Bishop Spong : Removing the image of the Divine Rescuer

In his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Bishop John Shelby Spong outlines many of the problems which he sees in modern-day Christianity. Though I agree with the statement, I’m not sure that I agree with his conclusions. Bishop Spong seems to want to remove the Theistic aspect from Christianity, which while I can see much good in his approach, I think the removal of Theism is currently unnecessary. That said, I very much agree that we should re-examine some of the baggage of Christianity with the full weight of modern theology, and strive to recover and reshape Christianity in a way that not only reflects our modern time, but also the beauty of the message of Christ.

In the book, Bishop Spong argues for the removal of the image of Jesus as a divine rescuer. This “Dead Wood” image, he feels falls too easily from the preachers lips, and has become nothing but empty homily to an assumed Theology of Original Sin which hangs around the neck of Christianity like mill stone, and will eventually drag Christianity down to it’s death.

Bishop Spong explores the story of Adam and Eve as the parents of Humanity, and how their falls and expulsion from the Garden of Eden has begun to unravel with the Darwinian idea of Evolution. A thinking person cannot, he argues, accept Darwinism, and yet still want to claim Adam and Eve as their ancestor. The fallness of Adam and Eve, so apparent in the first divine question to Humanity after the act of eating the forbidden fruit, showed Human’s tendency to repeat this original failing. As Adam and Even hid from God, so do we. As Adam and Eve passed the blame, so do we. Bishop Spong sees this story as having less of an effect in it’s traditional Augustinian formulation as they are not biologically related to us. How, then, can the Original Sin be passed down to us by the very human act of Sex? Even when this story is viewed as an Allegory, as the story being an encapsulation of the Human condition, it still successfully encapsulates being human as being sinful. This rather skilful manipulation means that it was possible to enfuse people with a sense of Guilt. A sense of guilt for simply being. For loving someone. For wanting to know someone in every sense of the word. Compelled by our desire for love, we were also compelled to feel guilty for it.

God for the ancients was distant. People had to go to Him or Her. They were to be found in temples, or the high-places. They were to be found in the places where there was thin separation between this world and their world, where ever that might be. If you wanted their attention, you must go to them. However, for the Jews, to come before God you would need to be perfect, pure, lest when his light fall on you and burn away your sin, it burns you away, too. An elaborate system was set up to help people achieve freedom from these impurities. It was thought that if the Law could be kept perfectly by one person for 24 hours, then it would be possible to roll back the stain of the Fall. It would be possible to redeem mankind, and allow us to stand, once again, side by side with God. The entire Jewish world, then, was calling out for a redeemer.

Prophet after prophet came to call Israel back when she had strayed too far, but like many great men before and since, they were often ignored in their time, and were persecuted for their words. Well, no-one likes being told off when they know their doing wrong, do they?

Into this cultural milieu steps the story of Jesus of Nazareth. An itinerant Rabbi who was some-how different from all the other itinerant Rabbi, all the other Messiahs of the time. Bishop Spong sees the notion of a rescuer as being outdated, for he doesn’t see it as necessary. As we have learnt from Darwinism, Creation is not finished, we are still evolving, so the story of Adam and Even must be re-examined, and the fall questioned.

This radical claim, the notion that there is no need for a divine Rescuer, that there is no need for Salvation is likely to set the average Christian into a flat spin. So used are we to such images that we are unlikely to be able to conceive, of Christ as anything other than Saviour, even if we have, in some way, silently forgotten or ignored the notion of Original Sin finding it distasteful, and out of step with our modern ideas of the beauty of love.

What is left, then, of the image of Jesus if we do not need a saviour? Is there anything left of that ancient idea that might rescue Jesus still as the theistic Son of God? Bishop Spong doesn’t think so, and wants to try to craft a new image of Jesus as the Spirit-Man. A man in which the inner Spirit in us has reached a new hight. He explores the fact that he has experienced Christ, and has found time after time that Christ has helped him gain new heights. He also explores the way in which the word spirit is dotted throughout the New Testament writings, and sees in them people struggling with the language of spirit while they search for their new experience in the reality of Christ.

There is much to be said for the new image. The exploration of Spirit, especially as it is experienced in the reality of the lives of the faithful down the ages. However, I feel that he goes too far in wanting to remove the theistic aspect. I see that his image could very well include a notion of Theism when explored in the light of the current line of thought about the divinity of the Spirit itself. I would also not want to break the link, theologically, between Jesus as being Divine, and in some way undefinable, God.

Bishop Spong explores the issues in his book with deftness, and a line of thought that shows many years wrestling with the problems of Christian Dogma. His call for another reformation in Christian thought, despite my disagreements with his conclusions, should be heard loud and clear. The Theological Debate about the nature of the atonement, and the conclusions of Original Sin should be heard and they should resound and unsettle the ancient annals of Theology.

God is not Dead. Humanity has not Killed him. God is still trying to talk to us. The time of the prophets may be over, but prophetic voices still call on us to find our way back to God.