On Warfare and Weakness: Epilogue, Final Reflections on the Problems of Progressive Theology

Last week I finished my series "On Warfare and Weakness" but I'd like to make some final comments about the relative upsides and downsides of progressive theology and the vision I tried to articulate in my series.

To recap, the series tried to make the following argument:
God is love. This means that God is weak in the world, not exerting top down power over the world. Thus, love exists among a plurality of antagonistic powers, forces of violence and dehumanization, forces we'd call "satanic" in that they are manifestations of anti-love (and, thus, in the Christian imagination anti-Christ). Creating outposts of love in the world--making the Kingdom of God come to earth as it is in heaven--thus involves constant, daily struggle, a spiritual battle and war that is both moral and political, social and individual. And critical to keep in mind in all this is that this battle and war is fought with love and for love. Jesus "wins" a "victory" over satan on the cross. Jesus does battle with satan at Golgotha. That is the paradigmatic example of spiritual warfare. And if that vision has been bastardized in the Christian witness, with "warfare" looking like power and dominion rather than self-giving and weakness, then that is no reason to abandon the metaphor of spiritual warfare but cause to reclaim its biblical roots. Let's not abandon the language of spiritual warfare to heretics. 
Basically, what I'm arguing is this. Progressive theology is rooted in the confession that God is love. My observation is that this confession makes God weak in the world and this weakness implies a "warfare worldview," to use the label of Greg Boyd. So I argue that "spiritual warfare" is the natural language of progressive theology.

As I noted, progressive theology has run away from the spiritual warfare language because it has been too reactionary. That is, progressives have abandoned areas of Christian thought and language that have been contaminated by toxic elements in Christianity. For example, progressives have, as I said, abandoned the language of spiritual warfare because they have seen that language tragically misused and abused. But rather than thumping their bibles to continually point out that Christ's victory over the satan was won on the cross, progressives got timid and evacuated this language altogether. And I think this has damaged progressive theology as it effectively separated progressives from Jesus and his Kingdom proclamation. Dislocated from Jesus progressives had no robustly biblical ways to unpack their central confession that "God is love." Unplugged from Jesus progressives defaulted to liberal humanism. Not a bad move, but the confession "God is love" was thinned and hollowed out to become an insipid vision of liberal tolerance rather than a robust conflict against the forces of dehumanization in the world and in our own hearts.

Okay, with that as an overview and recap of my series let me offer some final reflections as to why I think progressive theology struggles if it eschews the language of spiritual warfare.

First, progressive theology is too focused on epistemology. Progressive theology has generally focused on the epistemological challenges associated with modernity and post-modernity. That is to say it's hard for many modern people to believe in Christian metaphysics, to believe in things like miracles or even God. To be clear, this is why I am attracted to progressive theology. And I think one of the great achievements of progressive theology is found in how it uses doubt as a theological and moral resource. I make this very argument in The Authenticity of Faith.

The trouble is, this focus on doubt only gets you so far down the Christian path. You can give up God for Lent only so often before the novelty wears off and you just start giving up Lent completely. Doubt is a powerful moral and theological resource that cannot be abandoned, but doubt will struggle to sustain Christian practice and witness throughout the lifespan. At the very least, doubt has failed to do this for me. I've needed something else, some positive vision to fight for. I think recovering the language of spiritual warfare can help with this.

Second, progressive theology needs to recover a theology of sin. Progressives have been so worried about judging people--in yet another reaction to toxic forms of Christianity--that they have evacuated the language of sin. If the language of sin is used at all it is usually reserved for structural sin, systemic injustice. But this leaves progresses fairly well mute when it comes to the personal realm, where we experience addiction, infidelity, lust, vanity, and selfishness. This means that progressives have tended to have a great deal to say (usually in Facebook rants) about, say, famines in Africa but less about the moral struggles of day to day living. I think this is a huge hole in progressive theology. And I think recovering the language of spiritual warfare can help with this.

