Is Your God as Friendly as Joel Osteen’s?

Is Your God as Friendly as Joel Osteen’s? April 12, 2016

The third installment of Morgan Freeman’s “The Story of God” (upcoming, 4/17) departs a bit from the first two, which focused on eternal life and the apocalypse.

"Sing Into Peace," by artist Dan Addington. Used by permission (cropped)
“Sing Into Peace,” by artist Dan Addington. Used by permission (cropped)

The drama of apocalyptic terror switches into a peaceful meditation on God.

How and when did belief in a single God (monotheism) come about? How do we best understand the distinctions between how folks of major world religions believe in God?

These questions are impossible to adequately address in a single episode. The weightiness of the challenge Freeman has set for himself comes to an apex in this one. The master story-teller still manages to give us a multifaceted, comparative picture of the way that many people across the globe conceive of the divine.

The picture he gives us, by and large, is a friendly one. A God who is–though to varying extents–mostly welcoming, nurturing, interested in the world, and even (in one striking illustration via the American celebrity pastor, Joel Osteen) someone who literally wants to be our friend.

Freeman traces the emergence of monotheism, locating the origins of the idea of a single God in the sun-worship of the prehistoric peoples living nearby Stonehenge. He tracks monotheism through its fulfillment in Judaism, then Christianity, then Islam.

Even Hinduism (this is perhaps the most intriguing point made in the episode) is not as foreign to the basic impulse of monotheism as most of us in the western world assume. The millions of local gods scattered throughout the Hindu religious world are, at one level really just that: local expressions or manifestations of the single divine one. They’re like innumerable branches sprouting from a single tree.

I was hoping Freeman would have explored, a bit deeper anyway, the potential connection between Christianity and Hinduism. Christian belief is not a “simple” monotheism, not in the same way that Judaism and Islam are. At the heart of Christian belief (at least of Christian theology informed by the early ecumenical creeds) is a complex, non-reductive monotheism.

God is one but also three. Granted, Father, Son, and Spirit are not–in orthodox theology–like three branches sprouting from a single tree-trunk. Nonetheless, for many centuries, Christianity has taught that the single divine being cannot be adequately understood as single, in the sense of the numeral “one,” but must also be understood as a kind of plurality.

A plurality in unity. A unity in plurality. A hypostatic union of three perichoretically-related (ok, now I’m getting carried away).

Point is, the potentially fruitful link between Christianity and Hinduism seemed like a fascinating but too-hidden insight, buried perhaps a little too deep in the implications of Freeman’s exploration. Especially when it came to the presentation of Christianity. No mention of the Trinity-that I recall.

This relates to another of the most intriguing points Freeman made: The benefit of religious beliefs which offer their adherents some concrete, tangible manifestations of the single divine being. God who can be conceived as something specific, something particular (and beautiful) that the human mind can imagine and somehow relate to.

The episode concludes with a glimpse into Joel Osteen’s theology and (10,000 member) church. For Osteen, God wants to be your friend. God “wants to be involved in your life as much as you want him to be.” God is “personal, approachable, helpful.”

Osteen’s God is the evangelical personal-friend God on steroids. He is the epitome of the “Benevolent God,” one of the four primary God-concepts that a group of sociologists found to be prevalent in American believers. The benevolent God loves us, helps us, wants us to be successful and happy, and desperately wants to be our friend. This concept of God is obviously very attractive for scores of Christian believers.

I have to say, though, I found it more than a little disappointing that, as the single example of a Christian view of God offered in this piece, we were offered Osteen’s God. Now, I believe God is benevolent, to be sure. A God defined through a grid of love, grace, and acceptance is surely healthier than a God defined through fear, unattainable demands, and exclusion.

Nonetheless, one of the implicit lessons of the episode is that we human beings have an uncanny ability to conceive of God in innumerable ways. The religious imagination is a powerful thing–and that ability may even be given to us by God. It may be inherent to the very nature of human being.

It only takes a minute of reflection to see how that ability can also cause great damage. Because we can conceive of the divine through our powerful reflective capacities, we can also–as anthropologist Ernest Becker pointed out–fetishize God. We fetishize when we assume that “my” God-concept fully and adequately captures God as he/she/it really and actually is. This is the essence of idolatry.

Freeman’s explorations of God in this episode slanted heavily to the happy side of human God-concepts. As he summarizes at the end: Humans think of God in many ways: The “warm light of the sun, the sound of sweet music, the inner voice that drives us forward, our friend.”

These bright, warm, friendly concepts of God, taken by themselves, miss out on some of the more mysterious, darker, and even more troubling concepts of the divine. We know that many of our current geo-political conflicts, both here in the U.S. and throughout the world, cannot be adequately understood without a deeper look. For that deeper look, we need only review the content of  the prior episode on “Apocalypse.”

But on the bright side, if you’re going to fetishize God, better to conceive God as Friend than as an Enemy or as a Warrior on your side.

How do you conceive of God?

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