Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Tricky John Spong and the Vatican Website

From time to time, the Blog people like to play jokes. One of them is the ad that sometimes appears on the top of my blog. It says "Vatican Website -- Explore the Church's issues in Bishop Spong's weekly essay series." Hah hah -- the Bishop Spong in question isn't in the Vatican, nor Catholic, nor a Bishop, nor really a Christian. He's the Right Reverend John Shelby Spong, former (retired) bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, and a fellow who puts a new "spin" on Semper Reformanda. The Diocese of Newark has a whole section of its website devoted to plugging Spong. Among his deeper theological propositions are that "Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead," and that the "view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed." But don't worry, we can still go to Heaven -- if we realize that "the hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment."

A reader mentioned this fact to me, and it made me curious to see what John Spong thinks he's doing, sneaking around in the Vatican like that, peeking from behind the Baldacchino and scaring the night janitors. Is he slumming? It's hard for me to believe that a man who once held the ancient and apostolic see of Newark would find anything attractive in a backwater like Rome. I could understand the fake teaser if Spong was a theological nonentity with a dwindling fame, who needed to get attention with this bit of "see the bearded lady" hucksterism. (I wonder, if he's that desperate, does he have other ads that say "Daytona Website -- Explore NASCAR's issues in Billy Bob Spong's weekly trackside reports"?) Hmm, but surely that can't be -- maybe Spong really is in the Vatican. Maybe he's papabile or something and I didn't realize it. So I clicked on the link and, as required, entered my email address for FUTURE UPDATES! With no turning back, the email addy -- "" -- already in Spong's luminous database, I trembled, waiting, waiting . . . BAM! as Emeril would say, there I was face-to-face with the titanic genius of the era, a man bold enough to say what the European intelligentsia's already been saying for 100 years -- John. Shelby. Spong. As promised, I was allowed a glimpse into the gnosis, partial access to the Eleusinian mysteries of Spongism, and all I had to do was enter my credit-card information to be fully initiated! But perhaps I eat too much meat, and have too many dark motes fighting my teensy weensy snippet of the Aeon. Or perhaps, like Apuleius, I am easily jaded. Or maybe I'm just too cheap for FUTURE UPDATE. Whatever my flaw, I decided to just read the free stuff, which is in blue. My musings are in black.

God is in trouble.

Woooooo . . . . . woooooooo . . . . scared yet, God?

At least the God who is worshiped inside that part of Christianity known as the Anglican Communion which includes the Episcopal Church-one of the largest here in the United States.

And which definitely trains people to use ICEL as a pattern for writing things people want to be printed for people to read - here in the United States.

How do I know? Because the highest ranking bishops of the Anglican Communion,

Who aren't enthralled with Spong, because even mediocrity must draw the line somewhere.

under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey (retiring at the end of this month),

Oh, gee, and here you are all signed up on and everything. The mysteries of providence, eh?

. . . have just issued a statement in which they have "reaffirmed the fundamental teachings of the faith as we have received them from Holy Scripture and the Catholic Creeds." It is a well-known fact that people reaffirm only those things which are passing away.

. . . like mindless cliches such as, "it is a well-known fact that people reaffirm only those things which are passing away."

It is not unlike baseball owners who issue a statement backing the manager just before he is dismissed.

I bet it's similar, as well. By the way, do you still have the "we're behind you John Spong" plaque from your pre-retirement days?

In 1988 the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States re-affirmed their traditional condemnation of homosexuality as sinful and evil.

Y'know, somehow I don't think this is right. I think it's far more likely that the Southern Baptist Convention re-affirmed their belief that homosexuality was sinful and evil. No, no, that's not it either. Ah, yep! They probably re-affirmed their belief that homosexuality was sinful -- the SBC is known to be a tribe of pickup-driving neanderthals, and so I doubt very much that they've evolved to the point where sin and evil separate into different categories. This is your brain. That is your brain on ICEL.

I remember shouting "Hooray" when I heard that news.

Just like that, too: "Hooray." I even woke my dog.

That means that the battle is over. Even in the conservative fundamentalist Christian tradition, the once unanimous and unspoken condemnation of homosexuality is no longer holding. That is what reaffirmation always means.

