[Dialogue] 11/28/13, Spong: A Thirty-Day Lecture Tour of Europe

Ellie Stock elliestock at aol.com
Thu Nov 28 08:12:39 PST 2013




	A Thirty-Day Lecture Tour of Europe
	It was probably the most exciting and fulfilling book tour of my entire career. Over a period of thirty days, I journeyed through Europe delivering sixteen public lectures in Spain, Italy, England and Scotland. We also touched Switzerland and Wales. In Wales we spent the night and met with Peter Francis, the warden of the Gladstone Library in Hawarden. This is where an event called the John A. T. Robinson-John Shelby Spong Lectureship on “Frontier Theology” had just concluded its third annual weekend conference. It was, said the Warden, a sold out success. Bishop Gene Robinson had been its leader.
	The public print media across the continent seemed to express great interest in the content of this lecture tour, as we had national coverage in Spain and Italy and local coverage in many additional places. Radio also seemed interested and we did one thirty-minute Spanish radio interview on a nationwide station. Probably the highlight of the media’s attention was a back page feature with a three column picture in “El Mundo,” Spain’s largest and most respected daily newspaper, under the headline: “El Obispo de los Gays,” or “The Bishop for the Gays!”
	The interest of the European media in our presence was piqued primarily by two things: First, I was a bishop, a title that still commands respect, especially in Spain and Italy, but this bishop was addressing biblical and theological themes not from the point of view of traditional assumptions and official church teaching, but from the point of view of contemporary biblical and theological scholarship. Critical biblical teaching simply has not yet permeated either of these two countries, so it was all quite new to them. Second, I was a bishop who was quite up front in my support of gay rights and same sex marriage. Those ideas are well established in Italy and especially in Spain, where same sex marriage has been legal for some time, but in both countries, its supportive voices have been from the secular, not the religious world and certainly not from a recognized religious leader. No bishop in either Spain or Italy has addressed either of these subjects publicly. Even the presence of my wife, Christine, in both countries created curiosity. “The Bishop’s Wife” is not a known category in the vocabulary of either Spain or Italy! We had discovered this last year in Spain when I held a press conference to respond to questions from a number of reporters. When this press conference was over, I stepped down from the stage and rather routinely kissed my wife. I do that frequently and it did not occur to me that this act might be startling to anyone. The stories in the Spanish papers the next day, however, were headlined “Bishop Kisses Wife.” A day later that was a story in the papers across Latin America! Since there are no bishops with wives there, a bishop kissing a wife was unique.
	In both Spain and Italy, the Roman Catholic Church is the only Christian expression of any significance known in the land. So if people abandon Roman Catholicism, as indeed many of them have, they have also abandoned Christianity in particular and organized religion in general. Both Spain and Italy would be classified today as secular societies, but secular societies with an overlay of obvious Catholic history, culture and symbols. If people in both countries are asked what their religion is, they will almost universally claim a Catholic identity, but that identity does not express itself in attending church services. One Spanish Catholic priest in Madrid told me, “No one attends Mass today but a few old women.”
	I gave two of my lectures in Spain at the University of Madrid and one of my lectures in Italy at the University of Bergamo. Both of these settings were memorable. In the course of my career, I have lectured at over 400 universities, colleges and theological schools around the world, but never have I been so warmly and so effusively welcomed by a university and its faculty as I was in Madrid. The lectures there were translated for me by the professor of Slavic languages on the faculty of the university and attended by a number of faculty and administrative leaders. An elegant luncheon, held in our honor, concluded the day. Dessert at that luncheon consisted of a slice of Spanish melon, which may have been the most delicious piece of fruit I have ever tasted. At this university, I had the pleasure of having private conversations with some of the professors. The sense that I received from them was that Spain was living in a time of deep spiritual hunger and that there is no sense that this hunger could or ever would be addressed by the Catholic Church as presently constituted. That institutional, religious system, as currently practiced in Spain, is not a viable option for them for a number of reasons. First, the Roman Catholic Church is still closely identified with the Franco dictatorship, which this Church backed, along with most of Spain’s wealthy families and all of Spain’s right wing politicians. Second, the Catholic Church of Spain expresses constant negativity toward modern knowledge in general and scientific knowledge in particular. Third, this church is associated primarily with hostility toward the aspirations of women and with negativity toward birth control, family planning and abortion under all circumstances. Finally, this church still exhibits a tremendous, almost visceral, negativity towards homosexual people.
	What this means is that the Catholic Church in Spain is simply endured, not welcomed, in the secular society of that nation. One of the faculty members said to me that the University of Madrid simply would not think of inviting a Catholic bishop to lecture there. When I asked why, he responded, “We do not think any of them have anything to say that we want to hear.” I wonder if the hierarchy of this church has any idea about how irrelevant the church has become in this land where they have always dominated religiously.
	That reality, however, does not change the fact that if Christianity is to be revived in Spain, it must be revived by the Catholic Church! There is no alternative. It is quite impossible to start a new ecclesiastical structure here. For the Catholic Church to move in a new direction would require the support of at least one bishop and a large body of priests. It would have to have the hierarchy’s toleration, if not its blessing, As long as this Church persecutes and removes its most creative thinkers, as surely has happened under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, no bishop or priest will dare to step into the role of theological leadership. I do not believe that such a revival of interest in Christianity in Spain is likely, though it is obvious to me that present everywhere is a deep spiritual hunger for a faith that is relevant, open and willing to engage the world in a new way.
