Mary 21 – Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Posted: February 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Mary 21 – Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Our Lady of Carmel

Our Lady of Carmel, whose feast is celebrated on July 16, is the patroness of the Carmelite Order. Carmelite devotion focuses on the interior life of prayer and contemplation. Below is one of those prayers.

I know my mother has ties of some sort with the Carmelites. I’m not very familiar with the different ways one can be associated with a particular order in the Catholic Church, but I know she prays with them, follows their practices, and participates with different monasteries or convents.

Here is today’s lectio divina. The Carmelite order publishes a lectio online for each day.

Relevance of the Carmelite Rule today.


Mary 18 – Purification of the Blessed Virgin (Candlemas)

Posted: February 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 18 – Purification of the Blessed Virgin (Candlemas)

Meeting of the Lord in the Temple

 

Since this is a series on Mary, I selected one of the traditional Western designations for this feast. It’s also known as the Presentation of Christ at the Temple and in Orthodoxy it’s one of the twelve Great Feast of the liturgical year. Both names are technically correct. The events of the feast are described in Luke 2:22-40. After giving birth to a male child, under Mosaic the mother was considered ritually unclean for seven days and was then to “remain in the blood of her purification” for thirty-three days. Once the forty days had passed, the parents were to appear in the Temple with the child, make the required offering to redeem the child from the Temple, and the mother would receive prayers from the priest and be cleansed.

Mary followed the law and along with Joseph presented Jesus and herself at the Temple forty days after his birth. Jesus was redeemed with two turtle doves, suggesting Joseph was not wealthy, or perhaps indicating that Mary was one of the righteous poor. Simeon the Just and Anna the Prophetess encountered Christ during his presentation.

Orthodox Christians still practice a Christianized variation of the forty day period. The mother and child remain home and away from Church (and generally going out as little as possible) for forty days following the birth. After that period, the mother and child are “Churched.” These are the Greek Orthodox prayers for the Churching of a mother and child after forty days.

It’s also the Feast on which candles which will be used in worship for the rest of the year are blessed. So in the West it also became known as Candlemas.


Mary 13 – Our Lady of the Rosary

Posted: February 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Mary 13 – Our Lady of the Rosary

Also called Our Lady of Victory, this feast was initially instituted as a day of thankfulness in the 16th century following the miraculous defeat of the Turkish fleet and the end of Muslim domination of the Mediterranean. It’s celebrated on October 7, and I believe the whole month of October is dedicated as the month of the Holy Rosary. Over time the feast became more focused on the celebration of the Rosary itself, in no small part because the devotion of the people through the Rosary plays a key part in the story of the Turkish defeat. I discussed the Rosary in my post on the Hail Mary prayer, so I won’t repeat that here. However, for those interested, I did run across a short pdf outlining a typical Rosary devotion.

As with Our Lady of Sorrows, there are a number of Catholic Churches with Our Lady of the Rosary as their name and patron.


The Jesus Prayer 15 – Mercy

Posted: April 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 15 – Mercy

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Khouria Frederica addresses a question that would never have occurred to me — that constantly praying “have mercy on me” might be disturbing to some modern Americans. For some reason, I hadn’t realized that when a person lives fully within the law court metaphor and sees God essentially as a judge delivering a sentence, that the prayer could be perceived as a prisoner groveling before the judge begging to be released rather than condemned. I see how that could happen, but it still feels foreign to me.

When we have mercy on someone, we offer them our help, our compassion, and even our love. That’s the predominant meaning even in English. We pray for the Lord Jesus Christ to help us and heal us as the Samaritan helped the man who was set upon by robbers. Often we do need forgiveness as well, but God overflows with forgiveness. Our more dominant, ongoing need is for healing.

Khouria Frederica points out something I didn’t know. The Greek for mercy, eleos, sound similar to the Greek for olive oil, elaion. And in the ancient world, one of the many uses of olive oil was as ointment or medicine for healing. Those hearing the liturgy in Greek would have heard a resonance between the two words.

