Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today
Reviewed by Paul Buckley
September 1, 2019
By John Shelby Spong. HarperOne, 2018. 336 pages. $27.99/hardcover; $18.99/paperback; $12.99/eBook.
Many Friends acknowledge the Christian roots of the Religious Society of Friends but seem to feel that they (or the Society as a whole) outgrew those roots and now belong to a universally welcoming community. They may struggle to describe what they understand to be the current foundations of Quakerism. Often the so-called Quaker testimonies are recited as if this were the equivalent of a creed—that we can be defined solely by the things we do, rather than by any things we believe. They may feel that people who describe themselves as Christian Quakers are the dying remnants of a past that no longer speaks to the condition of a modern world.
Friends are not alone in this. Many contemporary Christian theologians wonder how and whether the Christian message can still engage and enlighten people. John Shelby Spong has attempted to answer that challenge, and does so in a way that I believe can be valuable to both self-identifying Christian and non-Christian members of our society.
At the heart of every religious movement is a set of interlocking stories that explains the nature of ultimate reality and humanity’s place in it. When individual elements of those stories no longer make sense, they can be patched or modified. But when people lose conviction in the whole story structure, the movement breaks down and loses its adherents. People once believed that families of gods lived in a real place called Valhalla or on top of Mount Olympus. Now they don’t, and the religions that depended on the stories of those gods have disappeared. The stories are still valued as myth or fable, but they’re no longer accepted as fact nor credible bases for religious faith.
By contrast, Judaism has endured for millennia by keeping pieces of its old stories and dropping others—incorporating new human knowledge and new spiritual insights—remaining true to its core while evolving to speak afresh to new generations. Christianity today faces the challenge of doing likewise. I believe Quakerism does too.
Unbelievable is a systematic critique of the traditional stories that undergird Christianity. Starting with the essential natures of God and Jesus, Spong carefully reconsiders the basic creeds, doctrines, and dogmas of the faith. Spong is not intent on merely rejecting them, rather he proposes new ways of understanding 12 fundamental Christian beliefs. This is a book of new stories for an ancient faith.
Not all of these reformulations will universally appeal. Some I found compelling. The chapter titled “Our Definition of God: Evolving, Never Fixed” reformulates the Ultimate in a way I think many Friends would find appealing and insightful. Others required too great a re-imagining. Spong’s reinterpretation of the story of Easter, for example, seems to require the reader to twist and ignore the plain meaning of words in the gospel stories in order to continue believing in a resurrection without the medically impossible revitalization of dead flesh.
At its heart, this book is calling for a religion centered on love. In an epilogue, Spong writes, “I have experienced God as the Source of Love. Love is the power that enhances life . . . the only way I can worship God is by loving ‘wastefully’ . . . the kind of love that never stops to calculate whether the object of its love is worthy to be its recipient.” This is Spong’s essential foundation for Christianity. It is likewise the rock on which Quakerism can be established—a place on which we can stand as Friends. This is a religious doctrine we can recite when approached by a visitor on Sunday morning. That’s the story, the rest is just minutiae.
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