John Shelby Spong speaking during CrossWalk America 2006 on Sept. 3, 2006. (Photo: Scott Griessel/Wikimedia Commons)

Topics: Spirituality | Opinion

Why John Shelby Spong was not a progressive Christian voice

If Spong’s writings represent the best that Progressive Christianity has to offer, then clearly the movement isn’t what it claims to be

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With the passing of retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong in September 2021, the movement known as Progressive Christianity has lost one of its most revered writers. This is an opportune time for those who identify with liberal Christianity to take a critical look at his legacy. Do his ideas make a useful contribution to Christianity as it proceeds through the 21st century?

I write as a sociologist of religion employed at an historical liberal school of theology. If “progressive” means moving forward and embracing the best of emerging knowledge, then the evidence is clear that Spong wasn’t a progressive religious voice but an old-fashioned liberal. His books restated past liberal ideas, most of which hadn’t aged well, rather than offering new directions for the faith.

Tilting at 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 creeds were no longer believable in light of contemporary scientific knowledge. Only a radical rethinking of Christianity’s symbols, which he offered in his books, could save Christianity from extinction.

This thesis, which he introduced in his 1998 book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, was in fact a restatement of an argument made by liberal “modernist” theologians in the early 20th century. By the end of the century, it was painfully obvious that the modernist prediction was wrong. As sociologists of religion 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 grew beyond a niche market, one mostly occupied by highly educated whites. By the time of Spong’s final book Unbelievable in 2018, evangelicalism had started to decline in the United States, but not because of its incompatibility with science. Rather, sociologists pointed to American evangelicalism’s increasing conflation with conservative politics, which drove away non-conservatives. Restating the modernist argument in 1998 was a brazen denial of reality, and Spong’s thesis was no more believable two decades later.

Misreading science

The majority of Christians have never shared Spong’s concern with making the faith compatible with contemporary science. Still, it is arguably a worthy goal, one that most liberal Christians affirm. Unfortunately, Spong failed to offer credible guidance in this area as he understood neither contemporary science nor 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 of early 20th-century liberal theologians: the physics of Isaac Newton described a fully predictable universe, one that left no room for divine intervention in the form of miracles. As Spong argued in Unbelievable, “There was no place in Newton’s worldview for supernatural power to operate, for magic to occur or for God’s miraculous abilities to be displayed.”

Anyone with a basic knowledge of the history of science knows that the Newtonian picture of the universe was discarded in the 20th century in the wake of relativity, quantum physics, and string theory. Scientists no longer regarded 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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Unitarianism redux

Spong was associated with a group of biblical scholars known as the Jesus Seminar that revived the 19th-century “quest for the historical Jesus.” Members of the group claimed to be objective scholars using cutting-edge techniques. Critics accused the group of starting their quest with a picture of Jesus already in mind and of being a throwback.

What did the historical Jesus look like to Spong and his colleagues? He was a man with rare (though not unique) spiritual gifts but decidedly not the divine Son of God. Typical of Spong’s ideas, this “new” Jesus wasn’t new at all, but a replica of the Jesus embraced by Unitarians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Significantly, most Unitarians left the Christian tradition behind by the middle of the 20th century, apparently finding that their non-divine Jesus gave them no compelling reason to stay.

Progressive Christianity 2.0?

If Spong’s writings represent the best that Progressive Christianity has to offer, then clearly the movement isn’t what it claims to be. Spong marketed himself as a progressive while restating century-old ideas, as if we had learned nothing in the interim. And if the history of Unitarianism is any indication, his non-divine Jesus (shared by Marcus Borg and other Progressive Christian leaders) is a one-way ticket to post-Christianity rather than a solid foundation for Christianity’s future. Perhaps it’s time to launch a Progressive Christianity 2.0 movement, one that is both genuinely progressive and genuinely Christian.

***

Antony Alumkal is Associate Professor of Sociology of Religion at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colo.


