…for they shall see God…

A recent study by two Baylor University sociologists says that there are four very different ways that Americans see and understand God. These provide an interesting contrast and speaks to conflicting theological viewpoints and how the individual sees current societal issues.

The four views are:

The Authoritative God – God is engaged in history and metes our harsh punishment for infractions of God’s law. Those believing this way (such as Glen Beck& Sarah Palin) talk about America “losing God’s favor.”  28% of US citizens share this view

The Benevolent God – In this understanding God is engaged in the world, loves us, and supports us in caring for others. (such as Barack Obama & Stephen Colbert) share this view with 22% of US citizens.

The Critical God – God keeps an eye on the world but delivers justice in the next life after our death. The poor & exploited often hold to this belief which can be characterized as “Wait until heaven when accounts will be settled.”. It represents the understanding of 21% of Americans.

The Distant God – Though only 5% of Americans claim to be atheist 24% of people in the US believe in a God who created the universe and then has left humanity alone. God is not engaged in history or in society or in the lives of individuals. This according 0ot the Baylor researchers is a predominant view of Jews, Buddhism & Hinduism.

So why does it matter? How we see God helps define how we see issues especially issues of morality and evil. The sociologists report that those with the view of an Authoritative God are three time more likely to say that homosexuality is an individual choice not a state of being. Hurricane Katrina or 9/11 will more likely be seen by believers in an Authoritative God as punishment for society’s sinful way. Believers in a Benevolent God will be more likely to look at the same events by focusing on the fireman who escaped or the people who rebuild storm ravaged homes, or on someone missing one of the flights that crashed.  The believer in the Distant God often sees 9/11 as indicative of man’s inhumanity not God’s action, God’s judgment or God’s inaction to prevent it.

Their book, America’s Four Gods, gives us data that our sense that other people just “don’t understand” – is almost correct. They don’t understand our view, just as we do not understand theirs.  The way we derive religious meaning varies in the same way that how we image and understand God varies. And this becomes the context in which we understand and describe the world around us.

This also leaves each of us with questions – What is your image of God? and How does this image affect how you hear the message of the Gospel week to week? What Gospel stories resonate for you and which do you NOT like or resonate to?  If we can learn to be more open to the breadth of the Gospel and the breadth of the ways Jesus describes God we may learn to get more comfortable with more than one narrow image of God

My grandfather once described the human mind trying to understand God as “Trying to pour a gallon into a pint jar.”  But if we come to understand our limits and explore beyond the boundaries of the pint jar we might be able to increase our knowledge and get a few drops more than that pint making us better able to see another as child of God even hought we don’t agree on our image of God or stance on an issue.


About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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