Does Progressive Christianity Need Warfare to Thrive?

Richard Beck has concluded his lengthy series in which he responded to my challenge to articulate a progressive vision for theology. In an epilogue, he sums up his argument:

  1. “God is love” is the foundation of progressive Christian theology.
  2. That means that God is weak in the world, acting out of love rather than power.
  3. The weakness of God initiates a warfare relationship between a weak, loving God and those who strive for power in the world.

That last point, I think, is the biggest jump. Beck relies on Greg Boyd’s argument in God at War to show that a weak, loving God is necessarily swept into warfare with other spiritual beings. That’s not an argument that I think Boyd (or Beck) successfully makes. It doesn’t necessarily follow that if God takes a posture of weakness in the world, God is therefore at war. Even in weakness, it seems totally possible that God is the most powerful being in existence and that God’s mere presence vanquishes all comers.

But Beck is right to say remind us that Jesus repeatedly talked about the satan, and that Jesus himself vanquished evil (in the form of demons) on several occasions. To ignore this aspect of Jesus’ ministry is to denude Jesus of one of the most important aspects of his ministry, leading Beck to diagnose the problem with progressive Christianity:

Dislocated from Jesus progressives had no robustly biblical ways to unpack their central confession that “God is love.” Unplugged from Jesus progressives defaulted to liberal humanism. Not a bad move, but the confession “God is love” was thinned and hollowed out to become an insipid vision of liberal tolerance rather than a robust conflict against the forces of dehumanization in the world and in our own hearts.

So then, the question is: With whom is God at war?

For Boyd, God is at war with other spiritual beings. I think that’s hogwash, as I’ve said before. Beck, while not outrightly agreeing with me, admits that progressive Christians aren’t likely to start believing that angels and demons are shooting lightning bolts that kill your car’s engine. To this end, Beck abandons Boyd’s literalistic approach to spiritual warfare, decapitalizes “Satan” into “the satan” (aka, the adversary), and writes about the “forces of dehumanization” rather than sulfur-breathing demons.

In this, I’m all in. Beck and I agree that progressive Christianity has lost its teeth, in that it’s lost its fight. But I accept Beck’s thesis with two caveats:

First, I don’t think that “warfare” is the best analogy for Christianity is up to in the world. Firstly, “warfare” is not a theme of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death. While it can be found in Boyd’s beloved christus victor theory of the atonement, Jesus never mentions “war” or “warfare,” and neither do the Gospel writers. It’s a stretch to claim that warfare is to be the primary theme of progressive Christianity when it’s not once mentioned in the Gospels.

And Beck is just not going to convince a critical mass of progressives to embrace the language of “warfare,” especially as so many of us are 1) living in a country that fights endless and pointless wars, and 2) turning away from violent imagery and embracing the peace traditions within Christianity.

Second, Beck claims that “the language of progressive theology is too white, male and European. I’d recommend less talk about Derrida, Lacan, and Heidegger and more talk about the devil and the Holy Ghost.” That’s true, in a certain part of progressive Christianity these days. But there’s also another version of progressive Christianity that trucks in the language of Cone, Sobrino, Gutiérrez, Boff, and Boesak. Indeed, even the white, male, European theologians that I’ve read the most — Moltmann, Küng, Metz — are indelibly influenced by the aforementioned liberationists, and those liberationists most surely emphasize our Christian fight against dehumanizing and marginalizing systems and powers.

There’s yet another version of progressive Christianity that does the same: the feminist theologies of Radford Ruether, Daly, Schüssler Fiorenza, McFague, and Tanner.

And there’s a burgeoning group of queer theologians, just now having their voices heard, that will again do the same.

So I think that Richard Beck is right. We progressives need more fight. We need to assert that Christianity is an unsettling, revolutionary way of life; that it struggles against the powers, systems, and bureaucracies in this world that dehumanize and oppress people and creation.

I just think that the seeds for this articulation of Christianity are already there — our job is to water them and watch them grow.

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  • Simon

    Rickrolled! Ah!!!!! Click on the Spiritual Warfare Battletracking Matrix at your own risk. (Low blow Tony.)

    • Oh man, I wanted to be the first to post this, but you beat me to it. Good ‘ol Rick Astley, he’s never gonna give any of us up.

      • MichelleHess

        On my kindle I didn’t think of clicking on the matrix, so thanks guys. I LOVE a sense of humor and play in theology!

    • Lorinda Clausen

      I LOLed! Rick Astley and spiritual warfare. The connecting truth has at last been revealed by prophet Jones.

  • Troy Haliwell

    Oh sure, ruin my day with the worst product of the early 1990s. Gee thanks.