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  • says:

    This was a good article. Interesting that "Liberals" are critical of other "Liberals".
    The problem of trying to "evolve" Christianity into the culture, is that Christianity is "anti-culture". This is clearly seen in John 15:18-25 and other verses.
    The second problem is that "God's Word" is not changeable, as Jesus noted in Matthew 5:17-19. This is because God does not change, Malachi 3:6.

    The good news is that if God doesn't change, His promises and covenants cannot change.
    Yet God's power can change us, (only through faith in God) we cannot achieve God's power by our own works,

    The change in us?... Christ lives in us. (Galatians 2:20) therefore we have a Divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4)
    The result?... Sin does not master us, yes we fight against it, but sin has no hold on us, because the creator is greater than the created.
    The ultimate reward?... Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, The things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9) - That's Heaven.

  • says:

    An interesting interpretation of Spong. But I don't hear anything like a statement of faith from progressive Christianity 2.0. That would be helpful to all of us Christians who still say the apostles creed remains the foundation of any faith community across the centuries that chooses to call itself Christian. The fact that progressives can't hold the mystery of Jesus divinity and humanity together as the apostolic witness does suggests impoverished understanding of what God was up to in Jesus.

    Replies

    • says:

      There is a growing inclusive and orthodox movement (those who are committed to LGBTQ inclusion and affirm the creeds), especially within Episcopal and Anglican traditions. The online magazine Earth and Altar mag is one publication that is committed to inclusive orthodoxy.

      https://earthandaltarmag.com/

  • says:

    Antony Alumkal puts himself in Spong's shoes when he references "genuine Christianity". The old argument of "Are you a real Christian"? put by one sect to another. This is not progressive either is it? Bette in Huntsville

  • says:

    This critical overview of a deceased person's life and career feels unnecessarily dismissive; even if Spong didn't meet the expectations of the author, it appears he was attempting to bridge the gap between religion and science, as does the Dalai Llama when he meets with the scientific community to engage in philosophical debate. Honestly, I don't see the point of this put-down, except to belittle his followers.

    Replies

    • says:

      WELL SAID & much more direct than my comment.

  • says:

    Sorry but what a load of 1/2 truths:
    eg 1- "Significantly, most Unitarians left the Christian tradition behind by the middle of the 20th century, " The Unitarian church i attended did celebrate Christmas as does the one I may shift to this fall.
    eg. #2- "the evidence is clear that Spong wasn’t a progressive religious voice but an old-fashioned liberal. His books restated past liberal ideas, most of which hadn’t aged well, rather than offering new directions for the faith." So False & just a smear. Sadly the Christian Church is still mired in the ethos of 2cnd to 4th century priesthood. Proof just read our hymns that stress guilt & judgement on our way to heaven; all summarized in the traditional prayer that was NOT the words of Jesus. The church IS DYING & CLOSING one by ONE like bowling pins. Our writer's blatant twisting & smears are nothing but proof that he follows a hidden very conservative view. Sad that he made it into Broadview.

    Tilting at windmills

    Replies

    • says:

      I won't deny your support of Spong as I know you are a keen follower of his thought. However you raise two thoughts that I would disagree with.
      1) Proof, just read our hymns that stress guilt & judgement on our way to heaven.
      Could you name a few? The one's I know that have guilt and judgment offer hope to get to heaven.
      2) The church IS DYING & CLOSING one by ONE like bowling pins.
      I despise this comment made by anyone. It is so anti-Biblical, and very self-centred. Your denomination maybe dying and closing, but Christ's Church is based on God's promise. "Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear." (Matt 24:35)
      If you want to see the Church or churches growing, find countries where Christians are persecuted. "Western 'churches'" are so soft, no wonder they're dying, they don't want to exist.

    • says:

      Pastor Stan, I agree with you. John Shelby Spong started his life and ministry with many "orthodox" positions and when he found them biblically or experientially lacking, sought alternatives. He was careful to cushion himself as "not radical enough" but for those of us who also struggled to break from evangelicalism, we found a kindred spirit. His books are well written and have been a source of spiritual encouragement to me for a fair number of years. He brought "old liberalism" into the 21st century and God has used him to help many.

  • says:

    Alumkai’s view here is refreshing - and worthy of being pursued in depth. I hope he can help set a new direction, as he suggests. I am in complete agreement with his thesis about the ‘old liberalism’ that is now definitely passé. Thank you for this important article. I shall be following Professor Alumkai’s work.

    Replies

    • says:

      Thanks, Steve. You might be interested in my previous book Paranoid Science: The Christian Right's War on Reality.

      As I tell my students, there are a lot of parallels between the Christian Right on the one hand and "Progressive Christian" writers like Spong and Borg on the other. Both groups use rigid, binary thinking.

  • says:

    I appreciate Spong's many contributions even as I have found greater inspiration in Paul Tillich. For my critique of supernaturalism and a defence of a resurrection spirituality possible on the Way of the Cross, I offer a 2019 review essay on The Theology of the UCC -- https://wayofcrossucc.wordpress.com/2019/07/30/supernatural-british-theology/

    Replies

    • says:

      The problem with your thesis is you started not with a hypothesis but with a bias.
      Your works tries to prove "if we can't see it, it doesn't exist"
      Paul explains to the Ephesian church the same issue, (which means you're not unique in the matter) Ephesians 6:11-12
      Your second bias is that God's Word is not inspired, therefore the whole thing is a lie. (man-made in your words)
      Given the content of the Bible as a whole, it would be virtually impossible and ludicrous to make such a "book" up, just to make it "fit" with itself.
      Your thesis also addresses that "concepts" can be upheld by anyone, but you fail to prove where those concepts originated, and why man tries to deviate from them if they are positive attributes. Humanism is self centered, who determines they're right in their beliefs or actions? That only results in anarchy which is what we are seeing in the Western world today.
      A dying church preaches a dead Christ.

  • says:

    I stopped reading Spong when he went off in this direction. So appreciate the analysis here.
    I was nonetheless surprised to see Marcus Borg getting lumped in with Spong. I certainly never read Borg the way this article represents him. Nor the Jesus Seminar for that matter (though I agree that it has significant limitations).
    There will be no Progressive Christianity 2.0 IMHO. That ship has sunk.

  • says:

    Thank you for the article about John Shelby Spong. It was interesting reading. One of the highlights of my life was meeting Spong at a continuing education event in Saskatchewan. Hearing from him directly brings a different perspective than just reading his words. Although some people may not consider him a progressive theologian, his thoughts are progressive to many Christians. This article provokes the question about what a progressive Christianity 2.0 movement would look like.

  • says:

    Perhaps John Shelby Spong was progressive in his time and space. Being a former Anglican I know he stirred up many people in his denomination, but he was progressively new in his thinking and it was in always in motion.
    He opened my thinking a great deal to be just that .. open. Today being open to possibilities is more than needed. Changing eras in technology is an eye opener in itself.

    No one has It right all the time. God is so accepting, but being pure love is.
    God moved the waters and we are here trying to live the best ways possible.
    Freedom to think and be is part if the Gospel message. The Call to love right now is great and Spong would have agreed love is the key to being who we are meant to be by God, not some human idea that lacks freedom to think and be.
    Our souls are free.

  • says:

    Dr Alumkia claims that Borg, Spong are not really progressive Christians.
    He also claims their influence is limited and will not stand the test of time.
    A reference to the Bible not being literal is mentioned as being an old idea and a century old concept.
    Many Christians today have trouble when reading the Bible...it is not a century old problem.
    Suggesting a way to read the Text is a current concern not something which is a century old and thus
    dealing with Literalism is valid today.
    He also says a Progressive 2.0 need to be formed to replace Borg, Jesus Seminar, and Spong
    What would be the rallying ideas of that vs the ideas of Borg, Jesus Seminar and Spong?
    He does not explain but still insists it must be done because of the failure of the above.
    It may be best for Dr Alumkai to rethink his comments with a view towards making a positive
    proposal vs a drive by smear.

  • says:

    As a liberal evangelical from a science background, I believe this hit the nail on the head. Bring on Progressive 2.0! I long for theology in the context of a quantum world.