle to make sense of my decision in terms of the common language of the Faith, to demonstrate why this might be a way of speaking the language of the historic schema of Christian belief. This involves the processes of self-criticism and self-questioning in the presence of Scripture and tradition, as well as engagement with the wider community of believers."

One is still "Anglican," "Catholic," or whatever if one's actions and beliefs are still in some way recognizable within the environment created by the relationships, historical schema, and language of "Anglicanism" or "Catholicism." Williams again:

"But, as I have hinted, there are points when recognition fails. If someone no longer expressly brings their acts and projects before the criterion we look to together; if some one's conception of the Body of Christ is ultimately deficient, a conception only of a human society (that is, if they have no discernible commitment to the Risen Christ and the Spirit as active in the Church); if their actions systematically undermine the unconditionality of the gospel's offer (this was why justification by faith became the point of division for the Reformation churches, and why the anti-Jewish laws of the Third Reich became the point of division for the Confessing Church in 1935) - then the question arises of whether there is any reality left in maintaining communion. This is a serious matter, on which generalisations are useless. All we can do is be wary of self-dramatising, and of a broad-brush rhetoric about the abandonment of 'standards'. As the Confessing Church knew well, such a case requires detailed argument - and the sense also of a decision being forced, a limit being encountered, rather than a principle being enunciated in advance to legitimate divisions."

Williams obviously - and, I think, correctly - feels that he has come upon such a limit with Spong:

"Yet I see no life in what the theses suggest; nothing to educate us into talking about the Christian God in a way I can recognise: no incarnation; no adoption into intimate relation with the Source of all; no Holy Spirit. No terror. No tears ... Spong's own continuing commitment to the tradition becomes incomprehensible."


Posted by: Neil Dhingra on April 6, 2004 09:57 AM

A friend was mentioning an NPR interview he heard with Jesus Seminar guru Dominic Crossan. And he said that Crossan said that with Roman crucifixions wild animals would usually eat/drag off the bodies, and that that was what surely happened to Jesus. It's astonishing to hear someone call themselves a Chrisian while denying the Resurrection.

Interviewer Terri Gross asked about his background and Crossan said he was a monk who became an ex-monk due to falling in love and then disagreement with the Church over contraception.

Axe. Ensue. Grinding.

Now I don't know Spong's story, but there seems to be an incredible desire to stay within the traditional that you feel has wronged you and attack it from within. And so often it's for sexual reasons. I used to think of the author E. Michael Jones as a bit mad, a kind of reverse Freudian, but sometimes it seems like he's onto something.

Posted by: TSO on April 6, 2004 11:33 AM

Rob, those are excellent ways to see Jesus as a role model, and Christians have always done that. Like I said, I think he is a model in some ways -- it's just that, if you don't make allowances for his being divine, he can sometimes seem like a jerk. So I don't find an all-human Jesus to be worth centering my life around.

Neil, those are great points. It reminds me of another point in the Andrew Sullivan discussion -- it had sort of wandered away from him -- where we were weighing church as a purveyor of doctrine vs. church as a community of people who are committed to each other. You don't want to sacrifice people to rigid doctrine, which is what I assume Williams means by "the sense also of a decision being forced, a limit being encountered, rather than a principle being enunciated in advance to legitimate divisions." On the other hand, whacking away at what people have always believed in also seems like a great way to break up a community.

Posted by: Camassia on April 6, 2004 04:53 PM

I certainly agree that an all-human Jesus does not fit the bill. I did not mean to imply that it is possible, or desireable, to understand him that way. But, as the Way and the Truth and the Life, he established a pattern for human behavior that allows a sinful humanity to strive for perfection, armed with sufficient knowledge to make progress in that direction.

Posted by: Rob on April 6, 2004 06:19 PM

I'm looking at Spong's twelve theses now. 1 and 2: I completely disagree (and, yes, they're totally at odds with the historic Anglican creeds). 3: Half true. The creation story was written pre-Darwin, and is mythology, but it's not nonsense; it's myth, which is an entirely different thing. 4: Huh? 5: Disagree. 6: Depends on just what atonement theory you choose, and in what way you explain it. 7: I don't get it. An action of God involving a meaning of God can't take place within human history?

You know, I like some of what Spong has to say (basically, all the features of his thought that Camassia has listed as not having been dogmatically rejected), but I can't find much to agree with in these twelve theses.

Rowan Williams' response, though, makes a lot of sense to me.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on April 6, 2004 10:03 PM


Must come back with a pen and pad when I can dig in with you.

this is wonderful stuff. Thansk for postig it!

Posted by: AngloBaptist on April 7, 2004 07:08 AM

I think you can learn all you need to know about John Shelby Spong by having a look at his website: BishopSpong.com. Spong charges $34.95 per year for you to get his e-mail newsletter. This seems to me pretty much in keeping with Spong's basic MO, which is to invent scandalous-sounding ideas (Was Paul GAY???? Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene MARRIED????) and then sell them, cashing in on his title. He's been abusing his position as an Episcopal bishop for his own personal financial gain for years. Theologically, he doesn't really have any new ideas; so far as I can tell, he dresses up Marcus Borg in melodrama ("believers in exile"--oh, please) and pawns it off as a radical new kind of Christianity.

Yeah, so, I'm not real fond of him.

