Things Progressive Christians Rarely Say: Your God Does Not Exist

I’m participating in a few discussion threads on various blogs of progressive Christians at the moment. As is often the case, evangelical / fundamentalist Christians arrive and try to make it clear that they know the one true God and everyone else is wrong. Discussions can be amusing but rarely very useful, since theists really seem to have no arguments beyond “No, I’m right!” or (for the slightly more self-aware) “You can’t be sure I’m wrong!”

But it is interesting how progressive Christians respond. The progressive Christian involved have previously said that they are not theists. They believe in a ‘ground of all being’ or a panentheist God of ultimate concern. But when a commenter attempts to define God,

“I believe in the God of the Bible: who created humans in his image, who came and lived among his people first in the tabernacle, then in flesh as Jesus, who died and rose back to earthly life, then ascended to heaven.”

they seem very reluctant to say

“That God doesn’t exist.”

rather preferring to build a bridge

“You can’t be sure God is like that.”

And even then there seems to be a hesitation to say

“God isn’t like that, God is…”

It appears that the desire to retain a connection between progressive Christianity and the wider Christian world is stronger than the desire to counter bad theology. Which strikes me as odd.

It is all a matter of subtleties, and I’m sure I could be accused of reading too much into this. The progressives don’t make a secret of what they believe, and they don’t make a secret of opposing fundamentalism. I’ve heard it said several times

“I don’t believe in the God that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in, either.”

I just find it odd that they feel the need to retain some connection to the words. An assumption that they are referring to the same thing when they talk about “God”, but just differ in the qualities they assign to it. Which seems to me to be a bizarre assumption.

[NB: Quotes above are paraphrases of several discussions.]

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25 responses to “Things Progressive Christians Rarely Say: Your God Does Not Exist

  1. “It appears that the desire to retain a connection between progressive Christianity and the wider Christian world is stronger than the desire to counter bad theology. Which strikes me as odd.”
    I don’t find it odd at all. Progressive Christianity is all about inclusiveness, Progressive Christians (and post-Christians like myself) simply don’t believe that anyone is damned simply by having bad theology. We believe that all theologies are partial at best, and the way to deal with differences is to try to understand and accept them. To say “your theology is bad” would be to contradict this basic standpoint. Rather than “odd,” this is an aspect of a more widespread dilemma: how to include the excluders, tolerate the intolerant, love those who hate you…

  2. Ian

    Good points, and fair enough.

    But I’m not sure that can be quite the full story: these discussions are not marked by agreement and acceptance of other’s views. Take the conversation on James’s blog about creationism. James takes a very strong view about creationist teaching being wrong, anti-Christian and damaging. But there seems some magic power of the word ‘God’ that encourages the desire to connect beliefs rather than contrast them.

  3. Progressive Christianity is all about community, about being a member of the club. And if the club is all about pretending, then you have to keep up the pretense.

  4. Hmmn. True, we _are_ notoriously opinionated on secular matters; we tend to believe strongly in the validity of scientific method, and are a lot less inclusive of political beliefs than of theological ones. But I don’t think there’s so much a “magic power of the word ‘God'” as there is a conviction that the word can’t be pinned down, and so isn’t worth fighting about in the way science and politics are.
    @Neil, I’ll admit to there being a degree of clubbiness; pretense, in my experience, not so much.

  5. Re-read the allogenes comment. Inclusiveness does not preclude strong and vocal disagreement about details. Creationism pits unsubstantiated belief against research data; there’s something to hang onto when disagreeing. But Progressives recognize that no one has proofs regarding God, in any or all interpretations. Inclusiveness about God doesn’t equate to “anything goes” in the rest of doctrinal thought. There is no “magic power” in the word God; the power is in the desire to connect with the neighbor.

  6. Ian

    @allogenes, nanbush – thanks, I’m very happy to believe that I’ve got the wrong end of the stick here, and I get what you’re saying, but it does seem like there is something more going on here.

