John Shelby Spong recognizes that the Christian Church is not modern. Many ideas that helped build the foundation of the faith hundreds of years ago no longer apply to the current world.
And it’s driving believers away.
The former Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, will kick off Chautauqua’s Interfaith Lecture Series by discussing this issue as part of the Week One theme: “Producing a Living Faith Today.” Spong, who will deliver the first four interfaith lectures this week, will speak at 2 p.m. Monday, June 25 in the Hall of Philosophy.
His last visit to Chautauqua was in 2016, when he also spoke as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series.
Spong’s first lecture, titled “The Context of Our Unbelieving,” addresses the problem with a church organized around fourth-century principles. Notably, he sees a problem with Christianity’s exclusion of women, rejection of certain sexual orientations and failure to adapt to the current world.
Spong said there is much progress to be made, but he does believe the Christian faith has the ability to adjust. This process involves rethinking core ideas.
“I’m trying to open Christianity up to speak to the modern world,” he said. “We’ve got to accept intellectually smart ideas that are not compatible with the way Christianity has been understood. We can revise and reform Christianity.”
As someone who grew up in the South during the 1940s, Spong has witnessed Christianity — and the larger world — experience dramatic change.
During his childhood, he was exposed not only to forms of extreme conservatism, but also fierce racism and intolerance.
Despite his surroundings, he never adapted these beliefs.
“When I was about 10 years old, I went to a black school with a group from my school to have a patriotic assembly because World War II had started,” Spong said. “During that assembly, we all stood there and sang the national anthem and said the Lord’s Prayer together. I suddenly realized, here we are, black people and white people, both praying to the same God in the same language, but we can’t pray together. That didn’t make sense to me.”
His religious career was guided by principles of social tolerance, causing some backlash from members of his faith who believed he was undermining Christianity.
Spong has published over 30 books covering the intersection of social issues and religion, including best-sellers like Jesus for the Non-Religious and Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.
“Many issues moved into my life,” he said. “Women’s issues — that’s the same issue as segregation. You’re talking about the being of a person and saying that certain people’s being keeps them from doing certain things. That seemed nonsensical to me.”
In the last decade, as social views have changed, Spong said his ideas are much less controversial. In fact, he describes himself as a “strangely old-fashioned orthodox.”
At 87 years old, Spong’s focus has shifted. His most recent book, Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today focuses on reworking concepts of Christian faith so they exist in harmony with accepted scientific principles.
While at Chautauqua, Spong said he will share those ideas, and he is thrilled to engage with the community once again.
“I think Chautauqua is unique in that it’s the one place I know of where people can offer ideas and it can be debated, and no one gets angry or gets upset,” he said. “The intellectual discussion that goes on is great.”
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion, said he is also excited to have Spong on the grounds to share his ideas. Robinson said he has enormous respect for the forward-thinking former bishop.
“He was one of the earliest supporters of LGBT people,” Robinson said. “He was out there long before anyone else was, when it was dangerous and crazy.”
Spong said he anticipates this four-day series to be his last lectures, due to a stroke he suffered in 2016 that altered the pace at which he can work. However, Robinson said he is confident Spong will leave an impact on Chautauqua.
“He is a courageous thinker, and he is a wonderful speaker,” Robinson said. “You are guaranteed to disagree with him. I love that in a speaker. You may not agree with him, but you’re going to have to come up with ‘Why.’ Which is a great thing.”