A believer in exile


I have been reading John Shelby Spong's book Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. In many ways, this book serves as Spong's manifesto, a philosophical treatise where he criticizes traditional Christian theology, offers a theology of his own, and suggests certain implications of his theology for prayer, ethics, and worship.

One of the most compelling and important parts of his book is Chapter Two, The Meaning of Exile and How We Got There. Here Spong points out that, contrary to what fundamentalist Christians will tell you, the great Western religions have never been static phenomena that dropped out the sky whole and complete. Judaism, the parent religion of Christianity, underwent important theological changes, long before the birth of Christ; it did not emerge from Moses's time a finished product that then didn't change up to Jesus's time. On the contrary; Spong cites the Babylonian exile as a key moment that introduced a crisis into the Jewish faith, and to which Judaism responded by developing new theological precepts. Although there were further changes that came later, Spong focused on the exile because he used this as a model of what he sees happening in Christianity today--and to bolster his point that modern Christianity is in crisis, he devastatingly shows how much of the Bible was built on a world view that has since been repudiated by modern understandings of how the universe operates. Although Spong doesn't cite Thomas Kuhn, his argument certainly brings to my mind an analogy between what Spong is claiming about Christianity and what Kuhn argued about paradigm shifts in science being precipitated by crises in the previous paradigms.

I believe Spong is correct in his assessment the failures of traditional Christianity to cope with the world as we now know it to be. What Spong hopes to do is rescue Christianity by replacing the old theism with something else. And this is where it gets tricky, and where I find myself in disagreement with him.

Spong admits that he has been influenced by the ideas of Paul Tillich. As such, he wants to replace the old theism that emphasized divine transcendence with something new, a theology that views God as the Ground of Being. What Spong means by this isn't entirely clear to me. He says that critics may call him a pantheist, which he doesn't directly deny, instead only saying that "many theologians, revealing their own limitations, seem to believe that if they can name an idea, they can dismiss it." He also suggests that others might call him a panentheist, but this clearly isn't the case, since panentheists believe in divine transcendence as well as divine immanence, and he clearly rejects transcendence as a divine attribute. He points to God instead as a deeper reality of the world we know. Citing Tillich's definition, he says that

the God to whom Tillich pointed was the infinite center of life. This God was not a person, but, rather like the insights of the mystics, this God was the mystical presence in which all personhood could flourish. This God was not a being but rather the power that called being forth in all creatures. This God was not an external, personal force that could be invoked but rather an internal reality that, when confronted, opened us to the meaning of life itself.
If I understand him correctly, this sounds an awful lot like pantheism. By denying that God has any externality outside of the world, he is essentially equating God with the world, or at least he characterizes God as a deeper reality that underlies it. My experience with pantheists in other contexts is that they consider God to be a deeper reality that underlies the world and unifies it--one analogy being that God is the ocean and we are its waves. The problem that I see is that Spong seems to be committing the fallacy of assuming that a transcendent God is necessarily omnipotent, and since he rejects omnipotence, he rejects transcendence; he should know better, especially since he even goes so far as to cite Alfred North Whitehead as one of the philosophers who hammered a nail into the coffin of traditional theism.

This is the issue that I have with Spong's conception of God. While I agree with his criticisms of fundamentalism and of traditional orthodoxy, and I agree with his criticisms of the idea of God as a transcendent being who acts omnipotently on the world from the outside, I disagree with him that this necessarily implies rejecting the idea of God as a transcendent being. Panentheism, which Spong refers to briefly before ignoring it entirely, agrees with Spong that God is not an external being who acts omnipotently on the world from the outside, but panentheism still sees God as encompassing something greater than just the universe. Instead, panentheism believes that God is both immanent (as Spong believes) and also transcendent--that God is the universe, and also something more. Spong equates a belief in transcendence with a belief in a father-figure God who intervenes in the world from outside by violating the normal laws of the universe. In fact, a panentheistic God (at least under certain understandings of the concept), who is both all of the universe and also external to it, acts in the world as a co-participant and co-creator who operates within the universe. By rejecting transcendence altogether, Spong is throwing out the baby with the bath water.

And yet, despite my disagreement with Spong's rejection of "theism", I think that there is much in what he writes that I can agree with. I agree with him that we cannot appeal to a father-figure God to intervene in the world. I agree with him that prayers to God to intercede on our behalf are ineffective and serve as bad theology. He rightly points out that it is morally unjustifiable to suggest that those who are alone in the world and who have no one to pray on their behalf are therefore not going to receive as much of God's favor as those who are popular or who otherwise have high profiles, and who are therefore more likely to have many who would pray on their behalf. The very idea that God is a favor-dispensing autocrat who will only intervene in certain circumstances if someone is lucky enough to have others who will pray for them is, on the face of it, absurd. What kind of God would act in that way?

We know how much injustice there is in the way fate deals out its blows to the people of the world. Bad things happen to good people. This has been understood for a long, long time--certainly going back at least as far as the book of Ecclesiastes. Spong is right to point out that this has nothing to do with who has received God's favor and who hasn't.

Interestingly enough, Marcus Borg, who describes himself as a panentheist, takes the curious position that intercessionary prayer for the healing of others does work, although he seems to suggest that this is because of some force at work that may not be God's doing. I think Borg is wrong on this score. Thus, even though I agree more with Borg's concept of God than I do Spong's, I am on this question more in agreement with Spong regarding this type of prayer than I am with Borg.

