On Warfare and Weakness: Part 1, A Real Fight

I'd like to spend some time writing about progressive Christianity.

A month or so ago I was reading a post by Tony Jones challenging progressive theology. Tony has repeatedly made the argument that progressive Christians struggle to articulate an exciting and attractive vision of the Christian faith, a vision with broad and popular appeal.

For example, in the post I read --"Can postmodern theology live in our churches?"--Tony made comments at a progressive Christian conference challenging the attendees to find (among other things) better and more appealing articulations of the faith. For my part, I thought Tony was on to something. Though I agree a great deal with things like process theology and Christian a/theism, I think Tony is correct when he suggests that these aren't articulations of Christianity that are going to convince many fellow Christians.

And so with some fear and trembling, I'd like to try to take up the challenge Tony articulated. In a series of posts this week and next (ten posts in all) I'd like to try to articulate a vision of progressive Christianity that I think is exciting and might have popular appeal.

I'm going to fail of course. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. At the very least you'll see a person try to wrestle with the challenge Tony made.

I'm going to try build this vision of progressive Christianity by bringing into conversation two different books. These books are God at War by Greg Boyd and The Weakness of God by John Caputo. My hope, in creating a synthesis of these two books, is that God at War will bring the excitement and The Weakness of God will bring the progressiveness.

Now, I bet if you've read either of these two books you're blinking right now with incomprehension. These are two radically different books. Boyd's book is a robust defense of spiritual warfare, built upon the belief that angels and demons do exist. Caputo's book explicitly eschews dualistic, supernatural and metaphysical accounts. How can these visions fit together?

That's what I'm going to try to show. I believe there are connections between these two visions that might be exploited to create a very interesting and exciting vision of progressive Christianity.

So let me end this introductory post with a comment about excitement and where I think it might come from.

I take a cue here from the great William James. James once observed:
If this life is not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight.
This, I believe, is the source of excitement in any vision of Christianity. People want to be in a real fight. They want to see battle lines. They want to be on the side of the good fighting against evil. We want to hear those great battlefield speeches.

One of my favorite saints, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, yearned to be like Joan of Arc. We love the images in the bible of a Deborah or a David leading the armies of God.

And yet, it's no surprise to say that progressive Christians really shy away from this sort of thing. A militant Christianity is what drove many progressive Christians away from conservative Christianity. Consequently, progressive Christians often tend to be too hipster, liberal, ironic or cynical to take any of this "warfare" stuff seriously.

And that, I think, may be a part of the problem. It's hard to build excitement for your vision of progressive Christianity when the vibe is ironic, cynical, intellectualized or coolly detached. It's hard to build excitement for your vision of progressive Christianity when you are being paradoxical, post-modern, or deconstructive. It's hard to build excitement for your vision of progressive Christianity when it often reduces to liberal humanism, existentialism, functional atheism or simply voting for Democrats.

Basically, I think progressive Christianity struggles because it often fails to give people a real, honest-to-God, bible-thumping fight. More precisely, progressive Christianity has a lot of fight in it, but it has often struggled to articulate that fight in robustly biblical ways. (Let alone the major problem of progressive Christians being too reactionary, focusing much of their fight against conservative Christians.)

So in these posts I'd like to try to paint a picture of what such a bible-thumping fight might look like from the perspective of progressive Christianity.

Part 2

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41 thoughts on “On Warfare and Weakness: Part 1, A Real Fight”

  1. Excited for this series. The video, particularly, makes me think of St. Fracis' appropriation of chivalry for an entirely different set of ends, an entirely different type of warfare.

  2. The good news in this regard is that the series isn't really about "progressive Christianity." That's just my excuse to bring two very different sorts of books into conversation. My main theological interest, per the title of the series, is with the interesting intersection I think I've observed between "warfare and weakness." Whatever one thinks of "progressive Christianity," noting and exploring that theological intersection is the main point of the series.

