Ethics of Belief and the Discipline of Sincerity, Or, Progressive Christianity 101

This post originally appeared on the Society for the Anthropology of Religion’s section of Anthropology News in November 2013 (


How Not to Pray to an Interventionalist God

We’ve all been there before: a crowded mall, running late, mounting tension and shoulders moving closer to the top of your head. And then, you can’t find a #%@! parking spot! For some, it warrants the call for divine mediation: “please let me find a spot.”

Inadvertently praying for a parking space poses a problem for progressive Christians.  Photo courtesy Mike Casterline

Inadvertently praying for a parking space poses a problem for progressive Christians.
(Photo courtesy Mike Casterline)

The Anthropology of Christianity has directed a significant amount of attention to the ways that language is used as a tactic for the creation of the Christian self. North American Christians assume a certain degree of intentionality when it comes to religious speech acts, in ritual settings or otherwise. Language is used in scripture, worship, sermons, prophecies, revoking evil spirits and in both formulaic and spontaneous prayers. Scholars interested in the study of Christian language practices have sought to extend or substantiate Keane’s (2002; 2007) presentation of ‘sincerity’ as the central concern animating Christian understandings of the purpose and necessity of language. According to Keane, the term sincerity is particularly interesting “because of the links it forges among language, social interaction, personal character, freedom, regimes of truth, and some narratives of modernity” (2002: 65). The most important component of this understanding of language is the perceived intentionality that is attached to one’s linguistic act. In everyday speech acts the task is then to determine whether or not intention is aligned with words and actions (eg, when a Christian proclaims herself to have been “born again,” this inner transformation is determined to have actually occurred when she models the behavior and beliefs of a born again Christian). While sincerity is difficult enough to decipher in relation to one agent, Christian notions of sincerity are even more difficult to discern when they involve multiple actors.

But for the progressive Christians that I study, there are not multiple actors—or at least not divine ones. Progressive Christians understand themselves to be ‘Christians who do not believe in God’, at least not in the traditional sense of a transcendent being with the ability and desire to intervene in, or relate to, the natural world. Additionally, many progressive Christians question the divinity of Jesus, the authority of the bible and the traditional theological tenets of the church. Progressive Christians come to this perspective by highlighting extra-Christian intellectual knowledge in the form of a contextual study of biblical texts, alongside commitment to scientific empiricism and liberal morality. In doing so, they develop a distinct ethics of belief that disciplines their use of language in both a religious and a non-religious setting.

Theirs is an ethics of belief that determines that it is immoral to affirm many of the core (traditional) teachings of the biblical text. For example, in depth study of the historical context of the bible in its original languages yields the opportunity to set aside conservative theologies (such as, the virginity of Mary, which is a result of a mistranslation of a passage in Isaiah). Commitments to scientific empiricism allow progressive Christians to reject portions of the biblical story that contain miracles (eg, Jesus walking on water, healing the sick). Likewise, an allegiance to liberal morality allows them to ignore and reject discriminatory teachings (such as those that posit homosexuality or witchcraft to be a sin).

Because biblical texts are deemed to be incorrect, it is essential for progressive Christians to not simply reinterpret them, but rather to outright reject them. This way of thinking weaves together belief and language with morality and ethics. For example, in his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998), Episcopalian Bishop John Spong, a well-known progressive Christian thinker, argues that the notion of God as an interventionalist deity, that is, as a God that answers prayers, is immoral. Discussing the Hebrew bible’s depiction of God, Spong points out that the deity comes across as “clearly pro-Jewish” in his interventions:

After freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt by visiting great violence on the Egyptians. God lead the marauding Israelites in their conquest of the land of Canaan. God had championed his people in their continuing conflict with the Philistines. One can only imagine that such a view of God was wildly popular among the Jews. It was not, however, a very pleasant view of God if you happen to be Egyptian, Canaanite, or a Philistine. A universal God of love this deity was not (Spong 1998: 30).

The deity has been depicted as intervening on behalf of one-side (the Israelites) and not the other (the Egyptians, Canaanites, or Philistines). Spong determines this interventionalist version of God to be immoral and unethical because of its unequal treatment of people (thus transgressing important modern teachings about the equality of all people). Additionally, for progressive Christians anyone who claims to believe in a God that intervenes likewise is judged to be unethical. It thus becomes imperative that progressive Christians completely reject the notion of God intervening in their lives in any way—a task which for some is easier said than done.

Returning to the mall, the crowded parking spot and my fieldwork in suburban Toronto: a common motif emerges during formal interviews and casual conversations concerning the problem of mistakenly evoking an interventionalist deity. Many progressive Christians draw upon the example of not being able to locate a convenient parking place in the mall and the inadvertent spontaneous thought, “please let me find a spot,” as a mistaken invocation of an interventionist deity. This request is interpreted as being directed towards a divine or otherworldly force that has the power to intervene and materialize a parking spot. Whether or not the progressive Christian actually believes in such a divine force with the ability to generate a parking spot is irrelevant because, according to the progressive Christian language ideology, such a request—even one that is only thought and not spoken aloud—is considered problematic because it aligns them with the notion of an interventionalist God who would just as soon slaughter the innocent children of the Egyptians, Canaanites, or Philistines as it is willing to miraculously make a free parking spot available. Even when inadvertent, the prayer aligns the individual with a theology that presupposes a (potentially) wrathful God. Passive participation in this discourse is seen as unethical and thus generates guilt on the part of progressive Christians.

While this example may be seen as superficial one, it points to larger questions about the ethics of believing and the fact that sincerity, although often purported as something spontaneous and natural, becomes something that must be carefully disciplined to achieve and maintain.

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