In the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (to list them chronologically from earliest to latest), the extreme images of God are these:
-- Wrathful, full of vengeance, assigning lots of wayward people to hell. This angry God is interested not in restorative justice but retributive justice. There's just about nothing fun or nice about this deity. This God throws thunderbolts at us in rain storms.
-- Soft-hearted, always forgiving and what Harry Emerson Fosdick once called a "cosmic bellboy." This God is an I'm-Okay-You're-Okay sort of deity who can be called on when we need a parking place or a raise at work but whose job is mostly to quietly encourage us to behave decently. (And not to split infinitives. Sorry, God.)
Although both pictures rely on considerable hyperbole, they represent a tendency toward theologies that you can find preached in this or that kind of congregation or denomination.
In Christian terms, both these visions of God are in terrible tension with the God portrayed in the Bible and the God to whom the historic confessions of faith attest.
And yet those images persist. It's my experience that deeply committed atheists especially cling to the wrathful God image as the one they reject, rarely understanding that many people of faith don't believe in that god, either.
Catholic theologian and Marquette University professor of religious history Ulrich L. Lehner offers a different, much more biblical vision of God in his book God Is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For.
It's a helpful balancing of those out-of-balance visions of the divine and worth a read by people of any faith tradition, though it is clearly Catholic in orientation.
"We have made attending church and believing in God something that nice and polite people do, mostly on Sundays," he writes. "But this is idolatry of the worst kind and a deadly threat to not only our faith but also the faith of our children."
And: "The God whom Catholics believe in is not a nice, conventional being but a radical, all-consuming, at times terrifying mystery." In fact, the God Lehner describes is the God all followers of traditional Christianity believe in, not just Catholics, though people rarely use the kind of language he has used here.
The God depicted in the Bible -- a God of love, compassion, judgment and mystery -- is the God who speaks to Moses from a burning bush; who parts a sea to allow the people of Israel to escape slavery after God has visited plagues on Egypt; who calls Abram (later Abraham) to leave his home and head to an unknown destination; who floods the Earth, saving only Noah, his family and animals; whose chief angel terrifies a teen-age girl in Nazareth to tell her she's pregnant with God's own son; whose son, being crucified, cries out about feeling abandoned by this God.
Consistently nice, huh?
But instead of recognizing this, Lehner says, many Christians think of God as "a bloodless idea that doesn't warm or fulfill us."
Lehner is far from impressed with much of what the Enlightenment brought. He writes this, for instance, "By equating religion and morality, Enlightenment thought has brought a deadly disease to theology. It reduces the Christian life to a set of rules and eliminates the need of a personal encounter with the triune God."
It causes the author to ask this good question: "Why did we 'tame' the wild God, domesticating him to be a heavenly social worker? Is it because we do not want an unpredictable God? The gods of the ancient Greeks remained unpredictable and mysterious as was the God of the Bible and of the Church Fathers. In stark contrast, the modern God of Christianity is predictable, like the outcome of a known experiment. His ways are scientifically discoverable (scientific laws) as are his intentions (human benevolence). In this new worldview, God looks like a scientist who is busy with humanity alone."
But Lehner insists that God must be approached "with trembling and fear. . .this experience is encapsulated in the word awe." Indeed, awe and wonder are at the root of the religious impulse.
It's crucial that we remember, he writes, that "God is mysterious and unpredictable -- not because God is whimsical as we are, changing his mind, but because we are unable to grasp God's essence, his ideas and plans. . ." It's a point I make in my own latest book, The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith.
God, Lehner writes, is also "an intimate lover. Just as we love our children, so too God loves us, and therefore he cannot be a nice divine grandpa but instead the burning bush that sets our hearts on fire." The problem, he writes, is that "many Christians today have turned God into a pleasant, kind deity. He is no longer a mystery but a finite idol. . .A god who is constructed by us and who only watches over our earthly needs, like a glorified Santa, is not able to console us and fulfill the heart's true desire, because he is no longer infinite and incomprehensible. More importantly, he is too mundane and too similar to earthly life."
The result of this weak vision of God, Lehner says, is that "we choose the nice life instead of the religious life that offers to heal the whole person, overcome death and transform earthly existence into everlasting bliss."
As I say, it's a challenging read, though at times I think the author relies too heavily on the word "nice" to convey meaning that most of us wouldn't necessarily associate with the term. The other thing I looked for in the book but didn't find was some reference to how the untamed-God theology he proposes might or should have affected the priest abuse scandal as well as how it might speak to the role of women in the church, a subject he touches on only briefly toward the end of the book, but without much fresh insight.
In the end, however, this is a book that takes seriously the biblical depiction of God -- a depiction that makes far too many of us uncomfortable enough to want to invent our own God, instead -- a god who will be nicer to us and do our bidding.
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AN ISLAM FOR AMERICA?
Almost 15 years ago, I wrote a longish analysis piece from Washington, D.C., for The Kansas City Star in which I suggested that Muslims in America were creating a new version of Islam particularly suited to life in the U.S., where Christians make up a majority of the population. Here now is this new piece from The Atlantic making that very same point. The money summation: "U.S. Muslims — roughly 60 percent of whom are under 40 — are going through a process that’s quintessentially American: finding new, diverse, self-constructed identities in their faith, ranging from fully secular to deeply pious. The contours may be particular to Islam, but the story is one shared by Catholics, Jews, and even the Puritans. Muslims are creating distinctively American forms of their religion." Good to know they're still at it.