With the who passed of retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong in September 2021, the movement known as Progressive Christianity lost one of its most revered writers. Now is an opportune time for those who identify with liberal Christianity to take a critical look at its legacy. Do his ideas make a useful contribution to Christianity as it progresses in the 21 century?
I write as a sociologist of religion employed in a historic liberal school of theology. If “progressive” means moving forward and embracing the best of emerging knowledge, then clearly Spong was not a progressive religious voice, but an old-fashioned liberal. His books reaffirmed the liberal ideas of the past, most of which had not aged well, rather than offering new directions for the faith.
Tipping at the windmills
The second half of Spong’s writing career was dominated by his thesis that Christianity must change or die. According to Spong, literal readings of the Bible and beliefs were no longer credible in light of contemporary scientific knowledge. Only a radical overhaul of the symbols of Christianity, which he proposed in his books, could save Christianity from extinction.
This thesis, which he presented in his 1998 book Why Christianity Must Change or Diewas actually a restatement of an argument made by “modernist” liberal theologians At the beginning of the 20th Century. By the end of the century, it was painfully obvious that the modernist prediction was wrong. As sociologists of religion have described the situation, conservative forms of Christianity, especially Pentecostalism, were growing rapidly in the Global South while growing moderately in the United States. Liberal Christianity never developed beyond a niche market, a market occupied primarily by highly educated whites. By the time of Spong’s last book Incredible by 2018 evangelicalism had begun to decline in the United States, but not because of its incompatibility with science. On the contrary, sociologists underline The growing confusion of American evangelicalism with conservative politics, which drove out non-conservatives. Reaffirming the modernist argument in 1998 was a brazen denial of reality, and Spong’s thesis was no longer credible two decades later.
Ignorance of science
The majority of Christians have never shared Spong’s concern to make the faith compatible with contemporary science. Yet it is arguably a laudable goal, one that most liberal Christians affirm. Unfortunately, Spong did not offer credible advice in this area because he did not understand contemporary science or contemporary theology.
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Spong’s writing career coincided with a period of fruitful dialogue between science and Christian theology. Journals such as Zygon and Theology and science published scholarship related to this dialogue. But Spong ignored this scholarship and instead reiterated the view from the start of the 20andliberal theologians of the last century: Isaac Newton’s physics described an entirely predictable universe, which left no room for divine intervention in the form of miracles. As Spong argued in Incredible“There was no room in Newton’s worldview for supernatural power to operate, for magic to occur, or for the miraculous abilities of God to manifest.”
Anyone with a basic knowledge of the history of science knows that the Newtonian picture of the universe was thrown in the 20th century in the wake of relativity, quantum physics and string theory. Scientists no longer viewed the universe as predictable, and theologians such as Ian Barbour and John Polkinghorne explored the implications of this change. Meanwhile, Spong’s understanding of these matters remained a century behind.
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Spong was associated with a group of biblical scholars known as the Jesus seminar which revived the “quest for the historical Jesus” of the 19th century. The members of the group claimed to be objective scholars using advanced techniques. Critics accused the band to begin their quest with an image of Jesus already in mind and to be a step back.
What did the historical Jesus look like to Spong and his colleagues? He was a man endowed with rare (but not unique) spiritual gifts, but decidedly not the divine Son of God. Typical of Spong’s ideas, this “new” Jesus was not new at all, but a replica of the Jesus adopted by Unitarians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Significantly, most Unitarians abandoned the Christian tradition in the mid-20th century, apparently finding that their ungodly Jesus gave them no compelling reason to stay.
Progressive Christianity 2.0?
If Spong’s writings represent the best progressive Christianity has to offer, then clearly the movement is not what it claims to be. Spong presented himself as a progressive while reaffirming centuries-old ideas, as if we had learned nothing in the meantime. And if the history of Unitarianism is any indication, its ungodly Jesus (shared by Marcus Borg and other progressive Christian leaders) is a one-way ticket to post-Christianity rather than a solid foundation for the future of Christianity. It may be time to launch a Progressive Christianity 2.0 movement that is both truly progressive and truly Christian.
Antoine Alumkal is associate professor of sociology of religion at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.
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