Finally, progressive theology needs to connect better with the poor, uneducated and marginalized. For a variety of reasons the language of spiritual warfare is the idiom of disenfranchised groups. In working with poor and prison populations I've had to learn to talk like a Pentecostal. To be sure, as a progressive I unpack this language in progressive ways (see: Wink and Stringfellow). Regardless, if progressives want to communicate with the poor and marginalized (who also tend to be people of color) they will need to learn to sound a bit more charismatic. Progressives may even--gulp--have to raise their hands during a worship service.

Basically, the language of progressive theology is too white, male and European. I'd recommend less talk about Derrida, Lacan, and Heidegger and more talk about the devil and the Holy Ghost.

And, obviously, I think recovering the language of spiritual warfare can help with this.

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27 thoughts on “On Warfare and Weakness: Epilogue, Final Reflections on the Problems of Progressive Theology”

  1. To reinforce and build on your first point: the opposite of pistis and especially emunah is not doubt, but betrayal...faithlessness. Doubt in the modern sense is a necessary precondition of faith, in its primary biblical sense. It is nearly the opposite of the opposite of faith. This point is at least as rightly conservative as it is progressive ... It comes from grammatical historical methods, recovers and embraces pre-Enlightenment meanings, and draws on the moral foundation of in-group loyalty. And yet...in many contexts, it would be coded as liberal. Who am I to judge if some people like to call their conservatism liberal?

  2. I can't help but think that none of this matters unless you own it, really make it your own. That just one person who internalizes this and begins to act on as if it truly mattered is worth 1000 people constantly reworking the material in what Kierkegaard might call the endless academic search of a never realized objective truth. Because, there will always be another clever fellow, just around the blog corner who will have this idea + 1.

    Seriously. Who will shut off their computers and re-enter the world, alone if need be with this or even a rudimentary faith? How will progress in a spiritual battle be measured if we aren't online?

    Maybe I've just reached my cynical end of all who have a *new* approach. This one will do it! This book will open your eyes. This conference will set you off running. But we just blog and tweet about it. Endlessly. Commit to a path? What if I am wrong? What if Beck has another, even better way to believe and understand in the next 6 months? What will become of me if I made this particular vision my own? What if half way in, Beck and the rest of you have decided maybe you were incorrect and have a new blog in a new venue that has even more attention? O the horror of not being on the cutting edge of the new materialist, death of God, Caputo, Derrida mash up. O the tragedy of living a committed life when I could be not leading several at once.

    Of course, posting here basically nullifies all I have attempted to say. So I'm off to engage in spiritual warfare with or without you. Hopefully, you won't hear from me again as that would mean I failed. That's not to say I haven't learned anything here. I have. Immensely. But the call to act on what little I know (alongside my vibrant doubt) has finally outweighed the desire to know (and doubt) more. Enjoy your symptom. : )

  3. 10 bucks says Mr. Bookbinder spends all day refreshing this page to see if there be any responses. I commend his effort, though I'm unsure why he choose this post and this blog to make such a statement. Unless I'm missing something...

  4. Just wanted to let you know, your Blog has meant a lot to me. It's funny how you (as a stranger) have been more encouraging to me spiritually than anyone I actually know/have a relationship with. Thanks for all your hard work on your "hobby" (in my opinion it is much more) and I hope that Trollish comment didn't accomplish even a little to dampen your Monday. Peace.

  5. Thanks! To be sure, this is a very important and meaningful hobby. I just mainly wanted to point out that I do this with my free time. Thinking, reading, writing and talking about all this stuff is what I relax with.

  6. HB, I feel for your frustration and pray that it won't decompose into bitterness; that in doing the good that is at hand, you will in time rediscover the bitter-sweet joy of the life of doubt holding the hand of faith. Blessings on your journey.

