Reflections on my Interactions with Bishop Spong

Essay by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox on 2 March 2017 11 Comments

 
I first learned of Bishop Spong’s prophetic work and his work with the Jesus seminar over 34 years ago while I was still a Dominican priest working in the Chicago area. To hear of an Episcopal bishop who was approaching the Scriptures with a critical sense of questioning and scholarship and who was supporting gay rights and women’s rights was, needless to say, a breath of fresh air. When Bishop Spong invited me out to Newark to lead a day retreat with his clergy I was pleased to be invited and I recall my opening line to him when I entered his car at the airport: “We heretics need to stick together,” I said. I don’t recall his demurring in any way. Following my day-long presentation (which included circle dancing and I was pleased to see a Bishop participating in such), Bishop Spong said to me: “Usually people leave at lunch time as they are allowed to do but this day was so exciting everyone stayed until the end.”

From a theological point of view I was inspired by Bishop Spong to pay attention to the Jesus seminar movement and the Biblical insights they have established and I have not regretted that inspiration. Meeting and teaching with and reading the works of Bruce Chilton has been deeply formative for me (we taught at my University of Creation Spirituality a course on “The Historical Jesus and the Cosmic Christ” that was moving to me and many students in our doctor of ministry program and I have often recommended his book Rabbi Jesus). I also participated in a conference at Brad College with Bruce as well as a gathering in Pittsburg on “The Christ Path” along with Andrew Harvey. The works of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have also nurtured me and my theology along the way and thanks to Spong’s influence. Bishop Spong has also been both gracious and generous in offering endorsements to some of my books along the way. He has offered some generous comments such as these that I found supportive of my vocation along the way. “Matt Fox is a pilgrim who seeks a path into the church of tomorrow. Countless numbers will be happy to follow his lead.”

When I was expelled from the Dominican Order after 34 years by then Cardinal Ratzinger who was head of the new inquisition launched by Pope John Paul II–in all humility I have to acknowledge that I was just one of 109 theologians silenced, expelled, or otherwise bullied under Popes JP II and Benedict XVI and I name these 109 theologians in my book, The Pope’s War–I was just minding my own business when I met a group of young Anglicans who flew in from Sheffield, England to attend a workshop I was conducting in Seattle. These twenty-somethings were reinventing forms of worship by bringing Rave into the liturgy. I had just completed my book on The Reinvention of Work and the last chapter was on “Reinventing Ritual” and lo and behold, these people were doing it! With great success they were organizing young people, most of them living in the streets and from broken homes–this was the height of the collapse of coal in England and there was 40% unemployment and therefore lots of abuse by alcoholic and unemployed fathers in their homes who often abused their kids who then took to the streets and found a community in the rave culture. The five persons who flew to Seattle brought newspaper articles about their “Planetary Mass” with them and I was smitten.

Soon I flew to Sheffield to check for myself and was very impressed—all the elements for renewing worship that I had laid out in my Work book were being employed: bringing the body back (dance was at the heart of the practice); using contemporary post-modern art forms such as DJ and VJ and Rap (one young fellow about four feet tall rapped my “original blessing” book during the mass and quite blew my mind), silence and contemplation and more. “How can I help you?” I asked these people and they responded this way. “We are already using your theology—especially that of the Cosmic Christ—but if you were to become and Anglican priest you could run interference for us since you get what we are doing and few clergy get it.” I thought it over and prayed about it and this is what I concluded: “The pope doesn’t need me anymore; he fired me after all. So why not join them and contribute what I can? After all, I have written about a ‘preferential option for the young’ and this might be a healthy opportunity to contribute.” So I went to Bishop William Spong at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and told him I was having temptations to become an Episcopal priest but for one reason only: To work with young people to reinvent forms of worship. His response? “The church is losing young people right and left so I say: Go for it.” With that I took a six session seminar with a retired Episcopal seminary theologian and was accepted into the Episcopal Church as a priest.

