Landscape from Young, NSW 2011

After Spong

Jan: Andrew, when people meet someone who rocks their faith like Jack Spong, they can have a profound crisis of faith. Can you describe to me what this can be like, and how you have lived through it?

Andrew: We need to remember that for many Spong is a great voice of freedom. He offers them the hope that the God they feel is there, but whom popular Christianity makes a laughing stock or down right evil, (and has hidden), truly might be real.

But it can be very like what Greg described. If what Spong says is new to someone, there can be an enormous feeling that God has disappeared. 

It may seem that God simply cannot exist.  I think that's why people resist a Jack Spong so much.  And why they are so scared of critical theology in any form.  They see very clearly that if critical theology is correct their God will disappear.

Their literalistic imagining of God will disappear.  The Divine does not disappear of course, but for a person who has not ever thought beyond a relatively literal theology, it appears the only alternative.  Even someone who has seen the more ridiculous fallacies of fundamentalism can be pretty shaken when they begin to realise just how much of their view of biblical 'history' and the theological model built on it is unsupportable.

We should also remember that Spong is not a lone voice. That was something David alluded to.  He is right. Spong is the messenger.  He says in his book Resurrection: Myth or Reality, "I am merely the communicator.  The exposure has come from Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish scholars alike who, by engaging the sources of our faith story, have revealed the literal inadequacy of those sources..." (Harper Collins 1995 pp 107)

Spong also may not be that much of a shock for a person.  He may crystallise for someone what they have already essentially worked out.  He puts it together for them in a systematic form and help them make the connections that were already forming in their mind.   But even so, they can be left with an enormous emptiness because they have no language left for God.  The sense of God is still there, but the old models don't work and there is no way to talk about God. They are not in denial like those afraid of Spong, but can feel very alone or empty.

This is where I found myself.  I felt the presence of God probably more than ever.  Yet I found people wanting me to proclaim this God in the old literal terms, essentially for their comfort. It felt like there was no one to talk to.  I received some very nasty attention from some people who realised I did not adhere to their way of seeing things.  People who were identified with me and the ideas I had also received unpleasant attention.

And I found I had no words.  The church had provided very little for me to use to approach this newer understanding. We are so thoroughly ruled by the image of the personal God who is in fact reified into a person, that it is unusual to hear any other imagery.  Even when other images for God are heard, they are always heard through the filter of God the  person.

Jan: OK, reified? And the difference between personal and person, please. 

Andrew: To reify means to take something that you know is a symbol and say it is real.  When we say that through the understanding we have of a human father who loves us and cares for us and who we call "Daddy" (this is Jesus' word Abba), we can enter into and feel some of the reality of God, then that is using Father as a symbol of God.  "God the Father" is overtly symbolic language.  But when we insist that God is Father we begin to limit the nature of God, who must always be more than a Father.  We make "Father" almost equal to "God."  That is reification.  A good sign that it is beginning to happen is where "Father" is like almost the only word you are allowed to use for God.

Jan: So it is almost a form of idolatry?

Andrew: Yes.  But it is also a thing that hides God... well, limits God.  If God must be Father, then you can't always see other aspects of the Divine.

Personal means that God is not just an it.  God is not some impersonal force.  In Star Wars there is "The Force" which is essentially impersonal.  I think Christianity sees that there is some aspect of the Divine which is more than impersonal.  God is in some sense "Thou" rather than "It." That's why we find prayers such as "Dear Sister God..." so powerful. Despite the anthropomorphism, there is a reality which is addressed by this notion of a personal God. I used the term "person" negatively because I think that reification is again happening to this insight about the Divine.  We can hardly think of God apart from being personal.  In fact, God has been decreased to a mere person by many branches of popular theology. 

Jan: Example?

Andrew: In some churches you can hear God virtually being told what to do!  This is not the Divine.  This is a god who can be bought off by keeping one's side of some human-divine bargain, usually defined by that church's own brand of theology.  God is a person first, and Divine second.

Jan: To come back to where you were, you found you had no words left to speak of God...

Andrew: Yes.  Or at least, where I did have things to say, I often couldn't communicate them.  I was living in a new paradigm.  It was like speaking a new language that other people couldn't hear. So my parish wanted me to go on in the old ways, and I was heading in another direction.  The words love, compassion, justice, important, worship... all these things had a new meaning and a new direction to them.

I felt a sometimes overwhelming tiredness.  People would want me to get enthused with something in the parish, and I simply could not begin to care.  Some of this was that many issues seemed even less important than they used to... or even that whole chunks of parish life seemed pointless.  Some of it was being so involved in trying to figure out where I was supposed to go with my faith, that I just didn't have the energy to do that translation clergy so often have to do between what they think, and what they feel they can communicate to the congregation.

I needed to rethink so much I really felt like I could not say anything with integrity.  It was like I needed to wear a sign saying "Last year's opinion... haven't worked out the new view yet!"

Jan: Where have you come to with all that?

Andrew: God still is.  I have no doubts there. In fact, having to rethink a lot of things has probably increased my sense of the reality of the Divine.  What I think Spong gives us is a call to a new church.  This is probably his most important legacy.  He talks about a new Exile for believers, and I think this idea offers us a way to go.  

July 22 2001

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