Another blockbuster has appeared on Fr Jonathan Munn’s blog – The Twelve Theses of John Shelby Spong.
I too have toyed with the ideas of Bishop Spong, Tony Equale in Australia and the religionless Christianity of Bonhöffer. The latter at least lived and died under Nazi oppression and the complicity of the Lutheran Church in Germany, and gave his life for his faith.
What is liberalism in theology? I qualify the word because other forms of liberalism mean different things, for example political and economic liberalism. Liberalism was born in the wake of the French Revolution and one of its main progenitors was Fr Félicité de Lamennais who was a priest from a well-to-do Breton family in Saint Malo. To resume, Lamennais was more interested in politics than theology and advocated the separation of Church and State, since the State was hostile to the Church. Such an idea was unheard of in Rome, and Gregory XVI condemned the idea as madness. There was a movement in the French Church to accept the Republic and principles of human rights, especially freedom. Hence the term liberalism: promoting freedom. Such ideas seem perfectly reasonable to us nowadays, but were dangerously new then.
Liberalism in the Lamennais group led to supporting the Ultramontanist movement opposing forces like Gallicanism and Josephism in Europe, and sought to centre authority on the Pope in Rome as many of the monarchies were toppled. As the liberal Pius IX returned from Gaëta to Rome in 1848 in the midst of considerable unrest in France and Italy, he turned to a highly intransigent and authoritarian position. The answer seemed to be to claim infallibility and universal jurisdiction in the line of a pope like Boniface VIII who was one of the first popes to claim temporal jurisdiction.
Out of this grew another liberalism, especially around the Kulturkampf in Germany. I’m not going to go into the history of all this, because the reader can do his own research. What I am suggesting is that a theologically liberal movement grew in Germany, to some extent influenced by idealistic metaphysics and the last whiffs of Romanticism. A considerable amount of time was spent in biblical studies, and it began to be fashionable to attempt to demythologise biblical and New Testament narratives and read everything in the light of (the then) modern science and philosophy of men like Darwin, Nietzsche and Marx. Thus we had men like Adolf von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann. John Henry Newman was aware of a similar movement in England among biblical scholars and the influence of Enlightenment philosophy. This is the kind of liberalism that gave birth to the ideas of men like John Shelby Spong.
The real question is knowing whether he and other liberals had the idea that you can construct a “Christian” way of life for materials, namely people with no religious faith, spiritual aspiration or metaphysics. The question would come up with Bonhöffer and his “religionless” Christianity, something one just cannot get a hold of. Perhaps it was meant to be like that. Nazism seemed to destroyed everything by the time of its defeat in 1945, and the Church had sinned by going along with it instead of the way of martyrdom, so the bill had to be paid. I don’t think I would have liked to live through that era! Maybe worse will come in the future…
Some of the Modernists (condemned by Pius X) believed that there had to be a way to oppose this theological liberalism other than from the point of view of Aristotelian and Thomist metaphysics. Alfred Loisy was a biblical liberal like the Germans, but George Tyrrell’s view was altogether more mystical and reliant on spiritual experience than pure intellectualism. Rome lumped them together, unjustly.
Already, in the nineteenth century, some of the intransigent Roman Catholic polemicists were observing that there was nothing more intolerant than a liberal. This theme extends to this day, and back to the ideologies of the French Revolution, when the middle class sought to take the place of the aristocracy. The oppressed became the oppressors. We find this in politics (the anti-Trump “snowflakes” in America, etc.) and in theology and Church politics. This tends to be an observation of conservatives, but objective evidence of this can be observed.
Spong continues the line of Harnack, Loisy and Bultmann. There is little in the way of new ideas. He merely updates the language a little to make the message relevant. Some of the ideas proposed are quite attractive, and are not wrong at face value. For example, the tenets Fr Jonathan lists in his posting:
Tenet 1: (Relevance) To be of value, religious faith must be relevant to our lives and consistent with our knowledge in other areas.
Tenet 2: (Fallibility) No one source of information is infallible.
Tenet 3: (Foundation) The foundation of Liberal Theology is Scripture, Reason, Tradition and experience and they shed light on each other.
Tenet 4: (Humility) Whatever we believe today, we always have more to learn from others.
All that seems reasonable – as long as it is not a euphemism for something hidden. In the first tenet, we have to be able to relate to our faith from the midst of our culture. Maybe a single source can express truth, but its version of truth may be incomplete. Is not tenet three an expression of traditional Anglican fundamental theology, the famous three-legged stool of Hooker? For the last tenet, do we not learn from others to enrich our knowledge and experience? Frankly the problem is not here.
