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Postmodern Liberalism: The Rev. Dr. John Shelby Spong 

By Carman Bradley


The chief opposition to gay equality is religious.  We may conduct much of our liberation efforts in the political sphere or even the ‘cultural’ sphere, but always undergirding those and slowing our progress is the moral/religious sphere.  If we could hasten the pace of change there, our overall progress would accelerate – in fact, it would be assured.[i]

                                                                                                  Paul Varnell, Gay Columnist


If we perform the radical surgery [on Christianity] that is required, not only will certain traditional formulations of faith fall by the wayside, but also much of the presumed content of Christianity, and rightly so.  Our only consolation is that if we do not intervene radically and soon the patient will die.[ii]

                                 Thomas Sheehan, professor of religious studies, Stanford University


The Christian homosexual position when carefully examined can be exposed for what it is at its very core: an attack upon the integrity, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture, which for the Christian church is an attack upon the very nature of our Holy God.[iii]

One of the more prolific, if not controversial, liberal pro-gay theologians has been the Episcopalian Bishop, John Shelby Spong.  Although defining himself “first and foremost as a Christian believer” who abhors “creedal” religions, he offers the following personal creed:

I do not define God as a supernatural being.  I do not believe in a deity who can help a nation win a war, intervene to cure a love one’s sickness…Since I do not see God as a being, I cannot interpret Jesus as an earthly incarnation of this supernatural deity…I do not believe that this Jesus could or did in any literal way raise the dead, [or] overcome a medically diagnosed paralysis…I do not believe that Jesus entered this world by miracle of a virgin birth or that virgin births occur anywhere accept in mythology….I do not believe that the experience Christians celebrate at Easter was the physical resuscitation of the three-days-dead body of Jesus, nor do I believe that anyone literally talked with Jesus after the resurrection moment…I do not believe that Jesus, at the end of his earthly sojourn, returned to God by ascending in any literal sense into a heaven located somewhere above the sky….I do not believe that this Jesus founded a church or that he established an ecclesiastical hierarchy beginning with twelve apostles and enduring to this day….I do not believe that human beings are born in sin and that, unless baptized or somehow saved, they will for ever be banished from God’s presence….I regard the church’s traditional exclusion of women from positions of leadership to be not a sacred tradition but a manifestation of the sin of patriarchy….I do not believe that homosexual people are abnormal, mentally sick, or morally depraved.  Furthermore, I regard any sacred text that suggests otherwise to be wrong and ill-informed.  My study has led me to the conclusion that sexuality itself, including all sexual orientation, is morally neutral and as such can be lived out either positively or negatively.  I regard the spectrum of human sexual experience to be broad indeed.  On that spectrum, some percentage of the human population is at all times oriented toward people of their own gender.  This is simply the way life is.  I cannot imagine being part of a church that discriminates against gay and lesbian people on the basis of their being….I do not believe that all Christian ethics have been inscribed either on tablets of stone or in pages of the Christian scriptures and are therefore set for all time.”  I do not believe that the Bible is the ‘word of God’ in any literal sense.  I do not regard it as the primary source of divine revelation.  I do not believe that God dictated it or even inspired its production in its entirety.  I see the Bible as a human book mixing the profound wisdom of sages through the centuries with limitations of human perceptions of reality at a particular time in history. [iv]

Theism, in Spong’s line of thinking, is “a definition of God which has journeyed with self-conscious human beings from primitive animism to complex modern monotheism.”  Moreover, says Spong:

In every one of its evolving forms, theism has functioned as it was originally designed to do.  Theism was born as a human coping device, created by traumatized self-conscious creatures to enable them to deal with the anxiety of self-awareness.  It was designed to discover or to postulate the existence of a powerful divine ally in the quest for human survival and in the process to assert both a purpose to existence and a meaning to life.[v]

We human beings even accentuated our concept of God’s power by developing a language of worship in which we groveled, as slaves might be expected to do before a master….We acknowledged ourselves as deserving only condemnation, for we are those ‘Who stand condemned before the throne of grace,’ clearly unable to please our deity without divine aid.[vi]

