These challenges from secular friends are honest and thoughtful. While my answers to them convince me that the way I am following has as much integrity as any way of living, their challenges are still challenges. They’re good for me to revisit as I keep living my life. They keep me honest, I hope. (By the way, I call myself a “progressive” Christian for want of a better word. I don’t fully subscribe to any official descriptions, and as an Episcopalian I’m also, somewhat paradoxically, quite traditional. So when I say “we,” I’m not pretending to speak for everyone who uses the label, “progressive Christian.”)
Q: Don’t you “progressive” Christians believe whatever you believe for the same bad reasons (lack of evidence) that fundamentalists use? Maybe you believe in a nicer God, but where’s the evidence?
A: We do have evidence, that is, shareable reasons, and we think those reasons as good as can be, though not conventional. “Nicer” or not, for us God is not just another being we might stumble across, or not. Following ancient precedents, for us God is “sheer being” (or “Being,” capitalized), the inescapable, intimately responsive reality uniquely in, among and beyond us all. (Wonky aside: I further prefer to conceptualize sheer being in terms of process thought—Being and beings are all ways of newly interacting—more about that in other posts.) In that case, what more evidence do we need for God’s reality beyond how we experience sheer being? If we repeatedly experience sheer being as sacred, mysterious, intimately responsive and compelling, evoking our utmost trust and devotion, what more evidence do we need than that? If others don’t experience this, there’s not much we can do about that. People either experience being this way, or they don’t. We admit that if we thought God were just another guy, except for being invisible and having amazing powers, we would need much more evidence than how we experience being. But remember, part of our mission in life is to wean people away from such simplistic notions of God. We experience sheer being as sacred, mysterious, intimately responsive and compelling, evoking our utmost trust and devotion. The more we notice this, the more evident the experience becomes. That’s all the evidence we can supply, but we believe it’s all the evidence we and anybody else might need.
Q: But you’re just changing “God” to some new meaning you feel more comfortable defending. That’s dishonest!
A: We’re not changing the meaning of the word, just highlighting a central, very ancient meaning. Many writers of the Bible, and most later readers who preserved these writings as sacred scripture, had already come to identify God with sheer existence or being, the ultimately real, the beginning, way and end of all things. For example, here’s St. Augustine (taking cues from St. Paul): “I would have no being, I would not have any existence, unless you were in me. Or rather, I would have no being if I were not in you ‘of whom are all things, through whom are all things, and in whom are all things’ (Romans 11:36) … When I first came to know you, you raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being … and I trembled with love and awe” (Confessions 1.2.2, 7.10.16). These ancient writers had already come to realize that God can’t be just another person with some amazing abilities. They did believe that sheer being was intimately responsive to us all and ultimately good for all. So they kept personal language, but they always qualified it, admitting they didn’t know exactly how it could fit in this unique case. We progressive theists stand in that ancient tradition. We believe that it is part of our mission in life to wean people away from magical looking pictures of God as an invisible guy like you and me with amazing abilities. But we don’t think dropping or condemning the word “God” is a wise way to do this, because we believe that there is something sacred, mysterious, intimately responsive and compelling about the ultimately real that evokes our utmost trust and devotion. To us it would be dishonest to call this anything but God.
Q: But doesn’t physics show us that what you call “sheer being” is just a collection of fundamental particles (or strings or branes) following fixed patterns?
A: We’re okay, even deeply awed, with whatever physics currently shows us, no matter how often its fundamental concepts get drastically revised. But physics confines itself to abstract generalizations about nameless bits of reality. We do not believe that it exhaustively describes reality in all its concrete richness. (I’m more or less siding with the “Stanford School” interpretation of physics and other sciences—more here and here.) Some “bits” of reality, like Einstein, Heisenberg and Hawking, are not nameless, and we hold that they are just as real as the nameless bits they describe. Like you and me, reality as such, “sheer being,” is immeasurably more than any system of generalizations. Physics, chemistry, biology, etc., can actually deepen our realization of how inexhaustible reality is in all its concrete richness. What’s our evidence for this? You, me, and every overflowing moment of experience.
Q: Since you admit that the Bible is written by fallible people with conflicting agendas, why do you still quote it? Isn’t that pointless?
A: We see ourselves as transmitters of a living tradition that began with ancient writings like those we came to call the Bible. (That’s a very Anglican answer.) We quote the Bible to show that we are still transmitting the same living tradition. When we speak of communion with God or of dying and rising with Christ, we want to show how we are still experiencing what our ancient ancestors experienced in ancient terms. We don’t quote the Bible to settle arguments but to awaken ourselves to sheer being as sacred, mysterious, intimately responsive and compelling, evoking our utmost trust and devotion. It’s that awakening that carries authority for us, not merely the fact that somebody long ago said something a certain way. We view the Bible as the unfolding story of fallible and often violent people gradually and intermittently learning to love God through loving others—even enemies. That story is still unfolding, and we are still learning. (We see something like this story unfolding in the sacred writings of other religions too, but it’s the truths we glimpse in our story that open us to truths in theirs.)
Q: Why do you pray? Do you really believe that somebody out there will do special favors for you? If not, what’s the point?