  7. Thanks, Richard, for all of this. You've put all of it as well as I've seen it put.

    If I were a blogger, I'd do a bit of a side-project from your arguments above, based on Christian fiction (especially fantasy). I'd think/ talk about how the genre of action-fiction, or action-fantasy, requires a struggle against an extremely more powerful force (Sauron, the White Witch, the Empire, etc.) and that Christian-ish fantasy then has an extreme trouble getting God's power into the picture (the good Emperor is always over the Sea, the Valar do not interfere directly in Middle Earth, and it's completely unclear whether the "good side" of the force is worth much in a lightsaber duel). In some ways, this scares me, because it looks too much like deism (God isn't REALLY involved with our lives. . . .). But you've helped me see it with a new lens: Love, as love, is always (or, at least, often) in an underdog role. But always wins in the end, somehow, usually through sacrifice or even (at best) through the persuasive example of the virtuous person who sacrifices.

  8. Thanks for this! I've been puzzling and puzzling about how to convey all this material more easily and hadn't hit upon the right metaphor. But I think you've done it:

    "Love, as love, is always (or, at least, often) in an underdog role."


  9. Terrific series; love/endorse almost everything, with this small question: Is "warfare" the best metaphor, let alone a necessary one, to make the points?

    The series began with a tying of James' advocacy of what he more generally called "the strenuous life" to the spiritual warfare metaphor. But the call to be peacemakers is certainly more central to faith. And it is difficult to conceive of how to make love evident in our actions while we focus on "warfare," and that's the very core of our Christian practice. So "spiritual warfare" may be an effective metaphor at times, but it seems flawed--to say the least--as a way to sum up what our faith and practice need to be.

    So, might there be an alternative metaphor?--one which captures strenuous action in pursuit of a more peaceful, just, and compassionate world? (I'm asking on behalf of quite a few readers, I'd wager.)

    Thanks for such terrific posts over the last few weeks!

  10. I prefer a forming/making metaphor.

    I think it's just as supported by the text, just as much of "what Jesus thought of himself as doing" (even via N.T. Wright: via the /Meaning of Jesus/, Wright says Jesus thought of himself as forming Israel). It also seems fairly potent, and as a constructive rather than destructive metaphor, less liable to be misused.

    I also disagree with Richard's (largely unchallenged) characterization of tolerance as insipid. Sure, humanism has fewer explosions, but screw explosions. Explosions can go to hell. Besides, as a tiny human being, you don't even have the option of making explosions. You have the option of being kind. Forget heroic battles: they're pure fiction. Learn to be kind.

    I also think this is pertinent when considering the effect of seeing oneself as part of a grand battle:

    Okay, that's everything I think. Brain empty. Done. =)

  11. I'd push back on the simple exhortation "learn to be kind," and to goes to my general skepticism regarding liberal appeals to tolerance. It is extraordinarily difficult to be kind. It is extraordinarily difficult to be tolerant--radically tolerant. Everything around us ("the principalities and powers") and in us ("sin") is pushing against those outcomes. Call it "the satan" or "our default setting" to use David Foster Wallace's words. And this extraordinary difficultly to keep saying "this is water, this is water" goes to the point of what I'm trying to frame here. There is a daily battle to be fought, an epic struggle that too few are willing to fight because we are often so self-congratulatory about how kind and tolerant we are. Especially if you are a liberal. It's insidious.

    I think there is a heroism in being kind. I think kindness, at leas in my own life, is something I have to fight for. Daily. This is water, this is water.

  12. Hi. Due to a comment left on my blog, I found you.

    I understand you claim a progressive theology --but I was caught by your statement: Christ's victory over the satan was won on the cross.

    As a post-progressive (well, maybe radical!) Christian, working and living on a Lakota Reservation in South Dakota, I was puzzled... because for most progressive Christians, Christ's victory over the satan is won in the Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension. Do you have any work which discusses this? --or, why do you stop with the crucifixion?

    Just curious. And looking forward to reading more of your stuff.
    (my daily prayer blog, not to advertise, but because I am not sure my name will provide a live link, is Leave It Lay Where Jesus Flang It. at leaveitlay.blogspot.com )

  13. The article makes a tremendous point. Eichman embraced the final solution "not as a robotic bureaucrat, but...as someone convinced that he was sacrificing an easy morality for a higher good." So the war metaphor works for the gamut of ideologies. If it works because it represents the ultimate in commitment, I suppose the point could be made that a christian should be no less committed than a Nazi. But the quality of christian commitment is incompatible with the metaphor.