  • Lausten North

    Great post Tony. Bringing back a language of war is bucking the trend of the world. Look at Europe for instance, at any other time in history, when all the cultural and financial forces were like they are now, there was war. Now, there are some strange banking maneuvers and protesting, but it is basically a peaceful process.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I truly don’t mean to be an obnoxious self-promoter, but I wrote a post yesterday which I think is a pretty good example of a more progressive Christianity which is forceful, challenging and unsettling. (This is an issue I’ve been thinking about as well.) I take a different tact than Beck/Boyd and am writing for a less scholarly audience. But it does seem to me that in order for an alternative vision of Christianity to spread, we need messages which speak to people where they are (mostly not reading theologians of any hue or gender) and it has to be a message which hits the same sort of notes that conservative Christianity has been able to leverage (ie a call for serious devotion, being part of a common experience, and some real expectations placed on those who take part). Only the answers we provide need to be more faithful, more grounded in reality and without the divisiveness that are the hallmarks of a lot of conservative theology. At any rate, here’s my offering:

    • That’s a brilliant post Rebecca.

      Can I ask your opinion about something? Early in my series I got some pushback that a “spiritual warfare” metaphor was too masculine. My response was twofold:

      First, isn’t that a problem? I mean, isn’t it chauvinistic to say that “war” is man’s work and not woman’s? To be sure any given individual, male or female, might recoil (for good reasons) at the metaphor of “warfare,” but that’s to be decided on a case by case basis. “Warfare” shouldn’t be exclusively the domain of men if a woman wants to sign up for the army.

      Second, if we think of being “warriors” two of my favorite warriors are Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger. Basically, I think women can kick ass as well as the boys.

      To be sure, in light of your post, “warfare” (kicking ass) might be too hard a metaphor to reconcile with love, though I tend to think Jesus pulled it off by “defeating” the satan on the cross.

      • Rebecca Trotter

        Well thank you, Richard! My thought on warfare is that it needs to not simply be demytholized as you say to Tony, but expanded well beyond the way it’s usually conceived of. The language of battle is so pervasive because it is related to something very deep in us and which is probably embedded into the very fabric of the universe (thing gravity vs momentum or bacteria vs white blood cells). So I think it would be a mistake to try to abandon it altogether. The real problem is that we have warfare, men and western forms of battle all tied up in our heads. The reality is that all human engage in conflicts and there are many modes of battle beyond simple trying to be the bigger, stronger party in a conflict. Part of what I find appealing about the idea of God aligned with the weak force of love is that in order to work, it must call on those other experiences and modes of battle.

        For example, while I am certainly an egalitarian and view the teaching of the unique submission of woman as wrong, women’s long experience of forced submission has taught us valuable lessons about fighting from a p position of weakness which I think can be valuable in understanding how God, by aligning with the weak force of love, can achieve victory. After all, the millennia long battle of the sexes was never a one-sided affair despite women’s weak position. In fact I would argue that Jesus’s teachings on turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile and offering your shirt can be understood as just the sort of battle from a position of weakness which women have often had to resort to. (I write about these stories as exercises in assertiveness here, fwiw:

        Another example we can look to for how battle can be fought outside of western norms and concepts can be found in certain martial arts. The are some practices in which a fighter uses his opponent’s aggression and power against him. Jesus’s death on the cross is a perfect example of this sort of battle tactic.

        In the post I link to above, I argue that God does want us to overcome evil, he simply says don’t go about the battle using the same sort of tools and tactics that the enemy does. God’s tools appear weak – love, kindness, humility, gentleness, etc. But as Jesus’s death on the cross shows, they are in fact the key to real and decisive victory.

        • Rebecca Trotter

          Please excuse all the typos! I’m typing on a kindle! :p

      • Tim

        I agree with Richard; That is a brilliant post, Rebecca.

      • matybigfro

        I both am sympathetic to your desire to adopt spiritual warfare and Tony’s objections to it, often from the same source having grown up within the charismatic community for which this is standard language. I both recognise that loss of something important in the more progressive movements but also very weary of a much over used over blown metaphore in the Charismatic church.

        I think we do need ‘fight’ but I’m not sure we need a ‘War’ I really struggle with that word war. You see I don’t think ‘Weak’ parties wage War, Katniss Everdeen didn’t wage war on The Capitol she was caught in the middle. War is waged by the powerfull against the powerfull so I’m not sure if a ‘Weak’ God of Love would be cappable of waging war. Maybe ‘Struggle’ is a better term I think much of Katniss Everdeens activity in the hunger games is the struggle for liberation. Struggle resonates with the Civil right’s movement and the Poor, Poor people tend not to make War they tend to be forced into making war.

  • Laura

    I think the biggest jump is actually between point 1 and 2; yes ‘God is love’ is the foundation of progressive Christianity, but to jump from that to ‘therefore God is weak in the world’ does not follow, in my opinion. Weakness attributed to love not ‘power’ seems, dare I say it, a (stereo)typical male response to the value of love in the world. Acting in true love, rather than brute strength, for example, is an example of extraordinary (but perhaps not obvious) power.

