Images of God

This frontpage headline from USA Today caught my attention today: “View of God can predict values, politics.” According to the article:

A new survey of religion in the USA finds four very different images of God — from a wrathful deity thundering at sinful humanity to a distant power uninvolved in mankind’s affairs…Believers just don’t see themselves the way the media and politicians — or even their pastors — do, according to the national survey of 1,721 Americans, by far the most comprehensive national religion survey to date.

There were many findings from the survey, but the key one the article focused on was this:

Though 91.8% say they believe in God, a higher power or a cosmic force, they had four distinct views of God’s personality and engagement in human affairs.

The “four views of God” were named by the researchers as “Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical or Distant.”

Was there a survey response for “Holy” and “Intercessor?” And what about the question: Who do you say Jesus is and was? That’s a key question. Apparently it wasn’t asked in this survey, however.

Why did researchers assume that people’s view of God could be neatly compartmentalized into a single category? After all, we are talking about GOD here, the LORD– and even a cursory reading of Biblical passages (Old and New Testament) reveals that God has many names. We did a short study last Spring in our Sunday School class in Lubbock on the names of God– I knew many of them, but I hadn’t realized that when most English translations of the Bible spell God’s name LORD or Lord in the OT, they are actually referring to a different Hebrew word for “God.”

God is authoritarian, from the standpoint that He is holy– literally “set apart” and without sin. That is why we can’t approach his throne or even be in his presence without our intercessor who has paid for our sins– and washes us clean in God’s eyes. God’s word and his Holy Word (the Bible) are just that: THE WORD. He is properly understood as THE AUTHORITY. There is no higher power greater than God, there is no authority equal to or above Him. He makes rules, and expects us to try and follow them. Thankfully, he also is forgiving and overflowing in grace– but he does judge and he will judge. Authorities do this. God is THE authority. (See Psalm 66 and Hebrews 10: 19-39)

God is benevolent, because he extends the offer of eternal salvation through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, by GRACE– not through our works. This is benevolence defined. Thank goodness God does not simply offer us “justice.” We are all sinners, every one– and anyone who says differently is deceiving themselves and attempting to deceive others. (Romans 3: 9-19) If God wasn’t benevolent, we would all be headed for the pit. Thank goodness he is benevolent! 🙂

God is critical, because He is just. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t forgive us when we ask for forgiveness with a contrite spirit in the name of his Son– but it does mean that he judges. That is God’s role. There is right and wrong, there is moral and immoral behavior. To the extent that God certainly makes value judgments– he is the ultimate judge of morality in fact– he can be said to be “critical.” That may not be a politically correct word– but I don’t think God is “into” political correctness. God is “into” things like love, forgiveness, and compassion. But He is also quite definite on morality. He is critical of immoral, sinful behavior. If he wasn’t this way, he wouldn’t be God. (See Colossians 3: 5-17 and Romans 2)

Lastly, at times I think God can be accurately understood as “distant.” God is holy, we are not. We strive to be holy, to be set apart for God and his purposes– but we cannot on our own will alone become truly holy. There is a bridge which separates us from God, and that bridge is sin. Without Jesus and his atoning sacrifice– which paid for our sins and the sins of all humanity once and for all (this is “justification”) we would have no hope of ever being in God’s presence. The need for atoning sacrifice– for atoning blood in fact, is the reason the OT Jews regularly offered sacrifices on holy altars. We don’t see these types of religious rituals today, so the idea likely seems quite foreign, but in the days of Jesus’ physical life on earth it was well understood.

So, I think God can be properly understood as multi-faceted– and definitionally defying our meager, limited attempts to define, name, and understand him fully. He is GOD, He is THE LORD– He has many names, and each name we have for him attempts to better define His essence, power, nature and spirit. Coming from a Reformed perspective, I understand God to be three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is not three gods, he does not have three personalities, He is the ONE GOD and His name is THE LORD. The trinitarian, triune nature of God is a divine mystery, but it is important to understand. God is multi-dimensional and is not bound by time and space in the same ways we are. I think we are, in our rational interactions, four dimensional beings perceiving height, width, depth and time. God’s perception transcends these four dimensions, because we know God is, was, and always will be. Infinite. Omniscient. Omnipotent. Who can comprehend this fully? Certainly not I.

To be fair, the survey researchers do point out in the article that these “views of God” are not “mutually-exclusive,” which means there is room for overlap in the perceptions of many:

The four visions of God outlined in the Baylor research aren’t mutually exclusive. And they don’t include 5.2% of Americans who say they are atheists. (Although 91.8% said they believe in God, some didn’t answer or weren’t sure.)

This finding from the survey is also significant:

Sociologist Paul Froese says the survey finds the stereotype that conservatives are religious and liberals are secular is “simply not true. Political liberals and conservative are both religious. They just have different religious views.” About one in nine (10.8%) respondents have no religious ties at all; previous national surveys found 14%. The Baylor survey, unlike others, asked people to write in the names and addresses of where they worship, and many who said “none” or “don’t know” when asked about their religious identity named a church they occasionally attend.

Often in political discussions today, some (perhaps many in the media) automatically assume that those professing faith as “Christians” must be conservative Republicans. Personally, I refuse to be defined in my political perspectives by a single label. I am proud (as well as humbled) to call myself a Christian. But that fact does not necessarily define all my political views. I am glad to read a survey that is recognizing this reality for many others. The media often (perhaps always) attempts to oversimplify the complex. In the case of people’s religious views, this certainly seems to be the case frequently. This finding actually seems to contradict the very title of this article, “View of God can predict values, politics.” Belief does not necessarily point to political viewpoint. (On some issues I think Christians should be together, but on many others I think it is natural and not a bad thing that we are a diverse bunch. That would actually be a good topic for a future post!)

Lastly, this finding shows the importance of discussing our faith and defining what we believe.

Rodney Stark, former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and part of the Baylor team, says: “We wanted to break from the past 30 years of narrow questions. ” ‘Do you believe in God?’ Everyone says yes. “If you ask ‘Are you a Protestant, Catholic or Jew?’ people don’t even know what denomination they are today or what the label means.”

If you say you believe in God, what does that mean to you? If you are not comfortable with a denominational label (and I think that is fine, because God and Jesus didn’t invent denominations after all– they are very much a human-creation) then how do you define what it is that you believe?

For me, my journey of faith continues. I do not have all the answers, but I am confident knowing where the answers can be found! I’m glad you’ve found this small space in the blogosphere where others are reflecting and sharing about their own Christian journeys of faith, and I hope you’ll always feel free and welcome to contribute your own ideas.

All voices are valid, all perspectives should be considered. Through dialog, listening, reflection and prayer, God does and will continue to lead each one of us closer to Him. 🙂