Is that why we're seeing all these gay Baptist preachers swishing around Oklahoma and Texas, pinkies high in the air, decorating their Churches with Ricky Martin posters and scheduling Church activities around Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? Or is that why we can be confident that Spong's theology is dying, since he has to reaffirm it by shouting "Hooray" and writing crap? This is your brain. That is your brain on ICEL.

The reaffirmation of the Anglican bishops is similarly necessary because the traditional way of affirming God is dying everywhere. One sign of this death is the growth of evangelical fundamentalism.

Yes, growth is the sure sign of death. Ommmmmmmm . . . . . must clean belly lint . . . . . ommmmmm . . . . .

Another is the attempt on the part of Vatican authorities to suppress new ideas inside Roman Catholicism.

Articles and prepositions comprise one fourth of that sentence. This is the picture of the brain inside you. That is the picture of the brain inside you on the ICEL. Anyhow, this suggests that Roman Catholicism is dead because it's suppressing new ideas. As Churchill said, "Some chicken. Some neck." John, we've been supressing new ideas since your former communion was a twinkle in Henry VIII's eye. And we're gonna be suppressing them long after antiquarians start getting confused about whether "Spong" denotes a minor heretic of the 20th century or a character in something that was called a "television show."

One rushes to a kind of hysterical authority of either an inerrant Bible or an infallible papacy when reason no longer holds back the tide of doubt. A third sign of this death is the growth of a secular society where the Church Alumni Association is growing much faster than the right wing Christian revival.

It's not the faith of Christianity that's dying, John. It's the life-giving faith of men. And you're helping men die, John, you're urging men to die, because you think growth is a sign of death and, no doubt, think death is a sign of growth. You're a sadly-smiling member of a cultural Sonderkommando, passing out rhetorical towels and philosophical soap to the naked men and women who shuffle, cowed and shivering, past your demonically-assigned station. May God have mercy on you, John, may God have mercy, for otherwise it will have been better for you to have had a millstone fastened around your neck and been cast into the sea.

What I mean is that there is a growing and significant number of people who have decided that the God they meet in church is simply not big enough to be God for the world they inhabit.

And, being bigger than God, why should they bother with Him? He's such a puny being compared to the vastness of their own selves. May God have mercy on you, John, may God have mercy. Let Him send St. Michael the Archangel to help you in battle, to be your protection against the malice and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke Satan, we humbly pray, and please St. Michael, by the divine power, thrust into Hell Satan and all the other evil spirits who roam through the world, whispering through men like John Spong. Amen.

They just sort of drop out. They become what I call believers in exile and members of the fastest growing religious organization in the West: the Church Alumni Association.

A/K/A and D/B/A the Antichurch, which needs an Antichrist, who will tell us that Christ isn't big enough to rule a world peopled by wonderful, superior beings like himself and those who follow him. May God have mercy on you, John Spong, may God have mercy.

Christianity was born in the first century.

Unless, of course, you're a Christian. Then you think it started in Eden, if not before. (Genesis 3:15).

Traditional Christian sources of authority assume first century ideas like the earth being the center of the three-tiered universe. When the Gospel of Matthew writer says that the wise men followed a star, the assumption is that God or one of God's angles [sic] could drag that star across the floor of heaven which would be the roof of the earth at a pace slow enough to allow these wise men to keep up with it.

Read the Gospel of Matthew. Nothing in there about God or an "angle" dragging a star across a floor or a ceiling. "Lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was." How beautiful that is, John, how perfect a marriage of poetry and fact, the poetry fact, the fact poetic, recounting something wonderful, a God who draws men to Himself. You don't know what's required to make Matthew's Gospel true, John. You only know what a lot of other men who wrote a lot of books think should be required to make the Gospel true. Fine, let us hear from sages and scholars about the cosmology of the first century. We believe God is greater than we are, John, and we see the perfect marriage of fact and poetry, inspired by God to overcome human limitations without obliterating the men who might have them. But you believe that God is too small, too unworthy, to rule your world, and end up worshiping men and books instead. It's very sad. May God have mercy, may God have mercy.

