"Here I Stand" recounts Spong's journey from the southern fundamentalism of his childhood to the theological liberalism that made him such a controversial figure as Bishop of Newark, N.J. until his retirement last week. Along the way, Spong shares a number of personal tragedies: the early death of his alcoholic father, the subsequent poverty suffered by his family, his wife's 15-year struggle with acute paranoia, and her death from breast cancer.
Yet Spong rises above his circumstances, dedicating himself to a life of the mind and the spirit. He becomes an Episcopal priest. He comes to terms with his prejudices, embraces the civil-rights movement, gains spiritual insight through biblical criticism and modern theology, and leads several southern congregations through the tumult of the 1960s. In 1975, the diocese of Newark elects him to serve as bishop. He becomes internationally known as a religious provocateur, a proponent of the ordination of women and gays and lesbians, and an outspoken critic of traditional beliefs such as the Virgin Birth and the resurrection.
The bishop doesn't rely on his controversial career to provide a climax for his book, however. Having established himself as the Great Man, who pulled himself up by his theological bootstraps and pointed Christianity toward salvation, Spong uses his final chapter to position himself as a modern Martin Luther. He calls for a "new Reformation," based on "Twelve Theses" upon which the "Church of the future" should be built-the overall point being that Christianity must reform or die. To make sure we get that Spong is a courageous theologian standing on principle before a corrupt institution, he borrows his title from Luther's famous reply to Catholic authorities when pressed to recant his beliefs: "Here I stand. I can do no other."
And indeed, "Here I Stand" is a raw, often belligerent, theological clarion call to the church-not unlike Luther's Reformation tracts. But the call is not about Christianity's future. It is about its immediate past.
The church empowered Spong to make the right moral choice in this "culture war." He rose to prominence as a black sheep of the South-a liberal churchman, a prominent New Jerseyan, a champion of causes repellent to the southern kinfolk.
But Spong remains a southerner of a certain age, entangled in 19th-century attitudes about race, sex and class. To him, these issues resolve into black-and-white causes that must be fought to the bitter end. And, in traditional southern fashion, his weapon is an intellectual rationalism. Spong is a theological heir to the deism of Thomas Jefferson. His Christianity is a moral and intellectual Civil War in which he is the general of the right-even if unpopular-side. It is no accident that Spong's most dedicated critics are southerners and evangelicals influenced by southern culture.
Outside that culture, however, the rationalist liberalism that Spong defends is gone with the wind. Most Americans, particularly Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, care little for moral certainty and civil wars; they inhabit a world of moral ambiguity and intellectual paradox, where a thinker like Spong appears as a proponent of old-time religion, however new-fangled: a literal-minded evangelist who wants everyone to agree with him. His dictum "the heart cannot worship what the mind rejects" rings hollow to people born in a post-Christian world. A post-modern rendering might be "the heart seeks to worship that which the mind can not fully grasp."
Mysticism and ambiguity, not Spong's rationalism and certainty, are already defining the "church of the future." Most Christians living in a post-Christian America are not particularly worried about "theism," or the historicity of the Virgin Birth or resurrection-nor do they want their spiritual communities consumed by in-house culture wars. Ultimately, Spong, attacked by his foes as a radical, is not radical enough. He is a product of the waning Enlightenment, the flip side of fundamentalism, a son of the Old South. To people who have already moved on, his call for a "New Reformation" may as well have been written in the 16th century as the beginning of the 21st. "Here I Stand" might be better entitled, "Here We Stood."