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Rabbi Lyon's Blog - 10-08-2010
10/08/2010 10:53 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon

October 8, 2010

 

 

                Did you read USA Today, yesterday? The front page reported on “How America sees God”. It is based on research conducted by Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, sociologists at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, soon to be published in their book, “America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God, and What that Says About Us”. It examines all the way Americans see God and why it matters.

                There isn’t any bad news in their report. They conclude that 9 out of 10 Americans believe in God, and that the way we picture God reveals our attitudes on “economics, justice, social morality, war, natural disasters, science, politics, love and more.” In effect, God is part of our life at home in private and among like-minded people, but God is also with us in the public square. For all the Americans who believe in God, the researchers concluded that we believe in one of four God types.

                The Authoritative God is claimed by 28% of Americans. This is the God who judges us and metes out harsh punishment for sins and transgressions. To them the world is divided into good and evil, and, “they respond to a powerful God guiding our country.”

                The Benevolent God is claimed by 22% of Americans. This is the God who loves us and supports us in our caring for others. To them, God is a force for good, “who cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts and will comfort all.”

                The Critical God is claimed by 21% of Americans. This is the God who “keeps an eye on the world but delivers justice in the next.” The poor, the suffering and the exploited identify with this God. The researchers quote a working-class preacher who told his congregation, “Our cars that are breaking down here will be chariots in heaven. Our empty bank accounts will be storehouses with the Lord.”

                The Distant God is claimed by 24% of Americans. This is the God who “booted up the universe and left humanity alone.” This, they claim, is the “dominant view of Jews and other followers of world religions and philosophies such as Buddhism and Hinduism.”

                Over many years, in a lesson plan for 10th grades about how they perceive God’s role in the world, I discovered that for most Jewish teenagers and emerging young adults, they identified with the Distant God. They valued God’s distant presence, but counted on their own heads and hearts to make a difference in the world on all the subjects identified by the Baylor researchers, including grades, relationships, and happiness. Only on issues they believed to be too far from their present context, like war and peace, did they relinquish some control to God. Over many years, in conversations with adults, I would conclude that Reform Jews generally claim a Distant God, too.

                In this short space, I can only take issue with one idea in their report. It is the part that draws conclusions about our Jewish view of God. They report that Americans speak about a “personal God engaged in our lives.” Jews can claim a “personal relationship” with God, but Jews can also claim a “personal covenant” with God. Within that covenantal relationship with God, we can identify with God in multiple ways. At different points in our life, at different ages and under different circumstances, Jews can “live” with God who can be, over time, authoritative, benevolent, critical and/or distant.

A study from Baylor would strive to reach a specific conclusion about how Americans see God, today, as if that view had remained fixed or at least dominant for the majority of our lifetime. In religions with strict dogmas and creeds, variations on beliefs are usually unwelcome; therefore, I’m not surprised that either no category was provided or none emerged for those who have or have had more than one God image. There is no dogma in Judaism, and the closest we come to a creed is found in Deuteronomy 6:4, where we find Shema, the “Watchword of our Faith,” God is One God. We can imagine the One God, without form or gender, in our own separate ways and with whom we live in a lifelong covenant. How have you imagined God? Would you identify with one or more of the study’s categories, or one of your own? Send me your answer. I’ll reply later with some unscientific but interesting conclusions.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

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