When the Gospel of Luke writer tells the story of Jesus ascending into heaven, the assumption is that heaven is just above the sky and the way to get there is to rise up. Neither Matthew nor Luke had any idea that the sun was one star in a galaxy called the Milky Way in which there were more than 100,000,000,000 other stars, or that the Milky Way was one galaxy in a visible universe that included more then 125,000,000,000 other galaxies.

And where will you be, John, when we discover something about the universe you don't know? Will you release your grip on the hysterical authority of reason? Should men decide that Spong is too small for their world and turn to other things, like the Bible and the papacy? If they shouldn't make the limitations of human knowledge into criteria for God, why should you? When your theology can't even pass its own tests, you're in what St. Thomas called "deepus doodoous."

The traditional idea of God as a Being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere above the sky, keeping record books and periodically invading this tiny planet earth in miraculous ways to affect the divine will become inoperative in our space age.

Why? Because our space age has discovered things the steam age never knew? Then men should have abandoned God long ago, when steam replaced oxen, when iron replaced bronze. It's not God who's too small to rule your universe, John, it's your universe which is too small to accommodate God. Your grasp on the universe can't grow one bit without letting God slip right out through your fingers.

God's location has been destroyed and God's invasive nature has been cast into serious doubt.

You know, I think one of the reasons God didn't require the Evangelists to write detailed scientific explanations is that He knew they'd have enough on their minds with the much bigger idea of Him becoming man. It sufficed that they write nothing which compels men to believe falsely about facts. Stars do move, John, they move all the time. Didn't you know that? It's sad to see your faith running aground on a few million extra galaxies, succumbing to a much smaller mental challenge than God gave the Evangelists. You're a pygmie who can't even climb onto the shoulder of a giant, and who'd therefore prefer to ignore the whole giant business altogether. Yours is the smaller world, not ours.

No wonder religious leaders have to reaffirm the old ideas. They are dying and the power of these religious leaders is at stake. No traditional theistic God means no hierarchy set up to interpret God and to proclaim God's will.

Oh this is so shabby, John, so small and impotent. Every page of your essay is displayed next to a box that screams out for my credit-card information so I can pay you money in exchange for blather hot off the keyboard, and you want to call them crass and self-interested? And just how have you concluded that an ineffable and impersonal God will need less interpreting and proclaiming?

If one takes the time to check into history, one discovers that texts from the source we call Holy Scripture have been used in the past to defend the divine right of kings and to oppose the Magna Carta; to condemn Galileo and to assert that the sun does indeed rotate around the earth; to justify slavery, segregation and apartheid; to keep women from being educated, entering the professions, voting or being ordained; to justify war, to persecute and kill Jews; to condemn other world religions; and to continue the oppression and rejection of gay and lesbian people. The Bible has lost every one of those battles and has been demonstrably wrong in each of those conflicts. Surely this record is sufficient to demonstrate that a faith system "received from Holy Scripture" is built on a very weak reed.

Did you know there were women professors at medieval universities? Anyhow, it's never been the Catholic answer that Scripture is a weak reed. It's the Catholic answer that men are. "The Bible" never lost anything. Men, however, can lose the Bible even as they hold it in their hands, just as you lose God while trying to grasp the universe. They need the Bible, but they need more, a lot more, and God has been good enough to give it to them. Men did those things even when they had the thundering, invasive and judgmental God, John -- do you think they'll do better once they realize how much bigger and more powerful they are than that God?

All human beings can do is tell other human beings how they believe they have experienced God. We can only talk with meaning about our experiences of God, not about the being of God.

I thought we didn't need interpreters and proclaimers at all, John. You seem rather convinced that you, and fellows like you, would do well at that task. My Church offers its teachings free to anyone who asks. Get that big, John, and you can talk without looking like a fool.

So when these Anglican leaders state that "Our God is a Triune God," they are being rather sloppy with the English language. What they mean is that they explain their experience of God using trinitarian symbols. They fall into the sin of idolatry when they assume that the way they understand God is therefore the way God is.

Not unless the way they understand God isn't the way God is. And you're here to tell us that, and that the way you understand God is really the way God is, ineffable and unknowable. OK, John, but where does that score you on the idol-O-meter? When your theology can't pass its own tests, you're up what Duns Scotus called "effluvia creekus."