She also notes that a lot of the people to whom she speaks today don’t particularly feel any need for repentance. And that’s true even among most Christians.

In the contemporary West, repentance is now considered an introductory activity to life in Christ (if it’s considered at all); in the East, repentance lasts a lifetime. Salvation means healing from the sickness of sin, and we are always seeking to confront the sin that infects us, and to be healed at ever deeper levels.


The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

Posted: February 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

It’s not possible to delve very far into Orthodoxy without encountering the concepts of essence and energies. The development of that language goes all the way back to at least the fourth century, though in truth we see elements of it in the texts of the Holy Scriptures themselves. This language for describing God is an attempt to describe the indescribable in a way that helps us understand how we can be one with God (and each other) as the Father and the Son are one. Thus the concepts are ultimately rooted in the Incarnation. Many of the major disputes over the course of the first millenium of Christianity were specifically focused on the Incarnation itself. The great heresies either made Christ less than God or other than fully human.

His [Christ’s] entry into human life began the healing and restoration of that life. What’s more, if God could take on human form, our bodies are capable of bearing God’s presence in return. An ordinary human body can literally become a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). That can sound alarming — wouldn’t God’s presence destroy my feeble frame? — but Eastern Christians frequently draw an analogy to the burning bush. Just as Moses saw that the bush burned with God’s fire but was not consumed, so God’s presence can fill us while preserving — even completing — our embodied personhood.

As always, we have to remember that God is always everywhere present and filling all things. All creation is filled with the fire of the glory of God. It’s that light which sustains it. And just as Christ became man and remained God, we can be infused with the Spirit in our bodies without being destroyed.

Oddly enough, the word energy occurs frequently in St. Paul’s letters; he says, for example, “God is energon [energizing] in you, both to will and to energein [energize] for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Energy is a word we imported into English directly from the Greek. But there was not equivalent for this word in Latin, so in his masterful translation of the Bible, St. Jerome (AD 347-420) used operare, that is, “operate” or “work.” When the Bible began to be published in English, its translators stood at the end of a thousand years of devout reading, preaching, and studying the Bible in Latin translation. Our English Bibles refer to God “working,” not “energizing,” but isn’t there a difference? If we hear that God’s energy is within us, then union with him becomes more imaginable.

It’s a good example of the way language can deeply influence understanding and practice. Latin also lacked a word for the Greek concept often rendered in English as “repent.” So it was rendered as “do penance.” Over time, that had a profound effect on the belief and practice in the West.  It’s the same thing here. The idea of God “working” or “operating” made it seem more external and eventually led to the idea that these operations were not God himself, but creations of God we could experience. I’m not an expert, but I think this was part of the root behind the idea of created grace and similar Western concepts.

Instead, the energies of God are uncreated and just as much God as our hands and mouth and eyes are part of our being. When we experience the grace of God, we experience God himself — directly and unmediated by any created thing. It is true we can never know the essence of God. God transcends us. But in truth, we can’t truly and directly know the essence — the core being — of any other person either, even though they are finite, created beings. Instead we know them through their actions, words, expressed emotions — through their bodies. But we would never say that we do not know or experience other human beings as a result. In a similar way (God, of course transcends any direct statement), we truly know God through his energies. We can directly encounter him.

The Jesus Prayer is a way to help us toward that true encounter.


Prayer, Evil, and the Nature of Things

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A post about prayer on the blog, Permission to Live, kicked the wheels of my mind into gear and started it whirling. As my mind peeled back layer upon layer, I quickly realized I couldn’t really say anything meaningful in a comment. But in this case I also realized I did want to write something on the topic. The post in question actually touched on a number of areas, but I’ll primarily focus my thoughts on the purpose of prayer and the deeper question of why God does not prevent evil things from happening to people who do not deserve it and allows good things to happen to the wicked. Obviously, those are topics that can’t possibly be addressed in a blog post. The Library of Congress would not suffice.

When I try to express thoughts in areas like these I particularly feel the need to state up front that the things I say will of necessity be incomplete. I have to discuss God, but God is greater than me in such a way that no analogy, no description, no words could ever truly describe him. My mind and imagination are insufficient to the task, but they are the tools I have. So the reality is always far greater than anything I can understand or say. Please keep that in mind and try to work with my imagery rather than against it — at least for the short time that you are reading this post.

Before we can move to a discussion of prayer on a topic this deep, we have to begin with the nature of things from a Christian perspective. The fundamental division of reality lies between the uncreated and the created. Only the Father, the Son, and the Spirit can be placed in the category of uncreated. Everything else that exists is a creation of God. Moreover, God created all things good. Nothing was created evil. (Elizabeth Esther actually just posted on the innate goodness of human beings.) It’s important to grasp this fundamental Christian tenet since it runs directly counter to the narrative of some religions — both ancient religions and present day ones.

When we acknowledge that truth, something should immediately stand out. There is no place in those divisions for evil. This is one of the thoughts behind my recent post on evil as mystery. Evil is not uncreated; the only uncreated is God. Moreover, all created things are created by God and are created good. Part of the mystery of evil is that it cannot be said to have the same sort of existence as created things. In fact, it almost has to said to have no existence in the sense that creation exists. Yet evil is palpably real. So what then is evil? That’s the question to which we have to turn.

One of the aspects of creation is its freedom. There is a randomness woven into the fabric of created things that seems to provide the framework within which, for example, human freedom can exist. While that provides the basis from which we can exercise our free will and creative abilities and thus have the potential of truly being in the likeness of God, it’s not limited to humanity. That element of freedom is woven into the fabric of created things by a God of overflowing love. And that freedom is, as part of creation, also an innately good thing.

Such freedom does introduce a certain wildness into creation — even absent the influence of man. I think people often particularly misread the second creation narrative in Genesis. The garden cannot represent some idyllic, perfect unfallen reality. There was already a wilderness outside the garden into which the man and the woman could be banished. I tend to think of the image of the garden in terms of a nursery. It was a place of few challenges in which the man and the woman could learn to fulfill their created function.

And what was that function? At least part of it was to order the wildness and randomness of creation. Some of that can be seen in the act of naming (though that bit also has other meanings) since names are powerful. It’s also seen in God’s command to them. A part of our natural function is also to act as priests in creation, offering it back to God in Thanksgiving. In this sense, Jesus commanding the storm, healing the sick, and feeding the many displays his true humanity at least as much as his divinity. Yet, the story of the garden illustrates that even in the safest possible nursery environment with only a single ascetic challenge, we still do nothing but turn away and hide from God. Read the story. Man accomplishes nothing in the garden but sin. From the time we were able to lift our heads above the animals, we have turned away from God.

And that provides our first clue into the nature of evil. Evil is an aberration, a distortion, of that which was created good. It flows from the freedom instilled in creation when that freedom is turned against God. (It wouldn’t be freedom if that capacity did not exist. And if it exists, it happens.) We could ask why God then created such freedom, but that strikes me as a futile question. Any such reality we could imagine would be incredibly diminished. Beauty flows from that freedom. Love flows from it. I don’t see how a God of overflowing love could have created anything less.

Yes, I’m sure God knew from the beginning that evil would flow from the fabric of such a creation. That’s why we have the apocalyptic image of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. God knew and was planning to rescue and complete his creation from the start. In that respect, creation is not simply something that happened in the past. Creation continues to happen every time the darkness is pushed back even a little, every time evil is transformed into good, every time love conquers. Creation is the ongoing process of renewing all things.

So what then is prayer? It seems to me that many Christians today reduce prayer to little more than intercessions. While that’s an aspect, I don’t believe it’s the central purpose of prayer at all. What is our truly human created role and responsibility in creation? Humanity was created to be the ruling, royal priesthood of our world. We were to order creation and offer it back in thanksgiving to God. (There is much that could be pursued from the Eucharist beginning as bread and wine rather than wheat and grapes, but I’ll set that aside for now.) First and foremost, prayer is our direct connection to God. And it’s in and through our communion with God that we order time and the rest of creation.We are created for communion with God and prayer is an expression of that communion.

Of course, even most of us who are Christian do not live in constant, unceasing prayer. I don’t think most of us regularly or ever recognize the extent of our culpability in the evil of the world. We are not isolated individuals. We were created not only for communion with God, but for communion with each other. As such, we share a common nature and bond with each other and with the created world we are intended to rule. It’s through that shared nature that the work of Jesus is efficacious. He became one of us in every way, sharing the fullness of our common nature, and by doing so he redeemed us and defeated death on our behalf. And by healing the human nature Jesus also completed all that was necessary to heal and redeem the whole created order.

But therein lies the rub. The evil we do spreads to others and to the world in ways we do not always directly perceive. As we particularly see in Romans 8, creation itself groans beneath that weight. When we turn away from God, we turn energies shared in the human nature to evil. By our own acts, we have contributed to the evil others experience and to the evil others do. I rarely hear of a crime or evil act and think to pray for the way my sin contributed to it. We deny our interconnectedness or we embrace only the positive and personally beneficial aspects of it. But to the extent we have each done evil, we have contributed to the evil of humanity and the world.

Finally, we are also instructed to pray for intercession, especially for others. And God sometimes intercedes. God miraculously heals a person. God protects an innocent in desperate need in a manner that offers no easy explanation. And yet many other people die despite many intercessions. Children suffer. Not everyone is healed. Not everyone is protected. All of this is true. And sometimes Christian attempts to explain this truth away do more harm than good, I think, especially when they try to call evil something sent by God or something that was really somehow “good.” Evil is evil and it is not of God. Our hearts look on evil and cry out, “Why?”

This is where I try to remember that God is not willing that any perish, that God is actively working for the salvation of all. I remember that God is constantly turning evil into good. I think of Joseph, who is certainly a type of Christ. Great evil was done to him again and again and God did not stop it. But Joseph did not despair. Joseph did not curse God.  And ultimately he could tell his brothers that God had taken their unquestionably evil act and turned it into a tremendous good. That’s the gospel of Christ prefigured. Jesus suffered in every way we suffer. He endured torture and execution under supremely unjust and evil conditions. Jesus absorbed the worst that evil could do and defeated evil and death on behalf of us all.

I believe God perceives all possible outcomes of every decision and every interaction. Reality is not static, so there is no single path. I tend to think of a bubbling stew, though that’s a weak analogy. It has states of being that are fluid and change. And the freedom of creation, especially our freedom, has immense value. Even in those times when God has blocked a human action, he has not blocked the intent or the effort to perform the act. God does not make human beings less than they were created to be. (Though it must be said we tend to do that ourselves.) And from all the stories I’ve read throughout Christian history, it’s rare even for God to so physically restrain someone from acting.

God is always working for our salvation — the salvation of every human being. And God is always working to transform evil into good. But he does not reach into our being and restrain our hearts from working evil. I believe God intercedes or doesn’t according to those goals and more. Other influences are the prayers of the communion of the saints. As the evil we do works its tendrils into the fabric of reality in ways we can’t perceive, so our prayers permeate creation. Either the things we do accomplish something or there is no point doing them.

It’s not an answer that explains. As one who has suffered evil and seen those I love suffer evil, I don’t think it’s something that can be explained. But I trust reality is at least somewhat like what I’ve described. We can’t avoid choosing a narrative framework and a perspective on reality. Of all the ones I’ve explored or held over my life, the Christian narrative offers the best lens through which to understand the nature of things. I’ve encountered this strange God, but even if I hadn’t I would want to believe this framework over the alternatives.

We cry, “Lord have mercy!” And he does.


Thirsting for God 19 – To Be Orthodox

Posted: January 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

Matthew closes his book with a short chapter outlining his hope that Protestant and Orthodox believers alike will not merely believe that Orthodox theology is true, but actually learn to live an Orthodox life — to be Orthodox. I think two sentences from the chapter strike to the core of his prayer.

The misconception is this: Christianity is essentially a faith that one can individually interpret and apply as one pleases.

If there is one thing that must be learned by the Protestant seeking truth, and the Orthodox desiring to live the fullness of the Faith, it is this: We have no right to judge the Faith. Rather, it is the Faith that must judge us.

Me? I’m not particularly there yet. When your formation has been as relativistic and pluralistic as mine, that voice at the back of your head analyzing and critiquing every belief and every practice never really stops speaking. I’m so relieved to actually find a Christian tradition within which the things I know I believe and have experienced about God fit, but I’m not at a place where I have any desire to be Orthodox. I don’t really know why. It’s where I am at the moment. But then I also rarely feel the need to rush to any sort of resolution on things like this, so that may be part of it as well.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 11

Posted: January 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 11

36. Sufferings freely embraced and those that come unsought drive out pleasure and allay its impetus. But they do not destroy the capacity for pleasure which resides in human nature like a natural law. For the cultivation of virtue produces dispassion in one’s will but not in one’s nature. But when dispassion has been attained in one’s will the grace of divine pleasure becomes active in the intellect.

St. Maximos sees sufferings as pain we are granted to counter the sort of pleasure that draws us away from God, which means its the sort of pleasure that draws us ultimately toward a non-existence we are powerless to achieve. The sufferings freely embraced I think describe ascetic practices. I do think this is one of the widespread problems in most of Protestantism. And to some extent it seems to have spread to the modern Catholic Church as well. The ascetic disciplines (fundamentally fasting, prayer, and almsgiving) have to a large degree been abandoned within much of Christianity. But the disciplines are part of our synergy with God. If we do not engage in them, we provide God less and less room to change and transform us. Moreover, if we do not fast, we forget how to feast properly in thanksgiving. When the Church abandons basic ascetic disciplines, it gives its members over to the passions. That’s not to say that every person should live like a monk. Most people are not called or equipped by God for such a life. However, it seems that many people today seem to think that if they are not a monastic, that means they don’t need to practice any ascetic disciplines at all. And that’s not only inconsistent with the history of the Church and the Holy Scriptures, it ignores the reality of what it means to be a human being.


Thirsting for God 17 – Mary, The Theotokos

Posted: January 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

Hail Mary,
full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Jesus.

Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Amen

In this chapter, Matthew Gallatin discusses something which I’ve noticed often leads evangelicals to act and react in strange ways, the veneration of Mary, the mother of our Lord. The prayer which I’ve quoted above is one I learned when I attended Catholic school (as a non-Catholic) and it has stayed with me across the decades. It’s a prayer I remember finding myself praying even when I considered myself more Hindu than anything resembling Christian. It would spring to my mind at odd times — sometimes when meditating, at times under stress, and from time to time during other activities as well. It was never constantly running through my mind, but I never forgot it and at odd moments it would surface.

I suppose that experience, as much as anything else, made me skeptical of evangelical critiques of Mary as I encountered them. While the factors that ultimately led to the completion of my journey into something like Christian conversion are many and varied, Mary certainly deserves part of the credit. Some part of me believed the prayer above long before I accepted anything else about Christianity.

Moreover, the evangelical aversion to Mary, the Mother of God, does not strike me as entirely rational. After all, the first sentence of the prayer above pretty much comes straight from the Holy Scriptures and the second sentence is simply a humble request for intercession. Mary, herself, full of the Holy Spirit, prophesied in the Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed. It’s almost as though evangelicals have adopted the view that the Mother of God was nothing more than a vessel for the Incarnation and that if she had said no, any other woman would have sufficed. Such a view is actually a fresh expression of an ancient heresy, for it diminishes the humanity of Jesus. He was not merely inhabiting flesh and needed an impersonal vessel to grow that flesh. No, Jesus became fully human which means that Mary was an active agent in the Incarnation. Everything human that Jesus was and is, he drew from her.

And there is no indication anywhere in Scripture that God had a Plan B. Mary’s yes to God is poetically described in Christian tradition as healing Eve’s no. Mary is sometimes called the new Eve as Jesus is the new Adam. In this sense, then, Mary’s yes to God saves us all, for without that yes, there would have been no Incarnation and our salvation rests wholly in Jesus of Nazareth.

In a lesser sense, the same thing is true for each of us, though the magnitude and scope of our choices and their consequences are not as broad as Mary’s were. When we say no to God, he doesn’t go pick another vessel to magically replace us. If that were true, creation would not be as broken as it is.

Matthew opens with a poignant story of his brother, who died many years before.  I’m going to quote his next few paragraphs because I think they reveal a problem which has long bothered me in my Baptist circles.

Now, not one of my Protestant friends would think it strange if, while standing before that bookshelf [holding the picture of his brother], I were to pick up Barry’s photograph and give it a kiss. But what happens when I take two large strides to the right to my icon shelf, and kiss the icon of Mary, the Theotokos? Now, suddenly, I’m an idolater. What changed? What’s wrong with Mary, that she’s not worthy of the kind of love and respect I would give to my departed brother?

Or suppose I kiss the icon of my daughter’s patron saint, Vera. Just like my brother Barry, she died a violent death. Nineteen centuries ago, at the age of twelve, she was martyred for the sake of Christ, along with her mother and two younger sisters. But in Protestant eyes, showing her the kind of love I would give to my brother is a sinful thing to do.

Just what is the problem here? When I began to struggle with this issue, I saw something paradoxical in my old Protestant attitudes. On the one hand, I would condemn people who honored Mary and the saints; yet on the other hand, I saw nothing wrong with honoring respected Protestant preachers and teachers, living or dead. It was perfectly okay to sing the praises of these people, to watch videos and slide shows that recounted their deeds, and get all misty-eyed as someone performed “Thank You for Giving to the Lord.” But if I saw someone giving laud and honor to the woman who bore the Savior in her womb — why, the very act made that person’s Christianity questionable!

Is Mary special or isn’t she? Be careful how you answer that question, for one thing seems to me to be certain. Mary is at least as special to the one called Jesus the Christ as our own mothers are to us. But it goes even deeper than that. Mary is not called Theotokos (literally God-bearer) by chance or accident. Although the title can be traced as far back as the second century, it was affirmed in the Council of Ephesus in 431 over and against competing titles such as Anthropotokos (bearer of a man) and Christotokos (Christ-bearer). The competing views were not really about Mary, but about the nature of the child she bore in her womb. And the competing groups rejected the idea that Mary had carried and given birth to God. The affirmation of the title Theotokos was an affirmation that Jesus was fully God.

Me? I tend to believe that Mary did, in fact, pray and intercede for me, even when I didn’t really believe in her or her Son, much less believe I was a ‘sinner.’ In fact, I believe to this day she is more likely to pray for us than many of the people who tell us to our faces that they will. I do the best I can not to tell someone that I will pray for them unless I’m sure I will, but even so my record is less than stellar. I have a sense that failing is not unique to me.


America’s Four Gods

Posted: October 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on America’s Four Gods

Two Baylor professors have published a book that is gaining a fair amount of attention. Baylor has been conducting a different sort of survey of religion over the last few years. These surveys go beyond the basic sorts of questions about affiliation and attendance and probe attitudes and specific practices. This sort of approach is more valuable and useful in our richly pluralistic nation.

In America’s Four Gods,  the authors note that across the spectrum of religious belief, Americans tend to divide into four different groups with very different basic images of the God they worship. On their site, they have a brief little quiz to identify the God in which you believe and compare you to your demographic. (I’m in a minority in mine — well below 20% in all demographics. But I knew that already.) And they also have a little test of your response to images. Both are a fun little diversion. America’s Four Gods has also gained some media attention on ABC News and in USA Today.

Of course, that’s not a new idea to me. My formation was more pluralistic than most, so I’ve always found it natural to listen to how someone describes their God, try to understand that God, and decide if their God was a God I was willing to worship or follow. I did that when exploring all sorts of religions and religious practices. I didn’t stop doing it as I’ve become Christian. Nor did I have a foundational assumption — as many seem to have — that “Christians” all worshiped the same God. Instead, I looked at everything they said about God and made the same sort of decision about the God they described.

That’s why I phrase things the way I do. When I say, for instance, that Calvin’s God repulses me and I would be something other than Christian if I believed his God was really the Christian God, I’m judging the God he describes and deciding whether or not I am willing to worship that God. In the case of Calvin’s God, it’s as clear as such things can be. There’s nothing about that God that I find the slightest bit attractive or worthy of worship. As a result, I tend to use Calvinism as an example when I write about this process.

However, I also recognize that however I try to mediate or qualify my statement, those who do worship Calvin’s God will hear me saying that they are not Christian. And that’s not really my intent. It’s my own personal judgment about the sort of God in which I am or am not willing to believe. In fact, if God is as I believe him to be, then I know that he is at work trying to heal and renew and restore all of us. Our image of him can certainly hinder our ability to cooperate with his efforts. And if we choose to wrap ourselves in delusion and reject healing God will not force himself upon us. God is not willing that any should perish, but he is also not a tyrant. The God we worship matters. But it doesn’t change God or in any way control his activity. I just don’t happen to believe that Calvin’s God, Brahman, or any of a host of ways of describing the ultimate reality of our universe actually exist.

The Four Gods that the authors identify are divided into four general quadrants: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant. These are broad categories, but the professors found they are also predictive of attitudes and behaviors across a spectrum of areas. In other words, the general sort of God in which you believe shapes the way you live and act. I suppose that’s not surprising. As I’ve heard Bishop N.T. Wright say, “We become like what we worship.”

I wasn’t surprised that the Distant God, which is essentially the same sort of God that the Deist founders of our nation worshiped, is still widely followed. Roughly a quarter of the population, across all religions, believe in this sort of God. This is the God who starts the universe running and then mostly stays out of it.

I was, however, discouraged that so few Americans believe in a Benevolent God. Now, that does not mean that those who believe in a different sort of God don’t believe that God can be kind, merciful, and loving. They often do. It does mean, though, that they do not believe that love defines his essence. Most people do not truly believe that God is a good God who loves mankind. It’s hard to find an Orthodox prayer or liturgy that does not somewhere declare God’s goodness and love for the whole of humanity.

That does not mean that God is a God of enlightenment toleration. He’s not the good God who tolerates anyone and any behavior at a respectable distance. No, he is the God who seeks to heal us and who desires union with us. And sometimes the prescription for healing is painful. But he is the God who has suffered with us, who brings himself to us by becoming one of us in every way.

The deepest problem with Protestantism is that it makes it even easier for us to define God any way we please. If we don’t like one picture of God, we’re free to invent another. That’s always been a problem for Christianity, so the issue itself isn’t new. We have a desire to remake God in our image. But Protestantism, in which every person decides for themselves (or at least has the authority to decide for themselves) what sort of God they worship, exacerbates that tendency in us all. I think the deeper studies like this one simply reveal that underlying weakness. Yes, the majority of the people in this nation are Christian, but we can hardly claim to all worship the same God.

Lord have mercy.