But even here, I differ with Spong. Spong admits never to having had any kind of mystical experience of the divine presence. He says that he has tried, for years, to achieve this kind of experience, writing,
I have always wanted to be a person of prayer. I have yearned to have that sense of immediate contact with the divine. Yet for longer than I have been willing to admit, even to myself, prayers addressed to an external supreme being have had little or no meaning for me.
From this personal experience he then makes the leap that, since he has not experienced the divine presence of a trascendent being, apparently no one else has either. This seems like a highly presumptuous assertion. His experience is not everyone else's, and he should know better than to assert that it is.

I can't address Spong's inability to sense the divine presence in this way. For most of my life, I haven't either. But, in a sense, I think that it was because I was either not looking or I was looking too hard. Recognizing the divine presence and cultivating its experience is not something I really could have ever tried to figure out. At times in the past, I used to be jealous of those who said that they felt the presence of God. But I do believe, over the course of time, that I have experienced it, and lately I feel I have been experiencing it much more often.

I admit that I have little use for the formulaic words and tones of most prayers. The words "Dear God" don't work for me very much as a way to begin a prayer. After all, I know that God is right there next to me and with me and within me. Saying "Dear God" to begin a conversation with God makes as little sense to me as turning to a friend who has been walking with you the entire length of a long journey and starting off a sentence with "Dear Bill". You are with God all along, and God is your deepest, closest presence--so, from my perspective, I see no reason not just say something to her without the formality.

Sometimes a conversation I might have with God is short, referring to something I just thought or said or did. In my mind I sometimes just say something like "Hey, I'm sorry!", or "You're right!", or just a simple "Hey there!" Sometimes I say nothing at all, just feeling the presence, because, after all, God knows what I'm thinking anyway. I find the structure of formal prayers, including formal prayers spoken by others, can often act as a barrier for my ability to relate to the Divine.

Of course, that's just me. Am I limiting myself by doing this? Is it a "better" path to God to use formal prayers? Do others know something I don't? I don't think so, but all I know is that I have to be true to my own spirituality rather than try to emulate what others do in a way that doesn't seem right to me. Certainly I am not saying that my way of relating to God is better or worse than anyone else's. In fact, I am saying just the opposite--I am aware that different people have different people of experiencing the Divine, and it is not my place to judge them or deny the reality of their experiences. What people take away from those experiences, on the other hand, is inevitably colored by their prejudices, their theologies, their cultures, their time in history, and so forth. When they try to name and describe their experiences, that is when things get complicated. As humans, we don't always understand God correctly. All we can do is try.

It is true that I don't feel the divine presence all the time. My mind is often focused on other things, probably most of the time--the details of my work, or the other traffic on the road when I am driving, or the plot of the movie I am watching. Cultivating the experience of the Divine in my life is something that I perhaps I think that may be why I attend worship services--as a way of cultivating my experience of God--even if the actual experiences of those services themselves aren't always completely satisfactory for me.

Looking at the different ways that Spong and Borg view God, and the different ways that they view prayer, and comparing those viewpoints to my own, it seems inevitable that I will never find a religious community that exactly meets my own theology. I may always be a believer in exile.


Steve Petermann said...

Hi Mystical Seeker,

I suppose with any complex seminal thinker there is always the threat that some will cherry pick quotes outside a system of thought and misrepresent the thinker. This has certainly been the case with Paul Tillich. Since his is a systematic theology it can be very misleading to pluck out sections from his theology to make a point as Spong does. Paul Tillich is regarded by many including myself as a true panentheist. There are even a couple of books about this.

Tillich's theology of God is a difficult one because he addresses one of the most challenging issues that has dogged philosophers and theologians since antiquity, that is the problem of the One and the Many. Tillich takes great pains to avoid the idea that God exists as one being along side others. This was a reaction to attempts in classic theism to make that point. Because he did this many thought Tillich was either an atheist or a pantheist. This could not be further from the truth and Tillich critiques at length both in his system.

At the risk of commiting the same crime of cherry picking that I criticized I'll offer a couple of other quotes from his systematic theology that I think show what he is really talking about.

"The symbol "personal God" is absolutely fundamental because an existential
relation is a person-to-person relation. Man cannot be ultimately concerned
about anything that is less than personal, but since personality (persona,
prosopon) includes individuality, the question arises in what sense God can
be called an individual. Is it meaningful to call him the "absolute
individual"? The answer must be that it is meaningful only in the sense that
he can be called the "absolute participant".


"The solution to the difficulties in the phrase "personal God" follows from
this. "Personal God" does not mean that God is *a* person. It means that
God is the ground of everything personal and that he carries within himself
the ontological power of personality. He is not a person, but he is not
less than personal."

If one is to understand some of the emphases in Tillich's thought it is necessary to also understand the theologies and philosophies he is reacting to. I mentioned one before and there are also many others he mentions in his work.

One of the metaphors he used hundreds of time in his work is that of "the living God". As far as I am concerned this metaphor and the way he fleshes it out can only lead to the conclusion that Tillich is a true panentheist.

Mystical Seeker said...

Steve, thank you for that clarification of Tillich's theology.

Gary said...

Hi Mystical,

Thanks for your previous comments to my blog. These thoughts of yours are helpful in the formative process of working through thoughts about "Mystery". A book I have been reading lately which has proved substantially easier to swallow than the two previous of Spong's is Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity by Richard Holloway. He actually quotes Kuhn on paradigm shifts much like you did here, expanding on it the idea of our current position as being our myth or narrative, much as the accounts of creation and fall are ancient narratives or myths. Having read through most of Spong's autobiography Here I Stand, I find a man who appears to be filled with significant pride for his achievements and strongly convinced by his theology. That fills his other works with a sense of superiority as reactionary to fundamentalism. Yet I do agree that his chapter on exile was an excellent metaphorical description of the status of religion past and present.