Progressive Talk about God: Lots of Throat Clearing

Progressive Talk about God: Lots of Throat Clearing August 9, 2012

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.

Secondly, some people are hung up on my use of the term “progressive,” and in the fact that in part of the post I scrunched together “progressive/liberal/mainline.” I’m going to shout this, so you’ll be sure not to miss it: THIS IS WHAT LIBERALS DO, GETTING HUNG UP ON DEFINITIONS RATHER THAN ANSWERING THE REAL QUESTION!

So, get over your hang-up on terminology, and get on with the question at hand: Say something substantive about God.

Thirdly, several people have submitted poetry. That’s fine. I can appreciate poetry. But, whereas I usually find poetry a more difficult medium in which to communicate than prose, in this case I think it’s the converse: I think that poetry is something of a cop-out to my challenge. To speak of God using word-pictures and imagery is substantive, in a way. But, again, it’s probably not how you’d talk to your seatmate on a plane. If you start speaking in verse, they may ask to be reassigned to another seat.

Which leads to my observation: 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:


This isn’t an academic conference. This is the blogosphere. We don’t need to preface and qualify and relativize our commentary. We can say things about our understanding of God, and we can say them unapologetically.

So, have at it. And be sure to tweet your link with the hashtag #progGOD.

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  • Somehow I feel I’m implicated in your throat clearing comment. 🙂

    • Yes, you did some throat clearing. But then you got on to the good stuff!

  • Tony, when I saw your challenge I thought about it for a full day before putting anything to pen.

    As I thought about it more deeply, my conclusion was that modern American “God-talk” seems confined to an uninspiring form of data analysis. As if trying to explain the character of the contents a box of cereal by simply expounding upon the long list of ingredients in the nutrition information section.

    When instead, the character of the cereal is only fully realized by the experience of consuming it, or to put it another way, letting it quite literally become part of you.

    For me, therefore, to speak of God is to share my God-experience rather than just compile words laying out my intellectual ideas about the “what” of God.

  • One other thing, Tony. I have a gentle objection to where you stated the following . . .

    “[W]hereas I usually find poetry a more difficult medium in which to communicate than prose, in this case I think it’s the converse: I think that poetry is something of a cop-out to my challenge. To speak of God using word-pictures and imagery is substantive, in a way. But, again, it’s probably not how you’d talk to your seatmate on a plane. If you start speaking in verse, they may ask to be reassigned to another seat.”

    I suspect the Psalmists would wholeheartedly disagree with you, Tony.

    Your challenge was for us to write. Period. Not to prepare an essay that could be as easily spoken aloud as read silently.

    And as I’m sure you’re well aware, our brains work quite differently when we write than when we speak. And the product and flavor of the written word are also quite different than the product and flavor of the spoken word.

    So to say that poetry is a cop-out to your challenge is pretty unfair. Especially when the very premise of your challenge was related to the limitedness of God-talk today.

    And then, albeit expressing appreciation, you nonetheless then turn around and limit the value of what some, like myself, have offered in poetic form by calling it a cop-out.

    • Evelyn

      That wasn’t very gentle. I think using poetry and art is kind of a cop-out because we are all so afraid of being labeled “insane” that any talk about God has to be veiled in a medium that we can’t claim as our “normal” consciousness. If you took your poetry and art into a psychiatrist’s office and started telling them that it was real, they’d probably tell you that you are delusional and if your delusions are bothering you or the people around you they’d put you on anti-psychotics (i.e. chemical lobotomy).

      • TO Evelyn . . .

        I wrote my “God-talk” poetically, not out of any kind of fear over how I’d be labeled by others, but because the imagery — a sort of parable of intimate love — was the most adequate way I could express the depth of my God-experience for the purposes of Tony’s challenge.

        And it’s a time-honored method:

        “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.” — Matthew 13:34

        And of course, Jesus was called delusional.

  • Evelyn

    If someone sat next to me on a plane and started telling me about Jesus Christ, I would ask to be reassigned to another seat.

    If you want to talk about God and not offend yourself or another person you can define God as:
    “God is what you believe in.”

    Of course, this isn’t all that God is but it is a way to have a conversation that respects your own concept of God as well as your conversation partner’s concept of God and tells you when to reign yourself in when you are being overly assertive about your own view of the world. You can have this kind of conversation with ANYBODY including Richard Dawkins and still be talking about God. Even though Richard Dawkins would claim that both what he believes in and what he believes is objective truth (as opposed to being theistic in any way) defining God as “what you believe in” gets around any necessity to prove existence or be apologetic about it.

  • T. Webb

    Talk about God without talking about Jesus? So we’re going back to enlightenmental rationalism and natural theology and deism? There’s nothing Christian about talking about God without talking about Jesus. But it’s good for Oprah and Hallmark cards.

  • I see both sides of this. I would have a very hard time talking about God without talking about Jesus since as Christians we believe that he is the true image of the invisible God – we know God through Jesus. I could probably point to some different theologies like my open theism, but that is largely based on stories in Scripture, so that is also eliminated from your challenge. Unless you want me to say it without backing up anything, in which case we’ll just get accused of making up stuff we consider interesting.

    On the other hand, I agree with the implied critique at the end: liberals are really good at writing academic papers in which we debate a lot of terminology and don’t make any truth claims. They (we, if I count as a liberal, which depends on definition) aren’t so good at just having conversations about what we believe. It is kind of ironic that the group of Christians who talk so much about the importance of including everyone (the poor, the outcast, etc.) also are the group who has the hardest time actually communicating to those groups who don’t want or can’t understand the academic paper format. I realized that this summer when leading a small group in an evangelical church that is primarily lower-class: they didn’t want my theologizing; they wanted to know who God is and how he/she impacts their lives. Liberals do have a problem answering that.

