I was surprised and honored to have been asked to review Spencer Burke's new book A Heretics Guide to Eternity. I had been scoping out the book with the intention of buying it. Spencer is one of the leading voices in the emergent movement. He is the founder of the website "The Ooze", a great website for interacting with fellow travelers on our spiritual journeys. I'm so wishing that someone in emergent will step forward and declare himself a universalist.
I thought Spencer's book was primarily about universalism. The back cover focuses on this aspect of the book. But, frankly, I thought universalism was a fairly small part of the overall book. The book is primarily Spencer's observations about the current state of religion and the church in a world that is rapidly passing both by.
Overall, I found the book quite enjoyable even though it was reminiscent of other works I've read by Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. That's fine though. I think that we who are not afraid to think outside the box might come to similar conclusions. Sometimes in our efforts to be original or individualistic, we shun anything that might appear like conformity. The thing that some people need to keep in mind when it comes to being "emergent" is that we don't shun tradition or community or even thinking alike just for the sake of being "original".
Now on to the review...
The book begins with a foreword by Brian McLaren. Brian points out the controversy that could be associated with the title. After all, who wants to blatantly identify himself as a heretic (besides yours truly)? I don't think the title is a great risk though. Those who would be willing to listen to Spencer are most likely fine with reading a book with heretic in the title. Those who would be freaked by the word would probably be spending their time better by reading something else. The book is full of ideas that some will find to be quite "dangerous".
Spencer begins and concludes with the idea that we live in "interesting times". Religious traditionalists will probably greet this with a big "Who cares? We're not supposed to be influenced by the world. We're supposed to influence the world." I'm sure they'll quote the verse that says not to be conformed to the world. But, the thing they don't recognize is the church has already been influenced by the world (culture). For some reason though, in religion, there seems to be this big thing that the past is better. It's the only field where because an idea is old is it is automatically seen as better. New ideas are dangerous and yes, even heretical. Churches tend to cling to the distant or recent past to prove that they can't be influenced by culture. The problem with this idea is that if the church is not willing to meet people where they are, the church will become irrelevant.
In the introduction, Spencer says:
To reflect on religion is fraught with danger- this I readily admit. To mess with people's beliefs is a precarious venture, riddled with hazards. I acknowledge my own imperfections in these matters. Nevertheless, I think it's worth exploring what the Christian faith could look like if we took some risks, pushed some tired old perspectives aside, and looked at the gospel with twenty first century eyes.I'm glad to be standing under the sky with people like Spencer.
At this point in my life, I am happy to live with uncertainty and in precarious freedom, rather than hunker down in the false security of institutions and recite doctrines that no longer feed my soul. I have faith, and it is this faith that sustains me.
Asked where he would stand if he were excommunicated by the church, Martin Luther is said to have answered "Under the sky."
Spencer then goes on to discuss Dietrich Bonhoeffer's idea of "Religionless Christianity". I like it. But, frankly, I struggle with what religionless Christianity looks like. Extricating essential Christianity from the 2,000 years of crap we've piled on top of it is no easy task (I know, I've been trying for about 20 years). Spencer calls on us to move beyond religion and makes an excellent point that religion separates while spirituality brings people together.
Spencer then talks about how grace is bigger than religion and cannot be contained in the religious constructs we try to bind it in. While traditional Christianity with its trite sayings like "It's not about religion, it's about relationship." claims to be all about grace, we put a very works mentality by making faith a prerequisite to receiving grace. And faith in certain things (the Four Spiritual Laws for example). We've simply exchanged "faith" for "works" in this transactional view of what it requires to receive God's grace.
Other thoughts worth noting are Spencers' definition of Spirituality 101, how spirituality is not confined what we do in church (we can touch the spiritual in so many ways every day now). His story of going to the park on Sunday to feed the poor there rather than sitting in a church service really resonated with me (now if I could get my wife to go along). He talks about the importance of this life rather than focusing solely on the next. All very emergent ideas and all really touched me. Basically, his thoughts on universalism were more about how God's grace is much too big to confine to religion in general and to Christianity in particular. If you're looking for a book on universalism, I'd recommend others.
There's a great chapter on "Jesus the Heretic". This will not be news to a lot of us. I've realized there are so many Jesuses depending on how we look at Him. I think each of us projects (or extracts) the Jesus we want to see. To me, Jesus has always been a heretic, a rebel. I had a discussion several months ago with two evangelical, white, Republican friends who had never seen Jesus as a champion for social justice before. I was shocked. How could you not see this in Jesus? IMO, I could never picture Jesus as a conservative or a Republican. But, their view was the exact opposite. It was a very interesting lunch.
Spencer talks about his view of God. He describes himself as a panentheist. That is one who doesn't believe God is completely transcendent, but immanent. God is in the universe with us. Spencer describes it a little differently than I would. But, I think we basically agree. I think a balance has to be struck between the transcendence of God and the immanence of God. Christianity is way of of balance with the emphasis on a God who is "out there". A God who we have to reach up to and beg to come near to us. I have found the view of God in me (and me in God) to be much more useful.
In terms of universalism. Spencer says he is a universalist who believes in Hell. However, he believes that God's grace is something we have to opt-out of, not opt-in (as Christianity has taught). Spencer believes God gives people the freedom to opt-out of God's grace. Whether this is an eternal thing, Spencer doesn't say. I can't say I vehemently disagree with Spencer. I believe that, for some, God's presence will be a burning fire that will be painful. I believe this will be their "hell". But, I do not believe in Eternal Conscious Torment. I think Spencer goes farther than McLaren has gone on the subject of hell and universalism. Spencer used the word universalist to describe himself. But, he's not overly dogmatic about it and leaves room for doubt. The real emphasis on the book is on how we shall live in the here and now and putting our trust in God's grace rather than in religion. On that point, I agree with Spencer, completely. I wouldn't describe as a universalist, based on waht he says in this book. Universalism, to me means all will be reconciled to God, not that any, regardless of religion may be reconciled to God. The "opt-out" part of Spencer's theology makes him less than a full universalist, IMO. That is not a criticism, but an observation. I'm not saying that Spencer is wrong. Just that that if any or many will opt-out, that is less than universal reconciliation. I tend to agree with Talbott that any making a fully informed decision with a normal mental capacity could not opt out. However, Spencer has taken not a small step, but a huge leap from the traditional Christian position that all in heaven will be Christians and all others will be in hell. For that, I applaud him.
One of the most important aspects of the book is the ability to interact with Spencer and others. In keeping with the emergent ideal of a dialog, Spencer has set up a spot on The Ooze where we can continue the conversation. When I was reading the book, this section wasn't up yet. But, I visited it this morning and it seems to be working now. The section is broken down into subsections where you can discuss each chapter with Spencer and with others. You can go through Spencer's site http://www.spencerburke.com or I think this link will take you there, directly.
Overall, I'd say it's a very good book. It caused me to think and it encouraged me to take even more chances than I'm already taking. I don't know that I'd call it my guide to eternity. But it's a pretty good handbook for the here and now.