The Yankees, Iraq and Patriotism

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 19 May 2004 0 Comments
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How can we keep the Church without having to keep all the doctrines, dogmas and creeds of the religious past? How can we encourage that minority of people who remain inside the Church's fundamentalist majority to stay there? How can we encourage the "Church Alumni Association" members to return, if what they have to come back to is the very thing that made them want to leave?


You sound discouraged so let me try to give you hope. In the great centers of Christian scholarship, the things that I am talking about are commonplace. This does not mean that all academically qualified people will spend their careers challenging fundamentalist thinking; many of them will simply ignore it. It does mean, however, that some of them will and ultimately this will trickle down and will begin to show up in the training of local clergy. Please remember that for many people religion is not a search for truth but a search for security.

I am always amazed at how fundamentalists and evangelicals try to put an academic face on their rather poor evangelical education. They trot out their teachers and show off their Ph.D.s, even their Ph.D. from places like Oxford or Cambridge. What the gullible public does not know is that Oxford and Cambridge have evangelical theological colleges as part of the university complex and an Oxford or Cambridge Ph.D. from one of these theological colleges is not a sign that the holder has a Cambridge or Oxford Ph.D. so much as a degree from an evangelical college at Cambridge or Oxford. England also gives a lesser degree called a D.Phil that Americans do not quite know how to evaluate. It may be the equivalent of a Masters degree in the United States.

Beyond these suspect practices, there are degrees from evangelical schools like Bob Jones, Oral Roberts and Liberty Baptist that are worth something only to those who value the kind of education one receives in such a place. I remember seeing a teacher's contract at Liberty Baptist College that told the teacher what he or she could not teach, like evolution, for example. Denominational theological colleges or seminaries are also frequently under the purging control of headquarters so that scholarship is seriously diminished. Roman Catholic theologians are removed if they do not affirm the church's teaching. I remind you of what happened to Hans Kung or Charles Curran, These schools and the Church leaders who put pressure on them are infected with the idea that they both know the truth and possess it. This means you do not admit into your world anything that challenges your version of truth, which is the process through which a teacher becomes a propagandist rather than an educator.

But behind this facade of education, there is still a great deal of competent academic training that is available. Evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics attack this as "liberal" scholarship and, by implication, suggest that they possess "conservative" scholarship. Once again that is self-serving propaganda. There is no such thing as conservative or liberal scholarship. There is only competent and incompetent scholarship. Competent scholarship may be interpreted in a liberal or conservative direction but the scholarship itself must be competent.

Once you recognize that you are not alone and that you are not crazy, you have other options. You can make noise in the local congregation. Ask for more than you are getting. Seek to start a study group that will look at books that are outside the box. There are many popular authors from whom to choose. When you speak up in your church you accomplish two things: you give your minister courage and you raise a flag that other people will salute. The crucial role in a congregation comes when a new minister is chosen. That is a vital assignment that you should seek, since that decision will shape your church for the next five to ten years. Look at where and under whom your prospective minister studied above all else.

If you cannot change your whole congregation, then work to change one part of it to make it more appealing to those who ask questions and seek new understanding. Start a Sunday class, a weekday study group, a Wednesday evening class, something that will announce to the alumni that this church is able to listen to new possibilities. People who have left the Church will hardly be attracted to come back to the same old thing that repelled them in the first place. They will come, however, if they hear new sounds coming out of that congregation.

The Church will either adapt to new knowledge or it will die. So don't be discouraged, be proactive. Lots of people hope you will.

-- John Shelby Spong




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