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Progressives and the “God” Problem

It has been fascinating (and somewhat entertaining) to watch the unfolding of the Challenge to Progressive Theo Bloggers at Tony Jones’ (“theologian-in-residence” at Solomon’s Porch) blog. The challenge was pretty simple:

I challenge all progressive theo-bloggers to write one post about God between now and August 15.

Why is this a challenge for progressives? Jones explained:

…progressives have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.

A whole-hearted “Amen!” on my end. Progressive Christians talk far more about “social issues, the church, culture, and society” than they do about God.  Later in the post, Jones qualified the challenge:

Write something substantive about God. Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God.

This clarification was necessary (for reasons I’ll touch on in a sec), specifically the inclusion of the word “substantive.” But apparently the clarification didn’t help because Jones issued two follow-up clarifications.

The first was entitled Progressive Talk about God: Lots of Throat Clearing (the second is HERE) in which Jones attempts to steer the conversation back toward something… substantive. He concludes:

Lots of progressives have responded to my challenge with lots of throat-clearing. By that I mean, they’ve loaded their posts with prolegomena about how we really can’t speak confidently about the character of God, about how we don’t want to be arrogant like the conservatives, and about how our God-talk needs to exude epistemic humility.

I get it. I wrote a dissertation. I know a lot about prolegomena. But here I’m going to shout again:


If Tony Jones is really concerned about getting progressive Christians to say anything concrete about God, I think he’s spinning his wheels. This Tweet from John on the #progGod thread shows why.

John reveals a core tenet of the progressive worldview: epistemological uncertainty, the postmodern belief that we really can’t be certain about anything. And if we can’t be certain about anything, how in the world can we ever be certain about the Ultimate Mystery? With this certainty, er, uncertainty, in place, saying anything “substantive” about God is impossible. Or should I say, anything you say about God is permissible. It’s why some (perhaps many) progressive Christians inevitable wander into animism, neo-paganism, and open theology.

Jones has conveniently aggregated the influx of “substantive” posts about God at A Progressive God at Storify. Here’s a brief snippet of the accumulated “wisdom.”

  • If someone were to ask me what I believe about who God is, the first thing I would do is correct the question. The question is, what is God? God is not a “who”.
  • As we seek, God’s character shows up in the realness, beauty, passion, frustration, intelligence, anger, complexity, sorrow, generosity and compassion we see in other human beings. God appears in the gifts and challenges we give and receive between one another. God becomes interconnected relationship. God becomes love.
  • God is not confined to religion. God is, however, love.
  • ..the concept of God/Cosmic Consciousness has a primordial nature which is the ultimate plan for all of creation.
  • …there are substantial changes between the God of the Old Testament and the New. In the Old, God is a mean, vindictive jerk. In the New, God is a loving parent that wants his children to come and rest. If God doesn’t change, which one is the real one?
  • I like the dynamic nature of God, that God changes. And if God changes, then we too will need to change how we relate to God and how we think about God.

I encourage you to peruse the rest of those posts. I believe they provide a significant window into why progressives have such a hard time saying something substantive about God. But the real challenge for Christian progressives is not just saying something “substantive” about God, but being certain about their authority to do so.

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Jill August 15, 2012, 10:23 AM

    I guess I missed the part where God is a mean, vindictive jerk. Sounds like projection to me.

  • Jill August 15, 2012, 10:33 AM

    I just read the throat-clearing article, and I have to admit that I don’t like they way the author is approaching the subject. I think he’s being disingenuous. He wants to, first of all, leave Christ out of the definition, which is impossible because Christ is essential in understanding why God dealt with his people they way he did. Also, his distaste for poetry is annoying. This theologian is an example of the Enlightenment-run-amok attitude of our modern-day spirituality in which everything, even God, must be categorized and defined in a logical manner–and not just any logical manner (poetry doesn’t count), but in an Greco-Roman manner. I’m not a progressive, but this time, I’m siding with the progressives.

