As a Christian, I believe God exists beyond my thoughts. God does not exist because I think about God. On the contrary, if I decide this day to stop believing, the God-as-Christians-conceive-God would go on existing, as God exists without my help or belief. Without us, God is. This is because God is not an idea.
But to many Christians, faith is not so much that you should believe in God, as it is that you should believe all the right things about God. It is not uncommon for someone to call into question your entire faith when you disagree on one tiny sliver of doctrine. For example, I agree with my Evangelical friends everything about the Lordship of Jesus. But, when I say that I believe homosexuality is not a sin, it is as if I’ve spat on a child in Sunday School.
No, you cannot just believe in God — you have to think the right things about God! And, across denominational lines, sermons, books and aphorisms present that the best idea one can think about God is that God is a nice God.
Christians believe in a nice God. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas was reported to say that a tenet of Mainline belief is “God is nice; therefore, we must be nice.” After temple sacrifice and the horrors of crucifixion, Christians seemingly inherited a calmer God who no longer stalked in darkness, thirsting for blood behind a veil. The heretic Marcion even went so far as to say that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New were two separate beings. What could the loving and peaceful — and nice! — God of Jesus have in common with that angry lowlife of the Old Testament? (So, I can’t tell whether this is a modern American problem or something the Church has struggled with for some years.)
We repeat over-and-again the litany, “God is Good. All the time. All the time. God is good.” We comfort each other with Julian’s lines that “All shall be well,” because we believe that God is nice. St. Paul’s exhortation, “God works for the good of all who call on him,” is always on our lips because we believe that God has a plan — a nice plan! — in store. In the bourgeois Christian circles in which I travel, Marcionism is alive and well: we’ll take the nice God of Jesus over Abraham’s God any day.
The nice God is never angry, but he is always deferential, pleasant. When he does get angry, this nice God is more — gosh-golly-jee! — a father who gently spanks his son, saying the entire time, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” He’s so nice, why would he want to reprimand us; why would he want to hurt us? The punishments are usually followed by a ruffle of our hair. After all, as the Calvinists teach us, God poured out all his wrath on Jesus, so all the elect get is a gentle swat. Isn’t this just lovely?
So, when my friend asks, “Is God a monster because he allows suffering?”, he tells me that most Christians get deeply offended and incredibly defensive. Why is that? My friend did not call into question the existence of God. He did not ask if Jesus Christ is Lord or not. Where is the offense? Why do they get defensive? He attacks not God — but the “niceness” of God.
And, this “niceness” is a most dangerous idol. It is not dangerous because God isn’t nice, it is dangerous because the-idea-of-who-we-think-God-is has become so intertwined with God that we cannot separate the two. God is either nice or he’s no God at all! And, so, when this nice-God-idol finally falls from its sacred perch, these Christians end up in unbelief, sadly.
For most Christians, thoughts about God are more important than God. There is no mystery with the nice God; this nice God is always present, never beyond. They have been taught that it is not important to believe in God, but to believe the right things about God. For most of us, God is simply an idea.
This is why, if Christians were really paying attention, they’d realize that these questions are telling them something very important about God. If they really listen they might even hear Christ speaking distantly through Atheists and Agnostics (in spite of them). They might hear something more important, perhaps, than all the sermons they’ve ever head before. If they’re really listening, they might realize that Atheists are the prophets of our time.
(To be concluded in the next post.)