Two gods we Christians don’t believe in

May 20, 2010

On the heels of the New York Times article I refer to in my previous post, I came across this Times blog entry yesterday. The blogger writes with polite incredulity that, according to a recent survey, 82 percent of Americans believe that God is intimately involved in their lives. She used as a case in point a recent contestant on American Idol. After Simon Cowell predicted that this person would soon be voted off, the contestant pointed upward and said, “I know God,” indicating, I suppose, that God would take care of him. Even after getting voted off a couple of episodes later, the contestant maintained, despite his setback, that God had something good in store for him.

The vast majority of comments in the comments section predictably scoff at all these ignorant Americans for being deluded, superstitious, and childishly naive. How can we believe that, A) there is a God, and, B) even if there were such a being, it personally cares about us—given so much evidence (i.e., science and human suffering) to the contrary?1 Even some of the God-believing commenters complained about athletes’ and celebrities’ public displays of piety: Why should God care about trivial events like ballgames and other mundane details of a person’s life?

The comments were about 95 percent anti-faith, which does not mean that Times readers are necessarily godless heathens (as so many of its critics surely believe!); it probably means that the people who are most passionately worked up about the issue are the ones who disagree with the article’s findings and feel most compelled to chime in.

Here’s some irony: One commenter wrote of the relatively few dissenting pro-God commenters, “Isn’t it funny how defensive people get when their religious views are challenged?”—he says, as one of the vast majority of commenters who speak against the article’s findings. In psychology, this is called projecting.

Regardless, this god that the commenters fail to believe in is some version of the Big Man in the Sky—someone who is a lot like us, only more powerful and benevolent, etc. This is the god who gives his children what they ask for when they pray. And when god doesn’t, these deluded believers disregard the evidence and keep on believing anyway.

Of course, this is not the God of the Bible and Christian tradition. God is the ground of our being, the source of everything, the One who continually sustains us into existence at every moment—indeed, as Paul says in Acts, the God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” He is not a god who set the universe in motion and occasionally intervenes with a miracle here and there when it suits his purposes. From a Christian point of view, every moment that we have life is itself a kind of miracle—because it doesn’t happen apart from God’s active presence. Of course God is involved in the details of our lives; God enables these details at every moment.

And God can do this because, contrary to the consensus opinion of the commenters, God is not one (very big) thing among other things in the universe.2 God is not a “thing” at all. It is not difficult for God to hear the prayers of everyone, for instance. It doesn’t require great complexity on God’s part to be “personally involved” in people’s mundane lives. We are not competing with the rest of the universe for God’s attention, and God is not competing for ours. God is not one cause—not even a “first cause”—among other causes. God does not, in fact, operate on the plane of causality at all. He is above causes.

This also implies that God can work God’s will in this world without violating human free will, or the freedom of all of God’s good Creation.

But this is, of course, theology. Pop culture, which usually has us in its thrall, doesn’t know from theology. But we Christians should!

All that to say that we Christians don’t believe in God because God gives us what we ask for. I don’t even think that the contestant on American Idol was speaking of God in this way. God answers prayers, by all means, but mostly prayers we’re not smart enough or wise enough to pray. We need God more than anything, even if finding God means losing everything—including our own lives.

Another god that we Christians don’t believe in (contrary to popular opinion) is the god who makes sense of things we don’t understand about the world. This is the god who neatly explains the universe to us, the “god of the gaps” who operates as long as science doesn’t have a better and simpler answer. As I wrote in response to a comment to yesterday’s entry:

The article feeds the post-Enlightenment misperception that science will some day outrun our need to believe in God—as if we all have faith in God because we need God to “explain” the world to us. Science can’t explain the deepest questions we face.

These “deepest questions” are not questions science is equipped to answer.

1. I’m not for a moment conceding that there is good scientific evidence against believing in God. See my previous post and this entry for more discussion about God and science. Also, see this post, among others, about suffering and theodicy.

2. Best-selling celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins says that he has no need to study theology because it’s like studying fairy tales—why bother? Yet in The God Delusion he utterly fails to grasp that Christianity speaks of God’s transcendence, which means that God is not one thing in competition with other things in the universe. God is not a thing at all. By failing to understand this, he fails to see how worthless his main argument against God is. That’s merely one problem with his book, of course.

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