Behind it all was an admiration for the Episcopal Church at this time in history being open to theological alternatives as well as liturgical options (something I had learned hands on was not in the offing in the Roman Catholic Church of my generation). This admiration came in no small measure from the work of Bishop Spong. When I taught for four years at a women’s college, Bara College in Lake Forest, Illinois outside Chicago I invited one of the first ordained women priests to celebrate Mass at the school. Everyone was weeping from the deep meaning of the event. (Later Cardinal Cody of Chicago called me in for a dressing down for having sponsored a mass with an “Anglican priestess” and I tell that story in greater detail in my autobiography, Confessions: The Making of a Post-denominational Priest). That the Episcopal Church was dealing with the ordination of women and with issues of homosexuality and left the door open for genuine theological discussion and debate was very inviting to me. I can never underestimate the role of Bishop Spong in showing me this more open face of a critical theological, liturgical and historical tradition.

Also I am moved by Bishop Spong’s courage—he has dared to speak out candidly on the most controversial issues of our day from Biblical fundamentalism to women and gay rights and he has done so in an open manner that is rare in ecclesial circles. As a spiritual theologian I have often maintained that the first sign of spirit is Courage. Without courage nothing great can happen, surely justice cannot come about. Martin Luther King Jr. had courage, Gandhi had courage, Jesus had courage, Dorothy Day had courage. So too does Bishop Spong. To stand up to the idols of religion from within the religious system takes courage and many people, consciously or unconsciously, admire Bishop Spong not only for his leadership but for the courage and therefore depth of spirituality that lies behind it.

Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 2.43.16 PMI will confess that while I read some of Spong’s books along the way of my own path and struggles I did not cite him a lot in my works. I suspect this is because I was busy going in my direction and needed to carve my own path. But today, as I look back on his and my theological journeys, I find an immense amount of compatibility in the questions we have been asking and the responses we have come up with. That is one reason I rejoice at this invitation to write this six week series with his spirit and vision in mind, a spirit of a New Reformation, a pressing topic that we have both addressed in some depth, he by posting his 12 theses at Mansfield College in Oxford and I by posting my 95 theses at Wittenburg at Pentecost time the year Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI and; again at Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome in protest to Cardinal Law who presided there having escaped from his Boston diocese when state officials were pursuing him about his cover-up of pedophile priests.

I look forward to the intellectual give and take that will follow flowing out of Bishop Spong’s call for a New Reformation.

~ Matthew Fox

About the Author

Matthew Fox holds a doctorate in spirituality from the Institut Catholique de Paris and has authored 32 books on spirituality and contemporary culture that have been translated into 60 languages. Fox has devoted 45 years to developing and teaching the tradition of Creation Spirituality and in doing so has reinvented forms of education and worship. His work is inclusive of today’s science and world spiritual traditions and has awakened millions to the much neglected earth-based mystical tradition of the West. He has helped to rediscover Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas. Among his books are Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the FleshTransforming Evil in Soul and Society, The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved and Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest

 

Question

Kevin, congratulations on stepping up and stepping in to this amazing format. 

My question after being acquainted with Jack Spong and his work, and also you and yours to a degree, is why, if the leaders of the Episcopal Church reject your work, do you continue in this organization?  Why not go somewhere where your efforts are encouraged and appreciated, somewhere where there is a greater openness to your messages? Unity, for instance, is such an organization, a spiritual organization made up of people who have listened to their intuition, rejected tradition for its own sake, yet would thrive on the scholarship which you two could bring to augment that on which it was founded. 

I guess my question is, where do you feel you can do the greatest service and why? 

Answer

Dear Judy,

I relish and receive the beauty embodied in the members and communities of Unity. I, myself, am someone whose spiritual journey continues to be shaped by Buddhism, Sufism, the Enneagram community, and especially the Diamond Approach. Throughout it all, my heart remains continually drawn to reexplore the ancient Jewish and Christian practices, texts, and spirituality that formed me as a youth.

