Theism Isn’t the Problem

Is God in the Storm?

I am a progressive Christian. Most progressive Christians are probably not theists, as they tend toward neo-orthodoxy, process theology, or radical theology (at least from what I can tell). Instead, they tend toward panentheism.

In short, theism is the belief that God is distinctly separate from the world, yet remains in relationship with the world. Therefore, while the world reflects the personality of God a bit, it is not a reliable source for theology. Panentheism, on the other hand, sees God as intimately connected and manifest in the world, yet more than the world. Because of this connection, the more we learn about the workings of the world, the more we learn about God.

For some time now, theism has come under attack. The argument is that the way the belief system separates God into this being-out-there is intellectually untenable. It anthropomorphizes God in a way that has divinely justified human irresponsibility and evil for generations. So long as God remains separate from the world, we fail to see how the Divine is everywhere around us, and it blinds us to the importance of how we treat all of creation.

There is truth in this. However, I think that there is more truth to be considered that opens a door not only to the redemption of theism, but also of other strange theologies.

According to Robert Lewis Wilken in The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, the emphasis on the transcendence of God–the foundation of theism–wasn’t part of the earliest Christian theology. Rather, it entered into Christian thought through exposure to gnostic claims. They adopted the emphasis on transcendence because they wanted to say that even the laws of nature were subject to God. So, there was a reason that the Christian vision of God moved away from the pantheism that dominated Greco-Roman culture. Christians had an agenda, and they adapted their theology to serve it.

When we seek to understand the potential reason for a theology’s existence, then we are moving toward appreciating what it brings to the table. If nature is not a manifestation of God, then it becomes a lot more difficult to theologically say that hurricanes are an act of God upon a people. (Yes, oddly enough, it is the theists who make such claims, which simply shows that somebody hasn’t thought through what they believe much.) So, those who suffer from natural disasters can see God as their aid in suffering, completely disconnected from the cause of their plight.

Having said that, I agree mostly with the charges brought against theistic theology. Just because one seeks to understand something doesn’t mean that one is going to necessarily agree with it. It just means that one is better informed and therefore in a better position to evaluate it. I recognize it is a key feature of old-school evangelicalism, but I don’t think that it is responsible for problems that those evangelicals are perpetuating in this world.

All it is, at its core, is an alternative to understanding the God-world relationship. It is a way that finite minds seek to comprehend the incomprehensible Infinite. No matter what theology one employs, it will always fall short of its ultimate goal. So while we progressives critique theism, it is important to accept that theism can and does speak to many in very healthy ways. And that just because the most problematic theologies seem to emphasize theism, theistic theology itself is not necessarily the problem.

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