I went to see Bishop Spong last night at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. He is an engaging speaker, although I didn't hear him say anything last night that he hasn't already said more than once in his books.
The focus of his evening talk was on the challenge Christianity has faced from science and the way it has too often responded badly. Specifically he spoke about what he alleged were the two big threats faced by the church in history - from Galileo and from Darwin - and how in each instance religious authorities responded out of fear with demagoguery and denial that resulted in lasting damage to Christianity.
He paid particular attention to the challenge of Darwin, a challenge he said was two-fold. First, the theory of evolution smashed the use of the Bible as a book of science. God didn't create the world in 7 days, and he recounted with relish ridiculous attempts to hold onto the biblical story as science, like turning each day of creation into a thousand or a million years. He obviously does enjoy smashing idols.
He suggested, though, that the second and bigger threat of Darwin to Christianity took a while to be fully understood. The theory of evolution was a dagger in the heart of the doctrine of the "fall" of humanity and the resulting belief that we need to be saved by God. Evolution has taught us that there never was a perfect human or a perfect time in our past. There was no "fall."
He spent the bulk of time rehearsing the biblical stories that recount, in Christian understanding, God's attempts to make or then to fix what was supposed to be a Garden of Eden existence. First God created us perfectly in the garden and we screwed it up, so he kicked us out. Then he got so disgusted that he decided to wipe us off the face of the earth, all except one righteous family. But that didn't work; no sooner was Noah off the boat on dry land than he was laying around in a drunken stupor. Who could blame him, said Spong, after what he had just been through. So God decided to change tactics and make a special covenant with one group of people: Jews. They messed up, so he gave them the law and then the prophets. Nothing worked. So finally "in the fullness of time" God sent part of himself, his own son Jesus to save us, to redeem us.
In Spong's telling of this story the perpetual, ritual, reliving of this interpretation in liturgy, music, prayer and message fosters human self-loathing, fear of God and others, and unhealthy submission to religious authorities who alone hold the power to administer the sacraments of forgiveness that set us right, at least until next week when we have to be reminded once again that we are retched sinners in need of God's merciful salvation.
Darwin broke the back of this vicious cycle. There was never a time when we were pure; we never fell from God's grace; we don't need to be saved by the blood of Jesus. We are not by any means perfect; Spong acknowledged the human capacity for malice and evil. But what we need is not salvation. We need, instead, to learn how to become more fully human. This, Spong said, is what Jesus actually did for us. He showed us what it looks like to live a fully human life. In fact, Jesus lived such a fully human life that people looked at him and said "this must be God." His calling, though, was not to be the God who saves us, but to be the embodiment of a complete humanity in order to teach us how to live like him. This mission is captured perfectly, said Spong, by the Gospel of John's Jesus when he says: I came that they might have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)
The future hope of Christianity lies in embracing this understanding of Jesus and in making his mission our mission. On this point I agree with Spong, that we need to make the mission of Christianity living this life abundantly.
I am not so certain as is Spong that this was really the central mission of Jesus as Jesus understood it. One of the annoying habits of Spong is that he is so certain about everything he says and writes. In the question and answer session after his talk he responded to a question about the miracles of Jesus by dismissing the notion that Jesus was a miracle worker. He classified three kinds of miracles - nature, feeding, and healing - and said that all were attached to Jesus by the communities that followed as they recreated Jesus in the image of the heroes of the Hebrew scriptures.
Yes, but… isn't it possible that their additions to the story of Jesus can be traced back to a real memory of him as a healer? I don't think we can be so sure about what we can say about Jesus as a healer.
In the same way does John 10:10 really speak to what Jesus understood his own life to be all about? I think we cannot be so certain. While I, like Spong, am attracted to the idea that Jesus was essentially a wisdom teacher - this is who I would like Jesus to have been - I think it more likely that he saw himself primarily an eschatological prophet who believed that he was playing a central role in the unfolding drama of Israel's salvation history. He believed that the end was near and that he was a key participant in the final act. He was also a wisdom teacher and a healer. I think one of the reasons we have so many disparate memories and accounts of him is that his life's work was multifaceted, and different communities remembered those pieces of him that were most attractive to them.
But it is increasingly clear to me as I have tried to keep up with the work of the Jesus Seminar and its critics that we are not going to get a clear and neat picture of who Jesus really was. Our task, then, becomes to acknowledge first what we don't know. We don't know enough about Jesus to say with the kind of certainty Spong speaks with that this is the real Jesus. Second, we might need to acknowledge that - gasp - on some things Jesus himself might have been wrong. If he did believe that an apocalyptic drama was unfolding and that the end was near, then like Paul and multitudes of Christians throughout history right up to today, he was, and they were and are wrong. The end is not near. God is not coming back.
Then, do we just chuck the whole enterprise? Some do, but I agree with Spong that we don't need to. Instead, I think we need to carefully and continually revisit what we can say with some certainty about Jesus and Paul and the early Christians and hold onto what is useful (wisdom, peace and justice, egalitarian community, spiritual healing) and let go of what isn't helpful (God's wrath, judgment, the end is near, a pre-scientific worldview that we don't share.) So, for example, in their motivation to anticipate and participate in God's kingdom that was about to arrive, Jesus and Paul apparently ignored barriers of gender and social status to create egalitarian communities. Even if they were wrong about the apocalyptic drama they were surely right about the community. Its vision has freed slaves and ended segregation and emancipated women and inspired gays and lesbians to come out of the closet and claim their place at God's table. We go back to that vision again and again because it continually challenges us see others as fully human and in so doing to become, ourselves, more fully human. This part of Jesus' life and work is what keeps me connected. There is good stuff here.
This is also what is most compelling about Bishop Spong. It is what his own life's work has been all about. And so while his breezy certainty is somewhat annoying and his biblical scholarship is at times spotty, his life speaks. It was a privilege and a joy to be in his presence.