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Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
April 2018
Fred's Rating: 
John Shelby Spong
Total Pages: 

John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ, for 24 years before retiring in 2000. A leading spokesperson for liberal Christianity, he appeared on 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, FOX News Live, and Extra. This book is based on the William Belden Noble lectures he delivered at Harvard. (For his books I’ve read, click on his name.)

The Amazon website for the hardcover edition I bought is:

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has a very good summary (click on ‘Read more’ to get all of it). The home page also has a summary stated as being ‘From the Back Cover’ but it actually is a reduced version of the first summary and it appears on the Front Flap, not on the Back Cover. Of the brief reviews among the ‘Top customer reviews,’ I recommend the first (by James B. Martin) and the third (by Robert D. Goldbach). They focus on how this book has meant very much to them. The second ‘Top customer review’ (by Edmund G. Lowery) is very long, as you will see if you click on ‘Read more.’ I did, but I just skimmed the many pages.

I recommend using Amazon’s ‘Look inside’ option for the Hardcover edition and scroll down to the 3-pp Contents. Note that Spong’s twelve theses begin at Part III and end at Part XIV. I was quite happy that I got what I wanted when I entered the word Epilogue in the window for ‘Search inside the book’ and chose the option of PART XV which put my online reading at Chapter 37 (on page 283). Thus I was able to read Spong’s 5-pp My Mantra: This I Do Believe – the most important conclusion he has reached by raising the twelve theses, discussing each one (in the twelve PARTs), and explaining the very progressive outlook he proposes for today’s Christianity, which he finds believable with today’s knowledge, unlike the standard ‘orthodox’ (a word I don’t like to use) Christianity. It might suit some readers to first read Spong’s My Mantra before reading the twelve PARTs that led him to this progressive – thus quite believable – mantra.

What Spong doesn’t discuss is how progressive Christians can get, if possible, so-called ‘orthodox’ Christians to realize that they also need this (or a similar) version of Christianity that is believable in the world of today. This transformation to a believable Christianity, without the many inconsistent statements and contradictions among the Old and New Testaments that must become properly understood, so as to make a believable reading of the Scriptures and ignoring (or rewording) many ancient dogmas and creeds.

Since I have given the ending of this remarkable book, I asked myself what to do at this point. I have decided to provide the twelve theses with the comments on each that Spong put on the first page of each PART. Before doing so, even though the last page (xvi) is not included in the preview of the 6-pp Preface, this missing page is mainly an acknowledgment page, so its loss is minor – the first 5-pp (xi-xv) are major. There are two missing pages (9-10) in Ch. 1, but the major concluding pages are present – I recommend starting on page 12 with the paragraph beginning with “A recent poll . . .” The four preceding paragraphs that begin on p-11 with “In Roman Catholicism . . .” summarize the recent history of orthodox Christianity, which some may want to read, but I recommend going right to Spong’s concluding paragraphs that are the heart of this book.

The PARTs of his 12 theses are not all available in the online preview. In my book the theses’ title and comments on the PART’s pages are given on pages 26-30 as well on the new PART’s first page. PARTs 1-6 are given in full online on pages 26-27. And the first lines of PART 7 begin on page 27. But pages 28-29 are not included in the online preview, thus I give these two missing pages here.

Page 28: “. . .was the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ deceased body back into human history. The earliest biblical records state ‘God raised him.’ Into what? we need to ask. The reality of the experience of resurrection must be separated from its later mythological explanations.


“The biblical story of Jesus’ ascension assumes a three-tiered universe, a concept that was dismissed some five hundred years ago. If Jesus’ ascension was a literal event of history, it is beyond the capacity of our twenty-first-century minds to accept it or to believe it. Does the ascension have any other meaning, or must we defend first-century astrophysics?


“The ability to define and to separate good from evil can no longer be achieved with appeals to ancient codes such as the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount. Contemporary moral standards must be hammered out in the juxtaposition between life-affirming moral principles and external situations. No modern person has any choice but to be a situationist.


