Thursday, June 12, 2014

Does America's "God" Even Exist?

The problem with using the term "God" as a proper name is that it's akin to how people speak to or about the "President." All U.S. presidents have had proper names in the past (i.e. "George Washington," "Abraham Lincoln," "Dwight Eisenhower" or "George Bush"), but in addressing them protocol demands people say "Mr. President." In the future, someone might actually needed to use the term "Madam President." But that use of the title as the proper name only works when addressing them directly, or speaking of them in a conversation wherein all that are part of the conversation know which "president" you're referring to. It doesn't work to simply say "back when the President ordered the buildup of American troops..." because another will rightfully ask, "Which 'president' are you referring to? Lincoln during the Civil War? Roosevelt for WWII? Bush '41 or Bush '43?" The use of the title as a name only works when everyone knows which entity you mean when using the title, either by direct address or through conversational context.

No one would question this principle in referring to U.S. Presidents, yet this truth is assumed not applicable when referring to "God." The title of "god" has, prior to monotheism becoming dominant in the West, been ascribed to those deities that a culture venerated and worshiped, entreating said divine entities for favors related to war victories, health, propagation and timely rains for yielding abundant crops. The famous pantheons of Rome, Greece and even the Vikings have latent cultural influence, shaping our calendars and being preserved in the names of our weekdays (Thor's Day = Thursday); yet none of the proper names of those ancient cultures find their way into our modern descriptions of "God" when we say it. We acknowledge that those bygone cultures had their "gods," but our culture means something very different when we say "God." Or do we?

What exactly is meant in American culture when people use the title "God" as a proper name?

In a house of worship, when everyone is in concert together over a mutual understanding of what is meant by "God" or which "god" they're referring to, then the use of the generic title of "God" is no problem. In a mosque, all of those praying to "God" know that they are referring to Allah as described in the Muslim tradition. Likewise, in a synagogue, referring to "God" has the shared understanding of Jewish traditions and Hebrew Bible to give shape and meaning to the title/proper name. In a Christian context, all in attendance understand that by "God" they mean the Triune God that has revealed himself to eternally be three persons as one (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) and clarified this agreement with frequent references to "the Lord Jesus Christ." Thus using the title/name "God" isn't problematic in the least because of the shared meaning in the gathering or religious context.

This shared understanding, though, cannot be assumed too broadly. In an increasingly pluralistic society, the number of world religions represented in the population are growing exponentially. This is not the greatest challenge to a shared understanding of what is meant by "God" though. What makes shared meaning of "God" so improbable is the triumph of individualism in matters concerning faith, religion and spirituality in American culture. Ask one hundred people, who profess belief in "God," and you will get at least seventy-six different descriptions of "God" as people make up, on the spot, a deity that is an amalgamation of all their favorite virtues. "I think of God as being like" they will begin, and then proceed to craft a deity that (1) makes sense to them, and (2) gives them the most comfort and affirmation. Whether or not such a "god" is attested in any ancient literature, or is represented in any of the world's major religions, is not relevant. It IS the deity that they can imagine when using the term "God," and therefore the authority of their own pronouncement is all that is needed to construct it.

The challenge we face, though, is that the deity they have described may not have "existed" prior to them describing it. (1) Is it attested in any literature prior to this person imagining it? (2) Is it represented in any religion other than merely in this person's own mind? If the answer is "no" to both, then it can reasonably be concluded that the person asked "what is God like?" just made it up on the spot. This might be taken as not the most tolerant position to assert, but I think it can responsibly suggested that if you make something up, there's a good chance it's not true (Yikes!). Some atheist skeptics might assert that all descriptions of "God" are made up, but I'd like to suggest that along a sliding scale, the probability increases something is "made up" when someone - on their own - makes it up.

Now, in all fairness, many in America "make up" their "God" having already inherited a Judeo-Christian framework out of cultural exposure. They will "name drop" things like "Bible," "Jesus" and "Father" without any doctrinal association to those terms, not knowing where they first heard them. Nevertheless, even with Judeo-Christian cultural assumptions as a guide, many still make up the rest, often with little regard for how credible their beliefs might be, or if their descriptions of "God" resemble any deity previously worshiped in history. What's more? "God" is the only proper name used along with the elective ignorance as to the history of that "God."

The triumph of individualism, as applied to peoples' views of "God," has been fully realized in America, in that I can make up my ideas of "God" on the spot, unconstrained by the specificity of having to NAME him, or cite historic ideas about him as my heritage. Generic theism is the default setting, and greater specificity is a divisive pursuit to be avoided. In fact, affirmation of the generic "God" is necessary for smooth interaction in the American civil society where the Constitution requires government not legally endorse one religious tradition over another. So then...what is meant by "God" when we say, in the Pledge of Allegiance, "one nation under God," or "In God We Trust" on our money? What "God" comes to mind at sporting events when people hear "God Bless America" sung? Well...frankly...anything you want.

