In the years since I transitioned from white evangelicalism to progressive Christianity, I have found repeatedly that the proposition which most often gives white evangelicals conniptions is not any sort of challenge to biblical inerrancy or the affirmation of gender and sexuality diversity. They don’t like this stuff, to be sure, and if it comes up there will likely be some hemming and hawing about how I’m a misguided or wayward Christian. If you bring up the fact that American white evangelicalism is predicated on a system designed two hundred years ago to alleviate Christian slave owners’ sense of guilt at being both Christian and slave owners simultaneously, they get uncomfortable or retreat back into the epistemic bubble that declares their theology untainted by history. Still, they won’t say you’ve gone off the deep end into heresy.
No, that sort of apoplectic fit comes along most frequently in connection with making the proposition that God is not an abusive parent. What I mean by that is that white evangelicals are practiced in a mode of thought that ascribes to God the characteristics of supreme power, supreme self involvement, and supreme vindictiveness. These characteristics combine to create a picture of God that relies on a particularly cruel theodicy in order to remain coherent.
I’ll try to break this down.
God’s nature as the source of the whole of Creation implies to many people that God must also be the most powerful being in existence. They created the rest of this somehow, and we rightly recognize in the act of creation a remarkable power. Of course, in Christian theology we also attribute to God the characteristic of supreme love, and love is such a complex, non-coercive phenomenon that we almost immediately encounter an irreconcilable paradox: the purest exercise of power is in making something behave counter to its nature, and the purest exercise of love is in fostering and encouraging something towards the best parts of its nature. We want God to have both traits, but we don’t know how to make these traits mesh. The result is a vision of God that is at odds with itself. Nonetheless, instead of acknowledging we’ve conceived a paradox, we write it off as a mystery of God’s nature and move on to the next part of the construct.
Of course, what follows is theodicy; we recognize evil’s existence, but we’re puzzled by it. God’s supposed to be all powerful and all loving, so why this problem that very clearly they should be able to solve? Humans have come up with a bunch of ways to try to rationalize the issue, and none of them are totally satisfactory. The process of explaining why God has not made use of their supreme power or their supreme love to rid Creation of evil is fraught, and often implies further complications in defining God’s character. In white evangelicalism, the justification for evil often stems from a proposition somewhere that Creation deserves its corruption as just punishment for some deviation from God in the past. God’s working out how to fix this problem, but in the meantime we just have to accept it as a natural consequence. That’s almost tenable until you go back to the power/love dichotomy and get all turned around trying to understand how God can be capable of fixing things completely, but has chosen a method that works out on a scale beyond our comprehension so that evil still runs rampant in our localized perspective.
This is where the second characteristic of God comes in. In white evangelicalism, the common explanation for evil in the world revolves around humanity’s failure to place God in their rightful position. Too many people don’t worship God the way God wants, and so we’re all suffering for it. Therefore, supreme self involvement. Whether you justify this need for worship as an appropriate characteristic of God or not, it’s still there.
The third characteristic I listed is built into the fallout that comes from combining the first two. A God who is supremely powerful and supremely self involved (or invested in their own glorification, which is how it’s usually spun) is going to get upset when people don’t shape up, and so they will demonstrate their power. This is vindictiveness, pure and simple.
How we arrive at abuse from here is the confluence of a person punishing others for failing to meet expectations that are unreasonable, particularly when there’s a clear power differential between the punisher and the punished. A system where God is all powerful leaves them eminently vulnerable to committing abuse against Creation. Hence the abusive parent metaphor.
I see this metaphor playing out most strongly in the doctrine of hell. Many Christians believe that failure to worship God in the proper way (that is, typically, worshiping Jesus Christ as God incarnate) is grounds enough for relegation to eternal conscious torment. I don’t believe that; I’m what you would call a Christian Universalist. I believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, but I don’t think that God requires anyone to worship Jesus as a prerequisite for attaining access to them. This position is usually met with severe displeasure from white evangelicals; the idea that I would be a Christian who doesn’t think other people need to be Christians to find divine fulfillment is apparently an incredibly threatening proposition. It’d be better if I were an atheist, even though that implies they would rather I be surely condemned to hell in their belief than existing in a place of uncertainty.
I suspect that this discomfort with forms of Christianity that are liminal in the evangelical imagination–those versions of the faith that share certain aspects of evangelical doctrine but reject others seen as central to members of the branch’s identity–are actually a threat to the epistemic closure that white American evangelicals have constructed for themselves. Included in that paradigm is a moral system that abhors ambiguity, and there’s nothing more ambiguous than a person who claims Christianity as their faith while practicing it in a way that’s nowhere near as restrictive as what white evangelicals practice. It’s like it sets off alarm bells; I’m professing things that they believe God should punish me for professing, and I’m telling them that God isn’t mad about that stuff.
One of us is afraid of our parent; the other isn’t.