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.
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.
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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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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