Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong stands in the tradition of modern clerics who have called for a new reformation in the church. A reformation, according to Spong, that will make the Protestant Reformation look like a Mother’s Union tea party. Spong argues that in the modern world, the idea of a personal God is outmoded. Spong believes that faith must transcend the witness of Scripture and the historic creeds. In fact, for Spong God is not a “Christian”. God is love and love is God. “So I want to see God in the wind and in the rock and in the love that binds people together. That’s not a being, supernatural in power, sitting beyond the sky and ready to do a miracle, that’s a God who is in the midst of life…”
According to Spong the God of the Bible is not only unbelieveable but unworthy of belief. ‘God is not a person… is not a being…is not an external, personal force.’ God is, instead, the ‘infinite center of life… the mystical presence in which all personhood can flourish…[only] an internal reality.. the Ground of Being’. As Finke and Stark point out, Spong is very clear about the God he rejects “but his words become elusive and allusive when he writes of what God is.”
What has been the impact of Spong’s attempts to spark a new Reformation in the modern world? Spong served as the Episcopalian bishop of Newark in the United States for more than twenty years. Between 1978 and 1996, under his leadership the diocese declined by 40 percent compared to a decline of 16 percent for the denomination as a whole.
Deuteronomy warns the people of God of this reality. In fact Yahweh predicts the apostacy of His people:
“When I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, the land I promised on oath to their forefathers and when they eat their fill and thrive, they will turn to other gods and worship them, rejecting me and breaking my covenant. . . .I know what they are disposed to do, even before I bring them into the land I promised them on oath.”
Prosperity in the land would result in God’s people seeking to lower the tension with the nations around them by worshiping their gods and identifying with their culture. Yahweh’s only recourse was to bring “disasters and difficulties” upon them in order to draw them back.
Given enough time, this secularisation of the faith is virtually inevitable. History knows no other story. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it is also self-limiting. Particular religious organisations may decline but faith in general can continue to be renewed. The secularisation of existing religious organisations creates the need for new and more vigorous, expressions of the faith. Thus, “The history of religion is not only a pattern of decline; it is equally a portrait of birth and growth.” Weak, traditional religion, provides a vacuum out of which fresh expressions of faith emerge. Many will not survive. A few will thrive and eventually challenge the prominence of the more respectable, secular expressions of the faith.
In her study of the Assemblies of God in the US, Margaret Poloma has concluded that a key to that movement’s success with educated and urbane people in the modern world has been its emphasis on the supernatural.
It follows then, that an important characteristic of a dynamic movement, is its willingness to take the supernatural dimension of the faith seriously. To be open to a direct, experiential relationship with God. Mere “spirituality” will not suffice. It must be “white-hot faith.” As the early Salvation Army learnt: white-hot sin requires the antidote of white hot religion. A passionate faith alone is not enough. But without it you’re not even in the game.