    It can’t be just that these folks think that fundamentalist theism is possible, so they are just happy to be inclusive of all views. Because if pressed they don’t think this, in my experience. Many progressive Christians are as explicitly non-theistic as I am: God is not a person, any person language is no more than metaphor. But when those political problems are rooted in that misunderstanding, there seems to be an unwillingness to ‘break apart’ the use of the word God – to explicitly disown the problematic use of the term. Is it really that they/you genuinely think that you are talking about the same thing, and that using the word God in such different ways is meaningful or helpful to the conversation?

    I can understand why one might feel making the break would cause the other person to write you off an an atheist and stop listening, so using God is a way of at least appearing that you’re somewhat on the same page, to increase influence. But fundamentalists have no such compulsion, they are very happy to be explicit that the progressive God is in no way what they are talking about.

    But perhaps I am imagining controversy that doesn’t exist. It is very possible!

  7. If personal-God language is only a metaphor, how can we say one metaphor is better than another, or that different metaphors refer to different extant entities? I know progressive Christians who find the stories in the Bible – precisely as written – profoundly meaningful, in ways they cannot themselves begin to explain; how are they (or we who agree with them on most _practical_ matters) to say that someone else who relies on _the same stories_ is taking them too seriously, too literally? – I agree, “fundamentalists… are very happy to be explicit” that their God is not the same as that of the progressives. But that is their problem. If this were about a historical person, say Thomas Jefferson, and we had very different ideas of what his personality was, how he really felt about Ms Hemings, that sort of thing, would it make sense to say we were thinking about two different Thomas Jeffersons? What about a fictional character (more apropos, from Dawkins’ point of view) – can we have different Hamlets or Gatsbys, based on the same source? It’s not so much that you have “the wrong end of the stick,” as that the whole matter is… well, _irreducibly complex_.

  8. As to our political as opposed to theological opinionatedness, there’s a story in UU circles – well, it goes back to the ’50s so I can just say Unitarian – about a revered senior minister sitting in on a Sunday school class. He kept asking the kids to say what Unitarians believed in, and they kept answering with negatives – they don’t believe in this, that or the other orthodox doctrine. Finally he insisted on a positive, affirmative answer: isn’t there anything they _do_ believe in? The kids thought for a long moment, until one of them piped up tentatively, “Adlai Stevenson?”

  9. Ian

    It’s not so much that you have “the wrong end of the stick,” as that the whole matter is… well, _irreducibly complex_.

    Yes, definitely. And I’ve no real desire to ‘solve’ it. It is just an observation worth discussing (thanks for the discussion!)

    If personal-God language is only a metaphor, how can we say one metaphor is better than another

    True, but we can say that people who treat the metaphor as if it were the thing are wrong. That isn’t God, God as the metaphor (not the thing pointed to by the metaphor) doesn’t exist. If I say “you have my heart” to my wife, I can be clear if she decides that she really does have my actual heart in a box somewhere. Particularly if that belief is then causing her to come to all kinds of weird and damaging conclusions. If she’s calling the ambulance and telling them I have no heart, or researching recipes for heart fricassee, then I’m going to be pretty firm and say “you don’t actually have my heart”.

    So I think a progressive Christian shouldn’t say “the Christ metaphor of God is superior to the Rama one”, or “Rama doesn’t exist, Yahweh is the true God.”, but they can say “You know, this God talk is just a metaphor, it isn’t *real*.” (in the sense that the other person clearly thinks it is — of course we can debate what ‘real’ means, but that’s not quite what I’m getting at).

    And to be fair, many of the progressive Christians I know, do say this. They just seem a bit more reluctant to do so, as if the ambiguity between signifier and signified is important to them. Perhaps it is connected with the fact that, despite many of the people in the mainline churches I know are progressive, it would be rather astounding for the preacher to be explicit about the fact that the God story was a metaphor during the service.

    As if we should keep the metaphoric nature of God as something that isn’t explicit, so it doesn’t shake the faith of those who are lucky enough to believe it at face value. Almost like our cultural rule not to say there is no Santa Claus in the presence of children.

    _irreducibly complex_.

    Yes, definitely.

