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What is Christianity?

What is Christianity? April 11, 2008
[A review of books by Spong and Wright, originally posted on my old blog on June 4th, 2007]

I deliberately chose to read the two books I am writing about in parallel, more-or-less simultaneously, so as to better be able to reflect on the similarities and contrasts between them. Both are written by authors who are bishops in the Anglican/Episcopal church. One is John Selby Spong’s A New Christianity for a New World, while the other is Tom Wright’s Simply Christian. Already from their book covers one can get a sense of their different approaches and perspectives. Spong’s book is subtitled Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born, while Wright’s is subtitled Why Christianity Makes Sense (the latter being even more starkly in opposition to the title of another of Spong’s books, Why Christianity Must Change or Die).

Let me say from the outset that both books reflect a profound spirituality and a deep concern on each author’s part to be a Christian and relate this to the world they live in. Spong’s book reflects most clearly the modern experience, of becoming aware of the fallibility of tradition and Scripture, of finding that in light of science and reason one cannot simply repeat the same old language in the same old way. Spong is deeply passionate about avoid idolatry, and already in the preface he emphasizes that “To suggest that God and one’s own understanding of God are the same is not only to stop growing, it is to die to the quest to truth” (p.xviii). Theism clearly developed, from animism through polytheism and beyond, and so why should one stop at the notion of a God who is a being among others and combines all the possible polytheistic deities into one? (see p.49). We also ought to be suspicious, he warns, when the concept of God we are defending is that of a being whose primary concern is to care for us human beings in our little corner of the planet/galaxy/universe (p.61). Spong states many times throughout the book that he is seeking to continue the work of John A. T. Robinson, whose small but powerful book Honest to God raised the questions Spong also addresses regarding the meaning of God – Spong’s aim is like that of Robinson, Tillich and Bonhoffer, namely to rethink our image of God as not merely a being but as Being itself.

Spong states confidently that “Hysterical fundamentalism is not the way into the future; it is the last gasp of the past” (p.54). Although Spong denies interpreting Jesus as merely a teacher in the manner of classic Liberal Protestantism (pp.147-148), most of the time his approach seems to be precisely that of classic Liberal Protestantism. He believes that the mythical and even the theistic components of the Christian message were additions to it and can be stripped away to reveal a core that will speak to us today. If only he listened to Schweitzer, whose unveiling of the historical figure of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher who was mistaken about the end of the world brought the original quest for the historical Jesus to a close, and to Bultmann who courageously acknowledged that the mythological is part and parcel of the Gospel, and we must find ways of interpreting the myths themselves in meaningful ways today if we wish to preserve and promote the Christian faith (p.102).

While Spong is clearly what might be called an “old fashioned modernist”, Wright speaks more to the postmodern experience, and although his name is never mentioned, it is clear that the postliberal thought of George Lindbeck and narrative theology is at least part of the framework he is working within (p.190). Wright takes an appreciative stance towards not only Christianity but theism, although his theism in which heaven and earth are separate but overlap might also fit the panentheism he mentions but dismisses (pp.58-59,61,128), since he is willing to state that God is not a being in our world (p.56). But Wright’s powerfully eloquent prose seeks to tell the Christian story rather than rewrite it. But this does not mean that Wright allows certain conservative and fundamentalist readings of the Bible to dominate – far from it. Wright only rarely addresses such views directly in the sense of discussing concepts like Biblical inerrancy (pp.182-184), but throughout he is seeking to offer a portrait of what it means to be a Christian that challenges fundamentalism and other viewpoints he considers problematic by using the resources provided by the Christian tradition. In other words, the language that Spong finds no longer meaningful, Wright finds meaningful and where necessary he wants to rehabilitate key terms rather than discard them (see e.g. pp.123-124). And so, for example, Wright does not discuss the divinity of Christ, for example, in terms of modernist rationalism: since God is the light in which we see, according to Wright, rather than something we look for, it would make little sense to do so. Yet he offers ways of thinking about the portrait of Jesus in the New Testament that challenges certain understandings that are commonplace in churches today, such as when he suggests that the divinity of Christ is not so much something he possessed and was aware of as a vocation to which he was called (pp.118-119). Such an interpretation is in many ways every bit as radically in contrast to certain conservative Christian assumptions as Spong’s, but Wright’s radical challenge draws from the Bible rather than drawing from contemporary disdain for the Bible in certain circles.

