Friday, September 29, 2006

Four Gods

My good friend Andy Wall, who preaches for the Conejo Valley congregation in Thousand Oaks, CA, alerted me to a new poll published in USA Today (“View of God Can Predict Values, Politics,” Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today, 9/12/06) and recommended I write about it. I asked him for a sermon idea too but he declined.

The poll was written and analyzed by sociologists from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and conducted by Gallup. Rather than asking some of the standard religious questions typical of polls over the last thirty years (“Do you believe in God?” “Are you a Protestant, Catholic or Jew?”), the questions were much more specific and included queries about how people viewed God’s personality and the nature of his engagement with the world. From the answers to these questions the Baylor sociologists were able to distinguish four distinct views among Americans of God’s personality and engagement in human affairs, which researchers labeled and which can be described as follows: The Authoritarian God (31% of Americans) is angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs. He is ready to “throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on the unfaithful or ungodly.”
The Benevolent God (23%) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible but is primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible. The Critical God (16%) has his judgmental eye on the world but doesn’t intervene, either to punish or to comfort. The Distant God (24%) is not a personal being but a “cosmic force” that launched the world, and then left it spinning on its own.

This is particularly intriguing for researchers because these views of God proved to be significant sign posts for peoples’ values and behavior. As Baylor’s Christopher Bader puts it, “You learn more about peoples’ moral and political behavior if you know their image of God than almost any other measure. It turns out to be more powerful a predictor of social and political views than the usual markers of church attendance or belief in the Bible.” So, for instance, people who believe in an “Authoritarian God” tend to want an active, Christian-values-based government and are politically conservative. Those who believe in a “Benevolent God” are more inclined than the other three to say that caring for the sick and needy ranks highest on the list of what it means to be a good person. In other words, asking not whether you believe in God but what kind of God you believe in is the far more fruitful question.

This intrigues me as a preacher and as a Christ-follower. Obviously the four views aren’t mutually exclusive, and yet my guess is that all of us find ourselves gravitating to a particular one. What happens to us in life affects the way we view God, and the way we view God affects how we live our life. I am presently in a forum in which Christians share their “spiritual journey story.” It is fascinating to hear how people who grew up in the same faith tradition (churches of Christ) formed different views of God and how that affected their decisions and life path. I am wondering if all our focus on behavior isn’t putting the cart ahead of the horse. “Tell me how you see God” is the operative question.


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