Not long ago, USA Today featured a story about perceptions of God in America, and how a person’s perception of God influences their opinions on issues of the day.
The research can be found in a book by two sociologists at Baylor, the Baptist University in Texas. Their book’s entitled: America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God and What that Says about Us.
The researchers identify four primary characteristics of God. They are: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical and Distant. Based on surveys, they have come up with percentages of what American people believe about God:
According to the authors, people who hold this view of God divide the world along good and evil and they tend to be people who are worried, concerned and scared. They respond to a powerful, sovereign God guiding this country.
These are people who identify more with the spiritual and speak of finding the mysterious, unknowable God in creation or through contemplation or in elegant mathematical theorems.
The researchers describe people who perceive a God who keeps a critical eye on this world but only delivers justice in the next.
According to the researchers, their God is a “positive influence” who cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts, and will comfort all.
Along the way, their research nets some curious findings.
For instance, if your parents spanked you when you were a child, then you’re more likely to subscribe to an Authoritative God view. If you’re European, then in all likelihood you have a Distant view of God.
If you’re poor then, odds are, you fall into the Critical view.
My wife only seldom agrees to spank me but presumably if you’re into adult spanking then you subscribe to a Benevolent God view.
United Methodists meanwhile- proving we can’t make up our minds about anything- tend to be evenly distributed among the four characteristic views.
The book is several years old now so I was surprised to discover that the sociologists’ survey is still up and running online.
As people take the survey, the percentages change.
You might be interested to hear that right now the Distant God is now pulling ahead in the polls, as the Authoritative God falls behind, and the Benevolent God gains a few points.
When I discovered the website not long ago, I decided to take the survey, all twenty questions of it. I was asked to rate whether or not the term “loving” described God very well, somewhat well, undecided, not very well, or not at all.
Other divine attributes in the twenty survey questions were “critical, punishing, severe, wrathful, distant, ever present.”
I was asked if I thought God was angered by human sin and angered by my sin. I was asked if God was concerned with my personal well being and then with the well being of the world.
In order to capture my understanding of and belief in God, maker of heaven and earth in whom we live and move and have our being, according to my watch, the survey took all of two minutes and thirty-five seconds.
Or, roughly 10,078 minutes faster than God managed to create the world.
After I finished, I was told what percentage of people in my demographic shared my view of God (college educated men under the age of none of your damn business).
You may be interested to know, but no doubt not surprised, that the survey says that this pastor maintains a perception of a Benevolent God.
It was only after I answered all the questions, only after I saw my results, only after I saw how I measured up against other respondents….only then did it strike me how the Baylor survey never asked me about Jesus.
The survey asked me to choose if I thought God was Authoritative or Distant or Critical or Benevolent, but it never asked me, it was never given as an option, if I thought God was Incarnate- in the flesh, among us, as one of us.
I’m no sociologist.
‘Do you believe that God, though being in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on the cross…’
Presumably that’s a lousy survey question.
Even still, it struck me that I’d just taken a supposedly thorough survey about my belief in God, and Jesus was not in any of the questions nor was he ever a possible answer.
I even tried to go back and undo, invalidate, my responses but it wouldn’t let me.
The problem with the survey is that, whether I like it or not, God’s not someone I get to pick with just the click of a mouse.
I’m a Christian. How I conceive of God isn’t optional. It isn’t up for grabs.
We don’t get to define God according to whatever generalities we’d prefer instead when we confess Jesus Christ is Lord we profess that God has come to us with the most particular of definitions.
The problem with the survey is that I don’t believe God is Authoritative, Distant, Critical or Benevolent.
I believe Jesus is God.
Christians are peculiar. Maybe it takes a survey to point that out.
When we say God, we mean Jesus.
And when we say Jesus, we mean the God who emptied himself, the God who traded divinity for poverty, power for weakness, the God who came down among us and stooped down to serve the lowliest of us.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said that if God had wanted to God could’ve been Sovereign. If God had wanted to God could’ve been All-Powerful or All-Knowing. If God had wanted to God could’ve been Holy or Righteous.
But instead, said Wesley, God chose to be Jesus.
You see- it’s not that God’s power and glory and divinity are somehow disguised behind Jesus‘ human life. It’s not that in Jesus God masquerades as someone he’s not already.
The incarnation isn’t a temporary time-out in which God gets to pretend he’s a different person.