Posted by: Matt on April 7, 2004 08:02 AM

I just got around to reading Spong's 12 theses. I agree with all of Lynn's assessments, particularly the "huh?s" and the "don't get it"s. I think the bottom line is that the guy just lacks any imagination at all. His ideas are the kind that my friends and I concocted during all-night rap sessions as college freshmen, bewitched by the giddy thrill of post-adolescent and VERY pre-adult intellectual "freedom", and fueled by Stroh's beer.

Posted by: Rob on April 7, 2004 12:42 PM

"This is basically the first thing that the early church established as dogma: that he is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, who was crucified for our sins, died, rose again on the third day, ascended to heaven where he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead."

Which year did the "early church" establish this as dogma?

I'm not just being a jerk, this is a serious point -- I think that we see the events of the bible and the actions of the "early church" filtered through our 21st century preconceptions of centuries of history.

And let's remember that it's the victors who write the history.

As an aside, I always find it amusing to read non-Catholics arguing about people leaving behind apostolic succession, the traditions of the church, and other such "dogma" -- if some of you are Catholic, please ignore and/or chuckle along with me.

I think part of the problem is that you are saying he is not Anglican/Episcopalian -- which is an odd thing to worry about, in my opinion, because it harkens back to church groups tossing out those who dissent -- or that he's not Christian. The basis for this is his rejection of many of the church teachings over the last two thousand years, but it seems to me that one can be a follower of Christ without necessarily affirming all that has gone before. All of the major Christian sects seem to realize that at one point or another, the churches got things Very, Very Wrong in history.

Why is it wrong for Spong to ask that now?

As for Spong's twelve theses, I agree with many of them, and a few I am very much challenged by. (Which, I'm sure you'll agree, is the point.)

However, I would be very hesistant to resort to cries of "heresy" because, over the long run Christian history, that term has been used far more often to do harm than to do good. Books have been burned, people have been killed, dissent has been surpressed in the name of stamping out heretics, and it seems to me that many Christians use the term much too easily, as a way to retreat from logical debate and demonize the opposition.


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on April 11, 2004 01:28 PM

There wasn't a single year where the church officially determined the whole thing. What I wrote there paraphrases the Apostles' Creed, whose first known reference is from 650, and the Nicene Creed which comes from a few centuries earlier (I forget the exact date) but whose antecedents are visible in the New Testament, though it never mentions the Trinity by name. The way this stuff tended to get formalized was that some new movement would come up, like Gnosticism or Arianism or Pelagianism, that would put a new twist on things and the church would have to figure out whether it described the Jesus it knew or not. Probably one of my seminarian readers here knows more about this than me, but basically all the earliest decisions focused around two things: the nature of Jesus and God and their relation to each other (hence all the Trinitarian stuff) and the nature of salvation. So that's why I said this is very basic, core stuff in Christianity. It's also not like the church declared one side to be heretics in every debate. There's lots of stuff that's still left open that people have been debating ever since -- how the atonement worked, how metaphorically to read the Bible, predestination and free will, the nature of the afterlife, and so on.

My description of certain views as heresies doesn't actually mean they're necessarily bad, much less that they should be punished with exile or burnings or whatever. Also, not being an Anglican, I have no particular vested interest in who their bishops are. But I know enough about them to know that apostolic succession is a big deal to them, even though they're Protestant. Being Protestant doesn't mean you just toss over that whole concept -- some groups do, but the more mainline ones don't. Luther was trying to reform the Catholic church, not abolish it, and he affirmed about the first 1,000 years of church teaching. Anglicans, if anything, are even more Catholic, because they broke from Catholicism over a political dispute rather than a theological one. So I could understand this more if Spong were preaching to, say, Quakers. But if you're going to say the church was wrong about nearly all of its canonical decisions, that it should have sided with the Gnostics about the resurrection and the Pelagians about original sin and so on, you seem to be undermining the Anglicans' whole reason to exist. I mean, if somebody in a liberal political group you belonged to said, all your core principles are wrong and you should really be Republicans, you'd probably be thinking, what are you doing in our group?

I wrote here a while ago that how much you trust Christian tradition is the central question of Christianity, and I still think that's true. That is essentially what differentiates the denominations from each other. But all of them accept it to some degree. Even Bible-only radical Protestants are accepting the authority of a document that is itself a product of Christian tradition. Unless God is talking personally to you, that's the only way you know anything about Jesus. So while you're certainly right that all sorts of ungodly factors could have gone into the way Christian tradition turned out, I honestly do not understand following the faith in that case. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail over his church, so to my mind one has to believe the Spirit has been acting in some way through the church (and, more recently, churches) if one is to believe this at all. It would be strange and discouraging if God were really behind heretical movements that died out more than 1500 years ago. I'm not questioning your faith in saying this, as I see that your faith is strong, I'm just saying I honestly don't understand it.

Lynn, a Quaker who is better read than I am on this subject, had a really good post on this whole subject a few months back.

Posted by: Camassia on April 12, 2004 10:00 AM

Kynn, do you think it was a bad thing that the S. African church labled apartheid as a "heresy"?

Posted by: Jonathan on April 16, 2004 04:48 AM

"Heresy" is not the term I would use, no.


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on April 25, 2004 08:01 PM
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