While Spong writes for those who view Christianity from the standpoint of modernist skepticism (and shares that skepticism), Wright is addressing postmodernists who are disillusioned with attempts to bracket out spirituality and to regard reason and science as all-encompassing and all-powerful. There is an interesting contrast between stories each tells. Spong tells at one point of a deeply moving sermon preached by a student, in which floodwaters begin to rise and threaten to destroy a town, but because of a desire to cling to all the familiar things there, the inhabitants do not flee when they have the chance. The floodwaters are the creeds and other antiquated elements of Christianity that are making it a place impossible for rational people to inhabit. Its language has become meaningless, its patriarchy has become offensive, and yet when we know we should leave these things behind the voice of comfort whispers to us to just leave things as they are (pp.234-236).

Wright also, coincidentally, tells a story about rising waters and a town. In a land where there is a rational (and apparently benevolent) dictator, in response to erratic and at times dangerous springs of water in the area, the whole thing is paved over, so that the inhabitants can get their water through pipes and a system. But eventually the paved-over springs burst forth and break through. This is intended to illustrate the way in which spirituality, stifled and marginalized in the Enlightenment era, is now bursting forth again (pp.17-20). People are thirsty. They are not now always seeking to quench that thirst in a meaningful way, but they are tired of having these aspects of existence paved over and ignored as well. This is the essence of postmodernism, the rediscovery in a Ricoeurian second naïveté that there was something valuable in the things the “Age of Reason” set aside as mere superstition.

How does one live within the Christian tradition? This is the question both books are attempting to address, although both leave certain fundamental questions to the side at times. Spong’s book is the less satisfying in terms of his understanding of what Biblical stories mean and how to interpret them. It is not surprising that some of the best work in bridging the old and the new in a way that takes the old seriously – whether that of N. T. Wright, John A. T. Robinson, or Rudolf Bultmann – was carried out by people who had expertise in New Testament studies. At times Spong’s claims (such as that the New Testament documents are merely stories composed to follow and coincide with lectionary readings) are so far from the mainstream that it makes it hard to take his other statements with which I am sympathetic seriously.

I find more helpful the approach of Keith Ward, who seeks to acknowledge both that Christianity provides a rich wealth of positive resources that can have a positive role in our faith and our world today, while also acknowledging that there are things that we simply cannot accept and continue to pass on today. Both Spong and Wright acknowledge this, in different ways. Spong wants a radical change that rewrites Christianity, while Wright wants a radical change that rediscovers precisely those emphases that much contemporary Christianity misses. Often, both are hoping to see the church move in the same basic direction, in spite of these different approaches.

Wright acknowledges that, for example, when people today latch on to Celtic Christianity and Celtic spirituality as a way of quenching a thirst with waters from these classic ancient sources, few if any of them really want to follow the practices of St. Cuthbert, who stood praying while standing up to his waist in the sea (at Lindisfarne or Holy Island in Northumbria, in the northeast of England – I lived in that area for a number of years and can confirm that the water really is very cold, although it is also a wonderful place that anyone who has the chance ought to visit). Seeking to appreciate and even inhabit a tradition does not mean simply repeating it. Wright has a helpful treatment of authority, in which he suggests that the authority of the Bible and Christian tradition is like the authority of earlier chapters in a novel: characters do not simply repeat things they do in earlier chapters, but their actions in subsequent parts of the story carry forward the directions and impetuses of what went before.

There is surely an extent to which the different visions of Spong and Wright reflect their different national contexts. England has been through the process of secularization, and in spite of its institutional church is in many respects post-Christian. Wright is thus truly addressing an audience that, having had tradition and superstition thoroughly shaken to the ground by the critical thunderstorm of rational inquiry, is ready to go back and see if anything in the rubble can and ought to be saved. America, on the other hand, still seems to be in the heat of modernity’s final (or maybe not so final) thrashes of life, as the religion and science discussions (for example) continue to be carried out in the context of an Enlightenment framework, by rationalists and fundamentalists who are both working with the assumptions of modernity. It is striking that Richard Dawkins’ writings tend to be most critical of American forms of Christianity and its fundamentalism and young-earth creationism. There is a danger when modernity is given postmodernity before it is ready. If one embraces the postmodern before modernity has had its full impact, it can represent a return to naïveté rather than a second naïveté. It can be an attempt to avoid the critical power of rational inquiry rather than to see what remains beside and beyond it.

Both Wright and Spong agree that Christianity ought not to be ultimately about some things one believes but about living in the context of a story that shapes our lives (Spong p.243; Wright p.240). Spong’s aim is the admirable one of having his grandchildren be able to say “God is real to me, and Jesus is my doorway into this reality” (p.246). But I’ll let Wright have the last word, “The church, for all its faults, is at its heart the community of those who are trying to follow Jesus, and in whose company those who are starting to explore these things for themselves may find help, encouragement, and wisdom. As we might say to someone starting to enjoy music: don’t just listen to it, find an instrument and an orchestra and join in” (p.240).

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