Monday, 13 April 2009

Spong - A Place to Begin

Spong starts out by laying out the paradox of his position.
I Am a Christian. … I believe that God is real and that I live deeply and significantly as one related to that divine reality.

I call Jesus my Lord. I believe that he has mediated God in a powerful and unique way to human history and to me.

I believe that my particular life has been dramatically and decisively impacted not only by the life of this Jesus, but also by his death and indeed by the Easter experience that Christians know as the resurrection.
So far, so conventional. But just two paragraphs later, he says:
Yet I do not define God as a supernatural being. I do not believe in a deity who can help a nation win a war, intervene to cure a loved one’s sickness, allow a particular athletic team to defeat its opponent, or affect the weather for anyone’s benefit. I do not think it appropriate for me to pretend that those things are possible when everything I know about the natural order of the world I inhabit proclaims that they are not. (My emphasis)
Over the next three pages, he goes on to summarize the ramifications of that paragraph. In doing so, he dismisses much of Christianity as it is traditionally understood. Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God, miracles such as raising the dead and restoring sight to the blind, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection as a physical event, the Ascension, the Apostolic Succession, Original Sin, scripture as the sole source of ethics, and scripture as revealed truth are all consigned to the dustbin of outdated beliefs which cannot be justified in the face of current knowledge of the world.

The whole of the book is a search to see whether this contradiction can be resolved, whether it is possible to retain the Christian baby while throwing out the theistic bathwater, whether it is possible to speak meaningfully of God while not thinking supernaturally, and if it is possible, how one might go about it.

In essence, this requires that the word "God" be redefined in such a way as to remove the supernatural connotations it currently holds. If you wish to travel any distance with Bishop Spong, this is the first challenge to overcome.

Spong is not looking to convince atheists, and doesn’t expect the secular world to take much notice of what he has to say. Nor does he intend or expect to persuade anybody of a fundamentalist viewpoint, which he characterises as those who believe in scripture as the literal revealed word of God, and who believe in the miraculous Virgin Birth, in substitutionary atonement achieved by the death of Jesus, the physical Resurrection, and the literal Day of Judgment in which we are all assigned everlasting places in Heaven or Hell.

His target audience is narrower.
They are people who are spiritually thirsty but know that they can no longer drink from the wells of the past. … Their doubts and questions mean only that they at last have found a way to put their heads and hearts together. ... They still posess a profound God-consciousness, but that God-consciousness never quite fits the molds that religious institutions say are the only ways that one can think about God.
I'm not part of the audience that he defines, but am more than ready to engage in conversation with them to see what points of agreement can be found.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Blogging Bishop Spong

I’ve decided that I ought to write a blog analysing and exploring A New Christianity for a New World. In a way, I am perhaps an unusual person to do so - I am an atheist, a member of the “Church Alumni Association” which Bishop Spong refers to in the first chapter of his book, and so am not a member of the specific audience whom he was aiming to address.

There have been plenty of discussions between theists and atheists. I have participated in quite a few of them myself and have written several articles published in the Belief section of the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website. But as Spong correctly points out, the debate is mostly pretty sterile. In my view this is largely because the two groups not only think differently but often find it hard to comprehend the extent to which the other side operates according to entirely different principles. It is perhaps worth pointing out some of those differences.

Those who take the side of what they regard as traditional religion, particularly in its modern fundamentalist form, assume that atheists and scientists think as they themselves do. In other words, they think that atheists regard their atheism as a religion just like their own but operating in competition with it, with atheists treating Darwin as their God and The Origin Of Species as their sacred text, and engaging in holy war against all other religions.

However, they notice that science has gained a great deal of prestige among the public, and they also realise that scientists bang on a good deal about evidence. Seeing that the public is impressed by evidence, they go about gathering their own, inventing scientific-sounding theories like “Intelligent Design” and carefully cherry picking and if necessary distorting the available data so that it can be made to appear to support their ideas. I’m sure that in some cases, they genuinely believe that this is what real scientists also do.

Of course, they fail to recognise that scientists go about their business in an almost diametrically opposite way. Scientists actually mean it when they talk about basing their theories on evidence - not merely the convenient bits that behave as expected, but especially the inconvenient and unexpected results. It is through looking as and accepting the inconvenient and unexpected results that science has made its greatest advances.

Unfortunately, those of a scientific persuasion often misjudge the religious almost as comprehensively as they are themselves misjudged by the religious. Once you have been trained in a scientific evidence-based way of thinking, it becomes hard to imagine that people can function effectively while using profoundly unscientific thought-processes. They therefore assume, quite incorrectly, that if the scientific facts are explained using sufficiently short words and simple phrases, that the religious will “get it” eventually. They find it hard to understand that since fundamentalists didn’t get into their position by examining evidence, providing further evidence is not going to get them out of it.

In most cases, the overall result is a dialogue of the deaf, with the religious regarding the non-religious as hostile, and the non-religious concluding that the religious are stupid. I want to get beyond all that. I realise that the religious are not stupid, but are simply thinking in a different way.

I claim to represent nobody but myself. If others decide they agree with me or are persuaded by my views, then that is entirely their business. Like all people, I am wrong sometimes, and fail to recognise that I am wrong until somebody else points out the error of my ways. But I like to be right as much as possible, and I can only learn to be right more often by deliberately seeking out opposing and different views, so that my errors can be shown to me. If by expressing my views I can also help others occasionally to discover their own previously unrealised errors, then so much the better.

I also feel that it is worthwhile opening up a dialogue between the strain of Christianity represented by Bishop Spong and at least some small corner of the secular world. At least it will be a different conversation from those I have experienced when engaging with traditional theists.

I have no authority and claim none. The motto of the Royal Society (Britain’s equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences) is nullius in verba “On the word of no one”. This represents the idea that nobody should be regarded as an authority - what matters is whether what they say can be shown to be true. Darwin is regarded as a great scientist not because people simply decided to accord him that status, it is because he went to the trouble of gathering a very great deal of evidence - 20 years’ worth - and publishing it in order to describe the reasons he advanced his theory of evolution by natural selection. By publishing the evidence along with the theory, he made it possible for others to check his methods and see whether they obtained the same results. He was only recognised as a great scientist once others had done so. What he said what not taken on trust I expect nobody to agree with me simply because of who I am - I’m a nobody who has a bit of a way with words. If you decide to agree with me, do so because the evidence supports what I say, and if you disagree, do so because you have better evidence to hand, and tell me what it is.

I don’t know whether anybody has done anything quite like this with one of Spong’s books before, I’m certainly not aware of any atheist having done so. I’m not in the least bit interested in proving Spong either right or wrong on any subject. Although I started out this post by identifying myself as an atheist, you may understand me better if I describe myself as being more fundamentally a sceptic. I don’t really like to believe anything unless there’s a reasonable degree of evidence for it, and if in the course of writing this blog and reading any comments on it, I find evidence for God that I was previously unaware of, then I’ll quite happily cease to be an atheist. All I want to do is add another perspective to the debate, and hope that in doing so, we can all inch our way a little closer to the truth - wherever it might eventually be shown to reside.