Belief in a deity: it’s a debate that’s often framed in predictable ways. Either a person believes in God or is an atheist. Or a person believes in the Christian God or a Muslim God or a Hindu God.. Or perhaps one has made money, power, or prestige a deity.
As I look at the world today, across cultures, people, and beliefs, I find that there’s a problem about faith in a deity that’s often not addressed. That problem can be presented in the question, “What kind of God do you believe in?”
Most any day I can look at the news and find statements made by a prominent individual presenting a deity I simply don’t know or recognize. Perhaps the individual is Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell, Jr., Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or some leader from ISIS or a White Supremacist movement. While these people don’t adhere to the same religion and would insist that their beliefs are very different from each other, they seem to me to believe in the same God. This deity is filled with anger and judgment, who should be feared, and who will not hesitate to punish people through illness, natural disasters, and eternal damnation.
There are other people in the news who seem to believe in a very different God than this angry, vengeful deity. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, social justice advocate William Barber, and Pope Francis all come to mind. They seem to believe in a deity who is the embodiment of generosity, equality, and fairness among people. This is a God who is with people in their suffering rather than the cause of their suffering. This was the deity exemplified in the life of Mother Teresa of India who saw her mission as caring for the poorest of the poor..
The distinction between these two deities is not just a matter of theology. These beliefs deeply impact one’s self understanding and relationship with others. For example, in my book, The Integrated Self, http://amzn.to/2uG5Jmh I discuss research on how belief in a punitive, judgmental deity leads is correlated with anxiety disorders, depression, hypertension, and coronary disease. On the other hand, belief in a compassionate deity correlates with positive mental health, a sense of wholeness in life, and positive health outcomes. Further, those who believe in a compassionate deity are more tolerant of others and more accepting of differences. But those who profess faith in a judgmental deity carry those judgments to others and have expectations that people should adhere to narrow standards.
We generally have the attitude that whatever beliefs a person has is a private matter and should be respected and accepted. That’s freedom of religion, isn’t it? I contend that this is a simplistic understanding of freedom religion because beliefs have a very significant impact on society and liberty. For example, I recently spoke with a pastoral counselor who discussed his work with women from conservative Christian churches. Some of them have been severely abused and have been told by leaders of their churches to return to their husbands because it is God’s will that they remain married to an abusive husband. This pastoral counselor was confronted by a deacon from one of these churches who insisted that the counselor provide the same advice because women must be submissive to their husbands. Is that freedom of religion or systemic abuse?
I am a Christian. My faith is rooted in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Before all else, Jesus taught that God is one who loves unconditionally and forgives without limit, as conveyed in the stories of the Prodigal Son, the Women with the Lost Coin, and the Good Shepherd. The teaching of Jesus is clear that the realm of God is here and within us. The realm of God is not so much about an afterlife, but is manifest in the way we live this life. The moral teaching of Jesus is that we are to be Good Samaritans and care of the least in society. Jesus also demonstrated that the way to treat others of differing faiths was with respect, like the Samaritan Woman at the Well and the Roman soldier whose servant was in need of healing.
Ultimately, I contend that if Christians actually embraced the teachings of Jesus, the world would be very different. Similarly, if Buddhists embraced the words of the Dali Lama who said, “My religion is love,” change would occur. Likewise, Muslims living by the third pillar of Islam, Zakat, would live with kindness and charity toward all people, great change would be seen. Just as Jews are called to a life of repairing the world: tikkun olam Indeed, all the great religions of the world have at their heart the Golden Rule, to treat others as you would have them treat you. None of them are based on judgment and condemnation.
What kind of God do you believe in? It really does make a great difference for your life and for the world.
Photo credit: Marco Bellucci via Foter.com / CC BY
© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.