I have to confess that Spencer’s book took me by surprise. All the buzz that I had heard about it focused on Spencer’s supposed “universalism” and that’s what I expected the book would mostly be about. But, as it turns out, that discussion is really only a very minor part of the whole book. Instead, the bulk of the book is about why Spencer thinks institutional religion’s time is past, and how we need to move beyond religion towards spirituality.
Let me say right off the bat that my goal here is not to discuss all the points that I disagreed with in this book and give my own counterpoints. That ground has already been well covered by Professor Scot McKnight at his blog, Jesus Creed. I’d highly recommend reading the dialogue there if you want a more in depth critique. Personally, while I didn’t agree with everything Spencer had to say, I think he did raise some good questions for conversation.
I was actually talking with Spencer on the phone a few weeks ago (arranging a lunch get-together at a conference we’ll both be at in November), and he explained to me that his book is really intended to be evangelistic as much as anything else. In other words, he wasn’t exactly trying to convince bible scholars or Christians who are already pretty certain on their views. He was writing, as I understand it, for the non-Christian who has been turned off by grace-less forms of institutional religion. Spencer also commented that his book really is intended to be a conversation starter, not a full-blown argument for why his views are right.
And start conversation it has. Some have criticized Spencer for using the word “Heretic” in the title of the book. The argument is that he’s not really heretical, he’s just being provocative. In some ways that’s true; I didn’t find a whole lot in the book that I would consider completely outside the bounds of historic Christian belief. On the other hand, there are plenty of others who definitely do think Spencer’s ideas are heretical and are way out of bounds for a Christian to even consider. (For some examples of this, check out the conversation on the Emerging CGGC blog.) Regardless of whether or not Spencer is officially a heretic, his ideas do make a lot of people uncomfortable.
In regards to his ideas, let me start with Spencer’s discussion of religion vs. spirituality. Right away (and this is one of the things I didn’t really like about the book), it’s hard to get a handle on what exactly is meant by these terms. The book doesn’t really give a clear definition. Scot McKnight however does a good job of summing up what he thinks Spencer is getting at
Religion seems to be his term for institutional faith, esp Christianity, in its churchiness, its creeds, and its required commitments. It is finite attempts to capture the infinite (28) and, as I read him, religion is a “consensual illusion” (29). It is designed to “point the way to God, not to control the flow” (40).
Spirituality is equality, a feminine/masculine sense of God, countercultural dynamic, mystery, experience, interconnectedness, beyond authority structures, holistic individuals, the particular rather than the universal, material as much as heavenly, authenticity and honesty, and a communal, holistic celebration of the sacred that eradicates boundaries.
Given these definitions, Spencer says a lot about how religion has become a barrier to people who are honestly seeking God, and how now, in our postmodern era, people are gradually learning to circumvent religion and approach the divine through the freedom of spirituality. He predicts that religion in its institutional forms are destined to die away, and suggests that perhaps we’re entering an age when people will no longer look to institutions to help mediate their relationships with God. As he says on page 90-91,
“People are not leaving churches because they’ve ended their spiritual journey or have abandoned their commitment to the teachings of Jesus… On the contrary, people are leaving the church because they want to embrace something more than abstract ideas and religious dogma. They want a transforming spirituality that gives their life shape and meaning.”
Personally, I think Spencer somewhat overstates his case, though I don’t completely disagree with his assessment. Actually, I was never quite sure how far to take Spencer’s comments. At times he seems to come down pretty hard on “religion”, but I couldn’t quite tell if he really thought that all forms of church and corporate spirituality were worthless or bound for the trash heap. In my own opinion, it is far too premature to write eulogies for institutional religion just yet. I also don’t think that the church, even as an institution, entirely fails at leading people into a transforming spirituality. At least, I have known many people whose lives have been transformed for the better in and through the church.
What I had a hard time figuring out is whether Spencer was saying we needed less church or better church. Is the problem with institutionalized religion altogether, or do we just need better institutions (perhaps scaled back, and based more on horizontal rather than hierarchical relationships and leadership structures)? As someone who is in the process of creating an “institution”, i.e. a local church, I would personally say the latter. I think there is value in the church, and really, I think some institutionalization is inevitable. Human beings like organization. Whenever you have more than a handful of people who get together on a regular basis for spiritual pursuits, you are going to need some kind of structure, some kind of system, some order. At any rate, I think that religion and spirituality are not always opposites. Often the church is an important means for people to find spirituality
At times Spencer doesn’t seem to have entirely given up on the church either. Indeed, on the phone he remarked to me that he still spends the bulk of his time speaking and interacting within the structures of institutional Christianity (i.e. churches, conferences, publishers, etc.), so I would guess that he still sees something there worth being redeemed.
Spencer’s main complaint against institutional religion, however, seems to be the ways in which it seeks to exclude people from God’s grace. He writes several chapters about how religion likes to set itself up as the gatekeepers of heaven, determining who gets in and who doesn’t. Instead, Spencer suggests that we should stop worrying about who is “in” and “out” altogether. The important thing, according to Spencer, is “not a belief system, but a holistic approach of following what you feel, experience, discover, and believe; it is a willingness to join Jesus in his vision for a transformed humanity.” (131) The true purpose of the church then, “is to take on a facilitating role, helping people find their way with God rather than attempting to determine and control exactly what that relationship to God “must” look like.” (132)
This is where Spencer’s “universalism” comes in. I say that in quotes because Spencer is not actually a universalist. While he uses that term in the book, he does so rather “tongue-in-cheek”. He is a “universalist that believes in Hell”, which is to say, not really a universalist. Rather, Spencer is an extreme inclusivist. His suggestion is basically that perhaps salvation is an opt-out rather than an opt-in. In other words, God’s grace and forgiveness is already extended to all people. Because of what Christ did on the Cross, we are all “saved”, i.e. recipients of God’s grace right from the day we are born. However, because we still have free will, and because God will never force anyone to love him, we all still have the option of rejecting God’s grace, of refusing his love. Perhaps, suggests Spencer, salvation is not so much about intellectually assenting to the particular doctrines of the Christian religion, but is simply about responding to God’s love and accepting his free grace to us, in whatever form it appears. (Incidentally, I think this whole view would help greatly in making sense of what Paul says in Romans 5:12-19.)
Personally, I think Spencer is on to something. I think many of his ideas: his inclusivism, his opinion that faith is more about spiritual transformation than intellectual orthodoxy, and his vision for a church that serves as facilitators and tour guides to faith rather than as gate keepers to heaven – these are all valuable contributions to the conversation. They are ideas that are worth pursuing further – and many already have, from Brian McLaren to NT Wright to Dallas Willard. My disappointment however, is that Spencer himself doesn’t do a very good job of supporting his ideas with much deep biblical thinking or persuasive argument. Again, as he told me, that wasn’t his intention in the first place, he wasn’t trying to convince Christians to all agree with him. However, these issues are important enough that I’d hate to see a lot of Christians simply dismiss them because of Spencer’s lack of intellectual or biblical rigor.
In short, my own earlier prediction about this book was proved true: I liked some of the answers in Spencer's book, but not how he arrived at them. And I disliked some of his answers, but still really value the questions they were born out of.
If anyone is interested, perhaps we'll have a discussion of A Heretic's Guide at up/rooted sometime in the next few months. Let me know what you think.