Back in the 1970’s there was a vigorous dialogue, we might say, between the psychotherapists Roy Schafer and Hans Loewald, about the language of psychoanalysis. Schafer, as Stephen Mitchell observes, had given up on the classical Freudian terminology, finding it too “saturated with misleading and erroneous meanings.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Loewald saw things differently: “what psychoanalysis needs might not be a ‘new language’ but a less inhibited, less pedantic and narrow understanding and interpretation of its current language leading to elaborations and transformations of the meanings of concepts, theoretical formulations, or definitions that may or may not have been envisaged by Freud.”

I find within the Episcopal expression of the varied Christian tradition incredible experience, mystery, and wisdom; all too often it remains imprisoned in expression that is pedantic and narrow; even more, the entire enterprise is buttressed by fearful authorities. And yet --- this ancient language, expressive of the most profound experiences of our species, has the capacity to flourish again, because it can connect with the deepest aspirations of the human heart. In my writing and teaching and preaching I endeavor to be much less inhibited, exploring elaborations and transformations of such concepts of sin, grace, transfiguration, Christic nature, and so much more. I believe I can do the greatest service here, not because I’m trying to serve, but because I love this soulful work. I find that it matters to me and to so many others, seeking to be free from an arid and dying form of Christianity.

I am a student of the soul and her journey. My ultimate allegiance, if I may call it that, is to the truth of experience as we each experience it; drawing upon all the critical tools at my disposal (especially those of psychology and phenomenology) – truth not as proposition but as dynamic language embodying personal experience. The purpose of any authentic spiritual community is to nurture this exploration of truth.

~Kevin G. Thew Forrester

 

Comments

 

11 thoughts on “Reflections on my Interactions with Bishop Spong

  1. Dr. Fox: Welcome! And thank you for taking up this six-week series of hosting Bishop Spong’s column. I think it does take a lot, a whole lot of courage for you to get back up after being knocked down by the Pope! It takes courage for you to protest Cardinal Law at Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome! I have read about his dirty tricks in the Boston diocese. To invite one of the first ordained women priests to celebrate Mass at Bara College in Lake Forest, Illinois also must have taken a great deal of courage! (I have fond memories of Chicago and of the state of Illinois since it was the first place I landed when I immigrated with my parents there in 1958. Later I got my BS from the University of Illinois.) Then to top it all you have not only decided to become an Episcopal priest, but to take up the preferential option for the young people as you are doing is remarkable indeed. I cannot wait to hear what you will say about  Creation Spirituality as being related to the much neglected earth-based mystical tradition of the West. Eugene, an elder of PCUSA, from Suzhou, China

  2. Rev Dr Fox, I am thrilled you’re here and willing to “feed” us. I was first introduced to your work as a double Master’s student at The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and although I sometimes found your work tough to grasp (you’re not easy to read, sir!)and dense, after a few times through, I began to get the “hang” of what you were writing. I have nothing but admiration for your Christian walk and again, am so happy you’ll be a regular here!

    Judy, I went through a period of time when I was certain I could no longer be a Roman Catholic in good conscience and I seriously considered Unity as a valid, wonderful alternative (I had subscribed to “Daily Word” for years at this point), but after further exploration, I realized that what really fed my soul was sacramental Christianity and I became an Old Catholic as a result, and although I often feel like “a voice of one crying in the wilderness”, I stay there because for ME it is the way I choose to worship and I remain grateful that there are so many varieties of Christian expression. Thank you for your question!

