This sermon is from Jason Micheli in Arlington VA, at Aldersgate UMC. Jason here presses against superficial understandings of God by pushing against Baylor’s Survey and then reminding us that we Christians have a powerful image of God that almost never makes it into surveys. Whenever I read sermons I pause to think of the sermon’s function by this sermon’s preacher in that sermon’s social context and in that sermon’s ecclesial context. And I always trust the pastor’s judgment for that pastor’s context. I assume he or she knows what to say and when and how …. but I thought this sermon transcended a local context and speaks to so much of what we need to hear today.
Just two weeks ago, USA Today featured a story about perceptions of God in America, and how a person’s perception of God influences their opinions on issues of the day. The research can be found in a book by two sociologists at Baylor, the Baptist University in Texas. Their book’s entitled: America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God and What that Says about Us.
The researchers identify four primary characteristics of God. They are: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical and Distant. Based on surveys, they have come up with percentages of what American people believe about God:
According to the authors, people who hold this view of God divide the world along good and evil and they tend to be people who are worried, concerned and scared. They respond to a powerful, sovereign God guiding this country.
These are people who identify more with the spiritual and speak of finding the mysterious, unknowable God in creation or through contemplation or in elegant mathematical theorems.
The researchers describe people who perceive a God who keeps a critical eye on this world but only delivers justice in the next.
According to the researchers, their God is a “positive influence” who cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts and will comfort all.
Benevolent. Distant. Critical. Authoritative.
Along the way, their research nets some curious findings.
For instance, if your parents spanked you when you were a child, then you’re more likely to subscribe to an Authoritative God view. If you’re European, then in all likelihood you have a Distant view of God. If you’re poor then, odds are, you fall into the Critical view. United Methodists meanwhile- proving we can’t make up our minds about anything- tend to be evenly distributed among the four characteristic views.
The book is several years old now so I was surprised to discover that the sociologists’ survey is still up and running online. As people take the survey, the percentages change.
You might be interested to hear that right now the Distant God is now pulling ahead in the polls, as the Authoritative God falls behind, and the Benevolent God gains a few points.
When I discovered the website last week, I decided to take the survey, all twenty questions of it. I was asked to rate whether or not the term “loving” described God very well, somewhat well, undecided, not very well, or not at all. Other attributes in the twenty survey questions were “critical, punishing, severe, wrathful, distant, ever present.”
I was asked if I thought God was angered by human sin and angered by my sin. I was asked if God was concerned with my personal well being and then with the well being of the world.
In order to capture my understanding of and belief in God, according to my watch, the survey took all of two minutes and thirty-five seconds. After I finished, I was told what percentage of people in my demographic shared my view of God (college educated men under age 35). You may be interested to know, but no doubt not surprised, that the survey says that your pastor maintains a perception of a Benevolent God.
It was only after I answered all the questions, only after I saw my results, only after I saw how I measured up against other respondents….only then did it strike me how the Baylor survey never asked me about Jesus.
The survey asked me to choose if I thought God was Authoritative or Distant or Critical or Benevolent, but it never asked me, it was never given as an option, if I thought God was Incarnate- in the flesh, among us, as one of us.
I’m no sociologist. Presumably, ‘Do you believe that God, though being in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on the cross…’ is a lousy survey question.
Even still, it struck me that I’d just taken a supposedly thorough survey about my belief in God, and Jesus was not in any of the questions and he was never a possible answer.
Now, I’ve been accused in the past of being prejudiced against both Texans and Baptists so it should surprise no one when I say that I think the Baylor survey is a bunch of crap.
I even tried to go back and undo, invalidate my responses but it wouldn’t let me. I even emailed the Baylor sociologist to say I to tell him what I thought of his survey .
The problem with the survey is that, whether I like it or not, God’s not someone I get to pick with just the click of a mouse. We don’t get to define God instead God has come to us in a way that confounds and overturns all our definitions.
The problem with the survey is that I don’t believe God is Authoritative, Distant, Critical or Benevolent.
I believe Jesus is God.
Christians are peculiar. Maybe it takes a survey to point that out.
When we say God, we mean Jesus.
And when we say Jesus, we mean the God who emptied himself, the God who traded divinity for poverty, power for weakness, the God who came down among us and stooped down to serve the lowliest of us.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said that if God had wanted to God could’ve been Sovereign. If God had wanted to God could’ve been All-Powerful or All-Knowing. If God had wanted to God could’ve been Holy or Righteous.
But instead, said Wesley, God chose to be Jesus.
