Spong and the Ontology of God

Despite finishing Spong’s latest work, Jesus for the Non-Religious, I am still left wondering what he actually thinks about the ontology of God. It felt like he was working up to it, but left it vague and fluffy.

He rejects the idea of theism, that an external deity breaks into this world to perform arbitrary, supernatural acts to help only few, sometimes at the expense of others. He says ‘I do not wish to live in a world in which an intervening deity acts capriciously to accomplish the divine will by overriding the laws of nature established in creation.’[1]

He attacks theism as a by-product of the evolutionary process. Humanity, through its advancement, has reached a level of self-consciousness. Being aware of one’s finite nature, mortality, insecurity, led to the emergence of belief in human-like deities that stand outside of the limitations of humans; Eternal, all-powerful, protectors and providers.

By breaking free of this idea of God Spong sees Jesus not as having some divine link to the external deity, but rather living a fuller life that takes him past the evolutionary stage of being insecure in self-consciousness. Jesus moves humanity on from its position of fear and the survival mentality; beyond the sources of religious anger; beyond tribal boundaries; beyond prejudice and stereotypes; beyond religious boundaries.[2] ‘This was life so whole, so free, that he had no need to cling to it. This is the picture of one who has escaped the survival mentality that marks all self-conscious human beings. One cannot give away what one does not possess. Jesus possessed himself. Jesus gave his life away. The cross is not the place where the justice of God was satisfied in the suffering of the divine son. The cross is the place where the fully alive one could give all that he is to others, and in that act make all that we mean by the word “God” visible.’[3]

But what is this “God”? Spong goes on to say ‘God is not some supernatural power over and against humanity. The meaning and the reality of God are found in the experience of human wholeness flowing in life-giving ways through all that we are. God is experienced when life is opened to transcendent otherness, when it is called beyond every barrier into an ever-expanding humanity. The first-century experience of Jesus was quite simply that people met God in him. “God was in Christ,” they said -and we say with them- because life, love and being flowed through the fullness of his humanity.”[4] God, from what I can gather, is a way of life, or a mode of humanity that is higher in some way that our current humanity. God is the goal to which humanity must consciously move towards, it is the goal of our evolutionary trajectory. But even that is vague. It is hard to discern whether Spong sees God as ontological (exists as a being) or epistemological (exists as a set of ideas).

Of course, I don’t expect Spong to make it clear. He thinks in a very post-modern, deconstructionist manner. Vanhoozer comments that ‘deconstruction is a strategy for viewing the world, not in terms of substances or essences, but rather in terms of linguistic, intellectual, social and political constructions. The mission of deconstruction is to show that things- texts, institutions, traditions, belief systems- are not as solid or as natural as they appear. Deconstructive postmoderns have an interest in uncovering historical, social and political systems under which various belief systems of social structures were set up…(and) want to release the “other” from its captivity to systems.’[5] Spong is attempting to release God and Jesus from the context they are subjected to in the text of the gospels and the institution of the Church, traditions of the past 2000 years and the belief system of supernaturalism and theism. He attempts to get back to a view of Jesus after scraping away the layers of interpretation laid upon him, but at the same time Spong is reluctant to then apply any of his own systems (as hard as that is) upon the person know as the historical Jesus.

Despite having a viewpoint on Jesus and God that many orthodox Christians will reel at,[6] I have sympathy with what Spong has ultimately said through this book. We meet God in Jesus, and Jesus ultimately brings about shalom, that is, complete wholeness and well-being as individual humans but even greater as the community of humanity. What is stopping us breaking down all the barriers that Spong mentions? The Church falls foul to internal fighting over doctrinal matters far too much, rather than attempting to bring about meaningful change in peoples lives. Maybe we should loosen our grip on ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ and attempt to move out into the secular, postmodern world and offer this life changing person that is Jesus. If Truth is important then it will surely follow as the true humanity takes over in individuals and communities as the better way to live.

Further quotes I have taken from this book:
The Death of Institutional Christianity
Spong’s Christology

[1] Spong, John Shelby, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human, New York: Harper One, 2007, p.54.
[2] Ibid. Topics explored in 4 chapters of the book; pp.227-238; pp.239-248; pp.249-264; pp.265-275.
[3] Ibid. p.289.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ‘The Atonement in Postmodernity: Guilt, Goats and Gifts’ in Hill, Charles E. and James, Frank A. III (eds.), The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical & Practical Perspectives, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
[6] Further to what I have mentioned, he asserts that the Gospels are constructed narrative to explain Jesus drawing on Old Testament imagery, not historical biography. This includes a rejection of the historicity of: the birth narratives; the characters of mary, Joseph, and a set group of 12 disciples; the miracles; aspects of the crucifixion narrative; the resurrection and ascension.

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