  3. Judy: As Dr. Fox said: “When I was expelled from the Dominican Order after 34 years by then Cardinal Ratzinger who was head of the new inquisition launched by Pope John Paul II…I have not only decided to become an Episcopal priest, but to take up the preferential option for the young people….” There must be something much better and “freer” after he became an Episcopal priest. In an earlier column I have already thanked Kevin G. Thew Forrester for the timely rescue of Bishop John Spong when Jack Spong suffered from a stroke right there in Marquette, Michigan last September. Here I want to express my appreciation to Kevin once more. Then after all, it was through so many years of being a priest and 24 years of being a bishop in the Episcopal church that has permitted Jack Spong, although now retired, to nurture his Progressive theology into what it is today. I wish to thank Dr. Fox, Rev. Kevin, and Jack Spong for being you, for your continuous struggle against all odds in your search for truth, and for your courage! I have read《The Courage to Be》by Paul Tillich many times so far. As Gavin said, “…although I sometimes found your work tough to grasp (you’re not easy to read, sir!)and dense, after a few times through, I began to get the‘hang’of what you were writing.”Sometimes the writings by great minds such as these might not be easy to read or grasp, after a few more times through it we might ultimately begin to understand it. That seems to be true with the statement by Bonhoeffer on God as I have quoted it in last week’s column.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  4. Dr. Fox – I am not a theologian but being interested in metaphysics & spirituality, I have read some of your work. I find it quite interesting that you found a home in the Episcopal Church. Many years ago, I too joined the Episcopal Church mainly because it was open to new ideas and despite differences chose to accept people of diverse beliefs. Tolerance and acceptance are indicators of a matured church or organization.
    God Bless.

  5. Matt: You were too humble when you said:“I will confess that while I read some of Spong’s books along the way of my own path and struggles I did not cite him a lot in my works.” I just reread the column you had hosted about prayer, unceasing prayer for justice and against injustice( 24 November,2016)The title of that passage was: “A New Christianity, a New Prayer Bishop Spong Style”,and I did make my contribution to that column in my comment about the prolonged “prayer”for 8.5 hours in the US Congress by senator Bernie Sanders in December, 2010.
    I might add here that senator Bernie Sanders was obviously praying for justice in all of America. But I will not repeat what I have already said in that column,except that Berbie’s long prayer for justice did not get the result he was hoping for.On the contrary,“Citizens United”and other obscene garbage got rammed down the throat of us the poor taxpayers.It is true that my retirement benefit in the monthly checks did not get one cent of increase
    for a while.It is also true that if the“Obama Care”which appears soon to be destroyed would render perhaps more than 150 million American poor or sick or injured without health care. This would bring up the relevant Chapter 11 in Jack Spong’s book《A New Christianity for a New World》entitled:“But What About Prayer?”that you have cited in which Spong gave a good example of the national story told by the AP(before 2001)concerning the concentrated prayers by fellow students in a small bible college of the theistic type for their female basketball star whose legs were subject to amputation below her knees due to a very rare disease.The fellow students were sincere and prayed around the clock unceasingly.Despite their earnest efforts, however, that young lady’s disease only got worse, and her legs had to be amputated in the end.These young adults did exactly what Paul had said in 1 Thess.5:17 to pray without ceasing.They literally believed what Jesus said,“Ask and it will be given to you.”(Matt.7:7).They told one another that“all things are possible”(Mark 9:23),and that their sincere prayer could move mountains if need be (Mark 11:23; Matt.17:20).They were simply taking God at God’s word.“God does not lie”they assured one another. (Spong pp.186-187)
    No wonder Jack Spong described described the most frequent question ha received after each lecture he gave was“What about prayer?”Apparently most of those people thought/think that prayers are as letters to Santa Claus.
    Jack Spong asserted that“The traditional understanding and definition of prayer,then,is …nothing more than an attempt to control …trauma of self-consciousness or in the‘shock of nonbeing’(Tillich).”(p.191).
    So as Jack Spong has said,“Matt Fox is a pilgrim who seeks a path into the church of tomorrow. Countless numbers will be happy to follow his lead.” And Matt: You are a good leader indeed.
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  6. My Comment: Why Does It Matter? In chapter 13 of Jack Spong’s book 《A New Christianity for a New World》Bishop Spong tried to answer this question posed by one of the listeners to his lecture.That listener wanted to know what difference it would make in the real life of our real world if we ceased to define God in theistic terms.Spong asserted,“The imperialistic imposition of the well-defined theological view of God by the church on the life of the entire public showed why that view mattered,…but that …gave us a Christianity at its demonic worst.”Jack Spong found it interesting as he pondered the question posed by the Roman Catholic scholar John D. Crossan:“Is Christianity more like sex or politics?”So bishop Spong reasoned that sex is private while politics is public activity.He proceeded to mention what Jesus said about the“realm of God”(traditionally translated with the sexist rendition of“the kingdom of God”)that the Christian message had to be communal instead of individual.He came to the conclusion that the ecclesia of the future ought to be dedicated to expanding the realm of God. Jack Spong asserted,“The realm of God will confront …the patriarchy that diminishes the lives of women…the racism that diminishes the lives of people of color…the conscious and unconscious homophobia that diminishes the lives of LGBT people…the economically powerful rich that diminishes the lives of the poor…the insensitive,prejudiced,and selfish (my addition) perpetrator that diminishes the lives of their victims.”Spong says that the agenda of the realm of God is not an agenda of words or creeds;it is an agenda of action.This action is to enhance life, to enhance love, and to enhance being. Spong says this action is not to enhance power or to impose anyone’s meaning upon another as if there is an exclusive truth.So Jack Spong stated,“It matters. God matters. The realm of God matters. The ecclesia matters. The reformation matters.”
    Eugene, an elder of PCUSA, from Suzhou, China

