Rowan Williams replies…
Is it time for a new Reformation? The call has gone out quite a few times in the past three or four decades, and the imminence of the Millennium adds a certain piquancy to it.
The Right Reverend John Spong, Bishop of Newark in the US, is right to say – as he has done in his diocesan journal – that his own version of this demand is of a rather different order from the earlier Reformation; and this surely makes it imperative that his bold and gracious invitation to debate these theses should be taken up with some urgency and seriousness, not least on the eve of a Lambeth Conference that will undoubtedly be looking hard at issues of Christian identity and the limits of diversity.
So I had better say at once that, while I believe Bishop Spong has, in these and other matters, done an indispensable task in focusing our attention on questions under-examined and poorly thought through, I believe that these theses represent a level of confusion and misinterpretation that I find astonishing.
He has rightly urged the Church to think more clearly in many respects about issues of sex and gender; but I am bothered by the assumption here that the Church has failed to think through a number of central matters on which quantities of fairly sophisticated literature have been written over the entire history of Christian theology.
The implication of the theses is that the sort of questions that might be asked by a bright 20th century sixth-former would have been unintelligible or devastating for Augustine, Rahner or Teresa of Avila. The fact is that significant numbers of those who turn to Christian faith as educated adults find the doctrinal and spiritual tradition which Bishop Spong treats so dismissively a remarkably large room to live in.
Doctrinal statements may stretch and puzzle, and even repel, and yet they still go on claiming attention and suggesting a strange, radically different and imaginatively demanding world that might be inhabited. I’m thinking of a good number of Eastern Europeans I know who have found their way to (at least) a fascinated absorption in classical Christianity through involvement in dissident politics and underground literature. Or of some American writers who will, I’m sure, be known to Bishop Spong, from Denise Levertov to Kathleen Norris, who have produced reflective and imaginative work out of the same adult recovery of the tradition. Is this tradition as barren as Spong seems to think?
To answer that requires us to look a bit harder at the theses themselves. In a way, the first of them indicates where the trouble is going to come: for there are at least three quite distinct senses of theism current in theology and religious studies, and it is none too clear which is at issue here.
At the simplest level, theism is, presumably, what atheists deny. Spong doesn’t appear to think of himself as an atheist, so this can’t be it.
In a more specialist context, scholars of the phenomenology of mysticism have sometimes distinguished ‘theistic’ from ‘monistic’ experience – theistic experience being defined as focused upon a reality ultimately distinct from the self (and the universe), as opposed to a mysticism of final unification. I’m not convinced that this distinction is actually a very helpful strategy, but that is another matter; it may be that something more like this is what Spong has in mind.
But there is also the sense, recently discussed by writers like Nicholas Lash, of theism as the designation of that abstract belief in God independent of the specific claims of revelation that flourished in the age after Descartes – a sense quite close to but not identical with that of ‘deism’. It is in this sense that large numbers of theologians would say that classical Trinitarian orthodoxy is not a form of theism.
I suspect that Spong is feeling his way between the second and the third senses. His objections seem to be to God as a being independent of the universe who acts within the universe in a way closely analogous to the way in which ordinary agents act. The trouble is that, while this might describe the belief of some rationalist divines in the modern period, and while it might sound very like the language of a good many ordinary religious practitioners, it bears no relation at all to what any serious theologian, from Origen to Barth and beyond, actually says about God – or, arguably, to what the practice of believers actually implies, whatever the pictorial idioms employed.
Classical theology maintains that God is indeed different from the universe. To say this is to suggest a radical difference between one agent and another in the world. God is not an object or agent over against the world; God is the eternal activity of unconstrained love, an activity that activates all that is around God is more intimate to the world than we can imagine, as the source of activity or energy itself; and God is more different than we can imagine, beyond category and kind and definition.
Thus God is never competing for space with agencies in the universe. When God acts, this does not mean that a hole is torn in the universe by an intervention from outside, but more that the immeasurably diverse relations between God’s act and created acts and processes may be more or less transparent to the presence of the unconstrained love that sustains them all.
The doctrine of the incarnation does not claim that the ‘theistic’ God (i.e. a divine individual living outside the universe) turns himself into a member of the human race, but that this human identity, Jesus of Nazareth, is at every moment, from conception onwards, related in such a way to God the Word (God’s eternal self-bestowing and self-reflecting) that his life is unreservedly and uniquely a medium for the unconstrained love that made all things to be at work in the world to remake all things. Jesus embodies God the Word or God the Son as totally as (more totally than) the musician in performance embodies the work performed.
I don’t find this bankrupt; I don’t find that it fails to make sense to those trying to learn the language of faith.
And the same point about God not competing for space is pertinent to several of the other theses. Exactly how the presence of God’s action interweaves with various sets of created and contingent causes is not available for inspection. We have no breakdown of the relations between God and this or that situation in the world.
Theologians have argued that the holiness of a human individual or the prayer of a believer may be factors in a situation that tilt the outcome in a particular way. This is an intellectually frustrating conclusion in all sorts of ways, but seems to be the only one that really manages to do justice to the somewhat chaotic Christian experience of intercession and unexpected outcomes (miracles, if you must). If the world really does rest upon divine act, then whatever you say about the regularities of casual chains is relativised a bit by not quite knowing what counts as a ’cause’ from God’s point of view, so to speak.
Bishop Spong describes the resurrection as an act of God. I am not clear how an immanent deity such as I think he believes in is supposed to act; but if such a God does act, I don’t see why it should be easier for God to act in people’s mind than their bodies. ‘Jesus was raised into the meaning of God’; yes, but meanings are constructed by material, historical beings, with cerebral cortices and larynxes. How does God (or ‘God’) make a difference to what people mean?
