Ok here goes… my final take on Spencer Burke’s new book.
I have really enjoyed this whole process as it has moved my mind into gear theologically more than I have had to for a little while. The book is not a hard read by any stretch, but it does call you to think about what you believe and why
The last 70-80 pages are essentially focused on the concept of grace and how it impacts on us.
He begins by suggesting Jesus may have been a heretic because he chose to live contrary to Jewish standards. I don’t think anyone would question the fact that Jesus was a rule breaker and status quo annihilator! But a heretic?… Again, this gets down to definitions. What is a heretic?…
Maybe Jesus was a heretic by first century Jewish standards?…
I agree with Spencer that an obsession with the afterlife has dominated much of evangelicalism’s take on salvation. It become a heaven or hell proprosition rather than anything to do with the here and now, a distortion of what the Bible does actually teach. This is pretty tragic and something we starting to move away from.
Spencer’s solution to the current dilemma of religion / institutionalism as he sees it, is a shift towards what he calls ‘mystical responsibility’. He asserts that he ‘is no longer sure if he believes in God exclusively as a person anymore’ p.195 In that he has chosen to incorporate a panetheistic worldview into his thinking so that he now sees us as being ‘in God’ while here on earth, a philosophy he says is more accessible to people who are thinking about faith today.
This is where I tack back the scriptures and the ancient creed which speak of ‘father’, ‘son’ and holy spirit as 3 persons.
The very next section is entitled “I’m a universalist who believes in hell”. He goes on to describe what he means by that:
“When I say I’m a universalist, what I really mean is that I don’t believe you have to convert to any particular religion to find God. God finds us and it has nothing to with subscribing to any particular religious view”
That’s a tricky statement!
Because in part I agree. God is beyond religion. Jesus can be met in a Muslim context as well as a Hindu context, but ultimately there is a religious view that Jesus espouses that we are called to conform to. I don’t believe we can follow Jesus and hold the Koran as our holy book. It just doesn’t make sense.
There is definite appeal in universalism because as Spencer says ” there is a certain madness to the idea that members of only one religious group can make it into heaven because they happen to know Jesus or some other religious figure.”
I can’t get away from the biblical teaching on the exclusivity of Christ. I can’t see how Spencer does. Acts 4 is the ‘no other name’ passage and Paul speaks repeatedly of Jesus death and resurrection as our only hope.
Spencer finishes this section by stating that we need to go one step further and realise that ‘grace is bigger than any religion’. Again I would agree, but I am happy to live with the mystery of ‘what happens to those who have never heard?’ rather than choosing the universalist option.
I really appreciate that Spencer tells us where he sits. One of the common critiques of Brian McClaren’s work is that he doesn’t nail his colours to the mast on tricky subjects, but seems to avoid them. Whether we agree or disagree I like to know what it is we are discussing.
Ironically I liked Spencer’s take on evangelism and conversion because it focused on what God does rather than our effort, as well as noting that conversion is a multi-faceted process.
This is already long enough so I will wrap it up.
There is much that I like in Spencer’s book, but there is also plenty that I take issue with (see previous posts). Perhaps one of the biggest concerns is that there is virtually no attention paid to the place of the cross and Jesus’ death & resurrection in his thinking. Perhaps this is congruent with a more universalistic world view?
I feel this is a huge ommission for a book of this nature and one that will come back bite him on the bum. While he does provoke some good thinking, to avoid discussion of the single most critical event in human history does bear some serious concern. The cross was the focal point of much of Paul’s writings and integral to this gospel, so you would expect that in a discussion on eternity it would feature.
I still feel a bit fuzzy on terms like grace and spirituality. I ‘get’ religion, but I find the other two a bit unfamiliar and not easy to digest. I sense we may use them in different ways.
So is Spencer Burke a heretic?
He would say so, and if I read him right then I think I’d agree with his own assessment, but it feels like he is talking heretic in the same way that Patch Adams was a heretic.
Is he onto stuff that maybe we need to hear?
I think he says some great stuff, but you do need a discerning mind to read it all. I would be concerned for a young Christian reading Spencer’s book with no faith grounding.
I actually reckon it’d be a great book to put on the evangelism and theology booklists of our Bible colleges because it does get students to think outside the square and it challenges them to weigh Spencer’s point of view alongside their own. It’d do a lot of them good to be faced with a text like this one.
So – thanks Spencer for the opportunity to review your book. I have really enjoyed it, but as you are aware we do disagree on some core stuff. I wish you well in your own journey of following Christ and look forward to reading whatever else you write.