  7. Eugene – I am afraid that people who are in positions of authority will always find something and conduct themselves accordingly for which in hindsight they are in full apology. This in brief has to do with economic well being. Slavery was sanctioned to develop US and other Western countries, young children & convicts were sent to develop Australia, etc. Now the Church and conscious members are full of grief and apology. Who killed Archbishop Romero? Who is the imperialist – the Church or the non-Church? Too much imposition of religion is not good.

  8. Dear Matt: When you were expelled from the Dominican Order after 34 years by then Cardinal Ratzinger who was head of the new inquisition launched by Pope John Paul II, you probably went through a period of time similar to what Martin Luther had experienced when he was rejected by the leaders of the Catholic church. You might even have gone through some anxiety of guilt, doubt, and the state of feeling meaninglessness. Then when you met the Anglican youth from Cheshire in Seattle and decided to be converted to a priesthood in the Episcopalian denomination your sense of guilt naturally disappeared, and through your self-affirmation the doubt also went away. By devoting your work for the youth in the Episcopalian church you have found meaning and found spiritual connection with the God above the theistic God or the Ground of being again. You have found “the Courage to Be”. Through your courage to participate and your self-affirmation of being itself, you have participated in the power of being which has prevailed against nonbeing and the sense of meaninglessness.
    So congratulations to you!
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  9. Jawaharlal: Yes, Too much imposition of religion is not good. Jack Spong cited the Harvard Divinity School student sermon given by a Ms. Kathrin (Katie) Ford (year 2000). This was the primary part of Spong’s chapter 14 in 《A New Christianity for a New World》(pp.233-236)with the title of her sermon as:“The Creed has become for me an unlivable place”.Katie Ford opened her sermon by telling the story of a killing flood over a village, with the river water covering all the fields around that village and the town, destroying all the crops,running over the highest level of sandbags that were piled up by the town’s people, even submerging the basement and the first floors of all the homes in town, and finally immersing all the wells and cisterns and making the ground water totally contaminated. People saw their precious collection of family photographs and other treasures being floated down the river… That village was no longer livable and“yet something powerful and relentless inside themselves continued to urge them to remain where they were.Rationally they knew they had to leave, but emotionally they were immobilized.”Then Katie began to speak the words of the Christian creed, beginning with the phrase,“I believe in God, the Father almighty.”This creed, she said, is like that flooded town,“has become for me an unlivable place.”In the creeds,“there is no mention of love, no mention of the teachings of Jesus, no mention of the Kingdom (realm)of God being present in our bodies and souls, no mention of God as the ground of life.”The creeds have fallen on us, she asserted,like the rain soaking us over the centuries, and the endless immersion by them has shaped our minds and our souls“drop by drop”and has destroyed the very crops which“the Christians are supposed to harvest as our livelihood.”She asserted,“We have been drinking in the Father God our whole life.”Katie Ford concluded,“This God is a deity who chooses some of the world’s children while rejecting others.He is the Father who needs a bloody sacrifice of his son, the father of wrath, the father of patriarchal marriage, of male ordination and female submission, the father of heterosexual privilege, the father of literal and spiritual slavery.” No wonder Jack Spong said,“I listened to this gifted, God-filled young woman with awe and wonder.”
    Jawaharlal: We have no choice but to get out of the “Christian creeds” and the continued imposition by the church. Thank you.
    Eugene, an elder of PCUSA, from Suzhou, China