	The address I gave at the University of Bergamo in Italy followed the usual European academic model. The visiting lecturer is advertised publicly and anyone who wishes to speak in opposition to the visiting lecturer is invited to sign up to do so. My announced topic was “The Doctrine of God: Why Theism is no Longer a Viable Option for 21st Century Believers.” Five people signed up to counter my presentation. Two hours were allotted for this debate. My translator was a young woman who taught high school English. I was to speak for about fifty minutes. Those scholars who had signed up to speak in opposition were to speak in order and to be limited to twenty minutes each. No one seemed to recognize that a lecture or response, which had to be translated, inevitably took longer. I was to be given a chance to respond to each presenter as soon as he had completed his remarks. My lecture, with translation, lasted an hour and twenty minutes. The first responder also went well beyond his assigned limit of twenty minutes. Something had to give. Since this format of challenging an established thinker is the way young scholars build their national reputations, it was decided that none of the prepared responses could be eliminated. This was, after all, their opportunity to take on a visiting American, so they eliminated instead my responses to each of them. It was an interesting tactic.
	Almost all of those who had asked to speak were religious conservatives. The visiting American had obviously rattled the cages of the hierarchy. So I heard an Italian defense of the depravity of human nature. I heard about the necessity of defining God as a being, clearly understood in supernatural theistic terms. I heard about the necessity for this deity not only to judge, but also to determine truth. I heard traditional church doctrines, such as original sin, atonement, incarnation and the Holy Trinity, being defended in classical 13th century forms. I heard the claim that Christianity alone is the one “true faith” and that prayer served to bring the God above the sky into direct contact with the problems of the world, both personal and cultural. Responding individually would have been impossible anyway since these responders and I did not share the same presuppositions and the examination of our basic theological assumptions would not have been possible in the time allotted.
	After I had absorbed the torrent of words from these young scholars for over two hours, I responded very briefly that I did not come to Italy to convert anyone, but only to start a conversation about why Christianity was dying in Italy and about what a new Christian future might look like in that land. Clearly I had been successful in doing that and I was quite content with that achievement.
	There were other events on this trip that cannot be chronicled here. I shall return to these in subsequent columns. I now simply file the fact that this lecture tour validated my personal experience that underneath the deadness of traditional church life in Europe, there is still a passion, an interest and an excitement about how Christianity might look if it were able to be separated from traditional forms of church life. I found in both Spain and Italy secular societies that are not anti-God, but anti antiquated understandings of God. I found a readiness to move on justice issues for women and homosexual persons. I returned excited about the future, yes, even in lands once regarded as lost to the Christian Church forever.
	~John Shelby Spong
	Read the essay online here.
	Question & Answer
	Jackie and Bruce Davey from Medina, Ohio, write:
	It was a pleasure to hear and meet you at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland last November. We always enjoy your talks and books. It is exciting and such a relief to hear from a biblical scholar that the thoughts we have mulled over for many years – about God and the life of Jesus and what it all means for the world – are not totally crazy – or subversive! A small but growing study group, meeting in our home, enjoys discussing your books among others. So – thank you for sharing your knowledge! We know it has not been an easy road for you.
	The question: Is there a “Progressive Christianity” study Bible available that would help us search Scripture and give historical background?
	Dear Jackie and Bruce,
	ProgressiveChristianity.org the organization that publishes my weekly column has begun the task of providing Church School material for children. They also monitor other resources that might be available for use in congregations. You might want to check in with them.
	There is, however, no such thing as a “Progressive Christianity Study Bible.” Only fundamentalists, who are not progressive Christians, think that way. The Bible is a collection of 66 books (plus the Apocrypha) written over a period of about 1,000 years, between approximately 2,000-3,000 years ago, by a wide variety of different authors living under a wide variety of differing historical circumstances. No single volume could embrace that diversity. My 2011 book, Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World was written to provide a single sweeping source to introduce the various books of the Bible to a study audience. That book will come as close to what you are seeking as I could recommend. I have just learned that Harper/Collins has now issued this book in paperback, which will make it more available and less expensive as a resource for group study. I have also been both amazed and pleased to discover how many small churches across the United States, where resources and money are in short supply, use this weekly column and/or the Question and Answer feature as the basis for their adult class every Sunday morning. The discussions engendered, I’m told, are quite energizing.
	I think single book discussion groups are an incredible way to bring new ideas to a local congregation. So, I commend these few ideas to you.
	My best,
	John Shelby Spong
	Bishop Spong and his wife Christine, as well as the publishers, ProgressiveChristianity.org, offer our sincere gratitude to our subscribers! Thank you for your support and your interest.
	May this thanksgiving season be full of love, laughter and delight!



-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.wedgeblade.net/pipermail/dialogue-wedgeblade.net/attachments/20131128/00c9d536/attachment-0004.htm>

More information about the Dialogue mailing list