Femmevangelicalizing the “God-talk” challenge.
A couple days ago, Tony Jones challenged progressive writers to write a post about God, citing a sweeping “God-talk problem” that leaves us stuck on “social issues, the church, culture and society.”
If it is a safe assumption that the Bible is widely accepted and taught as the Word of God by most Christians, and said Word of God forms the general basis for Christians to formulate “what we think about God” and “who God is, what God does, etc.” then we are all stuck with a voice of God that is also stuck on social issues, the state of religious institutions, culture and society. It’s really all “God” talks about. So we progressives could be said to be onto something. By talking about God in the way that God talks about what’s supposedly going on in God’s own head, we employ the most authentic framework for God-talk possible.
But if we are talking about a PR problem (as Jones calls it) and the question of articulating “who God is” in one breath, I should say the biblical God of our commentary also has a PR problem, which makes our own a little more complex. I would have to write a whole other blog about the schizophrenia of the biblical and theological God who, as you know, is by turns violent yet gentle, genocidal yet welcoming, destructive yet loyal, retaliatory yet forgiving, misogynistic yet … I don’t really know where to go with that one. So I’ve often wondered how these people to whom Jones refers as examples in his challenge decide “who God is and what God does.” How do they take a sure stance without residually advocating some iteration of ancient ritual or first-century Greco-Roman ethics, or choosing which characteristics and statements “sound most like their God” while ignoring the diffiult ones? Oh wait, many of them do.
Alas, if I am challenged to put forth a specifically definitive blog about God (which seems to be the crux of the challenge), with the unavoidable assumption that scripture and academic theological works form the basis of my knowledge of who God is and what God does, then I can only write in terms of what I know about God’s manifestations, permutations, pontifications and contra-indications as painfully bent through the lens of ancient, culturally-ensconced patriarchs and biblical scribes, or alternately any range of modern-day religious and/or academic interpreters and an often conflicting stream of well-intentioned hermeneutics. They all have PR problems of their own, too.
Which brings me to say this: just because we observe that conservative evangelicals and a podcasting theological nerd “repeatedly and forcefully [say] things about who God is and how God acts” doesn’t mean it is a helpful thing – or the right thing – to do. There is a crucial personal reason that I have traveled so far from my “fundamentalist” upbringing to a “progressive” worldview, and that is because I hit a dangerous dead-end anytime I tied to be repeated and forceful about anything about God. I also think that practice is at the heart of why organized religion itself has such a nasty PR problem. So, respectfully, I find this to be the wrong challenge to bolster the progressive message.
And then I land here in my God-talk: it can never be sure or definitive A) lest I pretend to know the mind of God (I’d hate to get struck by the proverbial lightening) and B) lest the multitude of God-talkers talk God out of the purview of others…others who can’t or don’t or don’t want to fit in to whatever character we presume. As a woman and feminist, a lot of God-talk about this uber-masculine, prowling God who rips off and pulls skirts up over our heads and only deems men good enough to compile his thoughts into the Bible makes God inaccessible to me. Likewise, my version of a creative, kick-ass but fair female God who wants to protect the earth and not kill bugs, much less whole races, won’t resonate with others. So I move my God-talk from the realm of defining to the realm of seeking, which can be inclusive of everyone.
Seeking by nature is experiential. But it works best with all concerns about having a competitive corner on the God market aside. God-talk as non-judgmental reflection and interrogation of our experiences can help us peel through the information we glean from stories of the Bible and the agendas of theologians to a deeper layer of who God is and what God does. This can get tricky; the lack of control over other people’s experiences of God is why so many religious traditions give it no room. But that’s also why it’s the foundation of Femmevangelicalism. For women, desperately trying to understand our everyday experiences is at the heart of even beginning to try and understand who God is. It has to be, because so much of women’s daily experience around the globe – street harassment, sex trafficking, domestic violence, genital mutilation, child marriages, pornification and commodification of our bodies, poverty, lack of government influence, general media mysogyny and disrespect — feels like hell.
One thing I can say about God is that I no longer believe God is in some other “high in the sky bye and bye” realm, but rather the point of God is being in our human experience (it’s what the Bible indicates if you boil it down and let the ancient cultural soup evaporate). By adding experience to study and discussion, the description of God becomes a journey of the mind and heart – and holistic communites – that helps us center and balance the ethos our greater world claims. God-talk becomes an actual living, breathing thing, contracting and expanding with missteps and triumphs, uprisings and peace, judgments and clarity, doing and being (again, arguably the original premise of the Bible, before people starting taking it literally as a rule book about God’s opinions and definitive actions).
A true seeker – whether conservative or progressive – doesn’t seek to define, but rather seeks to experience God. These very different intentions have very different outcomes, because the latter resists assuming we can ever stop the living process long enough to make God static or set in stone. We start to see such forceful, unapologetic declarations alluded to as enviable in Jones’ blog as therefore describing a “dead God”, which is why so many progressives, in my opinion, rightly avoid it. The living God may be said to never change, but we, the God-talkers, most certainly do (if you don’t, you’re dead). This means we will always look back and be slightly embarrassed at our naiveté in what we wrote or said even just yesterday, because God is continually unfolding before us, even as history unfolds. And that is where I believe the right challenge and exploration of knowing who God is begins.
The God you can feel in your bones as an experiential answer, what Femmevangelicals may call our God-given intuition, may not be deemed “reliable” by organized religion (although oddly, all those unknown guys who patched together the Bible stories hundreds of years ago were apparently reliable). But seekers who stick with it through the ins and outs, ups and downs, the “I know it all about God” moments and the “I don’t think God even exists” moments know a more valuable reality. 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. I think I’ve heard that somewhere before.
Back to the PR problem at hand. Charlie Sheen’s tiger blood was a limited-time secret weapon in the world of spin, but a God worth knowing transcends the tail-chasing fodder known as the “PR problem”. Christians of all stripes have already seen that the definitive, repeated, forceful brand of God-talk may lead to oft-regurgitated sound bites (great for PR), but not necessarily to any real knowledge of God. It produces vacuous Christians fighting over who is right or wrong about God, while people, especially younger generations, leave churches in droves. We should be concerned about helping others to feel God in their bones through our experiences of and with one another.
And, Tony Jones’ challenge is a great lead-in to next week’s Femmevangelical blog, which will talk about whether God is male or female, and who we picture that we are talking to when we pray.