“Prayer, understood as a request made to an external theistic deity to act in human history, is little more than an hysterical attempt to turn the holy into the service of the human. Most of our prayer definitions arise out of the past and are thus dependent on an understanding of God that no longer exists. Let us instead think of prayer as the practice of the presence of God, the act of” [End of page 28.]

Page 29: “embracing transcendence and the discipline of sharing with another the gifts of living, loving and being.


“If we are to talk about eternal life with any degree of intellectual integrity, we must explore it as a dimension of transcendental reality and infinite love – a reality and love that, when experienced, let us share in the eternal.


“We are called by this new faith into radical connectedness. Judgment is not a human responsibility. Discrimination against any human being on the basis of that which is a ‘given’ is always evil and does not serve the Christian goal of offering ‘abundant life’ to all. Any structure in either the secular world or the institutional church that diminishes the humanity of any child of God on any external basis of race, gender or sexual orientation must be exposed publicly and vigorously. There can be no reason in the church of tomorrow for excusing or even forgiving discriminatory practices. ‘Sacred tradition’ must never again provide a cover to justify discriminatory evil. The call to universalism must be the message of Christianity."

Spong next raises some crucial questions in the final paragraph of this chapter. Here are his words from pages 29-30: “Can a new Christianity be forged on the basis of these twelve theses? Can a living, vital and real faith that is true to the experience of the past, while dismissing the explanations of the past, be born anew in this generation? I believe it can, and to engage in this task I issue this call to the Christian world to transform its holy words of yesterday into believable words of today. If we fail in this task there is little reason to think that Christianity, as presently understood and constituted, will survive this century. It is my conviction that we must move beyond theology, beyond creeds, beyond human perceptions to catch a new vision of the Christ. This book will be my attempt to do just that.”

In reading this book and pondering the questions Spong raised, I found myself recalling some aspects of his new vision that he never referred to. First I recalled the vital message from Huston Smith in book number 1, and in more detail the books on The Cloud of Unknowing – see books 399 and 680. To see a figure of this cloud, go to my review of book number 1, in which review I have added a way for you to see this important figure. The way comes just after the Amazon website for book 1, for figure 3 is the key to an understanding of the ineffable Godhead that is beyond today’s human comprehension. Today we have to imagine a ‘cloud of unknowing’ that is the upper limit to any human ability of today to ever conceive of the ineffable Godhead. What humans have conceived of for God is an image we can imagine – a God who we can only envision as a powerful human man or woman.

The figure of an ineffable Godhead lies above humanities’ concept of a ‘Cloud of Unknowing.’ It is ‘the knowable God,’ as the figure states. The books 399 and 680 discuss this concept but the author is not known. We usually assume the author was from Europe, but we don’t know that for sure. The author could have been influenced by a sage from Asia or perhaps was a sage from Asia. For ancient Chinese and Buddhists have a similar concept in their religious writings. From the ‘Way’ of these religions we find poems with words like “He who tells doesn’t know. He who knows cannot tell.” This refers to telling what the Transcendent 'being' looks like in Reality. Hindu religion also refers to an unknowable Divinity - we cannot describe this entity’s being. Paul Tillich says that what we cannot see is the ‘Ground of Being’ or ‘Being’ itself. Some ancient Asians and some Europeans of the past, as well as some Native Americans realize an anthropic or human-like image underestimates the reality of the nature of that which belongs to the realm of transcendence and thus is an ineffable 'reality' that we need to recognize.

Although Spong never mentions these viewpoints of non-Christians, he has also arrived at the advanced recognition of the limits of human ability. He focuses on Christianity’s God and Jesus, but some of what he proposes in this book is not new, as it can be found elsewhere and has been known for many centuries. I think we need to keep this in mind as we respond to Spong’s twelve theses. I rate this very thought-provoking and enlightening book at five stars, but I also say to ‘think six stars.’