I read a book called America’s Four Gods, by Paul Froese and Christopher Bader. Their book was based on an ongoing survey that sought to understand Americans’ beliefs about God. They identified four understandings of God, which they lined up according to two features.
Some believe that God is engaged in the world — directly determining the outcome of every event, while others believe that God is more “hands-off,” allowing humans and other creatures freedom. Some believe in a God of judgment, with strict standards of right and wrong. Others see God as nurturing, not commanding, and always ready to forgive and show mercy to all.
A variety of understandings of God are found in every religious tradition; knowing a person’s faith doesn’t tell you how they understand God. But that understanding of God does matter. It shapes attitudes about money, morality, opinions on science, war, welfare, women’s rights, politics. For example: those who see God as active and judging tend to try to express their faith through laws to enforce their understanding of morality and justice. Those who see God as less active are less likely to be active themselves, or to ask others to act either.
Which makes me wonder: Does our understanding of God shape our view of the world, or does our view of the world shape our understanding of God? Do we search our sacred texts to shape our beliefs, or do we strain them for the phrases that support what we already believe? Are we seeking God, or creating a “god” in our own image?
As I think about this through the lens of my own faith I keep coming back to Paul, specifically to the 13th chapter of I Corinthians (the one you often hear at weddings). After a long description of what love is and is not (meant for communities, couples) Paul reminds his listeners that everything they think they know is incomplete: “for now we see through a glass darkly . . . now I know in part.” (I Corinthians 13:12)
We live in a time of conflict abroad, and deep division over many issues at home. Religious faith is at the center of many disputes, and “freedom of religion” is an oft-used battle cry. But the truth is, good people of all faiths, people who earnestly study, pray, and struggle for understanding, are on both sides of many of the issues divide us. And the battle itself — well, it hasn’t brought the best in anyone. Truthfully, I believe it repels many people from faith entirely.
So perhaps instead of exercising our freedom, we should exercise our humility first. Recognize that our understanding of God may not be as complete as we think, and that we’re all prone to create God in our own image, even as we honestly seek to know the One who created us. Who knows — we might even find that some of those “others” who disagree with us have a perspective to offer that will enrich our own.