I think I first met Spencer Burke at the first Emergent Convention in San Diego (’03). I had been checking out Spencer’s project, The Ooze, and had appreciated his way of thinking about things. I also had the opportunity to read his book, Making Sense of Church, in which I found his metaphors for the church and the culture to be very intriguing.
I received a copy of A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity awhile back and have been waiting for a “break” in the craziness of school and work to give it a good read. Well, that break never really came, but I wanted to get into the book so I read it this past week. One thing that I really appreciate about Spencer is that he isn’t afraid to just say what he thinks. He’s not afraid of alienating the more conservative “emergent” folk by saying and writing those things that are important to him. Because of this trait in his writing especially, Spencer is not afraid to openly share some of his very progressive thoughts on theology.
Spencer writes with the assumption that religion is not the answer for those that seek God and spirituality today. Today’s religion and traditional institutional churches are providing answers to old questions, and increasingly being seen as irrelevant by the world. Not irrelevant in that “They’re singing hymns and I want cool music with candles” or in that “I would come to church if they would just show some cool video clip from The Matrix each week…” Irrelevant in that the church is not where people turn to today for spiritual experiences. The pastor is no longer seen as the most educated or wise person in a local community. People are looking elsewhere – outside of institutional churches – for ways to connect to God.
Spencer has an extended list of the differences he sees between spirituality and religion. Here are just a few of them:
“Spirituality is concerned with conscious living and with cultivating the sense of interconnectedness. Religion, by comparison, is often held captive by pseudo-orthodoxy and tends to be concerned with professions of belief rather than transformational living.
Spirituality seeks to move beyond authority structures that have dominated organized religion, instead ascribing authority to each individual. Religion, on the other hand, confers authority to a select few in leadership. It tends to be hierarchical and exclusive.
Spirituality begins its discussion of the sacred from the desire for an integrated life. Religions often operate on a sin-redemption paradigm, which has little resonance in today’s society.” (59-60)
Spencer says that he doesn’t speak about moving past institutional faith and religion just as an “attempt at being cool” but rather because “it is an acknowledgment that we live in a new age in which the restraints of religion inhibit the flow of God’s grace into the world” (99).
Throughout his book, Spencer draws on a variety of sources from scripture, to social theory, to eastern religions and pop culture. In his chapter, “All We Need is Grace” he comes right out and says “I now incorporate a panentheist view, which basically means that God is ‘in all,’ alongside my creedal view of God as Father, Son and Spirit” (95). As he acknowledges in the book, this view causes some traditional Christians to grimace and not want to hear more from him. But he believes that it is a very compelling idea when it comes to understanding God. Spencer writes:
“A panentheist view points to the radical connectedness of all reality and infuses the world with the idea that all life is sacred and therefore to be nurtured and cherished. It is a relational theology that declares that God is to be found in the world with us, not just when we get our ticket to heaven. Panentheism fits well with the increasing emphasis on faith as something firmly rooted in this world.” (195)
Finally, Spencer discusses why he considers himself a universalist, again a claim you don’t hear often from Emergent folks. In calling himself a universalist, Spencer holds out for the fact that there can be many things within the world’s different religions that are true and valuable and that no single religion own heaven or God. “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. As I see it, God finds us, and it has nothing to do with subscribing to any particular religious view” (197).
As the tagline of this blog suggests, I am one who is struggling to find what an open and progressive theology might look like in the world today. I think Spencer Burke is a good example of who is on a similar journey. As he writes in his book, he is still committed to Jesus, who remains an important aspect of his faith. But Spencer has the courage and the desire to be a heretic, whom he describes as “a spiritual insurgent, one who rises up against the established order from the inside – one who heralds a newer way, another option, a fresh view” (xxiii-xxiv).
I think Spencer may in fact be that person for many who are frustrated with today’s institutionalized church. But – it’s hard to think that “religion” and traditional churches are so close to the death that Spencer pronounces when I find myself with so many friends who I know are going to school and getting ordained to go out and get jobs in those very dying churches. I agree with much of what Spencer writes – and I do think that a large portion of churches today are, in many ways, irrelevant and are not the places where people are turning to for spiritual direction.
But as one who is in the process of ordination (PCUSA) and pursuing a possible calling in a traditional Presbyterian church, I have to believe that there is possibility of life within the institution. In some ways, it may be possible to be a heretic from within the church. After all, Spencer does say that a heretic is one who will “rise up…from the inside.”
A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity is worth the read. I hope that Spencer won’t entirely give up on the traditional church, because there are those who hope to see something new come from it yet. But I appreciate much all of what Spencer has to say about spirituality and his idea of what it means to be Christian in the world today and recommend his book(s) to you.