The Eastern, Masonic and Gnostic shadows are evident in the direction Spong looks.  He says, “Perhaps we can cast the Christian experience in nonthesistic images.  It is certainly worth a try.”  He writes:

Many sources in human history encourage us to explore this new avenue.  The Buddhist tradition, for example, is not a theistic religion.  Nowhere in classical Buddhism do the Buddhists posit the existence of an external deity.  When Buddhists experience bliss or transcendence in meditation, they do not attribute this to contact with the supernatural.  They assume that such states are natural to humanity and can be learned by anyone who lives right and learns the proper spiritual techniques.  Experiencing bliss involves emptying the self so as to transcend the limits of both subjectivity and objectivity to be one with Being itself, which Buddhists describe as timeless and uncreated.  However, it hardly would be proper to assert that the Buddhists of the world are atheists, unless atheism can be called profoundly religious.

While visiting in China some years ago,…I stayed to pray in that temple with its statues of Buddha and its magnificent and striking colors, which called one into an intensity of consciousness.  Of course I prayed to the God of my Christian experience, but in the calm of that place…I was sure that I was on holy ground…Exploring the levels of meaning that can be found in an Eastern faith tradition can help us learn to see through such limited words as theism.  It also reveals that our ancient Western definitions of God do not exhaust the reality of God.[vii]

Spong sees theism, “with its supernatural God ready to take care of us,” as a delusion that “encourages worshipers to remain in a state of passive dependency.”  When he writes and speaks publicly, he hopes to demonstrate, something deeply invigorating about discovering a new maturity and realizing that God can be approached, experienced, and entered in a radically different way, “…not a deity who is ‘a being,’ not even if we claim for God the status of the highest being.”  He speaks rather of God, “as the ground and Source of All Being” and therefore the presence that calls “to step beyond every boundary,” inside which he has vainly been seeking dependent security, and now “into the fullness of life with all of its exhilarating insecurities.”[viii]  Scoffs Spong:

Christians, for example, assert that God is a Holy Trinity, as if human beings could figure out who or what God is.  The Holy Trinity is not now and never has been a description of the being of God…Twenty-first century Christians must now come to understand that God does not inhabit creeds or theological doctrines shaped with human words.[ix]

From what source does Spong draw such conviction?  Spong agrees with his theological ally, Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, when Funk demands  “Jesus needs a demotion.”[x]  Says Spong:

An unusual and gifted scholar, Funk gives voice in this suggestion to the fact that the theistic framework in which Jesus has been captured is no longer either compelling or believable in our generation.  For Christians not to face that fact is to be out of touch with reality.  However, like so many critics of supernaturalism and theistic thinking, Funk also seems to assume that the only alternative to supernaturalism is naturalism and the removal from Jesus of any divine claim.  If removing the theistic interpretive material from around Jesus constitutes the demotion that Funk feels to be necessary, than I am all for it.  But the Jesus who remains when Funk has completed his task looks to me not like a demoted Jesus but a court-martialed Jesus, a destroyed Jesus. This approach never addresses the question of what there was about Jesus’ life that caused the theistic interpretations to be thought appropriate in the first place.[xi]

Fearless to criticism, Spong contends he “seeks a Christianity that preserves divinity but not supernatural theism.”  He writes:

The result will be a humanity so deeply and powerfully drawn that the artificially imposed barrier between the human and the divine will fade and we can recognize that these two words – human and divine – do not point to separate entities; rather, they are like two poles on a continuum that appear to be separate and distinct, yet when one travels from one to other, the discovery is made that their shadows blend into and invade each other….I seek in Jesus a human being who nonetheless makes known, visible, and compelling the Ground of All Being.[xii]

Clearly there was a profound experience that caused the theistic God-interpretation to be laid upon Jesus.  ‘What was it?’  [He warns his audience]: ‘The reformation I am proposing may well kill Christianity.  This is a real and enormous risk.  The greater risk, which motivates me, however, is the realization that a refusal to enter the reformation will certainly kill Christianity.  Even though, by traveling the route I am proposing, we may not arrive at a living Christian future, I see no alternative…’[xiii]

Taking aim at the heart of orthodox Christianity, Spong argues:

