Theology without limit or bound
(RNS) — I first got here to know John Shelby Spong the way in which many younger, progressive clergy did: by his writings. I used to be solely three years out of seminary, serving a really rural congregation in a really conservative a part of the nation, after I learn him for the primary time. His ebook, “Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism,” was really helpful to me by a pal.
It reworked me totally.
Slightly private context may be so as. I grew up Catholic. At a really younger age I used to be persuaded that my name was to the priesthood. I spent eight years within the Catholic seminary with each hope and intention of being ordained. The concept of it enthralled me.
What didn’t enthrall me was an adherence to theologies I couldn’t reconcile with my private ideas and emotions concerning the religion. I stored asking for explanations concerning the Virgin Beginning that made sense; a couple of closed Communion desk; concerning the ordination of girls; concerning the educating there was no salvation exterior the church — a educating that appeared to put limits on a God whose love we additionally described as unconditional.
Repeatedly, the response went one thing like this: John, these are the teachings of the church and have been so for two,000 years. Who’re you to query them?
After seven years, with the time of ordination quick approaching, the reconciliation I hoped for between my evolving religion and the teachings of the church nonetheless hadn’t occurred. Once I completed my eighth yr, I left. Not out of anger, and even pondering the church was improper. It was only a painful realization that I couldn’t take the ordination vow that might bind me to obedience to doctrines — and to educating doctrines — I didn’t myself consider.
Ultimately my journey to ordination was revived by one other pathway, and it was one other eight years earlier than I picked up that ebook by Bishop Spong.
Right here was a scholar, a person of deep mind. As a bishop, he was additionally a task mannequin that, given all my years being raised by mother and father who taught me to respect authority, I knew I had each proper and purpose to belief. And he was placing down into phrases solutions to the questions I had been asking all my life.
I can’t start to explain both the validation that I lastly discovered and wanted, nor the internal peace that got here to me.
From that point on, he turned a hero to me.
Over the following couple a long time I’d await with nice and joyful anticipation Spong’s subsequent ebook. Every one requested a query I used to be enthusiastic about. Every gave language and vocabulary to what my internal faith-workings had been greedy for over many lengthy years. Every ebook expanded my theological horizons. They didn’t simply validate theological assumptions I used to be known as rebellious for hanging on to, they expanded them in methods my very own creativeness had not but been given permission to discover.
I wanted that validation so as to pursue my theological calling — not simply with vigor and keenness, however with out disgrace and doubt. Spong rekindled inside me the pursuit of a theology with out restrict or sure. Each query was in play.
However he additionally modeled a rigor and a self-discipline. His was no “do what you need and suppose what you’ll and it’ll all be permitted and blessed” sort of theology. His analysis was thorough and impeccable. His references have been deep and typically arcane (however by no means irrelevant) — the sort of sourcing that would solely happen by lengthy years of mental pursuit and greater than passing curiosity.
As rigorous and well-referenced as his sources have been, his writing type was intentionally accessible — in contrast to different tomes I’ve used to increase my horizons. His have been writings I might confidently share with my congregations. They, too, would develop to like him. They, too, have been in a position to validate questions they’d lengthy puzzled about however have been typically too timid to discover. My biggest pleasure got here within the open discussions with the lay folks I used to be known as to serve, who out of the blue discovered the knowledge of the sages obtainable to them.
I didn’t meet John till very late in his life.
By that point, I had been elected the final minister and president of the United Church of Christ. I had written a few books myself. I had accomplished my doctoral work and dissertation on “White Privilege and Its Results on the Church.” I turned a frontrunner who would typically get invites to talk to varied audiences.
On one such event, I arrived and located a banner exterior the auditorium. The speaker previous me was none apart from Spong. I went in and located a seat subsequent to his spouse. She acknowledged me from the photograph on the show. John was his regular magnificent self. When after his presentation he got here and sat with me and my spouse, I discovered him to be as gregarious and affable, as open to dialog with a stranger as you’ll ever need or hope an individual to be.
That second additionally validated one thing for me. I received’t dare to name myself his peer — he had few of these. However I did come to name him a pal, and a mentor. My time with him was temporary. He was already struggling an ideal deal by the point I met him.
To his dying day he remained one whose mild shone in lots of corridors. His form and compassionate spirit uplifted many hearts. He spoke his phrases with out apology — all the time inviting the church to develop past its present assumptions about its capability to take action. He was accountable solely to the reality he got here to know within the God and Jesus whom he worshipped.
We’re all modified due to him, and the affect and affect he created is way from having run its course.
(The Rev. John C. Dorhauer is common minister and president of the United Church of Christ. The views expressed on this commentary don’t essentially mirror these of Faith Information Service.)