The God They Believe In
Former Harvard Chaplain George Buttrick had students who would come into his office and say, “I don’t believe in God.” His standard reply was: “Sit down and tell me what kind of God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.”
His point was that the distorted view of God they were rejecting was undoubtedly not the true, biblical view of God at all.
We need to update that strategy.
As in: “Sit down and tell me what kind of God you do believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God at all.”
80% of Americans believe in God. The Pew Research Center recently found out what people mean who say that, and it’s a mess. In short, for many of those who say they believe in God, it’s not the God of the Bible.
And they know it.
Of the 80% who say they believe in God, only 56% would say it’s the God of the Bible. Even those who say the God they believe in is the God of the Bible have the God of the Bible wrong. Many who say they believe in God describe this “god” as a higher power or spiritual force. Think Star Wars. A God who is all-knowing, all-powerful and loving? Not so much.
But what I found missing in the research, undoubtedly because of the nature of the questions asked, was something I am increasingly finding in the post-Christian world.
This idea of “my” God.
As in, “That’s not the way my God thinks.”
“That’s not the way my God feels.”
Throw up an idea, a position, a theology, and the answer is the same:
“That’s not my God.”
The unmistakable insinuation? “You might think God acts or feels that way, but that’s not the way the God I believe in acts or feels because I wouldn’t have a God who acted and felt like that.”
There is no sense that God is who He is, outside of anyone’s estimation or evaluation. Or that He has revealed Himself and truth about Himself through divinely inspired Scriptures and, supremely, through His incarnation in Jesus.
Instead, God becomes what we envision, what we idealize, what we desire. He becomes the notary public to whatever we wish to make official. God is not above our values or judge of our values—He is the reflection of our values.
This is, of course, no God at all.
When God becomes a projection of ourselves, He ceases to be God and we recommit the great sin of the Garden of Eden and make ourselves God.
I wish the days of Buttrick were still here. It would be so much easier. But no longer is it “tell me about the God you don’t believe in,” and then we quickly clear up their misunderstandings about the God of the Bible, usually by helping them see past legalism into grace.
Welcome news to most.
Now we have to brace ourselves and ask, “Tell me about the God you do believe in,” and then wade into theologies that have nothing to do with the Bible, but everything to do with individual tastes and sensibilities. Which usually means helping them see past their narcissism to a God who authoritatively stands outside of their individualism as… well, God.
Not so welcome news to most.
But it’s the news they need.
James Emery White
“When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean?” Pew Research Center, April 25, 2018, read online.
Kate Shellnutt, “80% of Americans Believe in God. Pew Found Out What They Mean,” Christianity Today, April 25, 2018, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.