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Friedrich Nietzsche and John Shelby Spong

Posted on: September 19, 2021

Category: Theology

Friedrich Nietzsche and John Shelby Spong


John Shelby Spong died on Sunday, September 12, at home with his family. Spong was one of those people who had a great influence far and wide. He was an appealing, even remarkable, public speaker. He came out of an evangelical background but turned into an icon of progressive Christianity. He was able to talk to people on the left and the right. He helped thousands move from an authoritarian to an open-formatted Christianity. He recognized the “church alumnae,” those of us who are no longer comfortable with church and with the traditional confessions of Christianity. He was also a great person, full of life, wit, insight, and gentleness, yet he could be filled with righteous anger against intolerance, prejudice, and willful ignorance. There are so many things to think about and remember when it comes to John Shelby Spong.

It is unlikely many will think of Friedrich Nietzsche when recalling John Spong. Why should Nietzsche be introduced into the discussion?

I can think of two reasons. The first is that Nietzsche proclaimed God is dead. Nietzsche was not the first to say this, but he was the most inventive when he wrote the short parable about a madman who wandered village streets, to the mockery of onlookers, proclaiming that God is dead (in The Gay Science, III, 125). Nietzsche meant that the idea of a God living in the sky is no longer credible. The God upstairs, the metaphysical God especially of monotheistic religions, has faded out of existence, has died.

God takes a list of things with “him” in death: the afterlife, morality, providence, and certainty. It’s a list that, in our postmodern time, we continue to deal with. Nietzsche knew that we create morality together; it is not something written in the stars. He also knew that there was no particular purpose to the cosmos written in secret revelations. He was dynamically against human beings betting on an afterlife at the expense of living responsibly on earth today. If this list sounds familiar, it is so because it was also a list for John Shelby Spong.

Spong’s list was slightly different, but it did begin with the same big idea that the theistic God is dead. Spong wrote as a “post-theist” (someone who lived on the other side of the death of God). A post-theist is popularly called “spiritual but not religious.” It is someone who has given up the idea of a God living in the sky and seeks to find spiritual meaning in life now inside our history as it is with all our human foibles.

To Spong, the death of the theistic God brought to the church many of the items Nietzsche talked about. The old idea of divine providence (purpose) to the universe rested on the virgin birth, the death of Jesus for our salvation, and life after death for those who believe. Spong called these classic beliefs myths from a bygone era. Spong announced a new reformation that included contemporary science in our spiritual thinking. He saw God as energy, as a verb, that can motivate us, live within us, and even promise a vision of a united human family. He included ecology in his call for a new reformation, and all of these factors echo Nietzsche, who asked humanity to wake up from its God delusion and start living with the energy of the now.

The second reason that Nietzsche comes to mind when recalling Spong is the way both individuals highlighted courage as the supreme human value. Neither one meant courage as a heroic act or bravery. They both meant heart. Courage comes from the Latin word for heart (cor). Heroic stories about gods and heroes, for Nietzsche, made courage an abstract quality unattainable in everyday life. But courage is really about honesty. It is about facing reality as it is, accepting one’s role in the flow of events, and trusting that you can say “yes” to life, to creativity, to renewal, and to optimism. To Nietzsche, the death knell of life was no-saying, which he sometimes called self-hatred. To say no to who you are is the greatest sin. To be a yes-sayer is the act of courage: yes to this moment, yes to this challenge, and yes to this change. I often think of truth and reconciliation with indigenous peoples as an example of what Nietzsche meant by courage. We cannot change the past, but we can face the past with honesty, and we can say yes to the challenge of a new future.

Spong held this Nietzschean understanding of courage when he talked about a new reformation in Christianity. We cannot change the past of church history. There are many stories in the Christian tradition that are shameful, depressing, outrageous, and unacceptable. It is not possible to go back and do things over again. But we can admit to what happened. We can face things with honesty, and we can say yes to transformation. That is what Spong did. His sense of courage was not abstract; rather, his sense of courage was founded on honesty. Spong once said that the older he got, the more deeply he believed, but there were fewer things he believed. This statement was his courage because it revealed his continuing desire to get at the heart of things, to face what really mattered, and to act accordingly. It is often difficult in life to clear away the mess that covers up the heart of the matter but getting to the heart of things is the act of courage. That was John Shelby Spong.

We can draw inspiration from people like Nietzsche and Spong, but it is important to remember that for both these interesting individuals, inspiration is about living one’s life, not someone else’s life. Inspiration is about facing reality, saying yes to oneself, and trusting that there is a future worth the effort of now.

-- ©By David Galston

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