In support of progressive Christianity, it is important, in the church and in our Christian faith, that we present the Bible, God, and Jesus in ways that are believable. By this, specifically, I mean:
* Not taking the Bible literally; rather, reading the Bible in light of its historical context and mostly as metaphorical narrative
* Laying to rest the God of supernatural theism
* Viewing Jesus not as divine but as fully human
In this article, I want to focus on the second of these three faith emphases: laying to rest the God of supernatural theism.
The God of supernatural theism is the God of traditional Christianity going back to the early centuries of the Common Era. Thinking about this, it is stunning the extent to which this notably limited conception of God has been the dominant vision of God all these years. When most Christians think of God, the God they think of is the God of supernatural theism.
For believers, this theistic God is a very personal God, an actual being, up there, out there, over there, up in the sky, in heaven (wherever that is), orchestrating and controlling events here on earth. This God is viewed as external to the universe and as independent of human beings. This is the God of antiquity, the God of the three-tiered universe, with heaven above, hell down below, and the earth in between.
While a majority of believers–if pushed on this–most likely do not envision this literally, still, this is the vision they hold to. This is the God most Christians pray to when they seek divine intervention for health concerns or personal assistance of any kind. They believe (they assume) God intervenes on their behalf in these ways.
Let me say at the outset that I am a fervent believer in God. However, at some point conceptions of God have to be adequate to our modern experience. In every generation, on some level, new conceptions of God are always emerging. And no matter how we conceptualize God, God is always the great more of the universe–more than our words, more than our ideas, more than our feelings and intuitions about God.
Stumbling blocks to belief in the God of supernatural theism
Looking at the God of supernatural theism from the vantage point of progressive Christianity, some notable stumbling blocks emerge:
* The God of supernatural theism seems remote and distant.
The location of “the God in the sky” that most traditional Christians hold to, does not wear well as we approach the third decade of the twenty-first century. With the evolving advances in modern science in recent centuries, we now know that the universe is vast beyond our imagination.
A more agreeable notion of God is the God of panentheism, who is both “in the world” (immanent) and more, and “beyond the world” (transcendent) and more at the same time. Many modern believers want the God they believe in to be near by–perhaps even in us and part of us. A distant God seems less feeling, less warm and nurturing than a God in whom we live and move and have our being, to quote the Apostle Paul from Acts 17:28.
* The God of supernatural theism is thought to be static; it never changes.
In modernity, change, or evolution, is increasingly understood to be the essence of the universe. Just as the universe, and life along with it, is always evolving, God, too, evolves. God, too, is in an unending process of becoming, of becoming something more–more inclusive and more adaptive to the emerging world. The area of faith development known as process theology has affirmed this for decades.
* Conversation about the God of supernatural theism seems childlike.
In my experience, adults seldom engage in conversation about God; and when they do, the God they have in mind, generally, is the God of supernatural theism. Listening to them, their conversation seems childlike. Asking adults to believe in the God of supernatural theism is like asking teenagers to literally believe in Santa Claus. I like Santa Claus and believe in Santa Claus; but I do not literally believe in Santa Claus.
Language about the God of supernatural theism is not unlike the language we use for conversation about Santa Claus. Can you imagine educated adults–inheritors of the insights of Darwin and Freud–talking seriously about some actual being up in the sky? Enough said!
* There is an arbitrariness to the way the God of supernatural theism responds to prayer requests.
This would seem to be a major concern of persons who continue to believe in the God in the sky. This God seems to intervene only when God feels like it. There is no consistent pattern. Apparently, some prayers get answered; others do not. As a believer in this God, if you believe God intervenes and yet God does not intervene in response to your prayers, isn’t this a problem? How is this God remotely believable?
All the time, believers in this theistic God have to adjust their expectations when prayer requests go unanswered. They have to suck it up and somehow trust that God knows best and is continuing to look after them.
* The God of supernatural theism has no good response to the problem of human suffering.
In the big picture of things, the God of supernatural theism, who is external to the universe and who intervenes only at times of God’s own choosing, offers no satisfying answer to the problem of human suffering. How can people of faith be expected to believe in a God who seems to intervene in some situations of human need but not in every situation? For people who want to believe in God, this poses a massive problem.
In trying to understand how God functions in the world, it should be said that, consistent with God’s nature, God works through life, all forms of life. In other words, God does not work in the universe independently of life. Having said this, human suffering is not God’s fault. It runs against God’s nature to interfere in the freedom of human beings to make decisions and in the freedom of the universe to self-create (which sometimes results in natural disasters, like earthquakes and hurricanes).
As we look to the future in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the God of supernatural theism is not remotely believable. While it is amazing that belief in this God has endured as long as it has, still, the God of supernatural theism, the God of antiquity, needs to be laid to rest. Progressive Christianity and the emerging church need to embrace the future with conceptions of God that are more adequate to our modern experience.
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired church pastor who began his ministry in the Baptist tradition before becoming a minister in the United Church of Christ. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In.