Making up your own "God" is not just a right; in America, it's expected. "Can't you think for yourself?" comes the charge to anyone confessing to adhere to historic doctrines that predate their culture. In addition, keeping God generic is needed as to appear accepting of other religions one encounters. "Tolerance" is such a foundational doctrine of American civil religion, that monotheism (the belief that there exists just one God) must give way to henotheism (the belief that there are many gods, but one is loyal to just one of them; or that yours is your favorite; the "high god"). Though American culture would not revert to polytheism (the belief in many gods; pick your favorite; mix and match; assign each to geography and natural elements), what IS encouraged is a form of relativism in descriptions of "God" to mean whatever people want it to mean. It is distinctly "American" to keep "God" generic and undefined.

To invoke any proper names (e.g. the Lord Jesus Christ) beyond the "proper name" of "God" is seemingly to disenfranchise those that would not call "God" by that name, and to render uncomfortable those that would rather not delve into that specificity. Thus, America's "God" must, by necessity, be the generic construct that anyone - individually - can mean when they hear that "name" mentioned in nationalistic events (i.e. Pledge of Allegiance, money, "God Bless America," etc.). At the time of the nation's founding, a much more common understanding might have been enjoyed that "God" meant that deity traditionally taught in the Christian tradition. Now though, individualism has taken root so that America's "God" must instead be the what one makes up on the spot.

Unfortunately this generic, individually constructed, "God" is not well attested in history and does not enjoy a vibrant following in any religious subculture even today. Within the doors of mosques, synagogues and churches, "God" enjoys a high degree of specificity. Proper names are invoked and God's history with people is rehearsed to differentiate "God" as distinct - NOT generic. America's "God" does not exist outside of the spiritual ambiguity needed for nationalistic elements.

I am not a relativist. I'm a Christian; which means I own the "closed-mindedness" of being not only monotheistic, but also believing that the ONE God has revealed himself through the Incarnation and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, which was subsequently (and faithfully) explained through the writings of New Testament authors ("Apostles"), which have been reliably interpreted in the collective mainstream of later followers (The Church). Christian traditions have differed on some peripheral matters, but enjoyed two millennia of agreement in the doctrine of the Trinity*, codified in ecumenical creeds and confessions of Christian traditions throughout the world. And as a Christian, I belong to a "tribe" that confesses that the God who IS is Triune; and there is no other.

[*Can we finally dispense with the tiresome rebuttal "The word 'trinity' isn't in the Bible"? Neither is the word "gravity," yet evidence of it is found ubiquitously throughout its pages.]

But even if I were not a Christian, but instead were Jewish or Muslim, I still would scratch my head at the American instinct to keep "God" generic and unspecified, so that it can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean when they say it. Such a "God" is not historical, has no houses of worship, has written no sacred texts, has called no clergy into service, pronounces no moral codes, offers no redemption, provides no comfort. America's generic, made up, "God" does not exist.

Oh God exists alright...and he has existed long before I began trying to imagine him in forms I can manage with my finite categories. He existed long before the invention of American civil religion. He existed long before our culture came into being, and will exist eternally after it has vanished from the Earth. Not only this...but as a Christian I am also Trinitarian (there really doesn't exist a different type). So everyone should know what I mean when I say "God," but I'm also kinda weird that way.

Nevertheless, this new imagining of "God," as an individual creation of any given American, is a fairly recent concept; only about 200 years old. This new "doctrine" has grown though, causing conflict with those seeking to maintain historic specificity. It's not just Christians that may find themselves at odds with the American doctrine of generic theism though; Jews and Muslims may find similar conflicts (but I can only speak as a Christian). I can't be the only one that, when hearing the words "One Nation Under God," wants to ask "Which one do you mean?" Those advocating the return of school prayer never seem interested in specifying "prayer to whom?" Allah? Adonai? Jesus Christ? Odin? Amun?

The conversation goes like this...
Well meaning post: "We, as a country, need to put God first?"
Me: "What do you mean by 'God'?"
Posting person: "Well, to me God is like..." (and they proceed to make something up)

Admittedly, "One Nation...Under the Lord Jesus Christ" doesn't roll off the tongue quite the same, and I don't see any school board adopting that level of specificity anytime soon. However, if that's not what's blaring in the Christian's head as they say the Pledge of Allegiance, then it's possible they are slowly becoming more American than they are Christian, replacing the specific Triune God in their mind with the generic deity required by the culture. The uncomfortable conclusion is this...if the generic "God" of America, the creation of the individual, doesn't really exist, then adherence to American civil religion is - by necessity and practice - a functional "atheism" that is increasingly producing "One Nation Under no 'god' at all."

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