Thursday, September 15, 2011

Creating God in Our Image: Post-Modernism Run Amok

There is a bracing article in Tuesday's USA Today. George Barna, religious pollster whose new book cites some breathtaking trends and data, is quoted in the paper about "designer" Christianity. Barna says, "People say, 'I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.'"

The attractiveness of this view, of course, is easy to see. When we are the ultimate authority about all things supernatural, religious, and extra-sensoral, nobody can argue with us. The article sites a woman named Sheila who says that her religion is "Sheilaism... just my own little voice."

I understand where this comes from. Philosophically, today's post-modern denial of ultimate truth means that everybody can reach his or her own conclusions. And, to be fair, there are doubtless many questions asked sincerely in our churches for which there is not a single clear answer. We can and do have legitimate disagreement and debate about a number of issues of the faith. When this debate is allowed to extend to what are the bedrock tenets of doctrine and ultimate answers are not agreed upon, however, the healthy discussion becomes an excuse for designer Sheilaism.

Empirically, so many authority figures in the church have turned out to be charlatans, definitive hypocrites, laughingstocks, or combinations of all of the above that the public ideal of church or religious authority is often dismissed. Even when they are not Ernest Angley or Jimmy Swaggart, preachers have gravitated (like much else of our public rhetoric) to extreme positions that make little sense to many.

Separate and apart from its leaders, the church itself is to blame. The debates between the liberals and the conservatives, the moderates and the fundamentalists, the mainliners and the evangelicals, the moderns and the traditionalists, the black-and-whites and the authentics, and the serious and the casual among churchgoers have left many both in the church and without it who could not care less.

But I think there is another reason that we may be, as Barna says with only a hint of tongue-in-cheek whimsy, headed for "310 million people with 310 million religions." That reason is a tremendous arrogance. It is simply very difficult for most modern people - at least most modern Americans - to accept that they are not the final authority on everything. We live in a world where we have so trumpeted our "rights" that we have created a false sense of superiority in each individual, and any institution that dares to assert guidance or principle that overrides individual choice is derided.

Of course individuality, freedom, and personal rights are critical. Historically, however, these concepts have carried with them understandings of both horizontal and vertical responsibility. Horizontally, our freedoms have always ended at the end of our fellow citizens' noses. Vertically - as countless of our historical documents and speeches demonstrate - our freedom has been viewed as bestowed by and subject to higher power. I am not suggesting that our nation's founders were beholden to any particular brand of current Christianity; but it is either ignorance or the worst kind of revisionism to argue - as many now try - that the nation's fathers were not profoundly influenced by their view of God.

To form our own versions of "Sheilaism" is to say that we have the last word on what God is like. It is to make God into our image. It is the folly of Job's friends, who all demonstrate throughout that story a combination of proclaiming that they know what God is like and projecting what they think God ought to be like. The grand finale of that story is not God's answer of their questions but rather the self-evident question that God presents to all of us who get too big for our britches: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?... Tell me if you know."

This is ultimately a failure of liberal Christianity. We can say what we like about fundamentalists, but fundamentalists do not fail to recognize the authority of God. It is those of us who attend the moderate and liberal churches who have to look in the mirror and ask if we have so abandoned the fundamentalist slant that we have forgotten the fundamental: God is God and we are not. In the beginning, God. God is creator and sustainer, and we are subject to God's laws and rules and - yes - grace.

The temptation to make God over in our image is clear, but so too is the solution. The authority of God exists even when God's messengers are flawed. The sovereignty of God is supreme even when God, in God's grace, allows us choice. The power of God is always present even when God withholds judgment.

We have to recognize our weakness, our need, our failings. The Bible calls that sin. Sheilaism cannot save anyone. To channel Dr. Phil, "how is that workin' for ya'?"

God made man in His own image. In the image of God created He him. Male and female created He them.... And God called His creation good.

We would do well to remember.