Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Underwear & The Four Gods

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... I was a student at Baylor University. (Just don't ask me about their football season.) In fact, for those of you who track these kind of things (and you know who you are), Homecoming this fall is our 20th class reunion. Visions of slime caps (which aren't still in use, I hear) and the Rocket Launcher fountain and the Wimpy Jesus statue are dancing through my head.

So I was especially interested when Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion released the initial results of a major survey about American religious beliefs. What's not to like? My alma mater does serious statistical study into the issues that define not only my personal life but also my vocation. (There was a very good, if cursory, article about the study in USA Today.)

Some disturbing but not surprising stuff bubbled to the surface:
  • Nearly 59% of Americans believe that "many religions lead to salvation." (This is kind of a Hallmark greeting card way of dealing with our eternal destiny - and yet it's not simply bad Christianity, it's bad Judaism, and even bad Islam.)
  • Four out of ten people (that's 40% for those of you who are math-challenged) believe that there were "ancient advanced civilizations" - Atlantis, for example. Hmmm... maybe Chariots of the Gods was released 20 years too early?!
  • Nearly 29% of Americans have read The Da Vinci Code... and 19% have read at least one of the Left Behind novels. (Here's what that says to me - approximately 30% of Americans have lousy taste in religious fiction, regardless of whether it was written to attack or support the deity of Christ.)

None of this is a particularly big surprise - most of it simply confirms what I've observed in ministry & life: lots of people choose their belief system like they choose their underwear. They want it to be comfortable, functional, occasionally cute for showing off to a special someone... and otherwise pretty much invisible in their day-to-day lives.


Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. 14% of people know that. Homer Simpson


However, I was intrigued by one particular finding that the researchers highlighted... and rather than me butcher the concept, I'll let them explain it to you in their own words.

One area that emerged from the survey that has excited the researchers is what they call the "Four Gods." Depending on how engaged people think God is in the world and how angry God is with the world.

"If you think about people perceiving God as high in anger, low in anger, high in engagement, low in engagement, it results in four different types of gods," said Froese.

What researchers found was that the type of god people believe in can predict their political and moral attitudes more so than just looking at their religious tradition.

Researchers found that none of the "four gods" dominated among believers. The data showed:

  • 31.4 percent believe in an Authoritarian God, who is very judgmental and engaged
  • 25 percent believe in a Benevolent God, who is not judgmental but engaged
  • 23 percent believe in a Distant God, who is completely removed
  • 16 percent believe in a Critical God, who is judgmental but not engaged

Other demographic relationships and religious effects surrounding the "Four Gods" include:

  • African-Americans believe overwhelmingly in an Authoritarian God (53.4 percent);
  • Region of the country is significantly related to the four types of god. Easterners tend towards belief in a Critical God; Southerners tend towards an Authoritarian God; Midwesterners believe in a Benevolent God; and the West Coast believes in a Distant God.
  • Individuals with lower educations and lower incomes tend towards more engaged images of God.

"This is a very powerful tool to understand core differences in the United States," Froese said. "If I know your image of God, I can tell all kinds of things about you. It's a central part of world view and it's linked to how you think about the world in general."


So, campers, which God is your God?

  • the Authoritarian God, who is ready to administer cosmic whuppings at a moment's notice?
  • the Benevolent God, who is all about forgiveness & blessings - a heavenly Santa Claus who never really puts boys or girls on his "naughty" list?
  • the Distant God, who is hanging out in Heaven, soaking up the good vibes from the angels & shining on those of here on Earth?
  • the Critical God, who thinks what we're doing is "wrong, wrong, wrong" - but who isn't planning to do anything about it?

For me, all of these pictures are woefully inadequate. There are elements that make sense - forgiveness, judgment for sins, a desire to bless, pain at the way the world has gone wrong - but none of the individual pictures are big enough to encompass the God of the Bible.

So stay alert. Don't for a minute forget the covenant which God, your God, made with you. And don't take up with any carved images, no forms of any kind-God, your God, issued clear commands on that. God, your God, is not to be trifled with-he's a consuming fire, a jealous God. Deuteronomy 4:23-24 (The Message)

Know this: God, your God, is God indeed, a God you can depend upon. He keeps his covenant of loyal love with those who love him and observe his commandments for a thousand generations. Deuteronomy 7:9 (The Message)

God is mighty, but does not despise men; he is mighty, and firm in his purpose. Job 36:5 (NIV)

God is bedrock under my feet, the castle in which I live, my rescuing knight. My God-the high crag where I run for dear life, hiding behind the boulders, safe in the granite hideout. Psalm 18:2 (The Message)

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death-and the worst kind of death at that-a crucifixion. Philippians 2:5-8 (The Message)

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 1 John 4:8 (NIV)

You see, the God of the Bible is not some monolithic spiritual entity that can be easily plotted on an X/Y graph. If we buy (and I do) that we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), then our complexity ought to say something about the complexity of God. If we, the created beings, have these wonderfully diverse personalities, why would we ever hypothesize that God the Creator is one-dimensional & monochromatic?


Which brings us right back around to the question I asked a few minutes ago. Paraphrasing myself now...

Question #1: "What kind of God do you believe in?"

And, just in case you missed this earlier...

Question #2: "Did you come up with your answer to question #1 in a similar fashion to picking out new undies?"


I'd love to hear from some of y'all about what these questions spark... the e-door is always open at

This article originally appeared in the 9/13/06 issue of the Grapevine, the newsletter of NewLife Community Church.

1 comment:

huzonfirst said...

Hi Mark. An interesting post, as usual. Here are some comments.

First of all, I'd be very disappointed in a God who *didn't* allow for many religions to lead to salvation. What, just because I'm born and raised Islamic (or Jewish or Baptist or whatever), earnestly follow my religion, and try to be a good person, I should miss out on Heaven just because I hooked up with the "wrong" religion? Christianity is a minority religion; I sure hope there's room for flexibility in the big sorting room upstairs.

I also have read and thoroughly enjoyed The Da Vinci Code. To be honest, it didn't strike me as too controversial from a religious point of view, as opposed to simply raising interesting questions. I guess I'm not too surprised at the outcry, given how prone people are to object to anything that vaguely challenges their cherished beliefs, but I didn't view the book as "religious fiction", just a darn good story with a fascinating premise.

Finally, as a cheerful agnostic, I haven't given too much thought about my view of God, but after looking at your choices, I'd say if He exists, my God would be the Distant God. I honestly don't see Him inserting Himself too much (if at all) in daily life, nor do I put much stock in the fire and brimstone Lord from the Old Testament. I guess I think of Him as the Creator of the Universe (or maybe just of the Big Bang), who has set the Big Plan in motion and then just sits back and observes what happens. It's kind of hard to explain the Holocaust and disco music otherwise.