Though I was raised in a conservative evangelical Protestant home, I had the good fortune of completing a graduate program in theology at a progressive seminary of the United Methodist Church. There, I was introduced for the first time to Christianity’s social justice tradition and its progressive political theologies. In the classroom and at weekly chapel services, outdated patriarchal metaphors for God such as “King,” “Lord,” or “Father” were replaced by far more agreeable ones: “Life-giving Spirit,” “Liberator,” or “Mother.” Traditional doctrines such as the Trinity or the atonement were overshadowed by an emphasis on Jesus’s solidarity with the victims of Roman imperial power, which was believed to mirror God’s own predilection for the poor and disenfranchised. God was no longer the distant, austere sovereign whose primary preoccupation amounted to culling sheep from goats: he loved all creatures infinitely, labored earnestly for their well-being in the here and now, and stood side by side with any who had suffered injustice—particularly women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, and subaltern peoples.
Initially, I found these new models of God very attractive. Even more important was the ethical orientation they authorized: inclusion of and equality for all, care for Earth and its fragile ecosystems, a more capacious stance toward people of other faiths, and an abiding commitment to rectifying the wrongs of imperialism, racism, sexism, and heterosexism. After graduating from seminary, I brought these new values and models of God with me into my first two parishes. I quickly discovered that most ordinary Christians have little interest in what elite liberal seminaries are teaching their future ministers.
Even progressive Christians are resistant to discarding traditional metaphors for “Mother” or “Life-giving Spirit,” and they often feel disconnected from a deity who takes special interest in a small marginalized group to which they themselves do not belong. Like conservative Christians, most still want to be reassured that they will be reunited with loved ones at death, that God really does hear and answer prayers, and that God has taken an active interest in their lives.
Admittedly, I was disappointed that so few shared my enthusiasm for these newer models, but this is not what led me finally to abandon them. I had always been troubled by how any theologian could possibly know—really know—that these recent portraits of the divine better approximate God’s character and will than older, Eurocentric portraits. It wasn’t clear to me why, for instance, a poor farmer living under a repressive regime in Argentina necessarily had better purchase on the sacred than an elite theologian who taught at Notre Dame and had all of his physical needs amply met. Or why a transgender person intimately acquainted with discrimination necessarily possessed greater clarity on the divine will than a straight white woman who had experienced virtually no discrimination.
How can we really know whether God is on the side of the poor and the marginalized? It certainly would be nice if God were a god of justice and compassion who took a keen interest in all who suffered, but this new deity seemed to be more a product of what people desired, more a response to recent social changes, than a genuine discovery that propelled these social changes. As Freud observed long ago, when we construct precisely the god we most desire, we open ourselves to the charge of wishful thinking. Is the creator of the universe really just as we moderns wish him or her to be?
In addition to these epistemic concerns, I also found it odd that progressive theologians always assumed God must be favorably disposed toward all living things. They portray him only in the most glowing terms, which is why Elizabeth Johnson, in her recent survey of progressive theologies, is able to claim: “If it were possible to sum up [these theologians’] rediscoveries in one metaphor, it would be the classic Christian belief that God is Love.” Sallie McFague’s landmark monograph Models of God is emblematic of these “rediscoveries,” for she only considers exploring metaphors that “express the trustworthiness and graciousness of the power of the universe for our time,” settling finally on “Friend,” “Lover,” and “Mother.” In his In the Face of Mystery, Gordon Kaufman likewise constructs the divine in such a way that believers may learn “to live with a deep confidence in the basic order and goodness and meaning of the world.” Put simply, among progressives God is only ever spoken of as wholly good—as “for us.”
Even though most theologians won’t hesitate to affirm that the universe is self-expressive of the divine nature, very rarely are the implications of all the suffering and waste of sentient life in our world taken seriously. By far, their most common solution to the problem of suffering is to divest the deity of power, so that he becomes incapable of alleviating gratuitous suffering or of altering the fundamental laws of the universe in any way. This God is said to feel our pain, to suffer with us; yet he remains impotent to introduce any changes in how his own universe operates. If, however, the world is taken to be self-expressive of God’s character (as, again, most any theologian will agree), I think it is far more probable that writers such as Annie Dillard, Herman Melville, and Richard Rubenstein have it right: God doesn’t give a damn about whether we suffer or even whether we live or die.
Theologians who work explicitly within a postmodern framework do helpfully acknowledge that all theology is constructive in character, inescapably rooted in the theologian’s unique social and historical context. Postmodern theologians do not believe we can press back behind our language games to a transcendent signified—“God” or “the Real,” for instance—that then may be used to authorize moral norms or objective truths. Furthermore, because there is no longer a neutral God’s-eye viewpoint to which we have access, these theologians confess they are in no position to adjudicate between competing models of God or reality. Although they may be able to speak about which ones are more conducive to human well-being, they cannot claim to know which of them more accurately reflects the divine character and will. Postmodern theology, then, as McFague puts it, is “mostly fiction,” and the theologian is reduced to an artist. Gone is the metaphysician who speaks with authority on the nature of being.
Of course, the problem that postmodern theologians face is why anyone not already immersed in their language games should accept their accounts of the sacred and of divine-human relations. By their own admission, their narratives come with no authority, no proof or evidence. They may sound nice, and they may be used to inspire a progressive ethic, but what possible reason do we outsiders have to believe that even a shred of their narratives is true?
I still happen to believe strongly in the importance of epistemic justification: for any worldview on offer, there ought to be plenty of evidence to back it up, and postmodern theologians are unwilling to provide it. Furthermore, in order for any Christian worldview to appear credible today, it must take seriously the enormity of gratuitous suffering and the waste of sentient life, and progressive political theologies routinely fail to do so. To honor God with the title “creator” while simultaneously claiming that he has no power whatsoever to alleviate suffering, as most all
progressive theologians do, strains credulity. And to claim that “God is love” is to turn a blind eye to the brute—often brutal—facts of existence. It all seems a rather transparent exercise in wishful thinking and self-deception, and there came a point when I could no longer participate in it. Some well-educated Christians undoubtedly have the ability to assume the stance of the postmodern ironist and just play along, fully aware that the Christian language game is “mostly fiction,” that its models of reality have little (if anything) to do with the world we actually inhabit. But for me, this no longer satisfies. I need evidence. I need models of reality that are justifiable, models grounded in the latest research the social and natural sciences have to offer.
Johnson, Elizabeth. Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. New York: Continuum, 2012.
Kaufman, Gordon. In the Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1995.
McFague, Sallie. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987.
James Metzger received his PhD in religion from Vanderbilt University. He now teaches religious studies, ethics, and critical thinking. Prior to a career in academics, he served as a minister to several United Methodist Church and United Church of Christ congregations.