This liturgical interpretation of Jesus’ death has resulted in a fetish in Christianity connected with the saving blood of Jesus….Believers sing of being ‘washed in the blood’ or ‘saved by the blood’ of Jesus….I have always found these images to be repulsive.[xiv]

The deepest problem created for the doctrine of the atonement, according to Spong, is not even this, but the fact that “we” are post-Darwinian men and women.  He writes:

And ‘as post-Darwinians’ we are in possession of a very different image of the origins of human life; and it’s quite obvious that the Darwinian view, not the traditional Christian myth, has prevailed in the life of our civilization. The post-Darwinian world also recognizes that there never was a perfect man or a perfect woman who fell into sin in an act of disobedience.  That account is not true either historically or metaphorically.  Human beings are emerging creatures; they are a work in progress.  Neither perfect nor fallen, they are simply incomplete.[xv]

Down a separate path from Christ, Spong calls:

…us in invitation to enter the ‘New Being’ about which Tillich speaks – a humanity without barriers, a humanity without the defensive claims of tribal fear, a transformed humanity so full and so free that God is perceived to be present in it.[xvi]

Let me stretch the boundaries once more.  To the extent that the Buddha, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Krishna, Mohammed, Confucius, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Genoa, Hildegrad of Bingen, Rosa Parks, Florence Nightengale, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Buber, Thich Nhat Hanhn, Dag Hammarskjöld, or any other holy person brings life, love, and being to another, then to that degree that person is to me the word of God incarnate.  No fence can be placed around the Being of God.  The suggestion that Jesus is of a different kind of substance and therefore different from every other human being in kind instead of in degree will ultimately have to be abandoned.  Then the realization will surely begin to dawn that to perceive Jesus as different from others only in degree is to open all people to divine potential found in the Christ-figure.  It is to invite all people to step into power of living fully, loving wastefully, and having the courage to be all that any one of us can be – a self-whole, free, real, and expanding, a participant in a humanity without boundaries.[xvii]

One cannot miss a huge cognitive discrepancy, after all that has been said.  Spong proclaims, “Jesus will always be for me the standard by which I measure the God-presence of any other.  I can view him in no other way.”  However, after reading many of his books, I must again ask what is the basis for his conviction, indeed, opinion?  [Note: This question should be directed at all liberal-minded Christians.]

First, he says he has no positive experiential witness.  Rather, after a self-declared futile life waiting for contact with the “supernatural Christian God,” in resignation he chose to slide into a worldview described by science, secularism, Darwinism and Gnostic cognitions.  He explains his descent: 

I have always wanted to be a person of prayer.  I have yearned to have that sense of immediate contact with the divine.  Yet for longer than I have been willing to admit, even to myself, prayers addressed to an external supreme being have had little or no meaning for me.  My first presumption was that this represented the lack of some essential aspect in my own spiritual development and that all I needed to do was work harder and harder to overcome this deficiency….In the course of my life I have read every prayer manual or book on prayer on which I could lay my hands.  My personal library has a shelf dedicated to once-beckoning, but now discarded books on prayer.  I created a prayer corner in my study…I once even printed a cross on my watch face so that every time I glanced to establish the time of the day I would be reminded to send a prayer darting heavenward to keep me connected with the God whom I hoped might be an external compass point by which my life would be guided.  My great ambition was to be one who lived in a significant awareness of the divine and could thus know the peace that comes from communing with God, the heavenly one.  I really did believe that discipline and perseverance would lead me to these goals.[xviii]

…despite this sometimes frenzied, but at least persistent, effort I could not make prayer, as it has been traditionally understood, have meaning for me.  The reason, I now believe, was not my spiritual ineptitude, but rather that the God to whom I had been taught to pray was in fact fading from my view.  I suppose that I would not have been able to admit that even if I had been conscious of it.  This was before I was ready to enter exile….Before one is able to raise new theological questions, one must become convinced enough of the bankruptcy of old theological solutions.  I, for example, had to come to the conclusion that I could never again pray in the same manner that my ancestors in faith believed they could pray.  ‘Yet there must be another way,’ I would say to myself again and again.[xix]