    Paul advocated an athlete's mindset. Not objectionable, but less inspiring. Does the Parable of the Talents yield investment bankers as a spiritual ideal? Perhaps this objection is a total waste of time... Perhaps no analogy is adequate to the task. Still, the spiritual warfare one does not deserve a place of honor, IMO.

  14. As someone who's followed Richard some, I can say that he can also emphasize incarnation, resurrection, and ascension--but he finds progressive theology's most pressing insight to be that victory comes primarily through sacrificial love displayed in a "weak" willingness to identify with suffering. Surely the whole incarnation displays that, but just as surely the cross is the premier symbol/ instantiation.

  15. jih11a --thank you. I get the 'weak' and 'suffering' --truly I do. But it is largely fundamentalists who focus on the cross as the means to victory... and progressives tend (in an attempt, I believe, to circumvent a discussion of death and suffering) to gloss over the cross and focus more upon the victory of resurrection --as God's constant response of love to our cults of violence and death. So, I was fascinated and have many questions about one who claims progressive theology and yet remain focused on the cross as the sign of salvation. Is this because Beck is speaking to fundamentalists, not progressives, and therefor uses fundamentalist 'language' to pursue the theology of weakness and suffering? Is this because he is a closet fundamentalist after all? I am fascinated. I have never (yet) met a progressive who claimed the cross as THE sign of salvation --as THE victory over satan. And, therefore, no, the cross is NOT the premier symbol....

  16. The progressives I read--Moltmann, Girard, Caputo, Bonhoeffer, liberation theologians--very much put the cross at the center.

    The point being, there are many, many progressive theologians who lean heavily on the cross. Let alone the simple fact that the phrase "the weakness of God" is explicitly linked to the cross in the biblical text.

    All that to say, it's not a point of pride, in my opinion, that various progressives run away from the cross of Jesus. It's massive failure on their part, another way progressives are generally reacting to conservatives rather than offering a positive vision of their own.

  17. I agree --most progressives run away from the cross, run away from death, run away from suffering --which is why I am fascinated that you put the cross in the center.... --and I am laughing at myself... because I tend to think of Moltmann, Caputo, Bonhoeffer and, yes, liberation theologians as classical, not progressive! So.... to your definition of progressive.... is it discussed at the beginning of this series?

    As to Girard --certainly in "Scapegoat" he decries our need to nail our sins on someone, and that certainly Jesus was pointing us to a faith beyond the cross, beyond religion.

  18. Thanks for the epilogue. I get where you’re coming from and am definitely on board with NOT abandoning the language to the heretics. You already know that “warfare” language is reactionary, so I don’t need to tell you that. I just can’t figure out why you think you’ve somehow solved that.

    Traditionally, doubt has been accepted by Christianity only if at some point you return to the faith. You can have answers that are different from your neighbor’s denomination, but they have to some Biblical basis, they have to agree with some theologian. I think you’re still doing this, so you’ve never completely accepted reasoning. You don’t allow that it could take you away from faith.

    On sin, I think you are behind the boat on this one. I think progressives have figured out the mistakes of the 60’s for quite a while now and don’t need religion to make the corrections needed. I agree, we need some basic values, applied equally to all. But, we don’t need Christ for that. In the prison populations, don’t you ever meet Muslims there? How do you adjust your language for them? And if you keep switching, don’t you think they’ll get a little suspicious about what you really believe?

  19. It is probably a confusion about what the word "progressive" means. I shouldn't say that Moltmann, Girard, Caputo, Bonhoeffer, and liberation theologians are themselves progressives, but that these are thinkers who are attractive to progressives and who can help progressives reclaim a theology of the cross that isn't reactionary to fundamentalism.

    Regardless, I very much agree with you overarching point. We need to embrace the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection to create a full, rich and balanced vision of Christian salvation.

