I’m the sort of "spiritual but not religious" person John Shelby Spong might see as an ideal candidate to be brought back into the Christian fold. But his new book, Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today, failed to convince me — and I’m as surprised as anyone at how disappointed I am about that.
Spong, a former bishop in the Episcopal Church, has long argued that modern Christian institutions can no longer reliably offer people, as he describes it, “a meaningful religious experience.” He blames this on churches' insistence on clinging to an outmoded concept of the divine — a universe created in six days, a virgin birth, a God who “looks very much like an adult version of the child’s dream of Santa Claus.” To him, concepts like heaven and hell are “badly dated [and] unbelievable” and the idea of substitutionary atonement is “not just dangerous [but] absurd.”
Spong writes that he has come to believe in an “original Jesus experience” — that Jesus’ mission on Earth was “the breaking down of all the boundaries and barriers by which we human beings separate ourselves from one another... the overcoming of all our fears and divisions.”
In the decades since I left the Roman Catholic Church, in which I was raised and educated, I’ve explored non-Christian religions like Taoism and Buddhism. I’ve also had rewarding spiritual experiences at Quaker Meetings. Though I consider myself a rationalist and materialist, I’m not arrogant enough to presume there’s no layer to the universe beyond our understanding. And even as I’ve harbored doubts about his ultimate nature, I’ve never lost interest in Jesus’s moral teachings.
So Spong's notion that Jesus had a core message buried under centuries of teachings from Catholics and Protestants alike was enough to catch my attention. But the details failed to whet my religious appetite.
Spong suggests early Christians like Paul saw resurrection as “an ongoing and life-reordering process,” in which life after death may perhaps be simply a metaphor for “a step from self-consciousness into a universal consciousness, into an awareness of the oneness of all things.”
He embraces this universalism throughout Unbelievable, claiming “God is … a transcendent dimension of life into which all can enter, an experience in which life is expanded, love is unlimited, and being is enhanced.”
Is that really what Jesus had in mind? It's not impossible. There were, after all, dozens of competing versions of Jesus’s message floating around before the New Testament was codified in the fourth century. In Jesus Before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman, a secular historian of early Christianity, offers an extensive discussion of how the gospels — both canonical and rejected — are at best secondhand accounts reflecting the memories of those who witnessed Jesus’ ministry. Distortions from the historical facts are inevitable, he suggests — but what people remembered about Jesus, and how they chose to remember it, is itself important.
“What persuaded people were not so much the new doctrines that were being propounded or the reports of Christian ritual activities or even the many virtues of these communities of faith,” Ehrman writes in his follow-up book The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. “What made the difference were the amazing stories that verified the Christian message... starting with the astounding life and ministry of Jesus himself and continuing through the work of his apostles and then their successors.”
In other words, the miracles — more precisely, the stories about the miracles — convinced people. And once those people became Christians, they would in turn tell those stories to people they knew so enthusiastically as to win over still more converts, until, just a few centuries later, the faith was several million strong. (The math seems impossible but, Ehrman assures us, it checks out.)
Some early Christians were more persuasive than others, of course, which is where the apostle Paul comes in. While some of Jesus' first followers were content to define the Kingdom as God's fulfillment of his promise to Israel, Paul welcomed anyone willing to dedicate his or her life to a new way of living that rejected the distinctions of national or ethnic identity. This was by its very nature a rejection of the Roman Empire's dominion — and therefore absolutely a political movement.
And it’s that political dimension that ultimately distinguishes my understanding of Paul’s project from Spong’s notion that Paul sought to help Jesus guide humanity into oneness with the universe.
Paul’s mission as he journeyed from city to city, inspiring and engaging new communities of Jesus followers, was, in Wright's words, “not just to teach people what to think and believe, but to teach them... how to have the mind renewed and transformed so that believers could work out for themselves the thousand things he didn’t have time to tell them.” But transcending this world wasn't part of that plan, nor was becoming one with God — instead, Wright says, Paul created “a vocational framework in which humans are called to reflect God’s image in the world,” a much more grounded task, one with specific obligations to other men and women, whether or not they followed Jesus as well.
So if you’re looking for guidance on how to apply a Christian understanding of the world to the crises we face in contemporary society, Unbelievable will be of little help; the most it offers is bland encouragement “to practice the task of living, loving, and being,” to which Christ on the cross seems, at best, as relevant as a kitten dangling off a branch exhorting us to hang in there.
Reading Unbelievable, it felt like Spong was in a hurry to toss aside any aspect of Christianity that might cause him embarrassment were he forced to discuss it with a non-believer. But my break with the Catholic Church was never about the supernatural propositions. If I had been able to see in the Church a socially rooted, genuinely inclusive moral vision, I might well have stuck around and dealt with my faith issues. (This concentration on good works and social justice, as it happens, was one of the most attractive aspects to me of the Society of Friends – the exact parameters of your faith are between you and God.)
What’s gotten me thinking about Jesus more and more these days is the example set by Christian leaders like Pope Francis or the Rev. Dr. William Barber, who are determined to put the moral teachings of the gospels into unambiguous action, to comfort the afflicted and oppressed when our mainstream culture increasingly does not. It would be presumptuous, from my position of reserve, to make sweeping declarations about what Christianity needs. But I've come to realize what I need from Christianity, which is exactly such a call to action — not permission to engage in the quasi-gnostic pursuit of personal fulfillment.
Fortunately, Jesus has already laid out a detailed “to-do” list for me to work on, while I keep an eye out for a faith community that speaks to my heart as intently as he does.