Youth Workers Are Still My People

Above you can watch Jeff Chu deliver one of the two talks at last week’s Progressive Youth Ministry conference to receive a standing ovation. The other was given the next morning by H. Adam Ackley, a transgender theology professor who was dismissed from Azusa Pacific University last year. Each of them spoke out of their own experience of being queer in their youth, and each of them explained how they could have been better ministered to by their churches.

And we listened.

Other speakers addressed how women are portrayed in rap and hiphop music, what “death of god” theology could mean in a confirmation class, what kind of youth pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, and why process theology doesn’t suck. Otis Moss III preached us in, and Laura Truax preached us out. In other words, the content was amazing.

But something even more important happened last week at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago.

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The Theological Left Is Rising

This will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, but it’s time to be bullish about the future of progressive Christianity (aka, Incarnational Christians). According to a new survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, the proportion of religious conservatives in the United States is shrinking with each successive generation, and close to 20 percent of Americans today are religious progressives.

In American, conservative theology is waning, progressive theology is waxing.

Here’s what it currently looks like:

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What Progressive Christianity Needs Is More Apocalypse

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887.

I appreciate what Richard Beck did in his series of posts, calling on progressive Christians to recover the biblical language of spiritual warfare. But, as I noted yesterday, I think there are a couple of weaknesses with that line of reasoning. One is that, while spiritual warfare language is biblical, it does not emanate from Jesus.

So I’d like to offer an alternative, and highly related, corrective to Richard’s.

I think that progressive Christians need to reclaim the biblical language of the apocalyptic.

For one thing, apocalyptic language begins in the Hebrew Scripture. It’s rife in the prophets, especially the later prophets, and most notably in Daniel. (Spiritual warfare language is almost completely absent from the Hebrew Scripture; in fact, in Job, it seems that YHWH and Satan are card-playing buddies.)

Secondly, Jesus is an apocalyptic preacher. From the oldest and probably most reliable Gospel, Mark, comes the “Little Apocalypse.” Therein, Jesus says,

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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?

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Do Progressive Christians Have Any Moral Foundation? [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

Stephen asks,

I had a thought I’d be interested in your reaction to. It comes from having read social psychologist, Johathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He says that research has shown that Western and Educated people from Industrialized, Rich, Democratic countries (or WEIRD people) who self-identify as “progressive” (socially) use, almost exclusively two moral “foundations” as criteria for making moral judgments: Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity. We progressive WEIRD people do not use the remaining 3 foundations: Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, or Purity/sanctity – the 3 that conservatives do use, in addition to, and in a higher priority manner than Harm and Fairness.

But progressives then have a problem with the God of most traditional and especially Christian formulations – especially with retribution, punishments, curses, condemnations, as well as problems with the unfairness of the treatment of women, slaves, and other outsiders. This gives us a huge problem with the bible and the god it describes, which forces us to re-think everything. Thus our problem speaking much, or coherently about God. Where do we go for information? Obviously from the comments I’ve read, anywhere available to our tastes. I think this also maps up to your work on the non-violent atonement – same issues. (Haidt sums it up (briefly) in his TED talk and at several conference lectures available online.)

So, where do Christian progressives go for moral authority?

The way this works is that you weigh in now, and I propose an answer on Friday. You can read past questions and answers in the series here.

Christian Progressives Come Out of the Shadows

The NY Times rehash on the religious angle on the election is interesting. There is, of course, the wailing and gnashing of teeth by Bishop Ralph Reed and Bishop Al Mohler about the moral decay of our country and the changing face of the electorate.

Then there’s this sneaky paragraph:

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Update on Progressive Theo-Blogger Challenge #progGOD

Last week, I challenged Progressive Theo-Bloggers to say something substantive about God. I then clarified what I hoped for. Thus far, I’ve been very heartened by the response. I’ve already got 30 posts queued up, and the challenge goes through this Friday (so there’s still time for you to join in!). Patheos will be building a landing page where, next week, we will post links to all of the contribution. (So, there’s some further incentive: If you want a permanent in-bound link from the biggest religion website on the internets, submit something!)

There’s been great commentary on both of the above posts. And a two thoughts that I want to respond to.

1) I’m not saying that God must always be talked about without Jesus. I’m just saying that now, for this challenge, you’ve got to talk about God without falling back on Jesus. It’s all too easy for Christians — both liberal and conservative — to default to Jesus-talk. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I think we also need to work our God-talk muscle, without reverting to Jesus-talk.

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This Is Me, Saying Something About God

…by saying stuff about what God is not. That is, by writing some apophatic theology. (Don’t worry, I’ll write substantive stuff about God next week!)

God Is Not Male

I think this sentiment is more palatable these days than it was fifty years ago because we are now aware of the complexities of gender. The meanings of words like “masculine” and “feminine,” “manly” and “womanly,” have been pretty thoroughly deconstructed. Thus, it’s really not even accurate to say, “God has characteristics of both genders,” since that sentence is basically meaningless. God is strong, which is masculine? God is sensitive, which is feminine? The ridiculousness of these sentiments quickly becomes clear.

God Is Not on the Side of the Poor

The other problem with claiming that God is one someone’s side, over against someone else, is that it gets to sounding a bit like members of a sports team who claim, upon winning, that the victory was somehow authored or blessed by God.  Most of us scoff when one team claims that God is on their side.  But how different is it to claim that, based on our own human measurements of poverty, that God favors one group of people over another?

God Is Not Just

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Progressive Talk about God: Lots of Throat Clearing

So, my Challenge to Progressive Theo-Bloggers has been well received, prompting many responses from across the blogosphere. You can see the Storify stream where I’ve been curating all of the posts, poems, and even tweets that have come in.

There have been some objections, and I’ve got some observations. First, the objections.

Firstly, I wrote,

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

That prompted responses like this:

Maybe Benjamin is right and I misunderstand revelation, but I actually think there are lots of things to say about God without talking about Jesus. Jews seem to be able to do it.

That’s not to say that your vision of God shouldn’t be christocentric. I think it should. But as a Christian, you should also be able to articulate aspects of your doctrine of God without referencing Jesus of Nazareth.

To that thread, a comment by Brad was echoed in a tweet by John:

Dear John, you’re a theologian! That’s who you are to say things about God. Please note, I did not ask you to write a comprehensive theology of God. I asked you to write something substantive about God. If you can’t say anything substantive about God — whether it be to me, or to the person sitting next to you on a plane — then I just don’t see how you believe anything at all.

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Why Liberal Christianity (Too Often) Sucks

Photo by Courtney Perry (All rights reserved)

Among the most interesting memes floating around the blogosphere this summer is the will-liberal-christianity-survive-or-will-it-die-or-is-there-a-great-liberal-awakening-happening? meme. For those keeping score at home, Ross Douthat published a book and then wrote a much ballyhooed column for the NYTimes.

Then Diana Butler Bass, who also has a new book out, pushed back at HuffPo.

Then Douthat responded.

Now Scot McKnight has weighed in.

For those keeping score at home, Douthat is an avowed conservative and religious (Catholic) traditionalist. Butler Bass is a liberal Anglican who has, until her latest book, been a cheerleader for the sustainability of mainline denominations. McKnight is a left-leaning evangelical who has no truck with nor commitment to any denomination.

Here’s where I think they each score points:

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