Fundamentalism Is Alive and Well: A Reply to John Shelby Spong

Fundamentalism Is Alive and Well: A Reply to John Shelby Spong June 8, 2009

I recently finished reading two books by the Anglican bishop John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism and Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Spong is infamous for his near-total rejection of the tenets of Christianity, despite being a member of the clergy, and these books witness to that: he doesn’t believe in miracles or an afterlife, denies the Trinity, denies the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, and in fact, doesn’t believe in God as an external supernatural being at all. In place of all these things he proposes a nontheist form of Christianity, similar to some forms of Quakerism or Buddhism, in which God is understood as the ground of all being or the impulse calling us to love one another, and Jesus as a person who uniquely manifested that attitude of universal love.

There are other aspects of this theology I want to discuss later, but for today I want to focus on just one point: Spong’s insistence that Christianity’s evolution into a nontheistic form is inevitable. This is necessary, he says, because traditional theistic religion is losing its power to command educated human beings’ allegiance, and if Christianity does not adapt, it will die out. In fact, he says, the demise of fundamentalism and literalist religion is coming very soon:

“Organized religion as we have known it in the Western world is considered by many a friend and foe alike to be sick unto death. The periodic revivals of fundamentalism are momentary blips on the EKG charts of religious history.”

Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, p.107

On this point, Spong couldn’t be more wrong. He envisions fundamentalism as a dying movement, one that’s losing its strength and vitality. In fact, fundamentalism is still a powerful force, and there are signs that it is gaining strength at the expense of more traditional, liberal denominations such as his.

Although Spong alludes to the appeal of fundamentalism, he seems not to grasp its full force. Fundamentalism’s great strength is that it offers easy answers, a reassuring sense of certainty in an uncertain world, and a promise of wish-fulfillment for the believer. Spong writes that these advantages are counterbalanced by the fact that the fundamentalist view of God is “naive at best and unbelievable at worst” (Why Christianity Must Change or Die, p.140). But what he really seems to mean is that he, himself, can no longer take these stories seriously, and he assumes that his skepticism is widely shared.

In reality, there are hundreds of millions of people worldwide who see no difficulty in believing that creation happened six thousand years ago, that God does miracles on behalf of the faithful, or that Jesus rose into the sky because that’s where Heaven is. Some of these people have never been exposed to rational thinking; others have consciously chosen to reject it in favor of a simpler, older, and more reassuring vision of the world.

For all its virtues, Spong’s theology is weak and colorless. His faith of homogenous, universal love is well and good, but the fact remains that there are other, powerful motivating factors in human psychology that he never attempts to tap. The desire to obey one’s superiors, and the sense of righteous judgment at those who break the rules; the sense of privilege and exclusiveness, belonging to a community that is united against the world; and its opposite, the xenophobic sense of hate and rage directed against the outsider – these are extraordinarily strong psychological impulses which his theology does not speak to or address. Fundamentalism does, which is why it’s no surprise that it finds willing converts in the millions who are driven by their baser instincts.

Spong’s mistake is a common one: he assumes that everyone views the world the same way he does. (Ironically, religious fundamentalists often do the same thing, which leads them to conclude that every nonbeliever must be a stubborn sinner who willfully denies their own knowledge of the Truth of God.) Since he personally finds supernaturalism unbelievable, he thinks everyone else believes the same thing, which is why he predicts the imminent demise of theistic religion. But the truth is that, although the world’s religions have been forced to adapt in various ways to modernity, they are alive and vital all the same. Fundamentalism is a highly adaptable creed, able to accommodate itself to almost any era. The rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

In the long run – and here we’re talking several hundred years or more – I do believe that religion will die out. As we become more and more able to understand and control our world through reason, its inadequacy will become more obvious, and the secularization of humankind will accelerate. But that doesn’t say anything about which kind of religion will survive the longest. I strongly suspect that some form of fundamentalism will be among the diehards. A watered-down, contentless theology like Spong’s, on the other hand, offers nothing to compete with a robust philosophy of humanistic atheism, and as the atheist movement grows more influential, such faiths will probably be the first to go.

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