NEWARK, N.J.--After nearly a quarter of a century of merrily doingjust about everything bishops aren't supposed to do, John Shelby Spong has finally hung up his miter--if not his reputation as the unrepentant bad boy of liberal Christianity in America.

Certainly for conservatives inside and outside Spong's EpiscopalChurch, his Jan. 28 farewell to his northern New Jerseydiocese couldn't come soon enough. As most any churchgoer who hasn't beenasleep since the Reformation can tell you, Spong rarely passed up anopportunity to upset Christianity's equilibrium.

It was Spong, for example, who ordained the nation's first openlygay priest (and within weeks suspended him for various indiscretions),and Spong who led his Newark diocese into a bitter national heresy trialto defend another homosexual priest.

And it was Spong--a Beliefnet columnist-- who questioned the Archbishop of Canterbury's integrity for not toeing Spong's liberal line, and Spong who labeled African Christians "premodern" because they would not follow the trailhe helped blaze on behalf of women and gays in the church.

But it was Spong's media-savvy pronouncements on theology--in asteady stream of news releases, books and lectures--that gained him asmuch attention as his campaigns for equality. Yet his legacy in mattersof church doctrine is far more ambiguous than his record on socialjustice.

Dismissed by many serious scholars as a popularizer in need of agood editor, Spong has always been considered more of anattention-seeking polemicist than a theologian. Indeed, it could be saidSpong is to Christian theology what Jerry Springer is to networktelevision--a flashy performer with big overnight ratings who wound upundermining the medium that gave him a stage.

That judgment is not surprising considering that during his careerSpong debunked the virginity of Mary and the resurrection of Jesus,declared all morality relative to time and place, and said that God as abeing to pray to "is dead." Most recently, Spong has begun tellingChristians that if they didn't adopt his skeptical model of faith thechurch was doomed. And those are just the high points.

Given this track record, an obvious question comes to mind now thathe is preparing to leave the active ministry: After 45 years ofscorched-earth iconoclasm, what exactly does Spong himself believe?

His answer may come as a surprise.

"I believe God is real," Spong said during a recent interview in theNewark chancery. "In fact, the older I get the more I...I hesitate touse the word...the more I become almost a mystic in terms ofperceiving this transcendent wonder."

John Spong as John of the Cross?

That would be a stretch, but the maverick bishop says that as heends his church career he is beginning to formulate a theological worldview to replace the ruined temple whose pillars he helped bring down.

His definition of God, he says, begins with theologian PaulTillich's description of God as "the infinite and inexhaustible groundof all being." To that Spong adds two qualities: God as "the source ofall life and source of all love."

Spong admits that when you give up on traditional God-talk--"thesupernatural fatherly figure who lives above the sky"--the terraingets perilous. But he says the church must continue to struggle to getaway from old descriptions of the sacred because they don't meananything to anyone anymore. At least not to Spong.

"We're space-age people," said the bishop everyone calls "Jack," apurple shirt and small jade cross his only nods to his ecclesiasticaloffice.

"All I'm saying is that the world the Christian church wasborn in is not the world we live in, and if you confine it to the worldit was born in, Christianity will die, because that world is dying. AllI want to do is to get the essence of the Christian faith out of thecontext of antiquity and allow it to live in the world of the 20thcentury."

These three aspects of Spong's God--life, love and being--areexpressed" in Spong's view, rather than "communicated." God is"experience" rather than "explanation."

"Worship to me is not an activity that goes on privately on Sundaymorning. Worship is the fullness of your whole life," he said. "That'swhere (God) becomes manifest for me. And I will follow that, and I willfollow Christ, by living as deeply as I can live, by loving as fully asI can love, and by being all that I can be."

If this all sounds a bit too ineffable, Spong says he understands.But he also refuses to fall into the "soupy and pious" talk mostbelievers use.

The end point, what Spong is aiming to formulate in this next stageof his life, seems to be an "immanent" view of God that could have asmuch in common with Buddhism or Unitarianism as with Christianity.But the bishop says despite his evolution as "a believer in exile,"he still considers himself a disciple of Jesus.

"With all my heart I think I'm a Christian. But I see a Christianityin the future that is so radically different from the Christianity Igrew up with that I think there are people who will say the two are notconnected. But I think they are connected.

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