Do you recall the lyrics of a popular song from a few decades ago?
Got to believe that
A little bit of love is better than no love
Even the bad love is better than no love
And any kind of love is better than no love at all.
Although I’m a big fan of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s music, I never really liked the song. When I first heard the words, my response was “Really?” I knew people who settled for abusive and unfaithful relationships, because they believed that some love, even if it was unpredictable, inconsistent, and violent, was better than none at all. The words didn’t make sense to me then, and still don’t make sense. I believe they also apply to our theologies, our understandings of God, as well. Is believing in a bad god better than not believing at all?
Bible scholar Terrence Fretheim has stated that instead of asking “Do you believe in God?” we should ask “What kind of God do you believe in?” Anyone can say they believe in God and recite the creeds, but what we believe can be a matter of life and death, for ourselves and others. Even atheists have particular gods they don’t believe in.
The issue of the gods we believe in made headlines this week when Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party Republican candidate for US Senate in Indiana, stated that pregnancies stemming from rape, however horrible, are “something God intended to happen.” While Mourdock has sought to soften the impact of his statement, I believe that his words reflected his – and many other Christians – understand of God’s presence in the world. Rape is horrible, but God intended it to happen as part of God’s particular will for your life. Best-selling author Rick Warren asserts that all the important events in our lives have been planned by God without our consultation. Moreover, Warren asserts that everything that happens to us is “father-filtered” – dysfunctional families of origin, abusive relationships, automobile accidents, and life-threatening illnesses – as part of God’s testing to make us stronger and more faithful.
The kind of God we believe in is of absolute importance. It can shape public policy, attitudes toward women’s health, care for the environment, and the extent of medical care. Regularly, children die of preventable causes because their parents believe that seeing doctors is a matter of bad faith. They believe that if we have enough faith, God will cure our – or our children’s – ailments. Others reject global climate change (global warming) because its assumption that we can threaten planetary life by our behaviors abrogates God’s sovereign ability to end life on Earth in concert with Jesus’ Second Coming.
What we believe really matters? Our images of God can lead to terrorist attacks, denunciation and violence against gay and lesbian persons, opposition to environmental standards, outlawing contraception and abortion, and persecuting religious minorities. If you look at the religious perspectives of those who hold such viewpoints, including Mourdock’s, they all share something in common, whether held by Christians or Muslims. They are grounded in the following assumptions:
- God is omnipotent and ultimately determines every event.
- God acts unilaterally and without human cooperation to achieve God’s plan.
- Actions are good because God wills them, not because they conform to human standards of morality. God’s way is always right even if appears morally suspect and destructive of humankind and creation. (God knows best. Actions that would lead to arrest – such as intending a rape or destroying a city, if they were performed by humans are deemed acceptable if initiated by God.)
- God’s revelations to humans are clear, infallible, and unchanging.
- God’s scriptures are infallible and typically have only one interpretation, usually the most literal and least metaphorical one.
- Certain parts of religious scriptures are highlighted – literal readings of Genesis’ creation accounts, the scant admonitions against ancient practices of homosexuality, the role of women, the Second Coming – usually out of context and in isolation from the totality of scriptural witness and interpretation.
- God is defined more by power than by love.
- Cooperation with those with different viewpoints is considered apostasy or betrayal of God’s values, whether this relates to marriage equality, the teaching of evolution in schools, or tax and budget policy.
- God’s unilateral actions and clear revelations create in and out groups, saved and unsaved, righteous and unrighteous. Those who are out, unsaved, and unrighteous have forfeited their basic civil rights.
- Those who oppose God’s clearly revealed truths in thought or deed have no religious or political rights. (Abortion and contraception are prime examples of this: grounded in his belief in a literal interpretation of scripture, Mourdock seeks to legislate the behaviors of those who differ from him. After all, they are wrong and he is right. Even if the Bible doesn’t directly say it, we can infer “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” even in the area of public policy.)
- A distaste for pluralism and an implicit desire to enforce religious rules in certain aspects of life. In the best of all possible worlds, pluralism of faiths and viewpoints would be eliminated or assimilated.
Donald Trump is noted for telling people, “You’re fired!” While I do not advocate religious uniformity and recognize the good faith of those who differ radically from me in theology and practice, I believe that some of our gods should be “fired” and replaced by healthier and more life-supporting visions of God.
A pluralist society in which people find ways to affirm diversity, reach compromise, and work together despite differences requires a different image of truth and divinity. Briefly put, a healthy society requires religious and political humility, grounded in a clear recognition of the insights of those who differ from us and a confession of our own finitude, error, and imperfection. The most important truth that can be uttered in religion and politics is “This I believe, but I could be wrong in parts” and “I differ from you, but there may be truth in your position.”
When we bring God into play in terms of public policy and behavior, we can promote either greater freedom and tolerance or restrict freedom and diversity. I believe that some visions of God promote health and well-being personally, politically, and culturally, while others are personally and socially destructive. I believe that we should imagine God in the following ways:
- God is a personal and relational being, whose actions are contextual and cooperative rather than unilateral.
- God’s revelations in the world are diverse and vary from time to time and culture to culture.
- Scripture is a source of insight but is relative and subject to varying interpretations.
- God’s power is defined by love and inclusion.
- God loves diversity and seeks to encourage diversity in the plant and animal worlds.
- God’s truth is evolving in relationship to human growth and maturity over time.
- God seeks healing relationships in which partnership rather than competition prevails.
- All persons are God’s children and deserve respect and care, even when we disagree with one another.
- Growth may involve changing your mind, learning from “others,” and finding “middle paths” to solving problems.
- No one fully knows God or what is best; but everyone is touched by God and given some insights in the area of ethics and virtue.
Yes, candidate Mourdock needs to apologize, but he also needs to consider whether his God more resembles a coercive tyrant or the healer from Galilee. Our character and behavior is formed according to our deepest convictions. We had better be sure that what we believe encourages welcome, hospitality, affirmation of diversity, humility, and awareness of God’s presence in all of our brothers and sisters. This is the only pathway to national, global, and interfaith flourishing.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.