  3. Running parallel with the exclusion of the demonic.... Is the seemingly exclusion of the Holy Spirit by much of the progressive Christian community.
    IMO the progressive community want to tackle social justice etc by their own will... Sadly I don't think this is possible

  4. I also think the strong social justice focus leaves progressive Christians with little to do throughout the day. The progressive focus on social justice is huge and should not be eclipsed, but it leaves progressive Christians with little to focus on during the mundane parts of the work week which is, let's face it, where most of life takes place. Trying to do our part to fight, let's say, global poverty is huge, but today I have to get ready for work, do the commute, get along with co-workers, help cook dinner, wash dishes, put the kids to bed, be a friend and neighbor. Where is the progressive spiritual fight in all that stuff? The conservative focus on personal piety does a much better job connecting with workaday existence than the progressive focus on systemic evils. Which isn't to say one should be traded for the other. Just an observation where challenges and opportunities exist.

  5. Where is the progressive spiritual fight in all that stuff? Why, in the little way of course :) To me, it's all about my microcosm reflecting my desired macrocosm.

  6. I wonder whether you may run into a gender divide on this. The very term "spiritual warfare" gives me hives. I'm not interested in "a fight." There are struggles, but most of them are internal (learning how to love and consistently acting in love, for example). I am not fond of separating the world into an "us" and a "them."

    Mindfulness will give you plenty to do throughout the day. Paying attention is hard work, and it is (in my view) the bedrock of a godly life (viz. David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water.").

  7. I've been thinking about that. There's a reason I mentioned Thérèse, Joan of Arc and Deborah.

    There will most definitely be a gender divide if the "warfare" metaphor isn't unpacked. That is, we tend to immediately unpack the metaphor in masculine ways. But I wonder if that's a problem with the metaphor itself or the way we unpack it, the default masculine frame that men are "warriors" and women aren't.

    At the end of the day (and this series), when we come to see that the "warfare" we fight is fought with self-giving love my hope is that we have something in hand that transcends gender.

  8. As someone who was raised in various fundamentalist missions and movements (homeschooling, sovereign grace, iblp, patriarchy), I am still in recovery mode. I am not looking for excitement and "warfare". I understand the need for the corporate Church to have purpose, direction, and mission. However, fundamentalism offered all that. And it was built on a platform of fear, exclusivity and urgency. This is the recipe for an "exciting" movement. But it isn't the nature of Jesus's mission. And it took a decade of "unlearning" to realize that. So, I see your pursuit for excitement as evidence of maturity beyond where I am currently at. There is a "season" where what a man or woman healing from fundamentalism needs most is the joy of looking at a world that God truly loves and is not threatened by. A season of understanding that God is more about healing and forgiveness than about condemning and judging. Seeing myself and my neighbor in light of that is enough excitement for me, for now. P.S. Your blog and writings have been a tremendous help to me in my crazy journey back to Jesus. Thanks much.

  9. Glad to see you're reading Caputo! I admit that I got very excited while reading that book, partly because it's so beautifully written (that chapter on Genesis knocked my socks off). One of my favorite aspects of the book is his continual emphasis on the quotidian: on the radical ordinary of the daily, the supposedly mundane monotony of life lived well. I can't really see the "radical" (critiquing and dismantling oppressive systems) and the "ordinary" (the daily rituals of life) as two opposite poles on a spectrum, but as rhythms that necessarily influence one another: the radical should shape our ordinary, and the ordinary makes the radical livable and viable. Or somethin' like that.

  10. I find it strange that everyone is quoting a book by a human. Here is a book quote: "Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes." Eph 6. Pretend all we want, but take away the "war" against us that rages unseen all around us, and even is used against us (i.e. persecution in other countries) and there is a war going on. Take away the spiritual and all you have left is a group of people doing good deeds, or a just another welfare agency.

    This is beyond fundamentalism, progressive thought, post, pre, post-pre-post modernism or whatever ism.

