Why Progressive Christians Need God


This may seem like an odd title to work with. For folks outside of the church, it may be a given that to be a Christian is to be a theist, one who believes in God. For progressives in the church, we know and welcome many people who are agnostic about such questions, including in the pulpit. For the right, it will seem to be the inevitable results of welcoming doubt into the church, that to question one thing means to question everything. I hope they are right of course. I think any attempts to limit questions is a threat against the life of the mind.

I should note that I believe God can be identified with all that makes for life, for love, for the good in life, and for transformation. God is the term we use to describe the growth and the development of personality and individuality. God is as Mordechai Kaplan writes “the power that makes for salvation”. As such, God is very much related to us, regardless of our beliefs. This post is not focused on God’s relation to us but our relation to beliefs about God and what that can mean for progressive Christians.

I think it is possible to classify types of Christianity by what centers their identity and organizes their beliefs. Instead of a right to left continuum, or high to low church scale, I would propose we look at centers of value. For many evangelicals, the Bible is the center, the source of all religious knowledge, the ultimate expression of their religiosity. The way the Bible is described by some, it is their central object of faith. So questions about the Bible become a direct threat to their faith.

For some evangelicals and mainline protestants, Jesus is the center, the norm by which everything else is situated and evaluated. Jesus, his uniqueness, his moral teachings, his role in their understanding of salvation is what is ultimate. I have even run into atheists who are self identified Jesus followers. So this way of construing Christianity cuts across lots of divides in the church. Of course questions about the status of Jesus and his teachings would be a threat here.

For others, the Church, with a capital C, is the organizing principle. That may be the magisterium if one is Catholic, it could be church traditions, the creeds, the ecumenical councils if one is Orthodox or Anglican. Given that there is more breadth of material to work from its defense is more malleable,  though depending on what tradition counts or fails to count will determine how one is able to relate or fail to relate to current issues such as marriage and gender equality.

In the past, I have suggested that liberal Protestants would most likely center  their beliefs around God. I am less certain of that than in the past. I wanted to highlight a few authors.  Greta Vosper, one of the founders of the Center for Progressive Christianity, has moved her United Church of Canada congregation “beyond” theistic language. Jim Burklo, of the Center for Progressive Christianity appears envious of the new humanist communities being formed around the country. Frank Schaefer’s newest book identifies how he became a Christian atheist.

Are such moves possible within progressive Christianity? Certainly and there needs to be the freedom, the space to move into such areas. I spent much of my 20s there while knowing I was still accepted in my church. That is the openness of progressive Christianity. But today I won’t be joining them in that journey as much as I respect many who are on that path. Instead I believe God, as an organizing principle, can do more for progressive Christianity and I would like to suggest how in this piece.

I would propose that the new humanist communities being built and the progressive Christians who look to this as a model, are centering their faith on the role of community. As a thoroughgoing communitarian, who was nurtured by churches all my life, it may seem odd to say but I don’t think community is a sturdy enough anchor to center a faith on.  Being a pastor I’ve seen the dark side communities, the way that people will harm others for some “greater end” that they would never do to strangers. I’ve seen bitter church fights and battles over the pettiest of ends. I’ve seen communities form cliques, unable to welcome those on the outside.

Given that I serve a church as a pastor, I obviously have not given up on the church and community in general. There is nothing so powerful, nothing which can feed people like communities, and for those of us of a social bent, we’re not likely to abandon those social relationships. They have proved life saving for LGBT folks, they provide a source of connection for  the religious and atheists on college campuses. And for progressives, if we want to see the change we want in this country, it will be because of folks working together, in community.

But I don’t think community can provide ultimacy or a comprehensive means of description or evaluation. Communities tend to be closed systems, with their own histories and internal dynamics. They don’t admit of critique or change readily whether it is the Catholic church or old line secular groups trying to relate to critiques by feminists and communitarians in the atheist movement. Any descriptive tools they have are shaped by this fact and it is hard to develop adequate norms as a result.

One of the advantages of God language is the ability to make the distinction between what Henry Nelson Wieman calls created goods vs. the creative good. The first refers to existent realities, the latter to the process which creates the good in the first place. It’s the old created/creator distinction. It means that I look for the divine not just in what is but also in the possibility for the better. Ultimacy is found in what will bring future goods, instead of placing everything on existing configurations.

An example is a recent piece on whether Jesus could be a queer ally. The author says no for several reasons. One is the absence of a discussion of same sex relations by the Gospels. Silence is not support and does not make one an ally. But more importantly, the history of the church in both the past but also today in too many places around the world seems to be unmitigated prejudice and oppression against LGBT people. So for those liberal pockets in the church which are supportive, such as where I serve, we are the exception which proves the rule.

Now while I believe the Bible can be read in queer friendly ways, that there are stories which go against certain gender roles, such a reading of the Bible has largely taken place in the last 40 years or so, a blip when one considers the history of the church. So given this, how do I claim Christian faith and LGBT support? I claim it because I don’t center my faith on the historical construals of Jesus and the Bible, the church, and the majority of religious communities. I try to center it on what I understand God to be, the source of transformation (to use John Cobb’s language). God as the source of our growth, development, integrity and well being as individuals.

That has ultimacy, where as the Bible, Jesus, the church and existing religious communities are instrumental, they provide a context, a language to relate to such a reality but when they fail to do so they must be changed so that they can fulfill their proper end. If God is that reality which makes for life abundant, then Bible passages which are used against young adults contemplating suicide because  of their sexual orientation need to be re-read or set aside so that people can live.

That position is held not because my Christian faith has weakened but because my faith is in the God pointed to in my tradition which has a way of outstripping  that tradition. This is part one. My next post, part two, will focus on different ideas, especially from process theology, on how we might relate to a reality which lures us beyond present institutions and traditions while being accessed through them.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

Categories: Blog, Feature, Religion

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