Bishop John Shelby Spong ~ June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021
Bishop Spong provided a much needed place for those of us who did not connect with traditional theology. We love you Bishop Spong. You will be missed! Funeral services will be held at St. Peter’s, Morristown, NJ and at St. Paul’s, Richmond, VA. Dates and times will be announced as soon as they are available

Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – Part One

“But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity,
we think and let think.”
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism

The Author’s Spiritual Journey

Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I grew up in the segregated south Bible belt in a conservative Christian environment. My parents and I were active in a Methodist church (many years before it became the United Methodist Church). As I reflect back to those formative years, that faith community was theologically very fundamental. We accepted the spiritual precepts we were fed without question; the basic principles of church doctrine were considered unassailable. Nobody questioned anything as far as I know. The Bible was the Holy Bible, which meant that it was completely the word of God – actually the words of God, dictated by God. No one questioned the inerrancy of scripture, particularly the New Testament. The virgin birth, the factuality of Jesus’ miracles, that Jesus’ death was to atone for our sins, and Jesus’ bodily resurrection were absolutes. The primary difference between the Methodist and Baptist churches seemed to be in their form of government, not their beliefs. I don’t remember ever hearing the word “liberal” or “progressive” applied to anyone associated with the church but anyone who deviated from the norm would have been highly suspect.

The only reasonably progressive thing I can remember about Methodism is the following quote from its founder, John Wesley: “But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think…” In my opinion, people are not really alive spiritually if they do not or will not ask questions. We must be allowed to think.

I went to Sunday School as a child, was very active in the local and state Methodist youth organization (MYF), went to summer church camps, and attended church regularly – even after I went away to college. Once I graduated with my bachelor degree in music from a southern church-related college, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in sacred music at a church-related southwestern U.S. university.

I don’t remember ever questioning anything related to my faith until I entered graduate school. In addition to my music studies, the sacred music masters required twenty hours of study at the theology school. The seminary faculty was intent on forcing the ministers-to-be to question their faith so they could weather the storms they would face once they became a local pastor. Even though we were not headed toward a pastorate, those of us in the sacred music degree program were thrown into the same classes. The seminary professors were not very impressed with my lack of theological knowledge and I did not do especially well grade-wise. However, those classes opened my mind and caused me to begin, ever so slightly at first, to seek more understanding of spiritual matters. I soon became very aware that my theological views were unorthodox, but I also became convinced that they were not necessarily wrong. There are several things that Christians are supposed to believe that I had (and have) trouble swallowing, although sometimes my spiritual upbringing and my emotions did not agree with my mind.

For the next forty years, I worked either full-time or part-time as a director of music in Methodist and Presbyterian churches, or as a full-time professor of music in colleges. I primarily read and studied what I had to in order to teach so there wasn’t much time to read theology. My favorite reading, when I did take the time, however, was often theology. After retirement, with much more free time, I discovered several writers who inspired me to dig deeper into my belief system.

I had read the Bible, at least parts of it, and had heard the famous stories of the Old and New Testaments numerous times, but I had never read the Bible from cover to cover. As I began to question things that I had blindly accepted, I decided I should not critique anything biblical unless I had examined the entire Bible first hand. The best method of study for me is to read and then write about what I read. I tried not to be too critical and tried to approach everything with an open mind. I wanted to read the Bible as if it were totally new. Would I understand it? Would it make sense? Would my faith be renewed or dashed?

In the introduction to Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses he advocated rethinking everything “out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light.” In other words, rethinking and change are necessary for spiritual growth. A curiosity and a desire to understand are crucial to achieve satisfactory answers. If thinking or rethinking is squelched, the Christian faith is in trouble. We need to study all options, opinions and observations in order to discern which are false and which are true for each of us individually. We must reexamine everything for the good of the kingdom of God. We must be willing to look deeply into our beliefs and practices with a discerning eye and need to make a thorough self-examination of our faith. Such an examination is not a lack of faith. Faith is not blindly following doctrines, but a vibrant soul-searching journey to be experienced. We should never arrive at our faith destination.

I consider myself a seeker. I’m seeking a version of Christianity that satisfies both the head and the heart. What I’ve found most often is one or the other. The “heart” churches seem to be so emotional that they are afraid of intellect and the “head” churches are frightened of emotion for fear that it lessens the intellectual.

I don’t consider myself a heretic, but if I am, perhaps I am at least a reverent one, although a reverent heretic sounds like an oxymoron. Maybe I am a “Christian agnostic,” which Leslie Weatherhead defined as a person who is captivated by Jesus and tries to live by his example, but who cannot honestly and conscientiously agree with certain theological ideas which some branches of the church claim are essential. During a speaking engagement, a woman introduced Philip Gulley, a Quaker pastor and writer, as an iconoclast. After looking up the word in his dictionary, he was not fond of the first definition: “one who destroys religious images or opposes their veneration,” but he felt the second one described him much more accurately: “one who attacks settled beliefs or institutions.” I, like Gulley, am happy to attack settled beliefs that are narrow minded and require affirmation of the absurd, and I hope to offer a more knowledgeable alternative. Perhaps I am an iconoclast.

Fifth Third Bank calls itself “the Curious Bank.” They believe that curiosity drives people to seek new ideas that make banking better for everyone. I passed one of their vehicles recently with “we challenge conventional thinking” plastered on the side. Why is being curious and challenging conventional thinking good for business, but not good for religion?

The definition of conservative is “a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in religion and politics.” Most people think the opposite of conservative is liberal, but I prefer progressive. When someone does not want to see things change, wants to keep the status quo or would prefer to return to the past that is conservative. When a person is not satisfied with the status quo, wants to reexamine our Christian beliefs, to challenge conventional thinking that is a progressive. I want to be a curious person, to challenge conventional ideas, to know the truth as far as that is possible to ascertain.

Ten years from now, if I’m still alive, I may have a completely different perspective. As a matter of fact, I hope I do. We are supposed to change… grow… not maintain the status quo.

Read Part Two Here

Review & Commentary