By deduction, Spong has declared all Christian prayer deception, trivializing the experiences witnessed in Scripture and throughout history.  Jesus Himself maintained a continuous relationship with God through prayer.  To whom did He pray? Or was He deceived too?  Although, upholding Christ as his standard, Spong offers no witness to a personal relationship with God through the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  Now he is convinced that God is impersonal and Jesus is not divine.  So why does Spong wish to claim membership in a Christian camp which he would level?  A possible answer comes from how he describes his exile:

As a believer, I am not prepared to deny the reality of the underlying Christian experience…So while claiming to be a believer, and still asserting my deeply held commitment to Jesus as Lord and Christ, I also recognize that I live in a state of exile from the presuppositions of my own religious past.  I am exiled from the literal understandings that shaped the creed at its creation.  I am exiled from the worldview in which the creed was formed.  The only thing I know to do in this moment of Christian history is to enter this exile, to feel its anxiety and discomfort, but to continue to be a believer.  That is now my self-definition.  I am a believer who increasingly lives in exile from the traditional way in which Christianity has heretofore been proclaimed.  ‘A believer in exile’ is a new status in religious circles, but I am convinced that countless numbers of people who either still inhabit religious institutions or who did will resonate with that designation.

I see in this moment of Christian history a new vocation for me as a religious leader and a new vocation for the Christian Church in all its manifestations.  That vocation is to legitimize the questions, the probings, and, in whatever form, the faith of the believer in exile…I think the time has come for the Church to invite its people into a frightening journey into the mystery of God and to stop proclaiming that somehow the truth of God is still bound by either our literal scriptures or our literal creeds.[xx]

A savior who restores us to our pre-fallen status is therefore pre-Darwinian superstition and post-Darwinian nonsense….the Jesus portrayed in the creedal statement ‘as one who, for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven simply no longer communicates to our world.  Those concepts must be uprooted and dismissed.[xxi]

Given that personal experience is not the basis for Spong’s claim to Christ, what can be left but an image taken from the Scriptural record?  Yet, he sees the Bible as “a human book mixing the profound wisdom of sages through the centuries with limitations of human perceptions of reality at a particular time.”  How does he sift the sage advice from the chaff and false testimony?  If Christ, the disciples, and the Apostle Paul, received a large dose of the so-called “God presence,” who is Spong to overturn their recorded Scripture?  [I confess I must hold my tongue and “calmly” take you through the next few paragraphs]  I believe Rev. Spong has no defendable basis to alter Christianity, only a deep-rooted wish to liberate unrepentant gays, bisexuals, lesbians, transsexuals and queers from Christian judgment.

On one hand Spong argues that the Gospel authors did not know what is now known of the “homosexual orientation.”  In this line of thinking he refutes the Apostle Paul’s assertion in 2 Timothy 3:16 that Scripture is God inspired.  If this is not inappropriate enough, Spong actually advocates that Paul himself was a closet homosexual.  The thorn in Paul’s side, according to Spong, is not epilepsy, nor poor eye sight, but rather a sexual desire for other men.  In Rescuing The Bible From Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, he writes:

The apostles, including Paul, had been sent to proclaim this faith and none else…He drew, through love and grace, all people to himself as he restored them to themselves, building finally that inclusive community in which there is neither Jew nor gentile, bond nor free, male nor female.  For all are one in Christ, whose love can embrace even outcasts in society, even the one pronounced depraved and called an abomination, the one who by the mandate of the Law stood under the sentence of death.

This is the way my thesis would suggest that the gospel of Jesus Christ was experienced by Paul, the man from Tarsus.  To me it is a beautiful idea that a homosexual male, scorned then as well as now, living with both the self-judgment and social judgments that a fearful society has so often unknowingly pronounced upon the very being of its citizens, could nonetheless, not in spite of this but because of this, be one who would define grace for Christian people.  For two thousand years of Christian history this Pauline definition has been at the very core of the Christian experience.  Grace was the love of God, an unconditional love that loved Paul just as he was.  A rigidly controlled gay male, I believe, taught the Christian church what the love of God means and what, therefore, Christ means as God’s agent.  Finally, it was a gay male, tortured and rejected, who came to understand what resurrection means as God’s vindicating act…[xxii]