  • Mirtika August 15, 2012, 10:41 AM

    They must loathe Jesus, the spouter of so many absolutes about himself and about God and about sinners. 😀

    I would have to say that any “Christian” who has issues/hesitation/problems speaking about God in some clear terms needs to strongly examine themselves to see if they have the Spirit and are in the faith. I am of the conviction that one cannot BE a Christian some very clear and unwavering absolutes about God, His Son, and the depraved nature of humankind requiring grace and salvation from a God who HEARS a human confession for such. A God who is there, who hears, who acts, who incarnates, who dies, who rises again, who judges and forgives, who sets up authorities and plans for a coming age, who speaks through prophets and apostles and the Word. I mean, if one doesn’t accept that those are absolutes about God, then toss the Bible, forget Jesus, and get one with living whatever religion one cobbles up. Christ doesn’t fumfum around. He speaks absolutely about the Father and Spirit and what men and women ARE and NEED.

    Any Christian can only call him/herself one if they have wrapped themselves around such absolutes. I am a sinner. I need salvation. God has provided a lamb. I must humble myself before a worthy Lord, who will come again. He is the Way. He is the Truth. He is the Life. NO OTHER NAME by which one can be saved. Blessed be His name.

    Of course, one can spend a lifetime philosophizing about matters and never make a decision or have an epiphany. I’d rather be tossed off my high horse into the dust on a street called Straight…..and be made to see. If believing in those absolutes makes me arrogant..fine. I’ll be arrogantly saved by His grace, the one who absolutely IS.

    • Jill August 15, 2012, 11:28 AM

      Good answer, and one that illustrates the problem with the dude’s challenge. He wanted Jesus left out of the answer.

    • John K. Patterson August 15, 2012, 11:33 AM

      Mirtika, that is an excellent, well thought-out reply. I really do appreciate your words. They have had a humbling effect on me already, and help remind me that my intellect is not the final authority (nor are the intellects “nurtured” by progressive Christianity). The absolutes of the Gospel — Christ as God incarnate, crucified and risen as our only chance for salvation, and His return — are not lines drawn in the sand that those stuffy old traditionalists cling to no matter what. They are revealed truths of the human race, of God, and of the nature and condition of each. Where humans fall into confusion, shoulder shrugging, and splintering religions, God Himself sweeps away the dust and overgrowth. He patiently reveals, rather than arbitrarily declares. Mature Christians ought to become more sure of the non-negotiables of their faith, not less.

      When progressive Christians look to the good deeds of humans to find traces of God, they are indeed finding His fingerprints. But they are also finding good done out of selfishness or good done for the wrong god/idol. Only in the heart are the “righteousnesses that are like filthy rags” distinguished from the “treasures that do not rust or decay, and thieves do not break in or steal.”

      All right, after all of that long-winded nodding and agreeing, I guess the point is, thank you.

  • Jessica Thomas August 15, 2012, 11:50 AM

    This is highly entertaining.

    • Jessica Thomas August 15, 2012, 12:27 PM

      Add to that, sad and nauseating.

      “It was a pure, excrutiatingly exquisite moment of ecstasy…
      Share this Oneness!
      ‘That We may all be One!
      With God.”

      These are Christian bloggers, you say? I’ve read three of the “substantive” responses, and I honestly can’t tell. The above snippet is most definitely not a Christian concept. We never become one with God. This strikes me as pantheistic new age hogwash. I could use harsher words. Much harsher.


  • sally apokedak August 15, 2012, 12:55 PM

    Whenever I read someone saying that Jesus’ Father, whom he loved and obeyed–the same God who so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son to save whosoever believes…when I hear people call my loving and long-suffering Father a vindictive jerk, I am filled with sorrow at the ignorance and arrogance that blinds their eyes and hardens their hearts and sends them running, happily toward hell. It really bothers me. They are calling my Father evil and he’s so good and holy and loving.

    • sally apokedak August 15, 2012, 1:04 PM

      Of course I guess I should be just as sad about all the other garbage they say. For some reason the charge that he’s mean hits me harder than the charge that he’s an it not a person. Or the charge that he’s maturing. But it’s all bad stuff. It’s all sad.

      • Mirtika August 15, 2012, 3:17 PM

        Well, I love the Lord, kneel and pray before him daily, scour my conscience in order to root out my own secret sins, and I read His Word. Daily I praise Him and thank Him for his many blessings and mercies.

        STILL… Well, sometimes, I’m struck by the wrathful side of God. I mean, if you were in one of those Canaanite cities called to destruction, I do not think you’d be thinking, “That Hebrew “I Am” is mighty easygoing and gentle.” Ditto Sodom, Gomorrah, Tyre, Sidon, and all those billions who will fall to the wrath in the Last Time.

