Pastor David Felten, having learned of Bishop John Shelby Spong’s recent stroke, writes a heartfelt letter to this leader of the Progressive Christian movement. Bishop Spong’s ideas worked to popularise an alternative to dogmatic, literalist Christianity. The bishop’s notoriety as an iconoclast and rouge heretic is well known, but Pastor Felten juxtaposes this against the personally felt and lasting effect of this example on individuals who have found their Christian calling despite “long obsolete religious ideas and assumptions.” Felten’s letter is veined with the struggle of a progressive Christian; on one hand burdened with bringing nuanced theological arguments to practical relevance in our personal and social spheres, and on the other defending against and redirecting attacks from traditionalists and evangelicals that have become increasingly sophisticated, organised, and entrenched.
In Felten’s words: “Through your books, lectures, and columns, you provide the vocabulary and give permission to ordinary people to struggle, doubt, and even reject the dogma of their birth. You’ve opened new spiritual vistas for them. You’ve shown the power of simply sitting with and encouraging the hurting and the fearful without burdening them with platitudes or the weight of long-irrelevant theologies. And taking all of it together and holding it up to the light, one of your greatest gifts becomes clear: the ability to stir even those who consider themselves the “least of these” into action.”
David Felten is a pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Arizona, and is co-founder of the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology.
A visiting lecturer at Harvard and at universities and churches worldwide, Bishop John Shelby Spong delivers more than 200 public lectures each year in support for a more humanist and rational Christianity which speaks to the situation of modern Christian communities.