When people consider scandalous this idea that a homosexual male might have made the grace of God clear to the church, I reply, ‘Yes, it is scandalous, but is that not precisely how the God of the Bible seems to work?’  It is as scandalous as the idea that the Messiah could be crucified as a common criminal.  It is as scandalous as the idea that a birth without acknowledged paternity could inaugurate the life that made known to us the love and grace of God.  It also suggests that heterosexual people might be deeply indebted to homosexual people for many spiritual gifts that arise out of the very being of their unique life experience.  Indeed, I have been the recipient of just that kind of gift from the gay and lesbian people who have shared with me their journeys with God through Christ.[xxiii]

Here is the crux of one problem with regard to the liberal stand on homosexuality and the associated struggle for truth.  If we assume Paul was not gay, the orthodox analysis of his writings on homosexuality stands.  On the other hand, accepting for an instant, Spong’s thesis, one must raise two issues.  First, if Paul knew personally of gay desire, he would therefore have intimate understanding of the nature that we label today as “homosexual orientation.”  Why would the Holy Spirit give him such conviction against homosexual acts and thoughts, if homosexuality was to be understood as a gift from God.  Given a premise that Paul was gay, the argument that his writings on sexuality and immorality need re-interpretation because he did not have sufficient knowledge of the subject matter seems incredibly unwise.  Second, he refers to his thorn as “a messenger of Satan”:

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul writes of handing a sexually immoral man over to Satan, so that his “sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.”  To expel him was to put him out in the devil’s territory, so that being officially ostracized from the church would cause such anguish that he would repent and forsake his wicked ways.  Another view is that Satan is allowed to bring physical affliction on the man, which would bring him to repentance.  In this latter context, if homosexual orientation is to be seen as God’s will, it needs to be seen as sinful behavior, for which repentance can bring the power and saving grace of Jesus Christ.  Paul sees Christ as the source of power over this “thorn;” this “messenger of Satan.”

To the orthodox Christian, Spong has insulted the third person of the Trinity, by claiming the Holy Spirit was ignorant of the human homosexual condition.  Joseph Gudel, writing in the Christian Research Journal, underscores this point:

It is ludicrous to believe that the Creator of the universe, in guiding the biblical authors, was ignorant concerning the things we know about homosexuality through modern biology, psychology, sociology, and so forth.  To deny scriptural statements about homosexuality on these grounds is to completely deny God’s superintendence in the authorship of Scripture.[xxiv]

A Lutheran pastor who had attended one of Spong’s lectures wrote to him:

Are you suggesting that evil is not real?  That it does not have an existence in and of itself?  You do not seem to me to take the reality of evil seriously enough.  The old story that you seem eager to reject, said that evil was so real and so deep that only God could root it out.  That story went on to say that even for God it was costly, demanding the death of the divine son.  You may well dismiss that story as mythological theistic thinking, but you also appear to have dismissed the reality of human evil.  I do not believe that human life can be defined adequately until human evil is faced.[xxv]

Spong acknowledged that “the biggest weakness in liberal theological thought is that it minimizes the human capacity for evil.”[xxvi]  However, he explained his views drawing on the Darwinian foundations of his faith.  Humankind is a “work-in-progress” and until the process is finished evil will abound.  He writes:

I start with the recognition that the cruelest things we human beings do to each other are direct byproducts of our struggle to survive the evolutionary process, and these actions are what drive us toward the distorted understanding that winning is the road to fulfillment.[xxvii]

Characterizing the wrong committed upon homosexuals, Spong writes:

The fear in the noncomprehending early days of human history, then, was that if homosexuality were ever culturally accepted, it might prove attractive to a large number of people, threatening marriage, weakening society, and thus diminishing the potential for the tribe’s survival.[xxviii]

After using his “work-in-progress” model in application to Nazi persecution of Jews, Southern lynch mobs and riots at sports matches, Spong concedes he has no answers for the evil of AIDS:

