Thursday, October 15, 2009

Making Peace with Bishop Spong

Update: Because it seems that this post may get some slightly heavier traffic, I want to invite readers to read this follow-up that hopefully puts this post in better context. If you feel the need to defend Spong from the person I was ten years ago, I don't think you're quite getting the message of the piece.

"I don't dislike you. I nothing you." - Scrubs

I recently realized that I have a very important faith-related anniversary coming up in March. I had a crisis of faith my junior year of college that I've written about several times on this blog, one which had me on the brink of giving up what I believed, as well as my chosen career path. At my lowest point, I sat in a dorm hallway with a Bible and, in a moment that may not be universally affirmed,* flipped it open after a brief prayer and landed on Luke 24:34 - "It is true! The Lord has risen, and has appeared to Simon!" This moment brought me back, and I name and claim it as a huge turning point in my journey.

March 29, 2010 marks ten years since that night. I have quite a while to decide whether I'll observe it in any special way. Maybe I'll get my commemorative tattoo touched up.

Lately I've been thinking about this anniversary, not just due to my recent realization but also due to this post by Naked Pastor, where he was compared to John Shelby Spong by a worshipping visitor. Bishop Spong's book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, played a notable role in my faith crisis.

If you aren't familiar with Spong, he's a recently retired Episcopal bishop who has stirred up more than a little controversy with his challenges to traditional understandings of Christianity, thanks in no small part to his presentation. He tends to condescend and belittle people who hold more traditional views. Think Christopher Hitchens if he was a super-liberal Christian. Many liberal Christians credit his books with helping them find ways to remain Christian in the midst of their own faith crises. I experienced the opposite.

I picked up his book around Christmas of 1999, and recall being more and more troubled with every passing chapter. At that point I was still working out a lot of what I was learning in my religion classes, which was decidedly different from what most Sunday School classes present. While I had reconciled much of this already, there was something about Spong's book that began an entirely new line of questioning for me.

In retrospect, I probably had no business reading that book at that time due to being so new to the other scholarship I'd been reading (not to lump Spong in with "scholarship," but whatever). It was a fragile point in my life even apart from explicitly theological reasons, but reading the book became part of a "perfect faith-questioning storm."

In the past ten years, I've never picked up another Spong book. I've considered re-reading WCMCOD several times, but haven't even done that. I've worked through a lot of liberal theology and have dismissed some of it while embracing other things. I'm much more secure in my beliefs that Spong's work would probably seem a pretty minor matter in terms of wrestling with content.

Still, over the past ten years I've not only avoided Spong but have occasionally been openly hostile. Sometimes when I see his books in Borders a string of unpastoral words runs through my mind. Yeah, he's really left an impression. It's a very short list of authors that causes such a reaction inside me. All because a college kid who was going through a lot of crap thought it was a good idea to pick up his stupid book.

Now, you can certainly argue that if hadn't been for that book and subsequent time of wrestling, the moment of trust that I will remember next spring may not have happened. And I will mostly agree. We can look back on experiences that shatter our personal worlds for a time and give thanks for what they led to. But the moments themselves still sucked. It took me years to make peace with my family moving to the community to which I still refer as my hometown, even as I recognize all the positive things that eventually resulted, but the original events still felt awful (that'll be a separate post).

So nearly ten years after the fact, I'm ready to let my hostility toward Bishop Spong go. It still doesn't mean I'm going to rush out and pick up his books or sign up for any special talks he's giving in the area. All I'm saying is that I've finally come to a point where I can "nothing" him. Circumstances ten years ago had a lot to do with this, and as I mentioned his thought may seem small potatoes to me now. Heck, I probably agree with him on a decent number of things nowadays. But I really don't care enough one way or the other any more to find out. He's a footnote in my faith journey, and I'm content to give him that, but not much more.

*And I don't care if you affirm it or not.

4 comments:

Rich said...

"there was something about Spong's book that began an entirely new line of questioning for me."

Precisely! To the dismay of some, Spong and his ilk won't give you pat answers to extremely complex and personal questions. Rather, I believe that Jack Spong challenges us to re-examine our own beliefs and, indeed may leave one with more unanswered questions than before. I'm alright with that.

Coffeepastor said...

And I'm fine with that nowadays, Rich. In fact, I welcome it. But at that moment in my life it was one more painful thing in a huge pile of painful things. And I openly admit that that moment has colored my opinion of Spong ever since.

Anonymous said...

Bishop Spong is directly responsable for my being involved in any church a all since i was forced to attend the RC church as a child. I am now 59 years old. Today I am active in a high church parish the Episcopal Church. I have never felt that Spong belittled those with "traditional" views (except the racist or homophobic ones, which deserve ridicule). I feel that Spong invites up to look outside the box, thats its OK to feel what you feel and know what you know, and that its not necesary to "just believe". I appreciate Bishop Spong very very much. He has brought me to a knowledge of God that I find wonderful.

Coffeepastor said...

I recall Spong more than once giving the impression that he can't fathom how somebody could possibly hold to more traditional understandings of Christian faith. If not in words, certainly in tone.

You and Rich seem to want to defend Spong from a ten-years-younger version of myself. I have a feeling that this will be a trend for future commenters, so I wrote a follow-up piece.