NEWARK, N.J.--After nearly a quarter of a century of merrily doing just 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 Episcopal Church, his Jan. 28 farewell to his northern New Jersey diocese couldn't come soon enough. As most any churchgoer who hasn't been asleep since the Reformation can tell you, Spong rarely passed up an opportunity to upset Christianity's equilibrium.

It was Spong, for example, who ordained the nation's first openly gay priest (and within weeks suspended him for various indiscretions), and Spong who led his Newark diocese into a bitter national heresy trial to 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 trail he helped blaze on behalf of women and gays in the church.

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

Dismissed by many serious scholars as a popularizer in need of a good editor, Spong has always been considered more of an attention-seeking polemicist than a theologian. Indeed, it could be said Spong is to Christian theology what Jerry Springer is to network television--a flashy performer with big overnight ratings who wound up undermining the medium that gave him a stage.

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

Given this track record, an obvious question comes to mind now that he is preparing to leave the active ministry: After 45 years of scorched-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 the Newark chancery. "In fact, the older I get the more I...I hesitate to use the word...the more I become almost a mystic in terms of perceiving this transcendent wonder."

John Spong as John of the Cross?

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

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

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

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

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

These three aspects of Spong's God--life, love and being--are expressed" 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 Sunday morning. Worship is the fullness of your whole life," he said. "That's where (God) becomes manifest for me. And I will follow that, and I will follow Christ, by living as deeply as I can live, by loving as fully as I 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 most believers use.

The end point, what Spong is aiming to formulate in this next stage of his life, seems to be an "immanent" view of God that could have as much 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 Christianity in the future that is so radically different from the Christianity I grew up with that I think there are people who will say the two are not connected. But I think they are connected.

"The thing that's probably unique about me is that I really love the (church) structures," he continued. "The reason I'm not a Unitarian is not that I don't admire their freedom to engage in theological discussion on all issues. But I think it's too easy to be a Unitarian. Part of what it means to be a Christian is that you've got to wrestle with your own tradition."

At 68, Spong still has a shock of reddish hair that falls over his blue eyes and the lanky, athletic frame and Southern inflections of the North Carolina boy who once dreamed of playing professional baseball.

He admits to thinking more about life after death than he ever has. And surprisingly, perhaps, the afterlife is something he believes in, though he dismisses old notions of heaven and hell and eternal punishment or reward. But Spong says there is something, maybe undefinable and unknowable, after this life.

"I believe the love of God touches us so deeply that it extends us beyond any boundary and it relates us to that which is eternal," he said. "So I don't think my body is going to survive, and I don't think my soul is going to survive. But I think I am going to be in touch with the love that is eternal and I will share in the eternity of that love. I don't know how to say it any other way."

But he's not ready to fade away, either. His immediate afterlife will be as a lecturer for the next few months at Harvard, which for Jack Spong, who considers himself as much an author and lecturer as a churchman, is about as close to heaven as he could hope for on this Earth.

"I look forward to Harvard so much because people I will be talking with will not be church-related by and large. And that is the audience I am trying to reach," he said. "My audience is that secular spirit."

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