    • NateW

      I think that you’re making the same point here that Richard Beck is actually making—that Christ reveals that true power IS selfless love, love that is strong enough to stand between an oppressor and a victim even if the oppressor is a friend and the victim is an enemy, even if doing so will mean incurring guilt upon one’s self, even if doing so will cost everything. This kind of love APPEARS to be weakness, but is the only power in the universe capable of ingniting the flame of love in another human heart.

  • Thanks Tony for the pushback.

    As the series progressed I began to grow increasingly cool toward the “warfare” metaphor. I’m more comfortable with “struggle” and “resistance.” A “warfare” metaphor may just be too toxic to rehabilitate.

    Also, I very much like how you pulled in liberation, feminist and queer theology. I’m a big fan of all of those. And my sense is that all three of those locations of theological reflection are very much concerned with struggling against and subverting “the principalities and powers,” various dehumanizing and oppressive forces in the world. If so, then I still think a Christus Victor frame can be a way to connect those theologies with Jesus’ Kingdom proclamation in the gospels.

    • I just don’t see how one can affirm CV atonement without also embracing a medieval metaphysic. That’s what I’m trying to get my mind around…

      • I think you have to demythologize using moves like those Walter Wink uses. Progressives are demythologizing everything else, why don’t they do it with spiritual warfare?

        • Good point. Tho I don’t have time to read ANY theology systems broadly these days, I do consider myself and contribute (articles, comments and my own blog) under the broad “Progressive Christian” label. But I, without many counterparts I know of, don’t entirely “demythologize” spiritual warfare…. Not even in terms of denying the apparent existence of malevolent spiritual “entities”. These I suspect are “real” tho perhaps still “redeemable” and not “rank-ordered” nor given orders by “Satan” or “The Devil” but by a sort of “dark side” of perversion in which “misery loves company” in very real terms.

          I’m wondering if his work is now mostly forgotten (sad, if so), but M. Scott Peck, especially in “The People of the Lie,” grapples substantially with this… a seeming “progressive” or “universalist” Christian who believed in literal “demons” and literal exorcism (sometimes effective, if properly, carefully done as part of broader care). It’s all in the above book. I read it when first out and as an Evangelical. Would enjoy a 2nd look now as a progressive… I think I’d still buy most if not all of it, tho his bid to have the DSM (diagnostic manual) include an “evil” category might never be workable or sensible.

          • MichelleHess

            I tried getting through People of the Lie 20 yrs ago, maybe now it is time to dig it out of the box…I appreciate your reminder and connection with that. Very interesting discussion. I hadn’t fully embraced progressive theology years ago for various reasons & think Mr. Jones is correct in the need for some fight…

        • matybigfro

          Tony have you read any Walter Wink, if not I think the Powers trilogy is a must. Having grown up as a Charismatic they helped me rehabiliate allot of that language and reconnect with much of scripture and even as a agnostic sometimes non-theist I find myself still resonating with much of that system of thought. I think Wink is right that the Progressives miss out if they reduce evil simpy to power/s, systems and bearocracy, the ancients were onto something with their personification of Evil where by there is something more to that which we struggle against than mear people, systems and beaurocracies I think Wink show’s how it’s possible to take seriously the language of the spiritual/demonic throughout the bible without seeing demon hinding behing every bush in a similar way as to someone like NT Wright.

  • Drew Sumrall

    To be against the established order, as Christianity clearly is, is to be against the entire symbolic field created by the powers. This includes ideas, language, etc. To accept these is to accept the symbolic field created by the powers, which is to accept the field as such. ‘Warfare’ is no exception. Persecutors always claim to be persecuted. The shift is merely formal.

  • Ryan Hite

    I thought this was an interesting post. Interesting way to look at warfare in general. I don’t think it is necessary but it is the inherent nature of religion in general. It is hard to break in and harder to establish oneself.

  • There’s yet another version of progressive Christianity that does the same: the feminist theologies of Radford Ruether, Daly, Schüssler Fiorenza, McFague, and Tanner.

    Would these people identify as “progressive Christians”?

    Or would white, male progressives identify these theologians as inspirations even they they haven’t explicitly claimed the title themselves?

  • I don’t want to suggest too close a parallel at all, but interesting that Islam has a somewhat similar semantic/category problem with the term jihad. It appears so “co-opted” by or over-attached to violence that it apparently can’t be now effectively re-broadened and still used by moderate or “progressive” Muslims without confusion or being misleading.

  • Robert Landbeck

    Any “progressive vision for theology” is itself an illusion, as it has been from the beginning of institutional Christianity. Theology only exists because nothing has been revealed! And that illusion begins with a gross misunderstanding of Love that is innate to human nature, bound by the intellectual dead end of natural law theory.

    And this misunderstanding or ignorance is the limitation of all spiritual and moral aspirations which all progressive thought aspires to but is never unable to realize in any practical terms. God is Love, and that Love is the most potent, non violent direct actions any human being can take advance peace, justice, change and progress.

    The tragedy for our species is that existing religion and theology, skepticism and atheism have all so corrupted and discredited the very idea of God, that humanity is unable to re-imagine, discover and experience just how real this potential is.