Does Progressive Christianity Need Warfare to Thrive?

Does Progressive Christianity Need Warfare to Thrive? July 10, 2013

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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