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Thinking about God-images

Preaching Today points to the now well-mediaized Baylor University study that, among other things, tries to boil down Americans’ views of God’s personality and interaction with the world into four types. Here are their results:
• 31.4 percent believe in an Authoritarian God, who is very judgmental and engaged

• 25 percent believe in a Benevolent God, who is not judgmental but engaged

• 23 percent believe in a Distant God, who is completely removed

• 16 percent believe in a Critical God, who is judgmental but not engaged
Not surprisingly, researchers found “the type of god people believe in can predict their political and moral attitudes more so than just looking at their religious tradition.” Regarding “demographic relationships and religious effects surrounding the ‘Four Gods’", the study results include the following:
• Region of the country is significantly related to the four types of god. Easterners tend towards belief in a Critical God; Southerners tend towards an Authoritarian God; Midwesterners believe in a Benevolent God; and the West Coast believes in a Distant God.

• Individuals with lower educations and lower incomes tend towards more engaged images of God.
Now, the study has obvious flaws (see the GetReligion take for more on that), but I was struck by a comment from Baylor researcher Dr. Paul Froese: "If I know your image of God, I can tell all kinds of things about you. It's a central part of world view and it's linked to how you think about the world in general."

Oh my, isn’t that the truth. Our view of who God is—our “image” of him—affects how we view God, the world around us and our place/role in it. It affects how we trust God (if we trust him at all) and how we treat other people. If our view of God is skewed, then our worldview is skewed as well.

In the beginning of Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard uses an effective image to describe the impact of our view of God and his Kingdom on our view of the world and how it operates:

Recently a pilot was practicing high-speed maneuvers in a jet fighter. She turned the controls for what she thought was a steep ascent—and flew straight into the ground. She was unaware that she had been flying upside down.

This is the parable of human existence in our times—not exactly that everyone is crashing, though there is enough of that—but most of us as individuals, and world society as a whole, live a high-speed, and often with no clue to whether we are flying upside down or right-side up. Indeed, we are haunted by a strong suspicion that there may be no difference—or at least that it is unknown or irrelevant.
What Willard and other contemporary Christian writers point out, however, is that today's Christians aren’t immune to this disorientation. In fact, there are more than a few voices out there saying many of us aren't getting who God is, who Jesus is and what God is all about.

Many of us fall into one of the four groups that Baylor researchers outline above. Trouble is those images of God are at-best incomplete and at-worst down-right-wrong. While some of the attributes God exhibits lead to those images—such as God’s sovereignty and holiness and mercy—are true or valid, to base God’s total character or image on any one or two of them alone leads to upside-down flying.

So, where do we get a right image of God? I think we must start with Jesus, whom Paul calls the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15) or the writer of Hebrews calls the exact picture or representation of God’s substance (Heb. 1:3). It is in Jesus we see God’s most incredible act of restoration and redemption and love and goodness and faithfulness and trustworthiness in his on-going plan to restore his Creation. It is in Jesus we begin to really understand God’s Kingdom—those wide open spaces of his grace, glory, love and restoration. As John says (paraphrased by Willard), “God’s care for humanity was so great that he sent his unique Son among us, so that those who count on him might not lead a futile and failing existence, but have the undying life of God Himself” (John 3:16). Jesus shows us what that undying life looks like. Jesus shows us what God looks like and ushered in God’s kingdom—God’s love and rule has come among us through Jesus. Jesus shows us what living in his Kingdom looks like, what our own lives will look like if we live in him, and how we do all that. If Jesus is who he said and can do what he said, then Jesus is the Way. Jesus is right-side-up flying.

My dearest friend Susan once shared how she guided a young woman she was discipling to read through a gospel (I think it was John) with this question in mind: If you didn’t know anything about Christianity or Jesus, what would you think Jesus was saying? I’m taking on that challenge, too. I think it's an effective way to begin examining my own images of God. How do they stack up to Jesus? In other words, how do they stack up to reality? Am I flying right side up? Or upside down?

Great food for thought (for me, anyway).

(For more on the study, see USA Today and Chicago Tribune.)

(Image: Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, face detail of God via