I have never been that interested in Spong. His theories are not original. He seems simply to have lost his faith and wants to “salvage” Christianity for philanthropist or political purposes in a purely secular and materialistic world. Great! (word exclaimed with sarcasm)
What clearly is at fault when we discuss theology is language. Words, even in old Greek and Latin change their meanings over the centuries. Concepts have become distorted, and we need to seek for a historical understanding of human language. Though I believe in God, the notion of God is often misrepresented by human language and the meanings of words. This goes right the way across the board. We also have to develop a sense of allegory and analogy, the use of poetic language in the Scriptures and Patristic writings. This will lead to the narrative of Genesis, creation and the Fall. I am not afraid to sail close to the wind. The worst that can happen is that the boat stops and gets caught “in irons”. You shove the rudder over and push the boom in the other direction, until you have a beam wind, and then sheet in the sails and you’re on your way. But, I’m not on about sailing but understanding human language. Much of life can be seen in analogy like sailing a boat!
Taking Genesis absolutely literally is a stretch for the intellect and common sense. If it is understood allegorically, and then compared with narrative from Gnosticism and ancient mystery religions, we may find an entire illumination and an “aha” moment. Everything falls into place when nothing is read literally. This is why I don’t get as steamed up as some conservatives. Biblical inspiration is situated at another level from a human being with pen and paper writing down a dictation!
I appreciate Fr Jonathan’s suggestions of weaving into the narrative our notions of science and theories like the multiverse. Some people believe in aliens visiting earth. These beings, if they are not hallucinations, may simply be from another universe on a different “frequency” from our own – and therefore do not need to travel at multi-light speeds from planet to planet. Perhaps, because we have no empirical proof. It is a hypothesis.
We require God to unblock the streams of living water which is achieved through our Baptism for only good can beget good. Our fallen nature cannot redeem itself. It requires the Divine assistance to bring Good into the world. Good begets good. Thus our world can be seen as interference patterns of waves of good and evil passing over the face of the waters of our Universe. That’s not inconsistent with the current theory of the Multiverse and our universe being a Ten Dimensional Membrane floating about in an Eleven Dimensional Existence – if that theory hasn’t been discredited yet.
To describe evil, we often speak of light and darkness. St John’s Gospel and epistles are full of the themes of light and darkness. This is another analogy. We must integrate this notion into our thought, even if we have Aspergers!
Again, I’m not bothered about Spong with his warmed-up ideas plagiarised from others and presented as original. Intellectual honesty does require a citation of sources, unless we are being plain about just analysing and turning things over in our own minds and actually being original.
Fr Jonathan’s thought and mine converge in the appeal to eastern mystical theology about the metaphysics of the Redemption. We can move from a legalistic or economic analogy to a notion of participation in the Godhead through deifying grace (energy). We Christians have been victims of Nominalism and literalism, and this has opened us up to the ridicule of those who accuse us of accepting nonsense like children believing in Santa Claus. Liberalism finds its root here, and so our only way out is to move away from literalism and do something about our philosophical and scientific understanding to be able to oppose the materialist.
Even in the domain of ethics, Spong’s agenda is clear, that of defending homosexuality and normalising it, making it an issue. Perhaps homosexual relationships lived in due discretion might be tolerated case by case, and the persons concerned encouraged to replace the “pseudo marriage” with a pure platonic friendship (cf. St Aelred of Rievaulx) in the most profound understanding of this term. There are pastoral ways of dealing with the issue, but homosexuality per se does not have the legitimacy or finality of heterosexual marriage between one man and one woman.
There are objective standards of right and wrong, and this is the case in all religions and cultures, even considering differences and variations. In our discussion, morality as opposed to conventional ethics is secondary, the effect of a cause. That cause is belief in God, a life of prayer and progress in holiness. If you are a materialist, there may be standards of right and wrong, but they can be so easily adjusted for pragmatic considerations.
Finally, considering the issue of life after death, I notice that Tony Equale denies it or at least denies the disincarnate spirit his personality and memories. There are different perspectives in Christianity and different world religions. The evidence lies heavily on the side of the continuation of consciousness beyond bodily death and that there are consequences for an evil life. I do think the traditional Christian narrative is correct, truthful, but incomplete. We need the influx of other religious and philosophical traditions, and the input of science, especially quantum physics. Spong’s notion of extinction at bodily death is nothing different from materialism and atheism.
We have to be careful about our use of words, about the concept of liberalism. Fr Jonathan introduces another theme close to my heart, a mature notion and understanding of the narratives and myths of Christianity that confer greater credibility for the enquiring mind. We don’t fight liberalism with fundamentalism and literalism but by making careful distinctions and being more rigorous in our use of words and language.