In my experience, Progressive Christianity is a godless version of Christian faith – that is, a type of Christianity where God is at best treated as not especially relevant.
I say this as a disappointed insider, not a disapproving outsider. Although I grew up in Evangelical Christianity, a few years ago I left that behind and migrated to the mainline side of America’s Protestantism. Progressive Christianity is my home now, and I like it much better here.
But it’s hard for me to escape the feeling that something is missing. Who (or what) is God? Why bother believing in God? When do you feel connected to God? These are questions that I suspect many progressives (excluding our clergy and theology nerds) would have serious difficulty answering. In my experience, God doesn’t come up much in conversation among progressives.
I think this hurts the Progressive Christian movement. A God-engaging spirituality could energize and sustain our fight for social justice. We could echo the Bible’s prophetic call for justice more clearly if we knew what to do with its reference to God. Isn’t it pitiful that although our hymns, our Bible, and our liturgies frequently invoke God, most of us lack the conceptual tools to make meaningful sense of that word? And remember, if progressives fail to articulate an alternative, we allow Evangelicals to define the meaning of the word “God” within American Protestantism.
How can progressive Christians fill the void? What would a compelling, progressive vision of God look like? I wish I knew. Right now, all I know is that it would need to meet three criteria:
1. It can’t copy Evangelicals
Evangelicals think about God in a way that allows them to “walk with God” while walking all over their neighbors. (Remember that, if not for white Evangelicals, Trump wouldn’t be president.) To merely copy the Evangelical God-concept and paste it into progressive theology and practice would kill everything holy about our side of Protestantism! Many Evangelicals are able to reconcile their notion of God with divinely-sanctioned eternal damnation, the death penalty, oppression of women – not to mention refugees and people of color and gay folks, etc., etc. To state the obvious, rethinking God from a progressive perspective will require a great deal of creativity.
2. It can’t dodge hard questions
Progressive Christians have doubts, and they know better than to ignore them. To name a few: If God is so good, why did the Holocaust happen? If God is real, why does science seem to be just fine without that hypothesis? If God has something to do with Jesus, why are there so many other religious perspectives throughout the world?
My hunch is that the main reason that progressive Christians have trouble talking about God is that we have so many perfectly legitimate doubts about God. A useful progressive notion of God must be capable of addressing the obvious questions.
3. It must connect with laypeople
Over the past few centuries, liberal and progressive theologians have churned out a variety of visions of God that (arguably) meet my first two criteria. But most of them remain effectively useless to laypeople, who by and large don’t speak the lingo of academic theology and philosophy.
Yet language isn’t the only issue. Here, we have a lot to learn from Evangelicals. Note that the rapid growth of American Evangelicalism in the mid-1900’s came at a point when Evangelicals were experimenting with spiritual practices to connect their members to God on a comprehensive, practical, and day-to-day level. Unless progressive thinkers can offer a vision of God that is similarly relevant to our congregants, our theories will be received as idle navel-gazing at best, or even a dangerous distractions from the struggle for equity and justice.
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