Richard Beck’s Progressive Vision

Richard Beck

Richard Beck is one of my favorite theologians of the moment. Maybe it’s just because I agree with most everything he says.

He teaches at a college that’s affiliated with the Churches of Christ. That’s not a progressive group — most of those churches still don’t use instruments in worship. I’m saying, it’s not easy for a Church of Christ theologian to publicly acknowledge that he’s “progressive.”

Nevertheless, Richard has taken up my longstanding challenge for progressive Christian theologians to say something substantive about God, about Jesus, about theology, and about what we believe.

If you follow Richard, you know that he is the KING od series. So, he’s in the midst of a double-digit series, spelling out his thoughts. He’s made the very unlikely pairing of two books to lead him through this: Greg Boyd’s God at War, and John Caputo’s The Weakness of God (I confess to only having read the latter).

Here are some highlights of Richard’s posts so far. For instance, from the opening post:

And yet, it’s no surprise to say that progressive Christians really shy away from this sort of thing. A militant Christianity is what drove many progressive Christians away from conservative Christianity. Consequently, progressive Christians often tend to be too hipster, liberal, ironic or cynical to take any of this “warfare” stuff seriously.

And that, I think, may be a part of the problem. It’s hard to build excitement for your vision of progressive Christianity when the vibe is ironic, cynical, intellectualized or coolly detached. It’s hard to build excitement for your vision of progressive Christianity when you are being paradoxical, post-modern, or deconstructive. It’s hard to build excitement for your vision of progressive Christianity when it often reduces to liberal humanism, existentialism, functional atheism or simply voting for Democrats.

Basically, I think progressive Christianity struggles because it often fails to give people a real, honest-to-God, bible-thumping fight. More precisely, progressive Christianity has a lot of fight in it, but it has often struggled to articulate that fight in robustly biblical ways. (Let alone the major problem of progressive Christians being too reactionary, focusing much of their fight against conservative Christians.)

Yes, Richard! That’s right!

Richard ventures deep into the territory of spiritual warfare. This is an area that Greg Boyd hold dear, but both Richard and I are skeptical. (I’ve repeatedly asked Greg to have a public conversation with me about this — actually, I’ve given him a chance to convince me that angels and demons exist. We haven’t yet been able to set it up. Richard’s posts, however, did provoke a tweet from Greg in which he stated that he just doesn’t get why some people don’t believe in spiritual beings. Richard responded.)

In part 6 of the series, Richard argues that progressives can get what they need from Caputo, without the intellectually dubious belief in demons posited by Boyd:

In short, progressive Christians can get the warfare theology they want by simply making explicit their views regarding the weakness of God. This is the connection between God at War and The Weakness of God. As Boyd argues, a warfare theology assumes a plurality of forces in the world in combat with each other. A weak view of God assumes this plurality, that in the world there are a variety of forces often working at cross-purposes. Among these forces is the “weak force of God,” the force of love. And insofar as love abides and “rules” then the Kingdom of God is instantiated. Christ is made “King” and “Lord.”

You can find all of the posts on Richard’s blog. Here’s currently on Part 8. I’ll respond after he’s completed the series.

What do you think of Richard’s posts so far?

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  • john

    I come from church of Christ background as well, so I’m interested in what Beck has to say (beyond the fact that it’s usually brilliant.) I’m reading through his book Unclean right now, and it’s pretty great already.

  • I’d like to add that Richard is just about the kindest person you will ever meet. He has been an incredible encouragement to me in my journey – both professionally and personally. He’s funny, thoughtful, a good listener, and curious. All the qualities one looks for in a friend!

  • Thursday1

    Beck badly misrepresents what thinkers like Jonathan Haidt and William Ian Miller have to say on topics like disgust and purity. All you have to do is read The Anatomy of Disgust and The Righteous Mind to see that those thinkers don’t say what Beck’s says they say. Shameful really.

    • Can you give me an example? As a research psychologist who publishes in peer-reviewed journals that’s a pretty serious accusation. I’d like to see you back it up. And if you can’t, let’s revisit that word shameful.

      • Thursday1

        You use their work extensively, yet don’t acknowledge that they have very different views than yours on the social value of purity and disgust. Somewhat forgivable in older blog posts, not in a 2011 book.

        • I think you are referring to Haidt’s defense of the Purity/Sanctity foundation in his book The Righteous Mind.

          First, I’m not a time traveler. Unclean was published in 2011 and The Righteous Mind in 2012. It’s hard, I hope you’d admit, to shamefully misrepresent a book that didn’t exist when I published.

          Second, regardless, the last chapter of the book anticipates Haidt’s worries in The Righteous Mind discussing how a loss of the purity/sanctity dimension would have adverse consequences on the church, calling its very existence into question. I describe how liberals are willing to live those consequences and how those not wanting to let go of purity/sanctity might develop regulative rituals to keep “balance” between the moral foundations and resist the most toxic effects of purity psychology.

          • Let me add this.

            A non-troll-like way to have made your criticism would have been something like this:

            “Richard Beck’s Unclean really comes down hard on purity psychology, and he uses a lot of the research by Jonathan Haidt to make that argument. But since the publication of Unclean in his book The Righteous Mind Haidt spends a good deal of time defending the moral foundation of Purity/Sanctity. Haidt’s defense should be taken into account when reading Unclean as it might balance out or mitigate against some of the conclusions Beck reaches.”

            And I’d say, Amen to that. Read both books, have a debate about the positive and negative aspects of purity psychology and determine what the church should do as a consequence. Reading both books side by side would make a great study for a bible class.

            • Thursday1

              How . . . eliptical of you. Miller’s book was published in 1997 and he too views disgust and contempt as a necessary part of the moral order. Haidt’s book came out in 2012, but he’s been defending purity, ingroup loyalty and respect for authority in public since about 2008.

              I’ll throw something else out there: both Miller and Haidt both see the loss of a purity/disgust ethic as a cause of the materialism you so decry elsewhere in your work. Something to chew on.

      • Thursday1

        research psychologist who publishes in peer-reviewed journals

        Don’t be rank puller. There are people out there doing good work, but the average quality of peer reviewed psychological research is, charitably speaking, extremely low. It would be best to quit now while you’re ahead.

        • I’m not pulling rank. I’m saying that accusing an academic of badly misrepresenting sources is a serious charge and I’d like for you show me where I do that. Show me where I “badly misrepresent” Miller or Haidt.

  • It’s a bit intimating to have a whole post devoted to you. Thanks Tony, for the attention, but boy does it feel like it comes with a target on your back.

    Let me say this: I’ve read the whole series and it’s way too long.

    So let me summarize for people who would like to weigh in but don’t have the time to read the whole thing.

    The series basically makes this connection between Boyd and Caputo. Both posit that we live among a plurality of powers, many of which are antagonistic to the power we’d identify as God. Boyd describes this antagonism between powers as a “warfare worldview,” a worldview assumed by the biblical writers. Boyd, if you know his work, gets to this plurality and conflict between powers by positing free will for angelic and human beings. Caputo gets to the same place by positing the weakness of God more directly: there are a plurality of powers in the world because God isn’t omnipotent in the traditional sense. God is the weak force of love.

    The connection, then, is simply this: weakness implies warfare. Weakness implies a plurality of powers, many of which are antagonistic to love. Phrased another way, when you claim that God is the weak force of love (Caputo) you are positing Boyd’s “warfare worldview,” a world where God isn’t controlling everything through top-down power and, as a result, a world where there are a plurality of powers many directed toward violence and dehumanization. The Christan life, then, is stepping into this vortex of powers and aligning yourself with love/Christ against the anti-love/anti-Christ forces. The establishment of the Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, is creating outposts of love over against “this present darkness”

    It’s this logical connection, weakness implying warfare, that I’m trying to draw attention to.

    As to if progressives care or get excited about this connection is hard to say. I’m just trying to bring the connection to the surface. Can a progressive theology be built upon this connection? Will such a theology have any more popular appeal than other progressive theologies? I don’t really know.

  • Lausten North

    I think you can do better Tony. I came to liberal Christianity because I didn’t want “god says” theology, I wanted stories that supported a peaceful and just worldview. This seems to be a flea-flicker move to return to fundamentalism.

    I started at #8 and worked backwards until I couldn’t keep going. Here are a couple notes:

    Pt 7 he says, “Perhaps the most biblical thing we can do is do what the bible does: assume evil exists and confess that God is that Spirit that moves over creation bringing order, beauty, goodness and light. We can confess at least that much. Why evil exists, I can’t say.”

    Is that the best Beck can do? Are we just stuck with doing what is right because God says so? We’re not. Philosophy has advanced tremendously in the last few hundred years and we have plenty of logical reasons to understand why we should be good to each other.

    Pt 6. I have never heard this idea that chaos surrounds us and we are here to help God bring order and chaos, except maybe from extreme fundamentalists. The major difference with the Genesis story from earlier gods is that God was in control of all of creation. Beck really seems to be making up something that is not supportable. It’s really hard to keep reading when he I feel he hasn’t spent much time thinking about what he’s writing.

    • “Is that the best Beck can do?”

      I just want you to know that that sorta hurt my feelings. 🙂

      • N. Ireland.

        This term progressive Christianity and Emerging church is relatively new to me. I have some idea of what you guys are talking but have not read the books you are alluding to. Would anyone here please direct me to a good web site where I can learn more about this. Right now I’m going through The Great Books so I’m not going to by anyone’s work. I more than enough books to last me the rest of my life. I have one comment. What is the basis or source of progressive theology, and is theology a bad word?

        • Lausten North

          I’ll suggest two, and Phyllis Tickle.Phyllis is one of the few who has done objective analysis of the movement. She has some lectures on YouTube. I’ve seen marvelous discussion from young people at the village site, so I just put it out there as a positive example. As for theology, I don’t have much nice to say about it. I tend to agree with Daniel Dennet that it is a way to sound profound, but it lacks any rigor.

      • Lausten North

        Understood Richard. And you should understand that you have put yourself out there for everyone to see. It’s freedom of speech, not freedom from criticism. Many people have been very hurt by churches and theologians, so I see no harm in trying to bring light to a conversation that so many find so important. If I’m wrong, I’ll accept your feedback.

        What I have been hurt by is the authoritarian approach of my former pastors. And that is what you seemed to be promoting and why I commented. The world is moving toward greater inclusivity. More voices of the formerly voiceless are heard every day. Religion that calls itself progressive should be on that side of history.