Tony Jones issued a challenge the other day on his blog to those, among whom I suppose I number myself, who could be categorized as liberal or progressive theobloggers. Here's how Tony frames the challenge:
I’ve been writing recently about the problems with liberal Christianity, and I had a thought this morning. It was prompted by a recent phone conversation I had with themanaging editor of a major publishing house, combined with my faithful listening to the Theology Nerd Throwdown podcast, and the silliness of all the hand-wringing about Chik-fil-A.
These have prompted me to think that progressives have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.
You might say the same thing about conservative Protestants (i.e., “evangelicals”). But the thing is, their people pretty much know what they think of God. It’s well-known and on the record.
Progressive/liberal/mainline theology, on the other hand, has a PR problem. We might think that people know what we think about God, but they don’t. It’s clear in the comments on this blog and elsewhere.
It really struck me yesterday, when listening to a recent edition of the TNT podcast, in which Tripp repeatedly and forcefully said things about who God is and how God acts. He didn’t relativize those statements with qualifiers, and he didn’t cowtow to political correctness or academic jargon. That was jarring to me because it so rarely happens.
So he's asked those in the liberal end of the theological blogosphere to blog a bit about God, something that I'm happy to do.
But before I lay out in broad terms what I think this whole "God-talk" thing is about, I do think it's worth noting that the problem is probably less that progressive theologians, pastors, and other churchy folks don't have a clear conception of we mean when we talk about God, and more that what we believe, unlike what religious conservatives believe, can't be easily boiled down into talking points or declarative statements. This has sometimes put me in the strange position of being accused of being a religious zealot by some and an atheist by others.
But in terms of content, I don't think that my approach to understanding the nature and character of God is out of line with what the Christian tradition has taught for two thousand years. In a nutshell it is this: God is the ground of being.
That answer of course requires explanation, and there are a number of possible explanations that one can offer, but in my use of the phrase, "ground of being" has a number of implications.
First, it implies that God is the precondition for existence. That there is anything at all is attributable to the fact that God is before all things and brings all things about. Thus God is the "ground" of being in the sense of being the precondition for all things that exist. This, by the way, is one reason why much of the conflict between science and religion is rather pointless. The combatants in those conflicts assume that God's existence or non-existence is a matter of scientific inquiry. But it's not. Science investigates things that are in the world. But God is not in the world. God is the criterion existence, and thus exists outside the world, and beyond science.
Second, to refer to God as the ground of being means that God is, in God's nature, inaccessible to the ordinary apparatus of human language and expression. All of the language that we use in ordinary discourse to talk about God is, by its very nature, inadequate to God's reality. Thus our language about God must always be understood to be allusive and analogical, rather than precise. We are attempting to describe that which our language has nothing to describe. As I've noted before, it is much akin to the character in the novel Flatland, who as a two-dimensional creature attempts to explain his relationship to a three-dimensional creature to other two-dimensional creatures. A two-dimensional world lacks the linguistic resources to understand life in three dimensions. Likewise, human language can't get at the reality of God.
However, here we are talking about God. How can that be? If God is ultimately a mystery beyond all human comprehension or even expression, then it seems God can't be spoken of at all, or at least, speaking about God is a pointless exercise. And there are a couple of possible answers to this as well.
First, traditionally Christianity has taught that we come to know God because God has made Godself known to us in one way or another. The tradition of natural theology has argued that we can come to know God through God's creation, as creation reveals something to us of God's nature and character.
Of course, this is only so if we look at nature through the eyes of faith. Nature on its own is unlikely to reveal God to us, but for those who are attuned to the possibility of knowing God through the natural world, nature can often be seen to be a realm through which God is revealed in myriad ways.
The other way that Christianity claims we come to know about the nature and character of God is through God's revelation in Jesus Christ. In the Christian account, God has made Godself known quintessentially by becoming incarnate in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, and everything that can be said truthfully about God has to be said with reference to Jesus Christ.
So, when Christians engage in God talk, they are just as often engaging in "Jesus talk," insofar as their God talk is ultimately going to be connected in some way, shape, or form to what we claim to know of God through the life, death, and teachings of Jesus Christ.
But ultimately even here, we are using human language to describe the indescribable, and referring to a human being as the incarnation of that which is beyond all created order. These are the paradoxes that exist at the heart of the Christian tradition. This is what makes it a mystery. In speaking of God, the answers aren't at the back of the book. And the mistake that is too often made by conservative and liberal Christians alike is to believe that in their God talk they are speaking about something that can be definitively spoken of, rather than alluding to something that in the end we know only in partial and fragmentary ways.
What this ought to lead to is a great deal of theological humility, especially about the kinds of things that seem to animate contemporary American Christians so thoroughly. Yet if as Christians we are to attempt to live lives in accord with our faith, we have no choice except to attempt to speak of the unspeakable and know the unknowable. The challenge then is to do so in ways that acknowledge our inherent limitations, and the ultimate futility of any attempt to speak definitively of God.
The Greek theologians used to say that there are two kinds of theology, cataphatic and apophatic. Cataphatic, or positive theology, speaks of God through through what what we can say God is -- for example, "God is love." Apophatic, or negative theology, speaks of what God is not -- for example, God is not finite, not mortal, etc. Apophatic theology is in many ways the more powerful and more truthful aspect of theological discourse, because the list of things we can say positively about God is much much shorter than the list of things we can't say about God. But at the same time, for those of us whose lives are predicated on following Jesus Christ, it is nevertheless essential to be able to say "God is love."
Two final thoughts: First, there is a well known story of Thomas Aquinas, shortly before his death, giving up the writing of his great Summa Theologiae, saying that, compared to the majesty of God, "It is all straw."
Second, I am always drawn back in these conversations to the ending of Ludwig Wittenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where after sketching out the basis of an approach to philosophy that would come to dominate the discipline in the ensuing years, he ended with the much misunderstood dictum: "Of that about which we cannot speak, we must remain silent."
For Christians of course, it is possible to recognize the truth of that, and yet feel compelled to speak nevertheless. The basis of our speech though, is always the very human reality of Jesus Christ, and our very human attempts to understand the connection between him and the God whom we believe he revealed. Once again, this ought to lead us to a great deal of humility. More's the pity it seldom does.