  11. Hang in there with me during the series and let me know if I rehabilitate this notion of "warfare" in a way that resonates with you by the end of it.

  12. You've got me and McRay all jazzed up for this, Richard; really looking forward to it. Tired of the reactionism myself, I've found inspiration in the Anabaptist tradition of radical discipleship and the more modern way of talking about Christian discipleship w/r/t coercion and violence: pacifism.

    Christian pacifism is a commitment that's just begging for a fight. No one pisses off more people these days than a pacifist, especially one who points to Jesus and says, "Yeah, it's because that guy/God."

    So perhaps a good motto for Christian pacifists (which is implied in a radical Christianity, btw) is this:

    How would Jesus fight? (Start printing those commodity fetish bracelets now, folks!)

  13. I assume you’ll be discussing big tent progressive
    Christianity in your posts, but I’m interested in applying this down to my
    local church home. I attend a progressive Church of Christ in Nashville and
    given that the Churches of Christ are generally 20 years or so behind broader
    Christian movements, I think we’re just now seeing this issue crop up in our
    own backyards, so to speak. My biggest dissatisfactions are defining ourselves
    by what we aren’t whether than what we are (settling for “at least we’re not as
    legalistic”) and drifting towards bland evangelicalism (which has its own set
    of problems). Direction and vision seem
    to be the biggest thing we’re lacking so I’m looking forward to the upcoming

  14. I wonder if that's the difference, depending on definitions, between "progressive" and "radical" Christianities. The former does often ignore the small quotidian stuff that might be boring because its too busy tearing apart semantic systems, but the latter often insists of "being the change you want to see," on "building the new society in the shell of the old," on actually practicing macrocosms together at the microcosm.

  15. I think that's right. "Progressive," as I'm using it, means theologically liberal. Think Peter Rollins, Tillich, the emergent church, or Caputo.

    "Radical"," for me at least, is moving in a more counter cultural direction, conjuring up people like the Catholic Worker, Christian anarchists, new monastics, or Anabaptists.

    And there is, of course, overlap. Progressive radicals.

  16. I dig that, although I'm not sure Caputo, as a post-theist, is technically theologically liberal. But of course it depends on definitions! As much as I've loved and appreciated his stuff, I don't think he necessarily follows the implications of his own thought (which is true for most of us I suppose) and is satisfied to remain a postmodern scholar Democrat. I haven't read much by Simon Critchley, but he's a postmodern deconstructionist who wants to talk about pacifism and anarchistic stuff.

  17. I really am interested and like where you are going with this Richard! I can't help but think that Walter Wink's notions of "powers and principalities" may also contribute to the notion of having something to fight against.

  18. I can't think of anyone I'd rather read taking on this task. Looking forward to it!

  19. And as another example, using the terms in in this way, I'd say Dorothy Day was a "conservative radical." Theologically very orthodox but radical in her anarchism and pacifism. The boundaries are pretty blurry, but I think prototypes can be identified for various combinations.

    Another taxonomy is the one used by James Davison Hunter in To Change the World>. He contrasts the Christian Right, the Left and the Neo-Anabaptists. In the terms you and I have been kicking around:

    Conservative = Right
    Progressive = Left
    Radical = Neo-Anabaptist

  20. How would Jesus fight?

    Great question and goes to the "weakness" of the title.

  21. Very interesting. I will surely follow your series. I have learned a lot from your blog.

  22. I've been contemplating the relationship between Boyd and Caputo lately as well. They both pull at my heart and thoughts and both bring such theological weight to the table.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on the matter (even with a bit of jealousy that I didn't write it first).

    Also I just quoted your paper on attachment theories and God in a lit review for my proposal to study the holding of theological beliefs by the polarized "sides" of Christianity. Came across it on ebscohost and was really excited. Thanks!