    The post was motivated by trying to figure out why, despite having virtually indistiguishable beliefs from many of the progressive Christians I know, I find myself unable to self-identify as one.

  10. Ian

    there’s a story …

    Brilliant 🙂

  11. @ Ian:
    I see the exact same thing all the time. Progressives are particularly blind to this!
    They certainly don’t want to risk being associated with dirty atheists no more than agnostics do. It is all a safety thing. It is identity stuff, status, belonging — nothing to do with gods or spirits or universal consciousness. It is mere sociology in the disguise of spiritual-theology babble.

    I think part of it is, that “God” is a flag of respectability, morality, and other values that progressives don’t want to risk. All of that is part of being part of a club of back-patters (agreeing withNeil, I see now after reading comments). Like you said, they are attached to the word and I think that is why.

    @ allogenes:
    Yes, you don’t want to confront and get kicked out of the party. I wish progressive Christians, Jews and Muslims would confront more — the world may improve. But by not confronting and pretending to be inclusive, they give away an inner desire to ride on the benefits old ideas buy them.
    My take.

  12. John Clavin

    I think there is a singularity of belief sweeping over the world. With the exponential growth of education, in a generation or two, there will no one left who still believes in a supernatural being or any intelligent control over the universe or its creation. The word “god” could be retired or redefined to something like “The Grand Order of the Dynamic Universe.”

  13. John Clavin is dreaming or does not read the news.

  14. @Savio – we are quite prepared to confront on matters which are important to us and where we think we can make a difference. Practical things like racism, gun violence, even religion when religion is used as a basis for oppression or to undermine scientific education. If that is not enough for you, sorry, there’s not much else we can do consistently with our core values.
    (I say “we” because although, like Ian and for similar reasons, I do not self-identify as “Christian,” as a UU and now Zen practitioner I think I qualify barely for the broader category of “religious liberal.”)
    I have said before and will say it again that I agree with Richard Dawkins on all _public policy_ issues that I am aware of. I will gladly side with him on any such issue regardless of whom it involves confronting. If I am not prepared to go farther and espouse his animus against “religion” in general or “supernaturalism” or the “God” concept per se, that’s just the way it is.

  15. John Clavin

    It is difficult to know the thinking of the yet to be born.

  16. Largely I go with allogenes statements. As a prog Xn, I do find myself trying to find more in common with others than difference. It’s a tough spot to be in. We’re not Christian enough for the conservative Christians, and TOO Christian for the atheists. So it goes. Interesting post and following convo!

  17. And as I enter into this conversation, I read a faith statement from one of my church’s confirmands. She wrote: “This paper would be easier if inclusion weren’t such a high value in my life. Exclusion is easier than inclusion. Inclusion requires more innovative thought and more creative language. Inclusion requires re-stretching, re-shaping, and re-fitting (and maybe it requires us to be OK with things not fitting, too). Challenge accepted.” The things that follow are equally brilliant as well. But this states the problem. Conservative Christians deny this, atheists largely don’t have to deal with it.

  18. Ian

    We’re not Christian enough for the conservative Christians, and TOO Christian for the atheists.

    I can see how it could feel that way. But that’s not what I’m saying.

    In fact, I think you’ve actually demonstrated the the problem I’m referring to.

    There is this idea that there is a scale, and that evangelicals or fundies are “very Christian”, and that those down in the progressive end are just weak, lesser Christians. And that kind of scale seems to be something that quite a bit of Progressive Xn rhetoric buys into.

    There appears to be a weird kind of subconscious fundie-envy in progressive Christianity. Which, of course, fundies love to beat you over the head with. And manifests in an uneasiness with being seen to tackle fundie theology (as opposed to politics) head on.

  19. “There appears to be a weird kind of subconscious fundie-envy in progressive Christianity. Which, of course, fundies love to beat you over the head with.”
    -Ha! Absolutely! I’ve had to learn it by watching my church and then actively fight against it.

    We wish we could be so damn certain, but what we know renders humility. And what we believe in fosters it. So it’s hard to be a dick about it, although we wish we could.

  20. Ian

    So it’s hard to be a dick about it, although we wish we could.

    😀 Perfect.

  21. Morgan Guyton

    To me, the biggest problem with atheism is it’s an attempt to live outside of any story. I don’t think you have enough of a foundation for human community if you banish all mythos and try to live by reason alone. I live inside the Christian story. The “facticity” of it is irrelevant to me. I choose to interpret reality as a “you” rather than an “it.” I choose to understand my relationship with other Christians as being parts of a body which is greater than the sum of its parts. Within this framework, I’ve been able to build deeper relationships than outside of it. I also believe stubbornly the way that Slavoj Zizek believes about communism that if Christianity were really understood and tried, it would result in revolutionary emancipatory politics. Just because every attempt to embody it has always failed doesn’t mean that the vision itself is rotten. I’m not going to be talked out of it. Part of my sense of duty comes from knowing that my people are the cause of many problems in our world and I’m supposed to evangelize them out of a screwed up interpretation of Christianity.

  22. Ian

    Morgan, thanks for commenting, and welcome to the blog.

    This post was not an attempt to say that progressive Christians should be atheists at all. I was making a point about the connection between progressive Christians and fundamentalists, which strikes me as a very uneasy connection. I suspect you may be arguing against a point I’m not quite making, at least not in this post.

    Your views I know a lot of progressive Christians hold, and I respect them (with a few caveats). There might be an opportunity for me to address why I don’t personally hold them at some point: I still owe a follow up post on why I’m not a Christian. But it would be unfair of me to do that here: I don’t want to derail the conversation to be about me and my beliefs.

  23. Ian

    @sabio – yes “God” is a passport to certain kinds of conversation, I think. I’m not asking progressive Christians to not use the word, I understand and respect what it means to them, even though I don’t find it useful personally. I wonder if the ambiguity about what you mean by God is part of the passport’s validity. Someone in my philosophy group was asked how he’d describe his religious affiliation to someone, given we couldn’t work out if he was a buddhist, atheist, or agnostic. He said “in whatever way I think would be useful”. Perhaps in the US particularly, having an ambiguous God is useful. I don’t know. Interesting point though.

  24. Ooops, sorry Ian, I must not have been following this post, didn’t see your reply. Thanx for the reply. But I just read the comments — very fun. Some thoughts:

    “God” to progs means lots of different things, depending on the Prog. Many of the things they use it for are not the same as what they may tell you they use it for. Not that they are trying to deceive, but like all of us, they don’t realize how their own ideology serves them. (see my recent layperson diagram if you care). When “God” is still used to stay in the majority and safely respected, it puts down nonbelievers just as Morgan subtly did (more below).

    I love how you labeled ProgX “fundie envy” — I often see Progs surfing off the fundie wake while screaming at the fundie-boat in front of them on whose power they glide. Progs often don’t recognize that not only is it not Fundie Envy, but the Christian-Majority safety and nobility and nationalism that fundie’s help create in the US, is something they love the comfort of. While denying their exclusiveness (which I admire), the Progs still live off the language and imagry of bibilists and theological games.

    OK, that is a gross generalization, but….

    Also, Morgan‘s claim that I don’t think you have enough of a foundation for human community if you banish all mythos and try to live by reason alone. is full of problems — but common apologetic from Progs. But to dissect it would take too much time in a comment — for it packed with assumptions. Maybe you will address them. I am surprised you didn’t challenge Morgan — perhaps you wanted to be welcoming, instead. [now following]

  25. Ian

    @sabio

    Thanks Sabio. Lots of agreement from me, though I’d also echo the note of caution that it can always be easy to generalize.

    I wanted to welcome Morgan, but it wasn’t only that point that I would have quibbled with, and I didn’t want to change tack so thoroughly. I do, however, think that community is difficult without myth, that shared myth is an important social glue. Though I suspect myth isn’t a cause and community an effect, but that communities build myths as they coalesce and strengthen. But I don’t think that is unique to religious myth. There is plenty of shared myth in the Red Sox Nation, for example, which is rehearsed in countless Boston (and further flung) bars after every game, and which binds fans together in community.

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