Sunday, 30 August 2009

Spong: Jesus Beyond Incarnation

In the next two chapters, Spong looks at what can be said of Jesus if he is not the Incarnate Son of God. Spong is aware that there might be no recognisably Christian religion left at the end of the transformation he looks for. But he is certain that if the transformation isn’t undertaken, then eventually there will definitely be no Christian religion left. So in his view the road, however rocky, must be travelled.

Spong goes on a bit more about the discrepancies between the birth stores as provided by Luke and Matthew. They are impossible to reconcile, either with each other or in terms of dates with the other historical evidence in existence. Furthermore, the ancient understanding of reproduction was that the man provided the seed, and the woman the garden in which the new life grew. So it was thought a relatively straightforward matter for a God to plant a divine seed in a woman and have a son of God grow up who was wholly divine. We now know better - the woman provides half the genetic material and contributes equally to the inherited characteristics of the child. So the traditional understanding of the Incarnation is completely inoperative in the face of modern knowledge.

The Ascension fares no better than the Incarnation in terms of modern knowledge. We now know that ancient conceptions of a three-decker universe are far wide of the mark. So the Ascension cannot have been a physical event, since if you simply ascend, you either reach orbit, or the depths of a universe so vast and empty it is hard to comprehend.

The doctrine of atonement is similarly unsupportable, since there never was a first man and woman in a perfect creation who spoiled it all by falling into sin. Creation is as yet unfinished and is continually developing, to ends we do not yet know. If there never was an Original Sin that spoiled the original perfect creation, there cannot be a need for subsequent generations perpetually to atone for it.

Spong claims that many mainstream churches are dying because their congregations find it increasingly difficult to reconcile their modern knowledge of the world with the claims of traditional theistic Christianity, and the members are simply leaving. Some churches try to find other reasons to exist, but most are simply dying of boredom.

The challenge, according to Spong, is to find a new context into which we can put Christ’s life and gain a new understanding of who he was. Looking for this understanding is the task he sets in chapter 8 “Jesus Beyond Incarnation: A Nontheistic Divinity”.

Spong seeks to answer the question which the New Testament suggests Jesus posed “Who do you think I am?”. Peter is said to have answered “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God” (Matt 16:15-16). Spong looks to see if that phrase can be re-interpreted in nontheistic terms.

Not terribly surprisingly, he concludes that this is possible.

When I being to explore the life of this Jesus apart from the theistic framework of the Christian past, I am energized and even enchanted as a whole new vision emerges. What I see is a new portrait of Jesus. He is one who was more deeply and fully alive than anyone else I have ever encountered, whether in my lifetime, in history, or in literature. I see him pointing to something he calls the realm (or kingdom) of God, where new possibilities demand to be considered. I see him portrayed as one who was constantly dismantling the barriers that separate people from one another. I see him inviting his followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond those security boundaries that always prohibit, block, or deny access to a deeper humanity.

All very well and good. One hesitates to pour cold water on such an uplifting vision, but a bit of caution I think is called for. First, Spong was rigorous in refusing to accept the literal truth of the Gospel accounts when they were in conflict with scientific an historical knowledge. Having done so, it is not possibly suddenly to turn round and accept their truth in support of his alternate conception of Christ. I’m perfectly sure that Spong is being entirely honest and not deliberately setting up a double standard here, yet that is the effect of his approach.

But perhaps that doesn’t matter too much. After all, stories can be told and written in order to communicate moral or inspirational points, and the point is not lost merely because the events related are known to be fictional. The character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings is a very fine portrait of the depths of evil to which humans are capable of descending, but to accept it as such does not require you to believe that The Lord of the Rings is history, and that an archaeologist will some day stumble on the ruins of Rivendell. So Spong can treat the gospels as the story of a person more fully alive than any other, without having to accept that the details of the story are all historically true.

This seems to be the approach Spong is taking, though I’m not entirely sure. Judge for yourself.

To the extent that Buddha, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Krishna, Mohammed, Confucius, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Genoa, Hildegard of Bingen, Rosa Parks, Florence Nightingale, Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Buber, Thich Nhat Hahn, Dah Hammarskjöld, or any other holy person brings life, love, and being to another, then to that degree that person is to me the word of God incarnate. No fence can be placed round the Being of God. The suggestion that Jesus is of a different kind of substance and therefore different from every other human being in kind instead of in degree will ultimately have to be abandoned.

It has been very interesting to read and blog Spong in parallel with Swinburne. The contrast between them could hardly be greater. Swinburne is certain of his conception of God, and goes forth to argue in favour of it. You can decide whether he is right or wrong, but at least it is clear what he is being right or wrong about.

With Spong, things are much more uncertain. I get the impression that for all his eloquence and his obvious honesty, he has genuine difficulty in finding words to express the concepts he is struggling towards, and is in many ways not even sure of those concepts in his own mind. For that reason, while I disagree with some of his thoughts, I have far more respect for Spong than Swinburne, because Spong is still learning. In his book, Swinburne gives the impression that he stopped learning long ago. Swinburne’s book is a book of justification, Spong’s is a work of exploration. He has painfully decided he cannot stay where he is, but does not know where his journey will end.

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