Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it will be recalled, was the German Lutheran pastor who stood up to the Nazis and was hanged for his trouble. During his short life – he died in 1945, at the age of 39 – he wrote a number of works of considerable insight and influence. Among these are Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison.
John Shelby Spong (born 1931) is the retired bishop of the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey. He is an arch-liberal, calling into question most of the distinctive tenets of orthodox Christianity, including the authority of Scripture, the resurrection of Jesus, and even the whole concept of theism as traditionally conceived. Part of the title of his most recent book fairly sums up his theological position: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism.
A while ago, Scott Stephens noted Spong’s desire to position himself as heir to the Bonhoeffer legacy. Spong is attracted (just as J.A.T. Robinson had been before him) to Bonhoeffer’s notion of ‘religionless Christianity’, and wishes to appropriate this for his own ideas.
But, comments Stephens,
Bonhoeffer’s call for “non-religious Christianity” (Nicht-religiöse Christentum) had nothing to do with abandoning rigid dogma and other forms of traditional Christianity in favour of a more spontaneous communion with the Ground of Being. Instead, it stands for the church having the courage to be the church, to follow Jesus in his uncompromising concreteness, and not to seek refuge in the shadows of pseudo-theological, liturgical or ethical obscurantism. The irony, of course, is that the mishmash of pop-existentialism and flaccid pluralism that Spong urges upon the disaffected faithful is precisely the kind of cancerous religiosity to which Bonhoeffer was opposed.
Spong expresses his own view as follows:-
God is the Ground of Being who is worshiped when we have the courage to be. Jesus is a God-presence, a doorway, an open channel.… These are the claims that will be part of the Christianity of tomorrow. I am hopeful that such a Christianity can be born and that with it an invitation can be offered to all people to step into their own humanity so deeply that they will find it a doorway into God. (A New Christianity for a New World)
While Spong famously predicted that “traditional faith is dying,” Bonhoeffer would have pronounced this brand of “new Christianity” dead on arrival, a carcass from which the breath of the Spirit and the pulse of Jesus’ mission have long since disappeared.