  20. This is exactly what is wrong with the language. It is so easy to screw it up. The period when Rome first became Christian was bloody and violent. In the name of Christ, books were burned and non-Christians were killed. This is not some strange dance, it was a brutal attempt at genocide. And it failed, Rome fell. If it wasn’t for the rise of democracy we’d still be in the dark ages, fighting it out with real weapons.

  21. In spite of the serious double deep-fired cynicism from Bookbinder, the battle really is worth the fight! For example, let’s look at the Home Page of the “Progressive Theology” website. The following eight “Principles” are listed vertically in the left hand margin presumably as a descriptive inventory of what a “Progressive Theology” should stand for -

    1. Global justice over nationalism.
    2. Respect for people of other faiths and backgrounds.
    3. Support for the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
    4. Religious liberty.
    5. Recognition of structural sin.
    6. Preferential option for the poor.
    7. Rejection of capital punishment.
    8. Compatibility of theology and science.

    Now with out a doubt, each and every one of these items are profoundly important to the creation and maintenance of seemingly just and fair society. What appears to be missing from the list however, is something that actually acknowledges the existence of “Evil”.

    The essential problem is that most us “Progressives” spend our time endlessly debating over the nuances of its existence, political and societal influences and its atrocious effects. But like an antiquated medical profession that is structured more on “curative” rather than “preventative” measures, Progressive Theology does not directly engage the source of “Evil” in our world, but rather selects to combat its byproducts – obtuse poverty, imbedded racism, environmental bigotry, the effects of war, etc… All of which need continual repressing and dismantling.

    However, most Progressives actually do have a “stealth approach” to battling the source of pain and suffering in our world – it's just the learned fact that you can’t share the Gospel with a man who has an empty stomach, or who has no water to drink, or is societally repressed – you have to meet or address those needs in some fashion first, then you lay on the LOVE of The Gospel, The Cross, The Holy Spirit, as an adjunct. Some would say that’s a half-ass-backwards form of evangelism and even dubious but you’ve got to “fatten the calf before you can slay it”! So in the end, I think it’s less condescending to the spirit of altruism to initially commence our personal form “Warfare” by first being our brothers keeper Physically & Materially – then Spiritually, in order to seal the deal.

  22. I would be very interested in what your definition of 'progressive' is --without putting it in juxtaposition to fundamentalism. (I venture to say it is fundamentalism that is reactionary, not the other way around!)

  23. My understanding is that the initial period after the conversion of Constantine was a period of broad religious tolerance. But please don't take me to be condoning Constantine's violent activities; that is part of why I noted that this was a partial victory. Insofar as violence was used, I consider it a subversion of Jesus and not a victory. I noted some of the problems with certain kinds of ecclesial triumphalism in another comment, and I'd gladly go at that again, if you like.

  24. > It is extraordinarily difficult to be kind.

    Absolutely. I think you are entirely right about this. Being kind is something to work for, daily. But frankly, it's not a grand struggle. It's not heroic or theatrical. It's small and somewhat pathetic. It will probably never work. And I suspect that trying to make it theatrical by casting it as a great war between the forces of darkness and dehumanization just feeds our ego: our need to matter, as you put it in a different post. And it sets our tribe up to do things in the mode of Eichmann ... sacrificing kindness to the person in front of me in order to serve the great cause of Kindness.

    I think I get the motivating concern -- if you want to help people be more like Jesus, it would be nice to give them some easy way in, something to love and thrill to. But just like it would be fraught with peril to sell church by appealing to my libido, it's problematic to deploy warfare metaphors that appeal to the bloodlust buried in the back of my brain.

    So I have this hope that kindness -- the act of lovingkindness itself, that metaphor, for everything is metaphor -- is hard to bring into being, but more sticky than any other metaphor. That by being kind to people, by learning to consider them as important as ourselves, we help more people be kind to people, and that those people find it easier to be kind, and that someday we will start to notice that little shoots and seedlings of kindness are growing all over the fortress of sin, and that over centuries or millennia, sin will crack and crumble under the weak force of kindness, kindness, lovingkindness.

  25. Don't be fooled. Toward the end, Bookbinder makes a very powerful and poignant point. Take heed.

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