Got God?

My friend Tony Jones stirred up a hornet's nest this week by throwing out a challenge to bloggers near and wide. (Well, near anyway.):

progressives have a God-talk problem . . . We might think that people know what we think about God, but they don't. It's clear in the comments on this blog and elsewhere. It really struck me yesterday, when listening to a recent edition of the TNT podcast, in which Tripp repeatedly and forcefully said things about who God is and how God acts. He didn't relativize those statements with qualifiers, and he didn't cowtow to political correctness or academic jargon. That was jarring to me because it so rarely happens. . . .

I challenge all progressive theo-bloggers to write one post about God between now and August 15. 

In short, Tony was asking, "Got God?"

Typically, I don't respond to challenges of this kind, even if I'm named, which I was. I didn't even feel particularly obliged to respond, because, as I told Tony, I write about God all the time at my blog, "What God Wants for Your Life."

I also teased him a bit about this discovery—"Really, Tony, you're just noticing?"—because, in fact, I've been noting for years now that Progressives use political and sociological language with ease, but find it very hard to think or talk in theological categories. I've done that, I might add, with little or no success. Those who were thinking theologically find it helpful. Those who think politically keep thinking politically and call it theological.

But, with respect, it seems to me that the problem isn't just one of "God-talk"—though that, to be sure, is a problem. The problem is God. Period. Or to put it another way, what we have is not just a "talk-about-God" problem, it's a "talk-to-God" and a "let-God-speak-through-us" problem.

It's not that we think we can manage not to talk to God. That's obviously in contradiction to some of the other claims we make. So, collectively and intuitively, we've avoided that problem by getting pretty deeply engaged with spiritual disciplines and the history of Christian spirituality. We can talk about Teresa and John of the Cross with the best of them. We can discuss the task of discernment, the gift of silence, and regale you with stories of time spent on retreat with monastic communities. And some of us do that on a regular basis.

But it's when someone urges us to use the kind of language that Teresa and John use about our own experience that we get, well . . . verbally constipated. Some people have already rehearsed some of the reasons for this with Tony, and Tony has offered some of his own. On offer as explanations are these (as of Wednesday, August 8, 4:42PM CST):

  1. We don't really believe. So we don't have any conversations to report.
  2. We are too modest or humble to make that kind of claim for our conversations with God.
  3. It's a journey. There aren't facts to report.
  4. We killed the divine mystery, so of course there isn't anything to report.
  5. It's not about "doing" God, it's been about "doing" good works.
  6. We are afraid that if we talk about God we will sacrifice our place in society as "limousine liberals."
  7. And there's Tony's theory: the academic world has squelched our ability to talk candidly about God.

Then there is always an atheist or an agnostic in the Progressive mix who adds, "There is no God, so there is nothing to report." One or two even argued that it was the existence of God that is the issue that Tony should be addressing.

I'm not going to respond to each of these suggestions individually. There is something to be said for each of the first seven. And I'm not going to respond to the atheist-agnostic complaint. I realize that there is always someone in that camp lurking on the fringes of the Progressive Christian community with the message, "I can't believe you can be this smart and believe something so stupid." But the only truly stupid move we can make is to start every conversation about God by trying to convince people who don't believe in God that they should.

We do. They don't. For purposes of this conversation that's enough.

I am much more interested in why we Progressives find it so hard to talk in immediate terms about an experience of God and/or a sense of what God is telling us. Here is my list, which grounds many of the seven reasons cited above in a longer historical view.

8/13/2012 4:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
  • The Spiritual Landscape
  • Deism
  • Fundamentalism
  • History
  • Progressive Christianity
  • Christianity
  • Protestantism
  • Frederick Schmidt
    About Frederick Schmidt
    Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: