Monday, September 25, 2006

God: A Series

Today I am going to publish the first in a series of five blogs on God. These are reacting to the findings of Baylor Institute through their Baylor Religion Survey. The researchers argue that there are four different views of God amongst Americans. It is interesting to ask what our own view of God is and where we fit into the scheme. I am increasingly of the opinion that I need to modify the way I personally present God in my ministry and preaching. But more about that next week. This week I want to introduce the series and examine the first of the categories the researchers use.

1. God: An Authoritarian God

The first findings were recently released of a major, new investigation into the nature of religious belief in America. The Baylor Religion Survey is a new project focused upon improving our understanding of American religion. Those behind the project claim it is the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted. With the Baylor Religion Survey, they believe, we can dig deeper into American religious attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs than previously possible. Like many in the world today, while I have never been to the US, I am, nevertheless, aware that my life is affected by developments and decisions there more than anywhere else. Consequently, I was particularly interested in these first findings, and I will eagerly follow the findings that are promised for the future.

Of the first published findings, one of the most interesting is that America is not, in fact, ‘one nation under God’ as in the Pledge of the Union. Now you may think that the problem with this phrase lies with the ‘one nation’ part and that in the US many minorities are disenfranchised and excluded. But that wasn’t the main point emerging from these first findings, it was rather that there was in the US ‘one nation under four Gods.’

For it is the argument of the researchers that Americans can be analysed based on what their view of God is and that Americans have four different views of God. These they describe using four categories:

• an authoritarian God who metes out punishment

• a benevolent God who is less willing to condemn people

• a critical God who does not interact with the world, but deals out punishment in the after-life

• a distant God who set the laws of nature in motion but is no longer involved in events of the world

What is more, the researchers argue that our moral decisions and choices are affected by the sort of God we believe in. So, for example, those who believe in an authoritarian God are much more likely to condemn abortion.

Interestingly, the study found that most Americans, some 31%, believed in an authoritarian God. 'Individuals who believe in the Authoritarian God tend to think that God is highly involved in their daily lives and world affairs. They tend to believe that God helps them in their decision-making and is also responsible for global events such as economic upturns or tsunamis. They also tend to feel that God is quite angry and is capable of meting out punishment to those who are unfaithful or ungodly.'

For Christians, this view of God must surely be part of what they believe about God. In the Bible, God does give commands and expects people to keep them, and he often warns of the consequences if they do not. Jesus himself, who is often portrayed in popular culture, as a prophet of love, tells his disciples that if they love him they will keep his commandments.

But if this is the only way we see God, then it won’t be long before our view of God will be that of a Tyrant in the sky issuing demands and meting out punishment on those who fail. Such a God can quickly lose all compassion and so can his followers. For while our view of God affects how we approach our own moral decisions and choices, it can also affect how we view other people’s. Believers in the authoritarian God be very judgemental, condemning those who fail to live what they believe to be the right way of life. This judgemental Christianity has been very prevalent in the past. The survey suggests that it is still prevalent today.

While it is surely right that we humans need guidelines to live our lives, and equally right that our moral decisions have consequences, nevertheless, we do fall and fail, and we do make mistakes. In the Bible, God is an authoritarian God, but he is also a God of forgiveness who asks us to forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven.

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