“The older I get, the more deeply I believe but the fewer beliefs I have,” (RNS) said John Shelby Spong in 2013 at the age of 82. He just died at 90.
Spong graduated from college the year before I was born, and he became the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark the year I graduated from college. All that time I knew nothing about John Spong.
The first I heard of him was well after I graduated from seminary, sometime in the early 1980s when I ran across Spong’s book: Dialogue: In Search of Jewish-Christian Understanding, co-authored with Rabbi Jack Daniel Spiro. I had become captivated by the growing awareness of the Jewishness of Jesus, and how the Romanization of the early Christian movement had utterly changed the nature of Christianity from its Semitic roots. Written in 1975, I was happy to see an Episcopal author engaged in a wave of scholarship changing our understanding of the gospels. It reminded me of Alan Watts, an earlier Episcopal priest who introduced Buddhism and Taoism to an America audience. Watts influenced me and before I even knew it, Spong was making room for me.
It wasn’t until the end of that decade that none of us could miss John Spong because he ordained the first openly gay man. Then he was big news and his theological topics become more flamboyant and in our faces. He published, Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality, which refuted all kinds of traditional Christian taboos.
But it was statements like this, however, that I most appreciated: “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.” Walking into the Mystery of God, www.uua.org
Okay, this is not an obituary. It’s a story about a Southern man who delivered the daily newspaper to Billy Graham’s house as a boy, and who used the immense privilege of his birth and the gift of a brilliant mind, to expand the inclusiveness of his and other religions. By insisting that there is room in Christianity for all kinds of thinking, believing, and lifestyles, he helped make the altar an open table. Spong matched his gifts and privilege with courage and made it impossible to ignore or deny that Christian pluralism is possible, and in fact exists within the sanctioned voices of the church.
There are invisible yet indelible lines strung between John Spong and the liberation of the LBGQ community as well as a strong white embrace of BLM. We don’t all have his gifts or privilege, but his life demonstrates we can all use our own gifts to challenge barriers, and welcome all people to the table. Now it’s our turn.
“I do assert that one prepares for eternity not by being religious and keeping the rules, but by living fully, loving wastefully, and daring to be all that each of us has the capacity to be.” Why Christianity Must Change or Die.