Old wine in new bottles

By Michael Joseph Gross
Published April 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

For John Shelby Spong, Episcopal bishop of Newark, every week is Holy Week. Spong says he lives in "constant and almost mystical awareness of the divine presence," and he believes his vocation is to exhume and resurrect the spiritual content of Christianity from its worldly internment in the Christian church. That's the stated goal of his new book, "Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile." But the title is false advertising, and maybe even false witness, because the presumption of this book is that Christianity is already dead.

Contemporary Christians, according to Spong, have entered a period of religious disorientation on par with the Jews' Babylonian exile, when everything that had given meaning to their religion was destroyed. In the same way, Christians today "are exiled from the worldview in which [their] creed was formed." We cannot repeat the Apostles' Creed with integrity because it's flush with misnomers such as "Father Almighty." "Father" won't fly because it's "filled with limiting cultural definitions" that have been used to justify the oppression of women; and if God were truly "almighty," he would cure leukemia upon request.

By most accounts, church attendance is thriving (especially in conservative and fundamentalist congregations), and the political clout of the Christian Right is still strong enough to drain some plausibility from Spong's argument that Christianity is dead, at least as a spiritual or social force. However, Spong's book engages conservative Christians only to dismiss the validity of their faith, which he does most forcefully by asserting that modern science is the foundation of any honest contemporary worldview. An early chapter of the book uses Galileo, Darwin, Freud and (believe it or not) Carl Sagan to argue that theism -- any definition of God as "external, supernatural, and invasive" -- is intellectually untenable because its literal interpretation cannot be proven by natural science.

Most of Spong's book describes how Christianity might be re-invented in light of modern science and psychology, but most of his prescriptions float high above the reality of most Christians' lives. He calls Jesus a "spirit person," a being whose physical resurrection is pure fiction, but whose spiritual vitality is "discovered over and over in each of us as we open ourselves daily to new human heights." His proposal for a new creed begins this way: "I believe that there is a transcending reality present in the very heart of life. I name that reality God. I believe that this reality has a bias toward life and wholeness and that its presence is experienced as that which calls us beyond all of our fearful and fragile human limits."

Spong advocates trashing many of the richest assets of the Christian tradition. He wants to declare a moratorium on use of the word "God" ("Modern men and women have no working concept today of God as a supernatural heavenly being"). He wants to forget Eden, the fall and all notions of sin ("There is no such thing as a perfect creation. Thus, there was no fall into sin") and therefore to shelve the idea that the events of Good Friday are in any sense redemptive ("pre-Darwinian superstition and post-Darwinian nonsense"). And he wants to banish liturgical practices such as the Communion Service ("caught up in the magical, supernatural power of the ages").

Yet, abolishing so much of the imagery, stories and devotional practices of Christian tradition, as Spong proposes, would not liberate preachers to deliver the self-actualizing new message that Jesus is a "spirit person." Instead, it would banish believers to a spiritually and imaginatively impoverished place, where we would have fewer resources for understanding how the God of the Bible is revealed in contemporary life.

If Spong were gay, he'd be one of the drag queens who screech that traditionally masculine gay men are wracked with "internalized homophobia," and that all homosexuals should follow them in abandoning social norms. Only drag queens and ivory-tower intellectuals have time for the radical forms of self- and world-invention described by Spong's book. Most gay men are perfectly happy wearing trousers; and most marginalized Christians actually love the Eucharist.

Reformation -- having the ancient truths presented in a new way, but exactly as they always were -- would be more than good enough for most of us. This kind of reformation is difficult or impossible for large church denominations, which derive much of their power from hierarchical authority and inflexible doctrine. But it can and does happen effectively in local congregations, like the many churches in this country that have decided to grant openly gay members full participation in their worshipping life.

These churches are gradually forcing their authorities to make incremental changes in their treatment of homosexual Christians, as shown by the recent Catholic bishops' letter to parents of homosexual children, "Always Our Children." These churches are adopting the methods of earlier Christian reform movements to abolish racist membership rules, for instance, or to let women lead worship. Most Christian churches still treat gay people, in deed if not in word, as something less than human. But the occasional successes gays have had in changing that demonstrate that reform is a job of which the Body of Christ, and the bodies that constitute it, are more than capable.