        I take the position that I am not God and do not understand all these things and that in the end we will declare Him just and right in all He has done, even those things that seem harsh and cruel, because at that time when secrets will be no more and the whole of His plan will be layed out and make perfect sense. Or not. We might be so busy being blissful we won’t care.

        But when I read the Word, there are times I surely do tremble and wonder at what has been done and what WILL be coming….because the Wrath of God is a mighty frightening thing to behold. God is not to be trifled with, despite His great Love, his mercies, his grace, his forgiveness that makes our sins as if no more. He is still the one who has the power of life and death and has wielded it in ways that puzzle me, make me pause, and yet..again..I am not God. So, like Job, sometimes, we simply shut up and let ourselves be dazzled in our confoundment of what is way, way, way beyond us and our puny understanding.

        • Mirtika August 15, 2012, 3:18 PM

          “laid”, not layed. Argh. I have this really bad “not proofreading” commenting habit.

        • sally apokedak August 15, 2012, 3:39 PM

          Exactly. Because God is God and we are not, and because God has said he is loving and just he is loving and just, even if we can’t see it. And his justice is loving, and even his wrath is loving, because in showing it to us, he’s revealing himself to us, sharing himself with us. So we can weep over it and tremble before it and we’d be unfeeling idiots if we didn’t, I think. But to accuse him of wrong-doing–to call him evil–is so disturbing. We all do it in our hearts, to some extent, every time we sin. We say, in effect, God’s way is not the best way, and that means that the all-wise God who is not telling us the best way is leading astray and that would be evil of him. So I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised that unbelievers call him evil. I just feel so sorry for them.

  • John Robinson August 15, 2012, 1:12 PM

    Once someone steps off the bedrock of the sure, simple Word of God (as in, “childlike faith;” have the progressives not heard of it?), the ground becomes quicksand.

    And there’s no bottom.

  • Luther Wesley August 16, 2012, 8:42 AM

    Most, at least in light of their posts, can only be considered ” Christian ” in the very loosest sense of the term. They are the blind leading the blind and the teachers itching ears heap unto themselves.

    As has been said, anyone who can say that the Father is a vindictive jerk while paying lip service to Jesus obviously has paid little to no attention of Jesus’ testimony of the workings of the Trinity. Jesus does the Father’s will, they love each other, the Son humbled Himself to redeem His people and the Father gives them to Him.

    Anyone who cannot speak in awe of the Father and who He is does not know Him

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) August 16, 2012, 10:45 AM

    I don’t understand God. I don’t need to. He reveals what I need to know in His Word/Son/Holy Spirit. I think many progressives are trying to be humble in their interpretations of God so that they won’t take His Name in vain.
    I loved Mirtika’s first post. Thank you all.

  • Bob Avey August 16, 2012, 4:27 PM

    Well, I believe, Mike. Praise God and Praise Jesus Christ our savior.

  • John August 17, 2012, 10:03 AM

    Hi Mike,

    Really wanted to thank you for this post, I think the criticism is fair, but I’d add, at least from my own perspective there’s a different interpretation to the uncertainity/reluctance.

    Your post has proved to be the boot up the rear I needed to get finished on posting my own thoughts, so many thanks for being the inspiration I needed.


  • Bobby August 17, 2012, 12:18 PM

    Hmm…I certainly appreciate some progressives as trying to show that we, to poorly quote Brian McLaren, don’t have God zip locked and freeze dried. There have been some assumptions (particularly in Evangelical circles, which is an extremely important point to make because most progressives are disgruntled Evangelicals) that should be clarified or challenged.

    But surely a God who loves us and wants us to pursue Him wants us to know something about Him. My wife wants me to pursue her, but she certainly reveals and tells me things about herself. That’s part of a relationship. That’s the irritation for me when it comes to progressives. They say, oh, we should be able to know things about God. Then when you ask them, as Tony Jones has, all you hear are crickets. Or attempts to re-define the question. Why? Why can’t we tell people things about our God? Doesn’t He want us to? Wouldn’t we all agree that we want others to know about a loving God? Well, what if they ask for more?

    That leads to one of the chief weaknesses of progressive Christianity as defined here: it can tell you a hundred different problems in the church (normally referring to the Evangelical church) but it has very little idea of either a solution or a way forward. It’s mostly disorganized, disgruntled people who often have no vision or purpose.

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