I often have to take John Shelby Spong with a grain of salt. I think that his critiques of religious orthodoxy are often right on the mark, but at the same time, I think that he is often guilty of the very dogmatism that he condemns in religious conservatives. He asserts that his own Tillich-influenced theology is the be-all and end-all of enlightened responses to Christian orthodoxy, essentially dismissing out of hand other progressive points of view like those of Matthew Fox or the various process theologians. He is often given to flights of theological fancy, sometimes in direct conflict with the consensus of biblical scholars. For example, he rejects the two-source hypothesis of the synoptic gospels, and thus rejects the idea that there is a Q document. He asserts with absolute confidence that the apostle Paul was gay, and that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. That isn't to say that he might not be right in these matters, but I often find his dogmatism off-putting.
And yet, that being said, he often can be inspiring in his pleas for a more just Christianity. He writes passionately, and his books are rarely boring.
I am currently reading his book The Sins of Scripture, in which he highlights the ways that certain biblical passages have been used to justify a variety of human evils. He minces no words, and he makes no excuses for those problematic passages; he comes right out and condemns those parts of the Bible that offend. The Bible, Spong argues, is most definitely not an infallible guide.
Here is an interesting passage in the book that I particularly like:
We are not fallen, sinful people who deserve to be punished. We are frightened, insecure people who have achieved the enormous breakthrough into self-consciousness that marks no other creature that has yet emerged from the evolutionary cycle. We must not denigrate the human being who ate of the tree of knowledge in the Genesis story. We must learn rather to celebrate the creative leap into a higher humanity. Our sense of separation and aloneness is not a mark of our sin. It is a symbol of our glory. Our struggle to survive, which manifests itself in radical self-centeredness, is not the result of original sin. It is a sign of emerging consciousness. It should not be a source of guilt. It is a source of blessing. We do not need to be punished. We need to be called and empowered to be more deeply and fully human and to develop the godlike gift of being able to give ourselves away freely in the quest for an even deeper sense of what it means to live. Jesus did not die for our sins. Jesus demonstrated in an ultimate way that it is by giving that we receive and by loving that we enhance life.
Guilt, judgment, righteousness, orthodoxy, creedal purity: these are the products of a religion of control in which we hide in fear. They are attempts to build security. None of these boundary marks is life-giving. All are methods of seeking righteousness when that for which we yearn is love.