    • Amen, Ryan! Especially where you said this:

      “It is kind of ironic that the group of Christians who talk so much about the importance of including everyone (the poor, the outcast, etc.) also are the group who has the hardest time actually communicating to those . . . who don’t want or can’t understand the academic paper format.”

      There’s an almost perverse over-abundance of dry intellectualizing about IDEAS of God, which many (though not all) in modern American theological academia seem to relish circulating amongst themselves. And they seem to do so in a self-congratulatory bubble wherein they imagine their chatter has some real or practical value for the majority of people outside academia, such as the folks you mentioned who didn’t want your “theologizing” but “wanted to know who God is and how he/she impacts their lives.”

      At issue: talking ABOUT (i.e., theology) versus intimacy WITH (i.e., God-experience). Progressives seem to relish in the former, at the expense of fostering the latter. And little in their theological musings does anything to inspire a desire to KNOW God.

      Overall, the “progressive/liberal/mainline theology” PR problem (as Tony put it) is, in my opinion, directly related to, if not a consequence of, an elitism problem.

  • I’m doing a bit of throat clearing, but I think it’s allergies!

    I am contemplating a piece, though as a Christian it is hard to envision God without taking into account Jesus — or the Trinity for that matter — but I shall. Hope to have it up for Sunday morning instead of my sermon — since I’m not preaching.

  • Craig

    Maybe this approach might be helpful. Try listing those things of value that you feel would be lost if you gave up your belief in God.

  • Craig

    Or even: …that you feel would be lost if God ceased to exist tomorrow.

  • One of the things that people find so offensive about fundamentalist Christianity is the notion that no one, absolutely no one, can have a relationship with God without accepting Jesus. Yes, please talk about God without mentioning Jesus or the Bible. Writers of the ancient Psalms did.

    • Frank

      Actually Jesus is all over the Psalms.

    • Collin

      That is because no one, absolutely no one, can have a relationship with the one true God without knowing and believing in Jesus. If people are offended by it, that does not matter. There is only one God, and the only way we can get to know the Father is to know Jesus, period.

  • I’ll take a simple but hopefully substansive stab at this. It appears you may be looking for facts without biblical reference by verse….
    If so there is plenty to say, provided I’m understanding you correctly.
    We could begin by talking about omniscience, His presence and the mysteries of life. We could talk about God’s wisdom and promises. How God is the key to the spiritual world and master creator of the earth and the universe.

    • That’s right, Laurie! That’s exactly what I was thinking.

  • Marshall

    Can’t talk about Creation without talking about our own particular “as a Christian” place within it? Something wrong there ….

  • Joe

    Nailed me. I’ve been sitting around thinking about all the things I need to parse before responding to your challenge. I’ll get on with it.

  • A Medrano

    Oh my freakin GOSH! No wonder the mainline churches are dying. Judging from this post and the reaction, progressives/liberals are afraid of talking about God.

    • To be fair, if you read a book like Job, it seems like talking about God doesn’t exactly go across well with God himself. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar all talk about their conceptions of God and are reprimanded for it by God at the end of the book. Job talks about himself in relation to God, and while he addresses and even accuses God directly, the only substantive statements he makes are that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.

      It may just be that we should be afraid of talking about God.

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  • I’m a dude who quit working for an Acts 29 church almost three years ago, and then went through a pretty rough patch that necessitated a lot of therapy. During that time, I went from atheist to agnostic. At this point, I’m very interested in theology (again). But, I’m definitely not prepared to have any “unapologetic” opinion about “God.” Maybe that’s my reaction against the craziness I saw first hand being in that environment for a few years.

    I’ll admit it…I’m reluctant to positively state what I think about God. Maybe I won’t be one of these days.

    • I guess I should’ve only posted once…

      I will say, though, Tony, that I’ve tried to keep up with your work for a long time – even while working for an A29 church. And I think you have a lot of great things to say. I’ve felt for awhile now that “emerging” or “progressive” churches should be places for people like me to work through our own junk in community with other people. But, if I’ve learned anything from my own attempt at understanding the human psyche, it’s that pushing people in my position (someone teetering on the edge of just chunking the whole Christian thing altogether) to “take a stand” will likely push us away rather than welcome us in. Just a thought.

  • Ryan B.

    This has been on my mind for some time now. All of the Progressive throat-clearing is one reason I can’t commit to taking on the Progressive Christian label. I mean this with the utmost respect but, when I hear a thoroughly Progressive Christian attempt to talk about God, I think, “Either shit or get off the pot.”

  • It’s too bad Twitter only allows 140 characters. My addition to that was “BUT Mainliners have volumes on Christ, and not much on God.”

    John 1 says Jesus was the Word made flesh, but it still neglects to say something substantive about the Word.

  • Generally, a deepity has (at least) two meanings; one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be “earth-shattering” if true.

  • Okay Tony, here’s my attempt to talk about God — enjoy!

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  • I’m not a progressive or a liberal theologian, so I didn’t respond to this challenge, but I think it’s a good one, and not only for progressive and liberals. I remember being astounded when I realized how little my Evangelical church actually talked about God or Jesus with any substance. “Yay Jesus” in worship somehow always led into “how to have a better marriage” or “how to handle your finances” in sermons and such. Evangelicals have good scripts so the words are used more but not that much more depth.

    That being said, it seems to me that if you can’t talk about God without talking about Jesus, then you really can’t talk about Jesus all that well. Who is this God who would have that kind of Messiah, and Son? I think the Exodus narrative alone is full of rich teachings of the sort of God that could be discussed without reference to Jesus yet fully in keeping with the teaching and revelation of Jesus. Indeed, the NT doesn’t give us a new god but a better hermeneutic about how to understand the God who had been revealed as a particular kind of God in numerous narratives and teachings.

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