The confines of Christian faith


I ran across a blogger (who does not allow comments in his blog) who criticizes John Shelby Spong from the perspective of a former Christian who left the faith a long time ago and "never looked back". Spong is a difficult person for me to write about because I have mixed feelings about him, as I've described elsewhere. Overall, despite my misgivings, he does get my qualified support for what I think he is trying to accomplish, which among other things is to try to show those people who are spiritually inclined but otherwise alienated from Christian orthodoxy that it might not be necessary for them to live in exile from Christianity. Since I feel mostly in exile myself, I'm not sure that I feel confident in the ultimate success of that project, but I still think it is a project that is worth the effort.

The blogger who criticized Spong is an example of one of those people who made the transition from what Marcus Borg calls "pre-critical naivete" to "critical thinking" but who never made it to the next step of "post-critical naivete", and as a result maintains a rather simplistic definition of what Christianity entails. He doesn't see Spong's theology as fitting into his own stereotype of what he thinks Christianity necessarily must be. Like a lot of people in that category, he goes further than that, arguing essentially that all intelligent people should view religion the same way that he does. In that sense, he certainly shares Spong's own unfortunate dogmatic tendencies. In fact, in critiquing a paradigm that doesn't fit into his own, he ultimately criticizes Spong's own intellectual honesty, accusing Spong of having to resolve the sort of cognitive dissonance that as a former bishop he somehow must be experiencing--that is to say, as one who sees the Bible as having flaws but whose lifetime of service to the church requires him to desperately cling to a Christian identity that he can't possibly really agree with at same deeper level of his being.

The blogger, thus, exemplifies what I have talked about before--the former Christian who changes teams without changing their basic assumptions about what Christianity necessarily means. More importantly, we see the assumption that this narrow definition of what Christianity entails must also be imposed on progressive Christians as well. Somehow all these progressive Christians don't actually know what it is they really believe, apparently. The blogger writes,

Consider Spong’s predicament: he is now a retired bishop, who spent his entire career in the service of the Episcopal Church. Like many of us, he is too intelligent to believe that the Bible is literally true. But, because of his position in life, he feels obligated to not reject the Bible outright, so he ends up wrapping himself around the axle of his own justifications.
The blogger also assumes that all Christians must necessarily believe in the exclusive nature of their own faith--that their faith is the only legitimate way. If there are other ways of being spiritual or of loving or of focusing on an ultimate higher purpose, then (the assumption goes), there is no point in being a Christian. The blogger writes,
But one need not be a Christian to do this. The Christian filter is strictly optional. There are a multitude of ways to approach spirituality, and Christianity is but one. Once a person admits the possibility that Christianity isn’t the “One True” religion, and that the Bible isn’t the inerrant “Word of God,” the whole edifice starts to crumble. And as millions of ex-Christians have found, once we’re free from the confines of Christian Faith, we don’t miss it at all.
My guess is that Spong would agree that there are a "multitude of ways to approach spirituality, and Christianity is but one." Certainly Marcus Borg agrees with that, as do many other progressive Christians, theologians and lay people alike. So of course by asserting that there are many paths to spiritual fulfillment, the blogger is not saying anything we don't already know. The fact that one chooses a means of mediating the sacred may be nothing more than that particular means speaks to one's own inner self in ways that others do not. And I think this is the key point here. When the blogger says that "we don't miss [Christianity] at all", the blogger is speaking for himself but then generalizing on behalf of others. This is the "I know what's best for everyone else" response. I would agree that not everyone is cut out to be religious, or a Christian. But the blogger cannot speak for everyone. And it is certainly not true that "the whole edifice starts to crumble" if you reject exclusivist claims for a particular faith. On the contrary, once we move beyond exclusivist claims, a religion is not defining limiting "confines" but instead celebrates the liberation of the human spirit through a spiritual journey--and that is a much stronger foundation upon which to build a Christian faith, in my opinion.


atimetorend said...

I like this point:

"And it is certainly not true that "the whole edifice starts to crumble" if you reject exclusivist claims for a particular faith.".

That's a point I've been trying to make for a while, mostly to conservative, exclusivist Christians, ironically because they have seen the whole edifice crumble in my life. But I think that is the place for common ground between exclusivists and skeptics or leavers (apostates!), to each be able to honestly access what faith is, what the bible is. Just to be able to ask questions.

I like your post and agree with your conclusions, I think your blog exemplifies finding that kind of commong ground. But my heart goes out to the criticizer in this case, because I can totally relate to where he is coming from.

Mystical Seeker said...

But my heart goes out to the criticizer in this case, because I can totally relate to where he is coming from.

To a certain extent, so can I. I was basically where that person was for nearly a decade in my life after I left the fundamentalist religion of my upbringing. Maybe the fact that I've been there myself is one reason why I spend a lot of time blogging about this issue.

Zonkiboy said...

As a traveler that made the journey to the opposite and beyond I find myself constantly amazed by how divinely true the bible is if you are willing to change your point of view, something which the religious christian faith consider blasphemy. But that's just me...

For the rest I find much rock but little air. Breathe deep and embrace beyond, where change and truth you find in every moment that you take, and every breath you make.

Freedom and faith belong together, just like seek and find and Christ and love, and that is true for every one.

Blessed journey

PrickliestPear said...

I thought this passage from that blog post was interesting:

The original followers of Jesus were cultural creatives, the spiritual seekers of that generation, who weren’t satisfied with the existing dogmas. That’s why they were willing to listen to Jesus in the first place. But times changed. Christianity itself hardened into dogma, and became increasingly unable to fill our spiritual needs. Turn the clock forward 2000 years, and we find that very few cultural creatives now consider themselves to be Christian; in fact, almost without exception, cultural creatives are anything but Christian.

People like to take their own limited experience of something and absolutise it, take it as normative, judge everything else by it. This particular variant of American Protestantism is Christianity, and anyone who deviates from it is not counted as a "Christian" in the historical sense.

Everyone is ignorant about something. Some parade their ignorance in public, for everyone to see, and they pontificate on matters about which they are ill-equipped to even hazard an opinion. What can you say to such people?

I guess when they don't allow comments on their blog, you don't say anything to them.

Sherry said...

well said indeed. My experience is that the more I have learned about the errancy of the bible the more I respect it and those who wrote its parts. It has ironically inhanced my belief in God, albeit, I come from a whole new perspective. Jesus is approachable now, not some babe in manger doing calculus while everyone oohed and ahhed. I can follow the man. I can't do much to emulate the God. The fundies miss out. Either they block any alternatives out of fear, or they see their entire house of cards dismantled. Lack of surety is their achilles heel, and the truth means living in uncertainty and simple faith. Good post.

Mystical Seeker said...

Sherry, thanks for your comment.