America’s Four Gods, What We Say About God–& What That Says About Us

One reads in the opening chapter of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self are inseparable. You can’t know one without the other. We understand that because we are in His image. These authors, I believe, have caught something of that idea. Their conclusion is that to know someone, you must know something about that person’s “God.”

The authors are sociology professors at Baylor University. In this in-depth study funded by the Lilly Foundation and implemented by the Gallup Pollsters, they targeted 3,500 individuals from across the board religiously, sociologically, ethnically, male and female, younger and older Americans. They found that 95% of Americans believe in God or some supreme being. From the 5% who claim to be atheists, two to three percent do believe in something. They also found that one’s view of God determines his or her worldview. Our view of God determines how and what we see, plus how we interpret life and reality. Remember this study not only includes Christians but those of other faiths as well.

They found that regardless of one’s religion, their view of God will generally fall within one of four distinct categories or ideas about God. Americans are at the top of the world’s list of people who profess belief in a God or Supreme Being. They found in the research that a person’s beliefs about God makes them think differently, act differently, and live differently. They also found that people can talk about God but not necessarily from a uniform perspective. Growing out of that reality, people can and do experience many misunderstandings and conflicts.

The story behind the study is quite interesting. It is in the book! For example: 47% of Americans believe God is a “he.” 33% believe that God is “sexless.” “The sex of God is an obvious indicator of whether a person pictures God as human. Approximately half or 53% refer to God as a “cosmic force” and tend to dismiss the idea that God has any physical appearance (page 5).

In case after case the authors found the most dramatic stories about God came from Americans who felt they were touched by God or “had divine encounters.” Think about it; the difference it makes if you believe God is watching and waiting for you or if God is not waiting and watching you. “Depending on a person’s image of God, God’s lack of action can be upsetting and confusing.”

The authors conclude, based on two questions, that if you can get a person talking about his or her view of God, you will quickly learn much about that person. The two questions are: 1. To what extent does God interact with the world? 2. To what extent does God judge the world? They refer to those two questions as windows into a person’s worldview. They write, “God is not dead because God continues to be the clearest and most concise reflection of how the average American perceives the world.”

They have described their four categories or views of God growing out of this study. You will find expanded explanations and examples as you read the book. But before listing them, realize how important this is. We have recently heard comments on the tragedy in Japan, similar to those heard at 9/11, or after hurricane Katarina. Where is God in all of this?

The first view of God is God is an “authoritative God.” The second view, God is a “benevolent God.” View three is that God is a judgmental or “Critical God.” View four is that God is a “distant God.”

You will want to read this book, including the actual study set forth in the book. As I read it, I was struck by one overshadowing thought. As a preacher and teacher of the Word, am I being naive when preaching and teaching about the God of the Bible in thinking the audience is hearing the same God that I am referring to? We listen through filters. We could be talking about God in several different ways thus not communicating clearly and not building an understanding of who he says he is and not understanding the person or people with whom we are speaking.

Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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