Spencer Burke’s A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity is divided into 3 major sections. The second one concerns “Questioning What We Know: New Horizons of Faith.” Because Spencer does not operate rigorously with the law of non-contradiction, but instead operates with a mosaic of images and metaphors that, because they are brought into connection with one another, evoke ideas, it is not easy to know where to dig in. I wil list here the major ideas of these three chapters:
The last sentence of chp 6 might be the big picture: “In moving into the world of material spirituality, the world of bricolage and quilting, institutional faiths like Christianity have the opportunity once again to offer their threads of what a life with God can be and return to their real purpose — not controlling the gates of heaven but facilitating new life in the people who encounter faith and grace” (147-148).
Spencer’s major issue is the institutional church and its monitoring, controlling, and shaping everything through its own services and ministries. Grace, he contends, is too big to be contained. What threatens the institutional church are the following: pluralism, nonreligious religiosity, individualization, this-worldliness, holism and services provided outside the church. The church operates with a boundary model. It is a post office in an e-mail world.
People leave the church because they want more than abstract ideas and religious dogma.
He has no desire to reform the church but to transform the church and the way all faiths operate.
The gospel is grace, “Jesus’ call to love passionately and radically” (100). It is about “making connections with each other and rooting the world in the love of God” (105). Spencer contends that Thich Nhat Hanh changed his life by showing him that Jesus is the Tao: the way of life in grace and love and forgiveness and peace. This means that what counts “is not a belief system but a holistic approach of following what you feel, experience, discover, and believe; it is a willingness to join Jesus in his vision for a transformed humanity” (131).
Here’s what I see in these chapters:
1. Spirituality is love and grace, for all and to all.
2. That is all following Jesus is all about.
3. The institutional church, the whole big thing, doesn’t get this vision across.
4. Therefore, it is time for “heretics” to stand up and pursue that grace and love, that Tao, that way of life of following Jesus — and outside the church is a good place to start.
My first response: Spencer’s operative definition of love, though never stated, is tolerance, niceness, relational network, non-condemning, and respect of others. Fine — but that is not how Jesus defined it or practiced it. No matter how hard it is for us, Matthew 23 and chps. 5-7 have to be wedged into our definition of love if we want to “follow Jesus” in his teachings. To use Jesus’ term love to defend the inclusiveness found in Heretic’s Guide is to surrender what Jesus meant by it. I don’t know how Spencer can say Jesus “didn’t condemn” (139).
Which means I also don’t agree that the Spencer’s goal of a spirituality of unity of the faiths is consistent with Jesus’ teachings, life, or overall mission.
John 14:6 comes up twice in these chapters. Here’s what Spencer says:
1. Christianity didn’t exist as a religion when Jesus wrote these words. (If he means “institutional church,” he’s right. I don’t see any connection to John 14:6 in this point: it has to do with following Jesus rather than joining a religion.)
2. No one recorded the words of Jesus. (Probable, but Bob Gundry’s dissertation argued otherwise; others have contended the oral tradition was strong enough that what Jesus said was remembered.)
3. So we have no proof these are his words. (Spencer, don’t play that game unless you know what you are talking about.)
4. He spoke in Aramaic, therefore we can’t take anything literally. (Spencer, you’ve got to be kidding me; this flies in the face of all translation theory.)
These first four points are special pleading. He didn’t use any of these criteria when he cited other sayings of Jesus, and as far as I can see, they would apply to each one. Why apply them here?
5. Jesus lived and died as a Jew. (Not sure what that means for John 14:6.)
6. Jesus’ concept of the world was different than “mine”. (Not sure what that means for John 14:6. Does this distance Jesus from us? If so, what about the other sayings of Jesus/)
7. To take this literal means we have to take other things literally, bread and wine. (Spencer needs a basic course in linguistics.)
8. These are metaphors. (No one has ever questioned that.)
In the next chp. he comes back to John 14:6, and he does a decent job of explaining “way, truth and life.” The problem, however, for his viewpoint is not the expression “way, truth, and life.” The problem is “no one comes to the Father apart from me.” That expression is the critical issue and it is not discussed.
My final comment concerns “bricolage,” the mining of ideas and concepts about God that already exist … creating a whole new vocabulary … new concepts … and understandings of what it means to have a spiritual life (143). I’m all for the creative use of language — I’m a big fan of good writers who put old ideas in new words. Fine. But, what this sounds like to me is that each person gets to form their own spirituality. That’s not following Jesus either.
I’m sorry to disagree so sharply, Spencer, but I think you need to do a lot more thinking about what Jesus does and does not say.