Perhaps they should remember the Apostle Paul's admonition that all we can do now is to "see through a glass darkly."

Or his descriptions of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit -- I thought we didn't need interpreters anymore, John? But we seem to need you to sort out what parts of Paul are worth paying attention to -- after we give you our credit card numbers, of course.

The fact is that Christianity must escape the traditional understandings in which it has been captured or it will die.

The fact is that a sinking rhetorician will say "the fact is" when what he means is "just give me pass on this one, okay?"

Though the experience of God is real,

Now how would you know that, John? If everything we say about Him isn't true, how is saying we've "experienced God" true? All we're really saying is that we've had an experience which, if real, isn't true.

the explanation of that experience is always time bound, time warped and inevitably doomed as knowledge expands.

Here it is, folks, the infamous spirit of negation come home to roost in the unfortunate soul of John Spong. You know, the guys who think it's important that "nobody said ‘papal infallibility' in the third century" are doing this same thing, thinking that truth is destroyed or disproved by any noticeable change. They just go in the other direction, back to a time when no one was saying very much. Spong wants to go forward to a time when anyone can say anything.

Yes, it may be that universal and abiding truth exists as these Anglican Bishops claim.

But that doesn't mean Spong has to suspend his judgment, because the existence of alternatives negates the possibilty of a correct choice. It's just like the papacy, you know. God could have decreed that the Church be ruled by Councils. Many people thought and think that He did. Conciliarism is an alternative, and therefore the papacy must be something God didn't do.

However, the mistake they make is to assume that either they or the Church they represent possesses that universal and abiding truth.

Well, yes that's true, but only because they (like you) don't have valid orders.

That is sheer fantasy.

No, it's Leo XIII -- Apostolicae Curae.

It also opens the door to the kind of religious bigotry for which the Christian Church has become infamous.

Oh I do love this old chestnut! It's so much fun to play around with!

If one collection of human beings possesses the ultimate and abiding truth of God, then they are justified in their condemnation of anyone who disagrees with them.

Would that be similar to your thinking you're justified in judging the Anglican Bishops or the Catholic Church? Oh no, no, it's not similar at all. John Spong's version of truth can't be the basis of religious bigotry, nosir. He'll never be found mouthing bigoted claims that the leaders of a "world religion" manipulate their faith for power and prestige, nooooooo . . . . a Spongist can't possibly indulge in bigotry because, well, he's just better than everybody else!

They can, by force, impose their truth on others "for their own good."

Quite so, just like the Christian bigots who forced desegregation and the end of slavery! You tell ‘em, John! No more bigotry for us! We're totally unbigoted! Now, how much am I bid for this lovely octaroon?

They can protect their truth by excommunicating doubters and by burning heretics.

Unlike the rest of us decent people, who only want to punish hate crimes.

To the leaders of my Church I want to say - "my brothers (and they are all brothers. No sisters are yet allowed) the day has passed. You live in the 21st century. You need to embrace that reality. The task facing Christianity today is not served by reaffirming the traditional faith worked out in a world that no longer exists. Your task is to engage the world that exists today and to rethink the experience of God in creation, in Christ and in the life of the Church in the light of our time.

. . . and, upon doing that, become Roman Catholics, because you'll realize that your tradition's been breeding John Spongs, "Ma" Fergusons, and Elmer Gantries like a petri dish and only a double-barrelled and repressing, nitrous-injected and excommunicating, supercharged and heretic-burning Church can save you now! Sure, we're a bit flabby just at the moment, but we're in training, see . . . . .

All else is childlike, fearful, defensive prattle."

And we're only saying this because we're not judgmental and we certainly don't think we have the truth and you don't, so there. Phhhft! Who'll go to $500 for the octaroon?

-- Bishop Spong (and Wormwood)

Oh, BTW, I did find John Spong (us SecretAgents have our methods, you know). Spong was not in the Vatican. He was in an internet cafe somewhere near Bayonne being menaced by teenagers who thought he'd had the computer for, like, way too long. I didn't help him, because I wouldn't want to impose my bigoted morality on anyone.

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