Spong clearly has no time for the empty-tomb tradition; so it is no surprise that he also dismisses the virginal conception (though why on earth this makes Jesus’s divinity ‘impossible’ I fail to understand). I am aware that there are critical historical grounds for questioning both narrative clusters and I don’t want to dismiss them. But I am very wary of setting aside the stories on the ground of a broad-brush denial of the miraculous.
For the record: I have never quite managed to see how we can make sense of the sacramental life of the Church without a theology of the risen body; and I have never managed to see how to put together such a theology without belief in the empty tomb. If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker.
The virginal conception looks less straightforward, if you are neither a fundamentalist nor someone committed to the principled denial of miracles. Is it possible to believe in the incarnation without this? Yes, I think so (I did for a few years). But I also have an uncomfortable feeling that the more you reflect on the incarnation, the less of a problem you may have. There is a rather haunting passage in John Neville Figgis about – as it were – waking up one day and finding you believe it after all. My sentiments exactly.
Perhaps the underlying theme in all this is that if you don’t believe in a God totally involved in and totally different from the universe, it’s harder to see the universe as gift; harder to be open to whatever sense of utter unexpectedness about the life and death of Jesus made stories of pregnant virgins and empty tombs perfectly intelligible; harder to grasp why people thank God in respect of prayers answered and unanswered.
Perhaps, too, it has a bit to do with the sense of utterly unexpected absolution or release, the freeing of the heart.
The cross as sacrifice? God knows, there are barbaric ways of putting this; but as a complex and apparently inescapable metaphor (which, in the Bible, is about far more than propitiation) it has always said something sobering about the fact that human liberation doesn’t come cheap, that the degree of human self-delusion is so colossal as to involve ‘some total gain or loss’ (in the words of Auden’s poem about Bonhoeffer) in the task of overcoming it. And that human beings compulsively deceive themselves about who and what they are is a belief to which Darwinism is completely immaterial.
Of course, if you want to misunderstand Darwin as establishing a narrative of steady spiritual or intellectual evolution, you will indeed want to say that all existing ethical standards are relative. How, then, are you going to deal with claims by this or that group that they are moving on to the next evolutionary stage? In what sense can ethics fail to be about the contests of power, if there is nothing to which we are all answerable at all times?
Of course the parameters of ethical understanding shift: but the shifts in Christian ethics on, for example, slavery, usury and contraception, have had to argue long and hard to establish that they are in some way drawing out an entailment of what is there, or honouring some fundamental principle in what is there. In other words, these changes in convention have had to show a responsibility to certain principles that continue to identify this kind of talk as still recognisably Christian talk.
It makes for hard work – as is obvious with current debates about homosexuality or nuclear war; but it is hard work because of the need to continue listening to what is said and written.
But then we discover in Spong’s theses that there is, after all, a non-negotiable principle, based upon the image of God in human beings. Admirable; but what does it mean in Spong’s theological world? What is the image of a ‘non-theistic’ God? And where, for goodness’ sake, does he derive this belief about humans? It is neither scientific nor obvious.
It is, in fact, what we used to call a dogma of revealed religion. It is a painful example of the sheerly sentimental use of phraseology whose rationale depends upon a theology that is being overtly rejected. What can it be more than a rather unfairly freighted and emotive substitute for some kind of bland egalitarianism – bland because ungrounded and therefore desperately vulnerable to corruption, or defeat at the hands of a more robust ideology? It is impossible to think too often of the collapse of liberalism in 1930s Germany.
It is no great pleasure to write so negatively about a colleague from whom I, like many others, have learned. But I cannot in any way see Bishop Spong’s theses as representing a defensible or even an interesting Christian future. And I want to know whether the Christian past scripture and tradition, really appears to him as empty and sterile as this text suggests.
It seems he has not found life here, and that is painful to acknowledge and to hear. Yet I see no life in what the theses suggest; nothing to educate us into talking about the Christian God in a way I can recognise: no incarnation; no adoption into intimate relation with the Source of all; no Holy Spirit. No terror. No tears.
Does he know that generations of believers have argued the need to separate hope for life after death from earthly rewards and punishments? They believe that the present and future delight of enjoying God’s intimacy made all such talk irrelevant.
Does he see at all that the recognition of God’s image in everyone, in such a way as to drive people to risk everything for it (Wilberforce? Dorothy Day? Desmond Tutu? Bonhoeffer? Romero?), seems persistently to come from an immersion in the dark reality of God’s difference and in the uncompromising paradoxes of incarnation of the Almighty?
Culturally speaking, the Christian religion is one of those subjects about which it is cool to be ignorant. Spong’s account of classical Christian faith simply colludes with such ignorance in a way that cannot surely reflect his own knowledge of it. I think I understand the passion behind all this, the passion to make sense to those for whom the faith is at best quaint and at worst oppressive, nonsense.
But the sense is made (in so far as it is made at all) by a denial of the resources already there – to the extent that Spong’s own continuing commitment to the tradition becomes incomprehensible.
Living in the Christian institution isn’t particularly easy. It is, generally, today, an anxious inefficient, pompous, evasive body. If you hold office on it, you become more and more conscious of what it’s doing to your soul. Think of what Coca-Cola does to your teeth. Why bother?
Well, because of the unwelcome conviction that it somehow tells the welcome truth about God, above all in its worship and sacraments. I don’t think I could put up with it for five minutes if I didn’t believe this; and – if I can’t try to say this in a pastoral, not an inquisitorial, spirit – I don’t know quite why Bishop Spong puts up with it.
At the time of writing Rowan Williams was Bishop of Monmouth. Rowan Williams is now Archbishop of Canterbury.
Transcribed and reproduced with permission from the 17 July 1998 edition of Church Times