Rather, when we see Jesus in the wilderness saying no to the world’s ways of power, when we see Jesus- the Great High Priest- embracing lepers and eating with sinners, when we see Jesus stoop down to wash our dirty feet, when we see Jesus freely choose death rather than retaliation, when we see Jesus pour himself out, empty himself, humble and humiliate himself we’re seeing as much of God as there is to see.
In the Son we see as much of the Father as there has ever been to see.
Just look at today’s scripture text.
The song Paul quotes here in Philippians 2 is a worship song, older even than the Gospels themselves.
Don’t forget, the believers who first sang that song- they were good synagogue-going Jews; as such, they could worship only God alone.
To worship any one other than God was to break the first and most important of commandments.
But here their song praises Jesus as only God can be praised, lauding him as Lord to whom, the song concludes, has been given the name above every name.
Of course, the name above every name is the name that was too holy for Jews to utter or even write.
The name above every name is the name that was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush.
The name above every name is the name of God.
And now that name’s synonymous with Jesus.
After I completed the Baylor survey, in less than three minutes, a window popped up on the screen to tell me, conclusively, that I had a perception of a Benevolent God.
For me, the survey said, God is a positive influence on people. I suppose that means God is like Anderson Cooper or Donald Trump.
The survey results also explained how my particular perception of God likely impacted my worldview, in other words, how my belief in God played out in my positions on contemporary issues and politics.
But the survey never mentioned anything about a community.
According to the survey I’m just an individual person who has a certain perception of God and that perception influences my opinions on political issues. It never said anything about a community.
I told you it was a terrible survey.
This past Thursday a couple asked to meet with me. Even though I emailed and texted them beforehand, they wouldn’t tell me why they needed to meet with me so urgently.
Great, I thought, they’re either PO’d at me and are leaving the church, or they’re getting divorced. Either way, I’m going to be late for dinner.
When they came to my office, I could feel the anxiety popping off of them like static electricity. The counseling textbooks call it ‘active listening’ but really I was sitting there in front of them, silent, because I had no idea where or how to begin.
The husband, the dad, I noticed was clutching his jeans cuff at the knees. After an awkward silence and even more more awkward chit-chat, the wife, the mom, finally said: “You and this church have been an important part of our lives so we wanted you to know what’s going on in our family and we thought we should do it face-to-face.”
Here we go, I thought. They’re splitting up or splitting from here.
“What’s up?” I asked, sitting up to find a knot in my stomach.
And then she told something else entirely. Something surprising.
She told me their daughters, youth in the church about my oldest son’s age, had both come out to them.
“They’re both gay” she said.
“Is that all?!” I asked. “Good God, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to tell me you were getting a divorce! Jesus doesn’t like divorce.”
They exhaled. I could see they’d been holding their breath.
“This church has been a big part of our lives and we wanted to make sure you knew that about them” she said.
“But also…” her voice trailed off and then her husband spoke up. “We also wanted to make sure that they’d still be welcomed here.”
“Of course. Absolutely.”
I could see the hesitation in their eyes, like I’d just tried to sell them the service plan at Best Buy so I said it plain: “Look, I love them. This church loves them. And God loves them. Nothing will ever change that.”
“You don’t think they’re sinners?” she asked.
“Of course they’re sinners” I said “but that would be true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners.”
We talked a bit more.
About how this “issue” is playing out now in the larger Church. About how you can know your kids but still they can be a surprising mystery to you too. About how it can be hard to adjust to picturing your kids’ future as something different than what you’d always imagined.
“You guys baptized and confirmed them here” the dad said by way of example. “I’d always pictured them getting married here and you performing their wedding.”
“Their wedding photo might look a little different than you’d imagined it, but I’ll still be in it. I’ll still do it” I said. “But, let’s wait until they’re out of high school.”
“Isn’t there a rule against you doing it?” the mom asked. “Wouldn’t you get in trouble?”
“There is and I might” I said “but what am I supposed to do? I serve a God who says his Kingdom is like a wedding to which all the wrong kinds of people get invited. He’s the only rule I’ve got to obey.”
They laughed a little, but then he said, with absolute seriousness:
“I guess we came here because they want to know, and we want them to know, that God still loves them.”
Maybe it was because I’d just filled out that silly survey, but after they left the church office I thought about sort of God it is that could produce the conversation we’d just had.
