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How to Ask the Wrong Question About God

This new book's approach to God is deceptively attractive... and extremely dangerous. A Register editorial.


| Posted 10/16/10 at 1:01 AM


A version of this editorial appears in the Oct. 24 print edition.

America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God — And What That Says About Us  is an ambitious new book by Baylor University sociology professors Paul Froese and Christopher Bader.

Its premise is simple and its promise is ample, so it has unsurprisingly garnered increasing attention since its Oct. 7 release by Oxford University Press.

The authors suggest that we can understand America’s cultural and political diversity in terms of what we believe about God, and that the answers to two questions — “To what extent does God interact with the world?” and “To what extent does God judge the world?” — reveal far more about our worldviews than our race, wealth and political affiliation. That’s a compelling proposition.

The authors devise an ABCD format to describe their matrix of possible ways to see God:

An Authoritative God is wrathful and very active in the world, with definite opinions on worldly affairs, punishing us even in this life as a strict but loving parent. 

A Benevolent God is hands-on in the world, but forgiving and less judgmental, tending to be positive and comforting every time he deals with us. 

A Critical God is wrathful but inactive, avoiding direct intervention in the world and reserving punishment for Judgment Day.

Finally, a Distant God is a mysterious cosmic force, nonjudgmental but uninvolved with human affairs.

The authors’ research shows that Americans are divided fairly evenly among these four profiles if the God question is posed in this particular way. The splits between groups vary somewhat by region and significantly by political persuasion (conservatives tend towards A and B; liberals towards C and D). Our image of God is colored by discipline and religiosity in our upbringing, claim Froese and Bader, and our attitudes on economics, abortion, homosexual “marriage,” government, natural disasters and the value of science can all be correlated to it.

Certain religious groups have certain inclinations (two-thirds of black Protestants consider God authoritative, whereas almost half of Jews describe him as distant), but Catholics are divided practically evenly across the four, leading the authors to conclude that “saying someone is Roman Catholic tells you virtually nothing about his image of God.”

We disagree. We think this data is of limited relevance because our authors are asking the wrong question.

Take the first question: What is God’s interaction with the world really like? The authors consistently view divine action in terms of spectacular miracles (breaking laws of nature) and tragic catastrophes. But the Christian answer is far different: God’s providence protects, governs and guides his creation, bringing about powerful results in mysterious ways. That’s completely unlike the clumsy human tinkering with physics which the authors project onto God: the quiet mysterious generosity of Matthew 6 rather than a divine Mad Scientist at work in the laboratory of the world.

But it’s the second question that is most flawed: The authors consider God’s judgment to be the major element of religiosity. Human beings cower under the menacing glare of a vengeful God in the implicit Calvinism with which the authors shape their questionnaire: They ask whether God is “critical,” “punishing,” “severe,” “wrathful” or “angered by my sins.”

In other words, one particular brand of Christianity is warping the preconceived notions with which our sociologists shoehorn all American religiosity into the artificial pigeonholes of four caricatures of God.

God isn’t just authoritative: He’s the merciful father of the prodigal son. He’s benevolent in far deeper ways than merely being consistently nice: He calls us his adopted children. Far from being simply critical, he sent his only Son to die for us. God is transcendent rather than distant: The blessed Trinity dwells in the soul of every baptized Christian in a state of grace.

The answer to Froese and Bader is “none of the above.”

We propose option E.

The Catholic Church believes in the Eucharistic God. A God who is so engaged with the world that he became incarnate in Jesus Christ and remains with us in the Eucharist. A God whose judgment on the world is mercy, and who comes to our souls in the Eucharist to give us strength for the journey to him and to everlasting life.

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Jesus posed that question in Matthew 16. There were many opinions even then; and the opinions that people held were all completely wrong. The one who answered correctly, Simon Peter, is praised by Jesus because the answer wasn’t his: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

In other words, we aren’t the authority here. Our increasing technological prowess hides the fact that we still have only a rudimentary idea of how the world around us works, and we can barely scratch the surface of far more important issues, like the human soul and the nature of God. The authority here is God himself.

That’s precisely why God chose to reveal himself to us, in the Scriptures and above all in his Son: Because we don’t know who God is.

The authors have fallen into the subtlest and deepest trap in sociology. As Mircea Eliade wrote, sociological explanation of religion is often very enlightening, but “the confusion starts when only one aspect of religious life is accepted as primary and meaningful, and the other aspects or functions are regarded as secondary or even illusory.”

And yet there’s a deeper issue at stake. One particularly informative phrase hides among the instructions to the researchers’ questionnaire: “There is no right or wrong answer.” We beg to differ.

Froese and Bader aren’t really talking about the God of faith. They’re falling back on the 19th-century rationalist concept of God as a personification of moral authority. As they put it, “Essentially, God is the supreme voice in our heads.”

If God is just a Freudian jumble of fears and phobias, an imaginary “frenemy” that we think we’re talking to, then our idea of God may in fact be thoroughly irrational and dangerous. But if God is instead a Person, a Creator and a Father; if morality is not a stick with which God chastises us, but his plan of love for us; if all things work for good for those who love him, then truly he is our Way and our Truth and our Life.

Rudolf Otto, the great scholar of comparative religion, begins Chapter 3 of his seminal The Idea of the Holy requesting readers who have never had some moment of deep religious experience “to read no farther.” If even religious people have difficulty discussing religious psychology, he writes, we cannot blame those who have not known it from within, but neither can we accept their theories on it.

Trying to explain the Catholic viewpoint to nonbelievers is often like trying to explain the sublimity of a Caravaggio to a blind person, because faith is a gift. Those who haven’t yet received that gift of seeing deeper into the things of God are not to be faulted for not seeing what we see.

But neither should we give much credence to their results.