Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today, by John Shelby Spong


  1. Just finished this remarkably heretical book by Bishop Spong: Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today.

    Here are his TWELVE THESES (pared down nicely from 95), with which he proposes a new reformation of Christianity (taken from the introductory chapters in Part 3):

    “1. GOD: Understanding God in theistic terms as ‘a being,’ supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external to the world and capable of intervening in the world with miraculous power, is no longer believable. Most God talk in liturgy and conversation has thus become meaningless. What we must do is find the meaning to which the word ‘God’ points.

    2. JESUS THE CHRIST: If God can no longer be thought of in theistic terms, then conceiving of Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity has also become a bankrupt concept. Can we place the experience of ‘the Christ’ into words that have meaning?

    3. ORIGINAL SIN: The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which we human beings have fallen into “original sin” is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense. We have to find a new way to tell the old story.

    4. THE VIRGIN BIRTH: The virgin birth understood as literal biology is totally unbelievable. Far from being a bulwark in defense of the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth actually destroys that divinity.

    5. MIRACLES: In a post-Newtonian world, supernatural invasions of the natural order, performed by God or an ‘incarnate Jesus,’ are simply not viable explanations of what actually happened. Miracles do not ever imply magic.

    6. ATONEMENT THEOLOGY: Atonement theology, especially in its most bizarre ‘substitutionary’ form, presents us with a God who is barbaric, a Jesus who is a victim and it turns human beings into little more than guilt-filled creatures. The phrase “Jesus died for my sins” is not just dangerous, it is absurd. Atonement theology is a concept that we must escape.

    7. EASTER: The Easter event gave birth to the Christian movement and continues to transform it, but that does not mean that Easter was the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ deceased body back into human history. The earliest biblical records state that ‘God raised him.’ Into what? we need to ask. The reality of the experience of resurrection must be separated from its later mythological explanations.

    8. THE ASCENSION: The biblical story of Jesus’ ascension assumes a three-tiered universe, a concept that was dismissed some five hundred years ago. If Jesus’ ascension was a literal event of history, it is beyond the capacity of our twenty-first-century minds to accept it or to believe it. Does the ascension have any other meaning, or must we defend first-century astrophysics?

    9. ETHICS: The ability to define and to separate good from evil can no longer be achieved with appeals to ancient codes such as the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount. Contemporary moral standards must be hammered out in the juxtaposition between life-affirming moral principles and external situations. No modern person has any choice but to be a situationist.

    10. PRAYER: Prayer, understood as a request made to an external, theistic deity to act in human history, is little more than an hysterical attempt to turn the Holy into the service of the human. Most of our prayer definitions arise out of the past and are thus dependent on an understanding of God that no longer exists. Let us instead think of prayer as the practice of the presence of God, the act of embracing transcendence and the discipline of sharing with another the gifts of living, loving and being.

    11. LIFE AFTER DEATH: If we are to talk about eternal life with any degree of intellectual integrity, we must explore it as a dimension of transcendent reality and infinite love—a reality and love that, when experienced, let us share in the eternal.

    12. UNIVERSALISM: We are called by this new faith into radical connectedness. Judgment is not a human responsibility. Discrimination against any human being on the basis of that which is a ‘given’ is always evil and does not serve the Christian goal of offering “abundant life” to all. Any structure in either the secular world or the institutional church that diminishes the humanity of any child of God on any external basis of race, gender or sexual orientation must be exposed publicly and vigorously. There can be no reason in the church of tomorrow for excusing or even forgiving discriminatory practices. ‘Sacred tradition’ must never again provide a cover to justify discriminatory evil. The call to universalism must be the message of Christianity.

    Can a new Christianity be forged on the basis of these twelve theses? Can a living, vital and real faith that is true to the experience of the past, while dismissing the explanations of the past, be born anew in this generation? I believe it can, and so to engage in this task I issue this call to the Christian world to transform its holy words of yesterday into believable words of today. If we fail in this task there is little reason to think that Christianity, as presently understood and constituted, will survive this century. It is my conviction that we must move beyond theology, beyond creeds, beyond human perceptions to catch a new vision of the Christ. This book will be my attempt to do just that.”


  2. Faced with the unbelievable creeds and doctrines of (not to mention the ills wrought in the name of) Christianity (and other religions), some people today become aggressive, high-profile atheists (here one thinks of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins), some become passive, quiet or private atheists (the increasing majority of young people, especially in Europe), some become agnostic (Lesley Hazelton’s Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto is well worth the time to read), and some atheists imagine the future of religion in “five wildly different hypotheses” (see Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon [p. 35]).

    When Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong is thus faced, he proposes another Christian Reformation, but this time with 12, not 95, theses. It’s interesting to hear him make the same claims of Christianity being unbelievable that are made by the so-called New Atheists and others, but to manage to rearrange things in attempt to reinvent – indeed to reform – Christianity to fit today’s world, lest, he warns, it die altogether.

    Is he spot on or just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

    Either way, it’s hard to argue with the value in his personal mantra in the Epilogue: “to live fully, love wastefully and be all that we can be.” (By “wasteful” love he means not just abundant love, but “the kind of love that never stops to calculate whether the object of its love is worthy to be its recipient”).

    A refreshingly heretical look at Christianity. Bravo, Bishop Spong.

    Sometimes, however, his attempts to redefine things produces definitions that are stretched beyond recognition, the most absurd being that “love is photosynthesis” but also there is a case to be made for applying this thinking to his defining God by saying “God as love” (as 1 John 4:8 also does), or defining God by saying “God is being” (as Tillich, Heidegger, and Bultmann also do).

    But I think that you can stretch definitions, including definitions of God, so far like this that they become unrecognizable, so far that you are not really talking about “God” any more but about something else altogether. I can see why people do this, because things like God are so big and complex and multifaceted and protean that they seem to beg definition by referral to other things like “love” and “being” but there are other words for those things, like for example “love” and “being” which work just fine.

    In the end, for Spong, God is not definable, or is definable only in pointing-to sort of way, an ineffable, apophatic way. Karen Armstrong nicely reviews such ineffable, apophatic conceptions of God in The Case for God.

    Similarly, apropos of definitions and language, he keeps saying that language is inadequate to discuss what he is discussing quite well. Claiming, for example, that God is indescribable grates a little for me, since it’s like saying that the experience occurs only inside of the experiencer, or that there is such a thing as a “private language,” but such notions of the inner are largely considered to be the result of confusion regarding psychological concepts, as discussed in Paul Johnston’s Wittgenstein: Rethinking the Inner.

    If an experience is “indescribable,” then that utterance is indeed a description that others can understand. Spong has a nice analogy for this: just like a horse can experience the presence of a human life but no horse has the frame of reference to enable it to describe to another horse what it means to be human, similarly, humans experience God even if they can’t describe to another human what it is like to be God, who/what God is, etc.

    Still though, he keeps repeating how “woefully inadequate” language is for the task at hand, but yet one wonders not only how it is that he is successfully using language, but also, if he trying to round the square, like when he suggest that “God is real even if not part of the reality we can process.” One wonders which other realities are there.

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