America’s Four Gods: God & Morals
II Timothy 1: 12-14
Paul Froese & Christopher Bader wondered if members of a church who listened to the same sermons, attended the same study groups, prayed together, worshipped together, and lived in the same community would have similar ideas about God. They decided to investigate by going to a tiny rural Southern Baptist church in Texas. They picked this church because unlike urban churches or mega churches, the location and size of this particular church ensured that this was a close knit faith community.
The initial look at the congregants supported their assumption of demographic homogeneity.
• Rugged men donned cowboy shirts and boots.
• Modestly dressed women accompanied them
• Many drove American made trucks to church
• Families included boys with freshly combed hair and girls in floral dresses
• Stereotypes of rural, hardworking, gun-toting, God-fearing Americans seemed intact
• It appeared that most, if not all the congregants were white
• They self-identified as biblical literalists, said they were affiliated with the Republican Party, and said that the government should allow prayer in schools.
• When asked how often they attended church or about their faith in the Bible, or the divinity of Jesus, or other basic questions about religion, they received almost unanimous agreement.
However…. When the questions turned to God… something interesting happened: They disagreed. For example, not all members of the congregation agreed that God is a “he”. The longtime minister of the congregation was surprised to hear that his parishioners did not share his beliefs about God’s gender. The minister repeatedly described God as a powerful and intimidating authoritative male figure and felt confident that his flock shared the same opinion. He was also saddened to hear that nearly a third of his congregation referred to God as a “cosmic force”, instead of an actual physical being with personal authority.
All of the congregants in this church professed faith in their preacher, but they heard different things from his sermons. Some believed he spoke rhetorically and others believed he spoke concretely at various times and about various topics.
Today we are continuing our topic of “America’s Four God’s; what we Say about God – and What That Says about Us”. It is based on the book by Paul Froese & Christopher Bader. Last week, we talked about the distinction between those who believe in an:
Authoritative God – a God who is both engaged in the world and judgmental
Benevolent God – a God who is engaged, yet non-judgmental
Critical God – a God who is judgmental, but disengaged
Distant God – a nonjudgmental and disengaged God
As I was thinking about what kind of God I believe in, a text I learned as a child kept coming to mind from II Timothy 1: 12-14: “But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”
In 2000, President Clinton told our nation, “Today, we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift. With this profound new knowledge, humankind is on the verge of gaining immense, new power to heal.” Clinton was talking about the decoding of human DNA.
Americans utilize the latest technologies and medicines knowing that science will improve our knowledge, comfort and health. We don’t choose between science and religion – we find them complementary, respectful partners. We tend to negotiate our way between science and faith based on the understanding we have of God. If we believe in an Authoritative or Benevolent God, we think that God very often disrupts nature with divine intervention. Likewise, we are most likely to think that science will not provide solutions to most of our problems. And we fear that we rely too heavily on science to solve our problems and fail to properly consider the importance of faith in creating a better world.
But if we believe in a Critical or Distant God, we believe that God cannot – under any circumstance – override the laws of science. And we express more confidence in the long-term potential of science to resolve human problems. Albert Einstein was a believer in a Distant God. His understanding of academic science flourished and his spirituality grew within it.
Most Americans think that belief in God is fully compatible with modern science. The world’s major religious traditions have demonstrated an amazing ability to incorporate scientific thinking. At the same time, many American religious believers also feel that scientists overstep the boundaries of science and begin to tread on religion’s turf. This fact stems from a persistent belief in the supreme authority of God over nature…. Or from those who believe in an Authoritative or Benevolent God. The current argument over climate change is one that is largely based on this theological question.
This all brings us to the question of how one’s belief in God affects his/her moral point of view. When reflecting on moral values, most Americans look to God for answers. Whether God is loving, forgiving, or wrathful indicates the extent to which a believer is a moral absolutist. A judgmental and engaged God will simply not permit certain acts. When asked about adultery, gay marriage, abortion, premarital sex, stem cell research, and other social issues, respondents ranked immoral behaviors in exactly the same order – no matter their views on God!
Adultery was the most unforgivable. Stem-cell research was the last in terms of its perceived immorality. What was interesting about the survey was that most Americans are moral relativists, and more important, behave civilly toward one another even when moral disputes arise. Of course, there are moral extremists, but the vast majority of Americans agree that God is loving. The countless believers in the U.S. feel compelled to take into consideration, when pondering the sins of others, “their belief that God loves all humanity. In the end, a belief in God’s love is extremely influential in keeping believers well mannered and compassionate. For this reason, we all benefit from the idea of God’s love, whether we are sinner or saints, believers or atheists.”
Froese, Paul & Bader, Christopher. America’s Four God’s; What We Say about God- And What That Says About Us. Oxford University Press: 2010