Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Spong on Atheism

Following on from my review of John Shelby Spong's Jesus for the Non-Religious, here's something more.  I had always thought that atheism and Christianity were incompatible belief systems but  Spong has confounded me by proclaiming himself to be both an atheist and a Christian. 

He cites three arguments in support of his atheism, each of which would be worthy of our most radical 21st century atheists.  First of all,  he asserts that science has disproved theism.  The evidence of cosmology shows that there is no God above the sky.  The evidence of paleontology shows that life on earth developed gradually by natural processes.  Our understanding of science in general shows that the processes of physics, chemistry and biology are driven by natural laws which are not amenable to random divine intervention.  Richard Dawkins would certainly be pleased to read such a clear statement of his own views, although a large number of other scientists would not necessarily agree and some of the dissenters would also be atheists.

Secondly, he describes the evolution of the religious impulse itself, through the emergence of consciousness, the development of language and symbol systems, the awareness of our own mortality and our need for security in the face of this fear.  Religion, he says, was a survival strategy which kept death at bay and bound together groups of people around a common belief and ethos.  However, the tribalism and neurosis at its base are now becoming dangerous, placing humanity at risk.  I think perhaps Daniel Dennett would read his own arguments with a smile.

Finally, he protests the extreme cruelty and barbarism perpetrated in the name of religion, citing in particular the medieval torturors and the white Americans who cited the Bible in support of the oppression of their African-American neighbours.  Religion, he says, is part of the problem, not part of the solution.  I can hear Sam Harris and Michel Onfray cheering.  This argument is the most surprising of the three to read from the pen of a former bishop, not so much for its irreligion as for its silliness.  Surely Spong is aware that the medieval torturers were persecuting fervent believers, while the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were just as Christian as the segregationists, if not more so.  Perhaps something other than religion explains this problem?

Be that as it may, just when our favourite militant atheists are beginning to urge him down the home straight and claim a prize scalp in their quest for converts, he punctures their bubble and exposes the weak underbelly of their own position - that they know nothing of theology beyond its crudest, most popularistic manifestations.

The word "atheist", for starters, does not mean, as many people assume, one who asserts that there is no such thing as God.  It means, rather, that one rejects the theistic definition of God.  It is quite possible, therefore, to reject theism without rejecting God....I am a God-intoxicated human being, but I no longer define my God experience inside the boundaries of a theistic definition of God.

...So our experience of Jesus must shift in a revolutionary new direction. What was the experience that his disciples were trying to articulate when they declared in a thousand different ways that in the human Jesus, the theistic God had been revealed? Is a dying theism the only way to make sense out of the God experience? Can we remove the theistic concept of God from our understanding of God and still be worshippers? Can we lift the theistic God overlay from the life of Jesus and still be Christians? I believe we can. Indeed, I believe there is no other alternative if we want to live as Christians in this twenty-first century.

This is how Spong maintains his Christian faith alongside his version of atheism.  The problem, he says, is that God is ultimately indescribable.  Humans have to fall back on whatever resources we can use in our own world to describe him.  The ancient Hebrews and the early Christians operated within a scientific framework in which the earth was the centre of the universe, the events of nature were random occurrences directed by God and the spirits, and everything beyond was a mystery.  So they placed God above the sky, and prayed for his benevolent intervention in their dangerous, unpredictable world.  Jesus then became for them the manifestation of this God from beyond the sky.

With the passing of this scientific world view and its replacement with our own, it no longer makes sense to talk of God in this way.  This does not mean there is no God, only that the old ways of describing divinity have now become outdated and need to be replaced.  So how does Spong propose to replace them?

...I came to perceive that Jesus had become for me primarily the familiar but nonetheless the human face of the ultimate reality I called God. My spiritual life, I now came to recognise, was destined to be an endless journey into that mystery. One of my shaping theological teachers, Paul Tillich, referred to this God as "Being Itself", which meant to me that my search for God would be identical with my search for my own identity.

Tillich's idea of God as "Being Itself" or the "Ground of Being" is hardly new, but it continues to be profound and hugely influential more than 50 years after he first coined the term.  Its meaning is hard to grasp, slippery and elusive as an eel.  But then, how else could finite humans talk about the infinite God?  How is it possible that such a god could be simply explained?

I think what this shows is that for all his controversy and his tendency to hyperbole, for all that conservative Christians see him as irreligious and as a destroyer of the faith, Spong is at heart a bridge-builder.  To Christians he says "take a look at these arguments against your faith, and be honest - don't you think they have merit?".  Because he is a bishop, perhaps they will listen to him.  But then he says to the atheists, "sure, your arguments are persuasive, but have a think about this."

No doubt Harris dismisses Spong as one of those dangerous moderate religious people who mask the deeply pernicious nature of religion.  Harris would be wrong.  Spong hates injustice as much as Harris, perhaps more so.  He just refuses to throw the baby out with the bathwater.


Thesauros said...

While I view Spong to be a deep, deep sink hole hiding under a sidewalk, you've handled him very well. thanks for the post.

Dannii said...

Sounds like Spong has found god: it's Spong, not Jesus.

Jon said...

Danii, please explain?