  10. On April 2nd, 2017 at 6:55 AM Carsten said:
    Hello friends –
    I am a newcomer to this website. First: I am sorry to hear Mr. Spong has had a stroke. I hope he will get well soon!
    I have watched many videos featuring bishop Spong and cried out loud when I watched his lecture at Chautauqua, this episode: Spong describes different kinds of Christian dogmas and then asks the people present: “And what is wrong with all this?” Silence. He waits and then says: “EVERYTHING is wrong!” A bishop denouncing the Christian dogmas! Unusual, excellent. I have been of the same opinion for many years.
    Now I have surfed this website for several hours, and of cause read the 12 theses for a new reformation of Christianity. That task is so important for many reasons. The main reason is to my mind the fatal mistake that “Jesus´ blood has washed away all our sins.” This expression I read in a Danish Christian newspaper the other day, spoken by a minister. (I live in Denmark). That mistake has been hanging on to Christianity as a parasite ever since Paul wondered why his beloved master Jesus had to die on the cross, and this dark theory awoke in his mind. And it has been blocking and distorting billions of peoples genuine understanding of Jesus, of his (and ours) Heavenly Father and their nature and relationship since. But there are several more dogmas that has been sneaked into the teachings of Jesus, although the doctrine of atonement is the heaviest one. Why heaviest? Because it is a lie with potential heavy consequences for the believers.
    It makes God a monster, Jesus a sacrificial lamb and us ever guilty sinners that need salvation. Quote: John Shelby Spong.
    I used exactly these words the other day, among others, when I participated in a TV-broadcast with 2 ministers. Thanks to Spong.
    Let me return to the 12 theses:
    My first contribution to these theses is an answer to a relevant question from Cassandra Ferrin, 9th. Feb. 2017:
    “As his (Spong´s) friend and colleague in the Jesus Seminar (now the Westar Institute), I feel a strong obligation to ask the next question, to take the next step. What is our positive task? What are we living for?
    Yes, here comes the hard work. We must establish something new and true, as it is not enough to remove the wrong dogmas in prayers, psalms, creeds etc. These can not be reinterpreted, they must be removed, as I see it. I am thinking of the following dogmas and doctrines: Doctrine of atonement (justification by faith alone), communion, doctrine of trinity, virgin birth, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, original sin, predestination and eternal damnation, and maybe others. Is this also what a person could be living for? I think such a reason is good enough
    If we call all this false, dogmatic or distorted Christianity – then the new Christianity could be called new, progressive or genuine Christianity. This is expressed in the true sayings of Christ in the New Testament several places. But what is true and what is false?
    What is authentic and what has been changed by the scribes, who copied the scriptures?
    Here we have to turn to all the historical, ancient texts that exist; all sorts of historic writings in Christian, Greek, Coptic, Egyptian, Syrian, Aramaic and so on. All the gospels, texts and records we can find. Not to speak about what happened at the ecumenical councils from Nicaea in 325 to Constantinople in 553. We must search for the true Christianity in all the apocryphal gospels and writings, many of which are translated and published in the 20th century. And probably many more historic documents that cast light on the early Christian church as close to the time of Jesus as possible.
    I spoke to a Swedish bishop emeritus some weeks ago and he wrote back: “Time is soon up for a conference on the Christian faith.” I agree, but who is going to take the initiative? Who can, who dares?
    Carsten
    B.A. Religion
    Denmark
    skaarup.carsten@gmail.com

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