Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile

Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile

By John Shelby Spong
San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, Hardback, xxiii + 258 pages.

Bishop John Shelby Spong's book provides a stunning criticism challenging organized Christianity with a commonplace observation that thoughtful, postmodern churchgoers can no longer with integrity worship the personal, theistic God venerated through the centuries with the Lord's Prayer, the orthodox creeds, and the Eucharistic sacrifice. Like his distinguished American predecessor, Episcopal Bishop James Albert Pike, Spong admonishes contemporary Christians to change the traditional God image from an unbelievable theistic father figure to the gracious creative source sustaining all being and to present Jesus as a model exemplifying love and human potential rather than a divine messenger dispatched by God to rescue fallen humanity. Spong advises Western religious leaders to relinquish the persuasive manipulation with which they dominate passive churchgoers and to consider unconventional concepts about divinity, afterlife, prayer, worship, ethics, and community.

Within the worldwide religious community, Spong is perceived variously, depending upon the observer's religious perspective. The English theologian is renounced as an embarrassment whom the House of Bishops should censor; simultaneously he is praised as a passionate, progressive critic who provides, even amid controversy, strength and hope to contemporary Christians seeking an honest, living faith with which they can confront pressing problems. Spong is condemned as an articulate atheist who battles the heavenly hosts; or he is seen as one struggling to cast the anachronisms encumbering orthodoxy into history's awaiting dustbin.

What surprises readers about Spong's recent book is the generally mild, unoffensive ideas that provoke fierce controversy among the conservatives of the church. He characterizes God not as a being to whom humans have access but as a presence discovered within the depths of one's being, the capacity to love, the ability to live, and the courage to be. The distinction between these two perspectives is not clear, but suggests a welcome religious humanism.

Prayer is not necessarily words directed heavenward, but simply being present, sharing love, and opening life to transcendence. Renouncing the Eucharist, Spong concludes that a ceremony in which ordained hands transform ordinary elements into Jesus' body and blood will cease. Rejecting the vicarious atonement, the Bishop states that he "would choose to loathe rather than to worship a deity who requires the sacrifice of his son."

Spong's convictions were known and accepted among intelligent and thoughtful individuals centuries ago. The current controversy revived by the Bishop's unorthodoxy indicates the enormous chasm that separates open-minded inquirers from the conservative, apprehensive churchmen clinging desperately to concepts that lost credibility centuries ago. Sometimes the intellectual distance among contemporary Christians seems so vast that the instruments of astronomers are needed to calculate the space.


January/February 1999