Many gay Christians want to get married; we want to be out and ordained; and we want to see the distinctive challenges of living as gay Christians explicitly acknowledged by our churches, preferably in some form other than a heresy trial. Homophobia is a big hurdle to reform, but it's nothing compared to sexophobia. Sex not only makes the church nervous, it actually makes the Church lie. Too often, churches teach that people are spiritual "souls" contained in bodies that operate as mindless pleasure machines. Christians forget, or we never discover, what mysterious creatures scripture actually describes us to be, with physical and spiritual lives that intersect, overlap and are never even as separate as those two words imply. We rarely experience sex as the divine gift it is, in the context of lifelong commitment to another mind, body and soul. And therefore, we rarely learn to integrate sexual ethics with the rest of our ethical lives.

Although this situation isn't unique to gay Christians, it's probably more exaggerated for us than for our straight brothers and sisters. We are habitually ignored in the preaching and liturgy of mainstream churches, and the churches' silence implies consent to the world's preference that gay sexuality be isolated in an entirely private part of life -- away from family, away from work, away from church and, in too many lives, away from love.

This silence casts many gay Christians into spiritual exile, the kind of exile that Spong describes as a place where "God must change or die." When we start coming out, God grows increasingly insistent that we receive the gift of romantic love in a way that will glorify Him, but our religion offers precious little guidance in understanding how to square this revelation with the God we've always known.

I experienced this kind of exile when I first started coming out, as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. I needed to learn how to live faithfully as a gay man, but Princeton wasn't helping me do that, so I dropped out of school, moved to Boston and began looking for a church that would nourish both my love for Christ and my love for men.

I finally found that nourishment in a Catholic congregation, the Jesuit Urban Center in Boston's South End. With a traditional Catholic liturgy, the Urban Center has built one of the largest predominantly gay congregations in Boston. What the Urban Center knows -- and what Bishop Spong has forgotten -- is that for exiled believers, genuine reform begins with the activity of remembrance. Believers must dig deeply in scripture, church history and their own religious experience to learn what made religion compelling for them in the past and why it doesn't work anymore. If these explorations show the problem is not in themselves but in their tradition, they have to use the truths they've found to correct the lies their tradition teaches.

Worship at the Urban Center is grounded squarely in traditional Catholic theology. In those basic premises I rediscovered the power of a primary tenet of my faith: Christ's incarnation proves that creation, although fallen, is good. In daily life, it can be hard to believe you are good when you've been taught to feel shame about your deepest physical and emotional desires. The Urban Center, merely by welcoming gay people into the church, overcomes that shame -- and particularly, its religious manifestations -- with the love of Christ. That welcome makes us realize that our bodies are a blessing, for no other reason than that we're born. And it means worshipers at the Urban Center experience Christianity just as we always have, but also in an earth-shatteringly gracious and dignifying new way. Sometimes the priests use the lyrics from "Sunday in the Park with George" to clarify Christ's parables; sometimes they use St. Thomas Aquinas. That mixture of innovation and remembrance is the only effective basis for meaningful religious reform.

"Why Christianity Must Change or Die," by contrast, doesn't offer much help for Christians who believe our religion needs reform. Bishop Spong is wrong to blame Freud for flatlining First Presbyterian and St. Mary's of the Assumption, because people have not been exiled from the church by the power of modern science. They've been exiled by the weakness of clerics whose imagination isn't supple enough to make sense of new social realities in traditional Christian terms -- everyday stuff like corporate downsizing and exotic stuff like gay love.

The best counsel for Christians who seek revelation in such realities won't be found in Spong's book. To the extent that such counsel is available on the printed page, it will be found in scripture, when it's read as the record of God's negotiation and re-negotiation of His covenants with His people, and according to Paul's admonition to "Test everything, and hold on to the good." It will be found in the work of clerics, professors and writers who honestly engage the tension between traditional church doctrine and the vagaries of contemporary life: in Peter Gomes' excellent introduction to the Bible, "The Good Book," for instance, or Robert Wuthnow's sociological studies of American Protestantism and capitalism, or Kathleen Norris' new memoir about learning to use religious language, "Amazing Grace."

But we're almost always better off looking for churches that embody this tension than we are browsing our local bookstores in search of isolated epiphanies. It is our churches that will raise us, with Jesus, to new and eternal life. They're the places where prodigal, exiled Christians find themselves truly at home. And everybody knows, be they friends of Dorothy or just friends of friends, there's no place like home.

Michael Joseph Gross

Michael Joseph Gross is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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