Americaís most controversial bishop advocates dumping the Ten Commandments. John Shelby Spong talks to Barney Zwartz.
John Shelby Spong advocates a 21st century Christianity that doesnít require people to check in their brains at the church door. In practice, what this means is abandoning "outmoded" concepts such as a traditional God, a divine Christ, prayer, and the Ten Commandments as the basis of ethics.
The controversial American bishop acknowledges this means the end of traditional Christianity, but says it is dying anyway, and no modern rational person can accept its tenets. Spong is touring Australia promoting his new book, A New Christianity for a New World, to, he says, packed and appreciative audiences. These may not contain many church-goers, but such people are not the audience the retired Bishop of Newark in New Jersey, is trying to reach.
At 72, he is still criss-crossing the world, bringing his ideas to the "church alumni association".
"I think there are two movements going on in the Christian faith today,"
Spong says. "One is a retreat into yesterday, into certainty and fundamentalism.
It reflects the fact there is a great struggle, and theyíre not winning."
More and more people donít want to be part of that church, he says, and those are the ones he addresses. "Iím not trying to convert conservative church people, but to deal with people that conservative church people have run out of church or bored out of church."
This book is his vision of what the Christian church reformed to be in dialogue with the 21st century will look like.
Fundamentalists, his bete noire, will not recognise it. Fundamentalists were so named in the early 20th century for defending a set of five doctrines they regarded as fundamental: the inspiration of Scripture as the revealed word of God; the virgin birth as guarantee of Christís divine nature; salvation through his death; his physical resurrection; and his eventual second coming. To Spong, these are not just naive but eminently rejectable.
He goes further. God is not a being, and does not interact with the world. And with this centre gone, the rest of the traditional Christian tapestry rapidly unravels.
"In the past," Spong says, "God was depicted as a supernatural being who lived above the sky and periodically invaded the world to do a miracle. Then along came Copernicus and Keppler and Galileo, and suddenly the sky was empty, it was just infinite space. So the idea of God sitting above the clouds keeping record books on every individual becomes less than believable."
Similarly, living this side of Isaac Newton ó who taught that the world operates according to specific laws ó we cannot take seriously the idea that God would stop the sun in the sky so Joshua could win a war (as depicted in the Old Testament book of Joshua).
Before Charles Darwin wrote, he says, we thought of ourselves as a little bit lower than the angels (Psalm 8). After Darwin wrote we thought of ourselves as a little bit higher than the apes.
"We could go on and talk about Freud, Einstein and Hawking," Spong says. "The intellectual revolution of the past 400 years has totally reshaped the way we think of the world, and Christianity has to think in terms of that world. It doesnít do us a lot of good to speak in terms of the 13th century church.
"My book is an attempt to spell out a way to be Christian without checking your brains at the door of the church. You can embrace the fact that you are a citizen of the 21st century."
Spong grew up a fundamentalist in the Bible belt of South Carolina, where, he says, the four cardinal precepts were that segregation (of blacks) was Godís will, that treating women as second-class citizens was Godís will, hating Jews was Godís will and hating homosexuals was Godís will.
"I rejected all of them. Iím not interested in that God to be honest. Can you imagine a God who stops the sun in the sky so Joshua can kill more Amorites? Thatís what the story is all about.
"Some of those Amorites are getting away, and God stops the sun so Joshua can kill them all. What a noble purpose to institute daylight saving time for! That was the text the church used to condemn Galileo."
In person, Spong is articulate and charming. The veteran of thousands of interviews and speeches, he is the perfect sound-bite bishop, pithy and blunt, without being too confrontational.
His reasonable tone can disguise how challenging his concepts are to biblical Christianity, but to the orthodox he seems to advocate an utterly new religion with only the most tenuous links to the old. The names may be the same, but what they signify are light-years apart.
So what does Spong think should be substituted? Here is a doctrinal smorgasbord, the Gospel according to Spong.
Traditional theology says God is creator, all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere. He is triune (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
To Spong, this is pre-modern mumbo jumbo. No one can say what God is, but he is not a being. The book calls "it" a presence that can be experienced but never defined. The father-figure concept arose as a human coping device, created by traumatised creatures to help them deal with the anxiety of self-awareness.
"Everybody wants a parent figure in the sky who is supernatural and will take care of me. Nobody wants to grow up and accept that weíre responsible for the world we live in."
Nevertheless, the death of theism does not make atheism right ó Spong is more inclined to Paul Tillichís "ground of being".
To orthodoxy, Christ is God incarnate. God overcame the conflict between his holiness, which required that human rebellion be punished, and his love, which demanded mercy, by substituting himself to take the punishment in the person of Christ.
