A while back I posted on our brief visit with Spencer Burke, creator of TheOoze.com. At the time I mentioned that Spencer had written a new book that gives a twist to universalism called The Heretic’s Guide to Heaven. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I’ll be taking a look at this book. The first section of Heretic’s Guide is called “Questioning Grace: The Future of Faith.” I like Spencer, and he has my respect for his website and for the energy and kindness he has brought to the world around him. But, and I can’t think this will surprise him, I stand on the other side of the fence when it comes to the central issues of his book.
Here are Spencer’s central theses:
1. We need to get beyond religion.
2. We need to get beyond religion to find spirituality.
3. We need to discover that Jesus can get us beyond religion to find spirituality.
4. What we find beyond religion is grace.
5. People who will take us into that grace, where we find the “sacred beyond religion,” are heretics.
Some important points:
Spencer doesn’t define his terms very well; and he has an annoying habit of using a category (say “heretic” or “religion” or “spirituality” or “grace”) and only later defining it, and then when he does he might define it in more than one way. Part of the struggle of reading Heretic’s Guide is the need to hang on because eventually Spencer will come to terms with his favorite words — religion, spirituality, and grace. But, if you do hang on, you’ll see what he means with his terms.
To begin with, I simply don’t like that he chooses the term heretic to describe himself. A heretic, in theological discussion, refers to someone who denies the central creeds of orthodoxy — and it can almost be reduced to the doctrine of the Trinity (Father, Son, Spirit). As I read this book, I’m not sure that he has denied the Trinity, but he wants to call himself a heretic because a heretic paves a new path beyond religion into spirituality and grace. Spencer chooses this term in order to provoke; I’ll accept that we need to be awakened. I just wouldn’t use that term to define what we are to be about. Not sure what you think of his use of this term.
Religion seems to me to be his term for institutional faith, esp Christianity, in its churchiness, its creeds, and its required commitments. It is finite attempts to capture the infinite (28) and, as I read him, religion is a “consensual illusion” (29). It is designed to “point the way to God, not to control the flow” (40).
Spirituality is equality, a feminine/masculine sense of God, countercultural dynamic, mystery, experience, interconnectedness, beyond authority structures, holistic individuals, the particular rather than the universal, material as much as heavenly, authenticity and honesty, and a communal, holistic celebration of the sacred that eradicates boundaries.
He repeats the mantra of our day: religion divides, spirituality unites.
Grace tells us “we are already in unless we want to be out.” As I see it, for Spencer “grace” is God’s unconditional love, or his preemptory commitment to humans, it is the foundational commitment of God to humans, and it is guaranteed relationship with God before one asks and apart from having to do something to get it. Here’s a quotation: “We don’t experience salvation because we believe right things but because we have faith in the experience of grace” (66).
What I most like about this book is that Spencer is committed to Jesus. Here are his words:
“Do I remain personally committed to Jesus and his teachings as found in the Bible? I do” (11).
“We need to move past religion. I believe the time is right for another way of looking at the Christian message, freed from the confines of religion and open to the possibility of a radical new incarnation and manifestation. The message of Jesus needs to evolve for our times” (16).
“For me, this temptation [to postmodern narcissism] is remedied by remaining deeply committed to the teachings of Jesus” (36).
He wants us to encounter “the message of Jesus without the baggage of brand Christianity” (48).
Let me now say this: I don’t very often take authors to task on this blog. I don’t see my role here to be a book critic but a book reader who helps others to hear about things they might not otherwise have time to read. And I try to do that so we can engage the substance of a book even if we haven’t read it. But, I want to ask a couple of hard-hitting questions to see if you think I’m being fair to him and to see how he might respond.
First, do you think his definitions of “heretic” or “religion” or “spirituality” or “grace” are consistent with the last point I made: consistent with the teachings of Jesus. I think each could be challenged by Jesus.
Second, has Spencer redefined by grace by making it nothing other than God’s unconditional love? Is there a distinction between “grace” and “love” in the Bible and in the teachings of Jesus? Does the former refer to those who have spurned the latter or are they synonymous?
Would Jesus recognize a quest for the unity that comes from spirituality or did he find unity in another way? In light of the teachings of Jesus, did Jesus believe in unity or did he think his teachings would also create division? How does that play into what Spencer says about spirituality?
Jesus’ favorite word was “kingdom.” How does Kingdom relate to what Spencer means by religion, spirituality, and grace?
In the end, what I see here is the quest to form a unity of spirituality while following a teacher who cut into the fabric of an entire world and summoned people to follow him and, if I read him aright, Jesus created all kinds of division. You can’t capture Jesus into a spirituality of unity — it won’t work.