You see- it’s not that God’s power and glory and divinity are somehow concealed behind Jesus‘ human life. It’s not that in Jesus God masquerades as someone he’s not already. The incarnation isn’t a temporary time-out in which God gets to pretend he’s a different person.
Rather, when we see Jesus in the wilderness saying no to the world’s ways of power, when we see Jesus- the Great High Priest- embracing lepers and eating with sinners, when we see Jesus stoop down to wash our dirty feet, when we see Jesus freely choose death rather than retaliation, when we see Jesus pour himself out, empty himself, humble and humiliate himself we’re seeing as much of God as there is to see.
After I completed the Baylor survey, in less than three minutes, a window popped up on the screen to tell me, conclusively, that I had a perception of a Benevolent God.
For me, the survey said, God is a positive influence on people. I suppose that means God is like Joel Osteen or Dr. Phil. The survey results also explained how my particular perception of God likely impacted my worldview, in other words, how my belief in God played out in my positions on contemporary issues.
But the survey never said anything about a way of life. The survey never mentioned a community. According to the survey I’m just an individual person who has a certain perception of God and that perception influences my opinions on political issues.
I told you it was a terrible survey.
Last Thursday, the same day I discovered and completed that survey, we celebrated in this sanctuary a funeral service for a church member- a man who died much too young and much too suddenly, leaving behind his two nine year old twins.
During the sermon and all through the eulogies, if I’m honest, I only half-listened. And instead I sat up here at the altar table and I peeked around the specially-ordered flowers and I looked at the deceased’s fourth grade son, slumped in the pew and sitting in the crook of his mother’s arm.
And I watched him again after the funeral service during the reception in the fellowship hall. He looked tired and red-eyed and comprehending.
I watched him. And I thought about the questions he must have, the questions he will undoubtedly have as he gets older. I thought about the burden of grief he will carry. I thought about the anger that will come over him.
And maybe it’s because I’d just filled out that silly survey in the morning but as I watched him I thought about what sort of God it is that I want him to know.
I thought about what sort of God it is that makes it possible to mark his father’s death with worship. I thought about what sort of God it is that produces a community of people who can be the love and presence of God to a boy who’d just lost his Dad.
What sort of God is that?
Authoritative? Distant? Critical? Benevolent?
Or is it the God who trades away his divinity so that he might win us?
Is it the God who takes flesh and shares in the grief and joy and pain of our lives in order to redeem our them?
Is it the God who stoops down to serve us so that we might learn how to serve one another?
Is it the God who gets his hands dirty so that we might be made clean?
Who judges us by suffering in our place? Whose mercy is as wide as a cross and as deep as the grave?
Later that afternoon, after the funeral service, I emailed the Baylor sociologist responsible for the survey:
Dear Dr. Bader,
I’m a United Methodist pastor in Alexandria, Virginia. Having read about your book and your research in USA Today, I just completed your survey online Since I was unable to cancel or otherwise invalidate my responses I felt I should share a few comments with you.
First, let me take issue with the four views of God that you group responses into. I don’t deny there is a diversity of religious belief in America. It’s just that, as a Christian, I was surprised to find that the God whom I worship isn’t to be found in any of your questions or categories. I believe Jesus of Nazareth is as much of God as there to see. Authoritative, Distant, Critical, or Benevolent therefore are not sufficient categories to describe the God who empties himself of divinity, takes flesh, lives the life of a servant and turns the other cheek all the way to a cross. Perhaps you think my definition of God is too specific. The trouble is in Jesus of Nazareth God couldn’t have been more specific.
Second, your survey suggests that believing in God is primarily a matter of having a particular worldview that then influences one’s opinions on issues. I can’t speak for other religions, but as a Christian I can say that Jesus doesn’t seem interested in giving us a worldview. He instead gives us a ministry.
Since we believe Jesus is the fullest expression of God we believe Jesus’ life then becomes to pattern for our own lives. So, you see, Dr. Bader, Jesus expects a lot more from us than having the right positions on issues.
Finally, I just came from a funeral service for a fourth grader’s father. And during the funeral it occurred to me. In all of your questions on your survey, you never asked if I believed that God loved me. Postulating a loving God in the abstract isn’t the same thing as believing that God loves me, ME, no matter what. You never asked that question, and that’s the most important question. For that little boy’s sake, and for his Dad’s, I thank God that in Jesus Christ the answer is yes.
No doubt the harsh tone of my email will lead you to conclude that I score in the ‘Authoritative God’ category. Not so, even though my mother did spank me as a child. No, I rate solidly in the ‘Benevolent God’ category. So I hope you will believe it’s in a spirit of benevolence when I say, for lack of a better expression, I think your survey is crap.