  23. This series looks very interesting and thought provoking. I'm looking forward to it!

  24. I can't imagine that I'd exhaust all the possible connections between Boyd and Caputo. Plus, I'm a screwball so I bet you'd take it in different directions. Go on and write, Sir!

  25. Reflecting on this post has shown just how underwhelmed I am with conservative evangelical church, and how just a small shift is enough to make me ecstatic. I am born and raised Church of Christ, and this is what excites me about progressive Christianity:
    1) the possibility of going to a church in my lifetime that does not have a "women's issue"
    2) a church where people feel safe to "come out of the closet" instead of terrified
    3) a higher view of atonement: i.e., not continually needing Jesus to save me from God's wrath
    4) a church where ultimate reconciliation is possible, a church that preaches about a God who is worthy of praise, a church that doesn't go schizophrenic or catatonic by trying to reconcile God's love and mercy with eternal conscious torment in hell
    5) a non-violent church where I don't have to sing about a "fountain full of blood" or gleefully cheer that "many will meet their doom"
    6) a church that spends more money on other people then on itself
    7) avoiding a church where a laser-like focus on personal salvation (either for the golden ticket to heaven or simply hell avoidance) has naturally caused it to largely ignore the outside world
    8) a church it is ok to express doubt, have struggles, or just not be "doing fine, how are you?" once in a while
    9) a church that doesn't revolve around looking and listen to people on a stage

    Frankly, any one of these things is enough to excite me. Warfare? Not so much--I'm interested where that is going.

  26. If the women who wage spiritual war are all virgins or nuns—well, not sure that's going to resolve the divide.

  27. Fine point, but goodness gracious, to act as though the warfare or warrior motif is the sole domain of men seems silly and pretty chauvinistic. Mama grizzlies? Wonder Woman? Amazons? Warrior goddesses? And my favorites: Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen.

  28. “God at War” gives me the heebie Jeebies, but I will hang with you a bit on that even though I think Boyd’s answers to to the question of evil (and theodicy) are, frankly, the same old shi...uh, stuff. But I am really looking fwd to your views on Caputo though. I am also an ardent admirer of Saint Therese of L. but she is not my favorite saint (technically, I don’t think you protestants should get to have favorite saints but I will let that slide. Apparently Pope Francis is a bit of slacker on these sorts of decretum. Btw, I really like that new version of SToL’s autobiography). As for this “exciting war?” My first impression is that it was something cooked up in some publishing companies marketing department and if it was most anybody else bringing this up I wouldn’t waste the time to read or comment. Woody Allen said back during the days of the draft that, 'he was classified 4H, in the event of war he was a hostage.‘ I reckon that’s about how I feel about this 'war' right now. Obliged.

  29. I'm perfectly willing to be full of shit by the end of all this. :-) It is, after all, just a blog.

    What's the worst that can happen? This: I get to the end and someone says, "I disagree."

    I'm steeling myself for that awful, soul-shattering and traumatic eventuality. :-)

  30. Thanks, I hope you find the series interesting and helpful. To let the cat out of the bag, the main goal in this series is to make a connection between progressive theological thought and Christus Victor theology. That connection comes in the final post of the series. As to if anyone will find this connection helpful or of use it very much an open question.

  31. As someone who already sits (too often alone) in the space between intellectual liberal and theological hardcore, I am interested to see where this goes and if you end up sitting in my pew! I am wary though of the idea that liberal Christianity fails because it's not very marketable: flashiness seems like a really bad reason for the church to accept or reject anything. I think all this relevance business is overrated. I don't know what's more relevant than the message of Christ.

  32. All books are written 'by a human'; some of the time some of us humans are receiving a clearer signal than some other times... When you actually read the Bible, with all your mind, you find this amply demonstrated.

    And sometimes Pogo was inspired: "We have met the enemy and he is us!" If we'd had clear battle lines this war would have been over long ago... But sometimes that enemy is wearing an angel uniform; and we really need to pray for help in sorting that out.

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