For Spong, obviously, the divinity of Christ cannot survive the death of his Father.
Instead, Christ is the master, a boundary-breaker who opens access to a deeper humanity.
But Spong rejects the doctrine of atonement. "The Christ figure makes great sense to me. What doesnít make sense is that God needed to kill Jesus to overcome Barneyís sins," he says, pointing at the interviewer.
"Barneyís been a bad boy so God beats on Jesus. What sense does that make? We are still evolving. Our problem is not that we are fallen sinners who need to be rescued but that we havenít yet become fully human."
On the Bible:
Traditionally, the inspired Word of God, which evangelicals claim to be without any errors and others to be authoritative for faith and practice.
Spong does not consider the Bible the primary source of divine revelation, or believe it inspired. It is a human book containing some profound wisdom and culture-bound limitations.
This is the subject of his next book, The Terrible Text of the Bible, which is "an attempt to look at those passages of scripture that have been used destructively, to hurt people over the years, like all the texts that are quoted to condemn gay and lesbian people, like the anti-Semitic texts where the Jewish crowd is quoted as saying Ďhis blood be on us and our childrení. This has been used over the centuries to say ĎJewish people deserve thisí."
Prayer is many things to orthodox believers, but above all it is recognition of their creatureliness before God. In prayer they engage with God, in praise and petition, in meditation.
Spong sees it as somewhat less elevated. "I donít believe you can manipulate God to get your will done. I refer to most prayer as adult letters to Santa Claus: Ďdear God, Iíve been a very good boy, please do A, B, C and D for me.í
"This puts God in our employ, but it didnít stop Germans killing Jews in World War II, it doesnít stop the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Mr Bush quotes God and goes to war, and so does Osama bin Laden. Thereís something wrong in that equation."
Christians traditionally take the Bible as the starting point for ethics because it claims to reveal Godís will about what is best for people and how they should relate.
To Spong, the Bible is a poor place to start because so much of it denigrates other human life. For example, the Ten Commandments denigrate women, he says, because the 10th defines women as the property of men (thou shalt not covet thy neighbourís wife Ö or anything else that is thy neighbourís).
"I think that before people begin to say this is the moral code of the universe that they ought to look at that. Then thereís the texts people use to justify war, or physical punishment of children, like Ďspare the rod and spoil the childí, and those texts that are popularly used by religious circles to denigrate and hurt other human beings."
Homosexuality is like being left-handed ó itís not something people choose. "You donít persecute people because theyíre women, you donít persecute people because theyíre black, you donít persecute people because theyíre left-handed, and you donít persecute people because theyíre gay."
Spong acknowledges this understanding creates difficulties for many Christians, especially in the Third World ó who form the majority of Anglicans, and maintain a traditional doctrinal position of faithfulness in marriage and chastity outside ó but says that is because modern scientific and medical knowledge has not yet "seeped down".
On conservative Christians:
"The wonderful thing about the criticism I receive from very conservative, right-wing Christians is that by saying some of the things they say about me, they awaken the audience they hope to reach to the possibility that thereís something other than their very conservative attitude which is in the Christian faith."
To those who say Spongís religion is little more than a facile form of secular humanism, he replies that Christianity should issue in humanism, or it will issue in inhumanity, and he sees nothing wrong in becoming more human.
He canít understand why critics charge that he is tearing God down. "I canít tear God down. What a miserable God it would be if Spong could tear him down. What Iím tearing down is some peopleís unbelievable understandings of God."
Spong does have some sharp words for his opponents, describing Sydney Archbishop Peter Jensen, an outspoken evangelical, as living in the past. "He and I just donít live in the same world. His values and understandings are somewhere in the 19th century as far as Iím concerned. He probably thinks Iím in the 22nd."
But he wonít waste time debating people like Jensen. "I go where Iím invited. I donít get invited to the places that are still trying to preserve yesterday. Nor would I be interested. I wouldnít accept an invitation to speak at the flat earth society either, itís the same mentality to me."
His critics complain that he would not have got so much attention had he been plain Mr Jack Spong, rather than a bishop, which is probably true.
So, is he a visionary creator of the faith or a heretical destroyer? Two interesting facts offer a bet each way. Positive: the best-selling author of about 20 books, he says this one is flying off the shelves faster than any before and will soon be his top seller. Negative: During his tenure as Bishop of Newark, confirmed communicants in the diocese virtually halved, from 44,423 in 1978, to 23,073 in 1996.
It seems that if there is no traditional God to judge, the task must be left to history.
Barney Zwartz is The Age religious affairs writer.