What sort of God is that?
Authoritative? Distant? Critical? Benevolent?
Or is it Jesus? Is it the God who trades away his divinity so that he might be with us?
Is it the God who takes flesh to welcome outcasts, embrace lepers, and feast with sinners?
What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had?
Authoritative or Distant or Critical or Benevolent or the God who is with-us, while all of us were still sinners with us, with us through the grief and joy and confusion of our lives?
With us such that to be faithful and obedient to this God we must be willing to be with one another no matter what?
What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had or the kind of community capable of such a conversation?
Benevolent doesn’t even scratch the surface of the God who took flesh, became what we are; so that, what we are- male or female, black or white, gay or straight- we are in him so that all of us must treat every one of us as him, as precious as him.
All of us must treat every one of us as Christ.
He became what we are.
What we are- black or white, male or female, gay or straight- is in him.
All of us therefore must regard everyone of us as though we were him.
Distant. Critical. Benevolent. Authoritative.
Tell me what sort of God other than Jesus Christ could produce that posture?
What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had?
Sure, there’s scripture verses that could’ve taken the conversation in the opposite direction, but we’re Christians.
We believe Jesus, not scripture, is the Word God speaks to us because we believe Jesus is God.
Maybe if our God was Authoritative or Critical or Distant even, maybe then we could throw around scripture words like abomination but we believe Jesus is God.
Jesus is God and, in Jesus, God refuses to cast stones. God says to the woman caught in adultery “I do not condemn you” even though scripture condemned her.
God forgives those who know exactly what they’re doing. God eats and drinks with sinners, and to the thieves by the cross God gives the first two tickets to paradise.
And speaking of the cross, God responds to the crosses we build with Easter. With resurrection.
Only that sort of God could produce the conversation I’d had with those parents.
Even more importantly- only that sort of God could produce the community that produced those parents that produced our conversation.
Only that sort of God could produce the community that produced those parents that produced those girls who yearned to hear that God loved them.
After they left my office, I emailed the Baylor sociologist responsible for the survey:
Dear Dr. Bader,
I’m a United Methodist pastor in Alexandria, Virginia. Having read about your book and your research in USA Today, I just completed your survey online Since I was unable to cancel or otherwise invalidate my responses I felt I should share a few comments with you.
First, let me take issue with the four views of God that you group responses into. I don’t deny there is a diversity of religious belief in America. It’s just that, as a Christian, I was surprised to find that the God whom I worship isn’t to be found in any of your questions or categories. I believe Jesus of Nazareth is as much of God as there to see.
Authoritative, Distant, Critical, or Benevolent therefore are not sufficient categories to describe the God who empties himself of divinity, takes flesh, lives the life of a servant and turns the other cheek all the way to a cross. Perhaps you think my definition of God is too specific. The trouble is in Jesus of Nazareth God couldn’t have been more specific.
Second, your survey suggests that believing in God is primarily a matter of having a particular worldview that then influences one’s opinions on issues. I can’t speak for other religions, but as a Christian I can say that if Jesus Christ is Lord, then it’s not a matter of opinions.
Before the creed is a profession of our beliefs; it’s a pledge of our allegiance. If Jesus Christ is Lord then faith in him means faithfulness to him.
His life is the pattern to which we must conform our lives.
And “must conform” is the right wording, for if Jesus is Lord, then he’s owed not our belief but our obedience.
And obedience for Christians means imitation. Imitating Christ.
So, you see, Dr. Bader, Jesus expects a lot more from us than having the right positions on issues.
Finally, I just came from a conversation with parents of two teenage girls who just came out of the closet.
And during my conversation with them it occurred to me.
In all of your questions on your survey, you never asked if I believed that God loved me. Postulating a loving God in the abstract isn’t the same thing as believing that God loves me, ME, no matter what.
You never asked that question, and that’s the most important question. For those parents whose fear of God’s rejection I could see in their eyes and for their girls who’ve already been baptized into Jesus Christ- for those girls and for their parents, I thank God that in Jesus Christ the answer is yes.
No doubt the harsh tone of my email will lead you to conclude that I score in the ‘Authoritative God’ category.
Not so, even though my mother did spank me as a child. No, I rate solidly in the ‘Benevolent God’ category. So I hope you will believe it’s in a spirit of benevolence when I say, for lack of a better expression, I think your survey is crap.