Thursday, September 14, 2006

The God of the Philosophers

I was reading some blurb by John Selby "rent-a-quote" Spong yesterday. This is the guy who used to be a bishop in Newark and wrote a load of books on why Christians and Christianity suck. He now says nice things about anti-Christian books, most amusingly calling The Jesus Mysteries "provocative, exciting and challenging." So yesterday I read that he was promoting Bob Price's attack on something called The Purpose Driven Life, which I understand is a sort of evangelical self-help manual. I've never seen Spong criticise fundamentalist atheists although I get the impression they view him as a 'useful idiot'.

Spong, like some other liberal theologians (Don Cupitt and Richard Holloway spring to mind), views conservative Christians with contempt. But he also sees himself as a leftwinger who hates 'elitism'. There's a contradiction here. By ridiculing the idea of a personal God, he attacks the beliefs that give meaning and purpose to the lives of millions of ordinary people. His idea of good religion can appeal only in the salons of Harvard or among people to whom Spinoza makes sense. The monumental irony of Spong is that he honestly believes that traditional Christianity is the problem and his non-religious religion is the answer. The best way to promote Christianity is to make it so undemanding that it becomes meaningless. I doubt we'll see many more transformed lives if Spong gets his way.

But this is not an attack on radical theology. For centuries scholars have struggled with the concept of God and often produced something that is not going to go down a storm in the pews. Dionysius invented 'negative theology' because our language is not equipped to say positive things about God - only what He is not. The scholastic understanding of God, especially the Ockhamists, was so far removed from experience it was impossible to relate to individual religious experience. That's why Luther hated it. Today, Keith Ward and Rowan Williams might find they could agree with quite a lot of what Spong says, if not how he says it. But being a liberal or radical theologian does not make you unorthodox, any more than being a conservative Christian makes you politically conservative.

The problem with Spong, Holloway and others is they aim their fire at Christians, not at anti-Christians. Ward and Williams remain solidly orthodox and know who the enemy is. It is interesting that Bishop of Oxford, who once foolishly shared platforms with Richard Dawkins, seems to have realised that cross-dressing in such a way is unacceptable, even for a bishop.

For me, the question to ask a theologian is not "what is God?" but rather "whose side are you on?". Comparing the books of Keith Ward to those of John Selby Spong, I am reminded of the phrase "By their fruits you will know them."

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

No comments: