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.