A: Again, with our ancestors, we believe that sheer being is intimately responsive to us all and ultimately good for all. When we pray, we believe that we are actively participating in this intimately responsive ultimate goodness in ways that make a difference in the world we all share. Prayer deepens our communion with God, which is already happening, and opens ways for God’s goodness to be newly present in our world and in us. Of course, how God’s goodness is newly present for each of us depends on what is good for all of us creatures together (human and nonhuman), with our often conflicting desires. So there is no promise that we or they will get exactly what is desired. All that is promised is that God’s goodness will be newly present for each of us, no matter how devastating events turn out to be. Prayer strengthens our trust that our participation in God’s goodness cannot be eradicated by anything, not even death.
Q: If you had the power to help all people who are suffering or in need, at no cost or effort to yourself, would you do it? If so, why hasn’t God done this already?
A: God is helping already, just not controlling. That’s a process theist’s answer, but it’s a a biblically supported answer too. The underlying theme of the Bible is that God always has been and still is doing just that—not controlling, but helping: God never stops doing whatever it takes to work with all of us toward reconciliation, though one might say that this costs God everything. According to the basic storyline, from the beginning God summons multiply creative community from primal chaos, where multiple, uncontrollable and unpredictable responses inevitably produce more chaos, conflict and pain. That’s an unpreventable consequence of summoning multiply creative community from chaos. But, the storyline narrates, God bears all consequences with us, whether devastating or delightful, on the way into further, multiply creative community (with its further chaotic byproducts). That’s the basic storyline of Jesus’ life and presence, but also the basic storyline of God’s life and presence in Israel long before Jesus’ birth. The biblical storyline shows us that, ultimately, the most effective power God seems to have with a multiply creative community is the power to keep summoning every bit of it from chaos into further community, no matter how many unforeseen detours that involves, and the storyline shows us many unforeseen detours. You can call this power a kind of “sovereignty” or “omnipotence” (the power to summon multiply creative community from chaos is immeasurably greater than any other power—certainly greater than any ability to control the uncreative), but I find those terms misleading. God is helping all the time, helping immeasurably, but not controllingly. We can help too, and that should be our focus.
Q: Don’t you know that Jesus is mostly (maybe totally) a made-up character? Doesn’t that disprove Christianity?
A: We do recognize that many early stories about Jesus mix fact with fiction. Scholars often disagree about which is which. In the first century world this mixture was an accepted way of making the past come alive in the present. (Google “midrash.”) Can we “prove” that Jesus existed? No. We can’t “prove” that St. Paul existed either, though I don’t know of any historian who doubts that. Historically speaking, all we can credibly show (I wouldn’t say “prove”) is that, starting in the first century, people’s lives were utterly transformed by what they took to be truthful accounts of this amazingly embracing person who seemed to be embracing them even more amazingly after his execution. Again, we recognize that this impact of Jesus on his first followers inspired a whole variety of creative (“made-up”) storytelling. For them, as for us today, he was not just a figure of the past but a living presence animating the very stories they wrote. So it’s no surprise if many stories about him were embellished to convey how radical his impact was and is. But despite these embellishments, the basic storyline is unlikely to have been totally invented. We’re not troubled by polemical, mostly self-published writers who argue that he never existed, since they are not taken seriously by the majority of secular historians. (Google “peer review.”) If secular historians start taking them seriously, we’ll pay more attention, but right now they have about as much credibility as people who deny Obama’s U.S. citizenship. We have no reason to doubt that Jesus’ all-embracing life among his followers awakened them to the all-embracing life they called God, that his faithfulness to that life got him executed, and that afterwords his followers were surprised to experience him as even more all-embracingly alive. That’s the basic storyline that his earliest followers, like St. Paul, preached, and that we still preach today. That’s the storyline you’d have to discredit in order to discredit Christianity as we practice it.
Q: Aren’t you progressive Christians like “mafia wives”? Doesn’t your support of any version of Christianity simply make it easier for hateful people to keep using “God” and “Jesus” as clubs to clobber people? Could you tolerant, well-meaning, progressive Christians even exist without depending on Christian communities that are hopelessly intolerant, hateful and conservative?
A: I don’t take this accusation lightly. I’m part of a 2,000 year old tradition that keeps coming up with ingenious ways to turn a message of all-embracing love into an excuse for hatefulness. And excuses for hatefulness seem depressingly popular. Why not abandon it? The thing is, though, I’m part of other centuries-old traditions (“Western Civilization,” the United States) that seem equally adept at turning messages of enlightenment and liberation into excuses for hatefulness. Should I abandon them too? Is that even possible? Could a “culture-free” life even count as human? Could I find a culture that doesn’t betray itself, often as not? Show me an empowering tradition, or even a movement, with its inescapable institutions populated with conflicting egos, that does not continually betray its own best insights. I have yet to find one. But some traditions make a regular practice of admitting their betrayals in order to open themselves to renewal. One of those is the Anglican spiritual tradition that I continue to practice. It’s flawed but renewable. Is that more than just a way to enable bad behavior? I can’t prove that it is. But I haven’t found a credible alternative.