There is yet another form of destructive behavior that I have experienced that I am not able to explain by reference to the human urge for survival.  I recall being the guest speaker at the Metropolitan Community Church’s Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, a mostly gay and lesbian congregation.  There I listened to their male choral group, ‘The Positive Singers,’ perform memorably and masterfully.  The name of this group comes from the fact that every one of its members is HIV-positive, victimized by a potent virus that has terrorized the homosexual community.  From where comes this evil?  It surely cannot be located in our human incompleteness.  Everything I know about both science and medicine tells me that these young gay adults did not choose their sexual orientation, and yet because they dared to practice their being in what was for them a natural way, they now live under a cloud that may ultimately be a death sentence.  What sense does life make when what is a natural drive for people toward fulfillment or wholeness becomes the avenue of death for some?[xxix]

These are the experiences, the realities that make evil real and yet do not fit easily into my definition, which locates evil primarily in the incompleteness of humanity….How do we understand these things that seem to attack even our survival? [xxx]

Here Spong has neither faced the “scientific” ecology of the gay lifestyle, nor the “Scriptural” consequences of breaking the Leviticus Codes.  In concluding his thinking on evil, Spong decided he had no final answers:

Perhaps there will someday be a completely adequate explanation for evil, but we have not found it.[xxxi]

In closing this article on the arch activist for liberal theology, the following summarizes Spong’s boundariless faith:

Those who once called themselves Catholic and Protestant, orthodox and heretic, liberal and evangelical, Jew and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, will all find a place in the ecclesia of the future….In the ecclesia of tomorrow we will also find a way to take note of other special moments in life that have not in the past been thought of in the same breath as liturgy.  I think of the decision, difficult as it surely is, to abort a fetus or to terminate a life on artificial support systems.  I believe that both of these human decisions, when made responsibly, should be the subject of a liturgical act.  So should the many other moments in life that cry out for a liturgical rite to wrap them into the meaning of worship.  These would include such things as…divorce…loss of employment…retirement…[xxxii]

Spong asks himself a rhetorical question and then answers:

So why does it matter that we reformulate the tenets of traditional Christianity or attempt to redefine God in non-theistic terms?  What is the answer to the ‘So what?’ question from my critical listener?

We reimage God to keep the world from enduring the pain of a continuing reliance on a theistic deity….That same theistic God is quoted by people who want to impose their definitions of homosexuality or their values in the right-to-life movement on everyone else.  So it matters how one thinks of God.[xxxiii]

In 1999, the New York chapter of a humanist organization presented Reverend Doctor John Shelby Spong with their “Humanist of the Year” award.[xxxiv] 

Copyright © 2008 StandForGod.Org

[i] Joe Dallas, A Strong Delusion: Confronting the “Gay Christian” Movement (Eugene Oregon: Harvest House, 1996), p.29.

[ii] John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity For a New World (San Franciso: Harher, 2001), p.57.

[iii] Dallas, p.171.

[iv] Spong, A New Christianity For a New World, pp.3-6.

[v] Ibid., p.49.

[vi] Ibid., p.51.

[vii]John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (San Francisco: Harper, 1998),pp.57 and 58.

[viii] Spong, A New Christianity For a New World, pp.59 and 60.

[ix] Ibid., p.61.

[x] Ibid., p.82.

[xi] Ibid., p.83.

[xii] Ibid., p.84.

[xiii] Ibid., p.115.

[xiv] Ibid., p.123.

[xv] Ibid., pp.123 and 124.

[xvi] Ibid., p.133.

[xvii] Ibid., p.147.

[xviii] Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, p.136.

[xix] Ibid., p.137.

[xx] Ibid., pp.20 and 21.

[xxi] Ibid., p.99.

[xxii] John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), p.125.

[xxiii] Ibid, p.126.

[xxiv] Dallas, p.174.

[xxv] Spong, A New Christianity For a New World, p.149.

[xxvi] Ibid., p.148.

[xxvii] Ibid., pp.153 and 154.

[xxviii] Ibid., p.157.

[xxix] Ibid., p.164.

[xxx] Ibid., p.165.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Ibid., pp.214 and 215.

[xxxiii] Ibid., p.230.

[xxxiv] Spong, A New Christianity For a New World, p.150