This article is part of an ongoing God-beliefs investigation. This
section comes from a book I’m writing and workshops I’ve run. – RB
There is a classic Indian fable, made popular in America by 19th century poet John Godfrey Saxe,
about six blind people each encountering a different part of an
elephant and expressing a different hypothesis on the nature of the
elephant based on that one part. “A snake,” says one with the trunk. “A
tree,” says the one with a leg. “A wall” says the one at its side. The
pachyderm is, in fact, none of those.
We each can have a different interpretation and relationship with God. (And, for all you monotheists, God can still be one.)
of why I’m writing this article is in attempts to help you to see that
the terribly divisive phrases, “I believe in God” or “I don’t believe
in God” are somewhat meaningless as different people quite possibly
have different notions with regard the God they do or don’t believe in.
Most common Gods.
According to a Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion survey, America’s most common four notions of God are: authoritarian, distant, benevolent, and critical.
assumed in this study are a few commonly understood notions about God.
These notions are that there is only one God and that God is good,
all-powerful, and all-knowing. (Remember: you are not required to
maintain any of these beliefs or to feel guilty or awkward if you don’t
Here’s a run-down of each:
at earthly sin and willing to inflict divine retribution.
(Approximately 32 out of 100 who profess to believe in God most closely
align themselves with this image. Regionally in the United States, this image is predominant in the South.)
faceless, cosmic force that launched the world but leaves it alone.
(Approximately 23 out of 100 who profess to believe in God most closely
align themselves with this image. Regionally in the United States, this image is predominant in the West.)
absolute standards for man, but is also forgiving – engaged but not so
angry. (Approximately 25 out of 100 who profess to believe in God most
closely align themselves with this image. Regionally in the United States, this image is predominant in the Mid-West.)
classic bearded old man, judgmental but not going to intervene or
punish. (Approximately 16 out of 100 who profess to believe in God most
closely align themselves with this image. Regionally in the United States, this image is predominant in the East.)
Other pieces of the Elephant.
those four archetypes are the most common views of God, they are pretty
sterile. In my conversations with people over the years, I’ve gathered
many more colorful attempts to encapsulate the limitless – different
notions that different people have come up with as stabs at trying to
define God. And, that’s why I am going to ask you in a moment to do the
None are exact – none are right – none are perfect.
All are wonderful in their own way.
Remember: I am not asking that you subscribe to any one of these notions, just that you read them.
existence of a clock necessitates the existence of a clock-maker – even
if we never see or know this clock-maker. Similarly, the existence of
the world necessitates some sort of creator. Moreover, God is like the
clock maker who made the clock, wound it, and then stepped away.
Reluctantly Invited Guest
God is treated like an unwanted guest invited to the dinner party – invited out of guilt and then treated poorly.
Century German-American psychologist and humanistic philosopher Erich
Fromm tells us that God is “not the internalized voice of an authority
whom we are eager to please and afraid of displeasing; it is the voice
of our total personality expressing the demands of life and growth.”
Sixth Century BCE philosopher and author of Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tsu wrote that God is simply perfect and beyond words:
was something formless and perfect before the universe was born. It is
serene. Empty. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternal. Present. It is the mother
of the universe. For lack of a better name, I call it God.
Sometimes I put a Post-it Note up in a place so that I will be certain to see it repeatedly. And, for a while, I see that note.
But then, after time, the note seemingly disappears; it becomes part of the background.
God, while plainly visible to me from time to time in different manifestations, similarly disappears.
don’t understand the entirety of how my television turns the wires that
come into it into pictures and sound. I can still enjoy it. I can feel
the same about God.
God, driving the cart
is the driver of the cart that I am sitting on the back of… I can
clearly see where I’ve been, but not where I’m going. I wonder about
how much faith I have in the driver.
Pet : me :: me : God
dogs don’t understand why I have to take them to the veterinarian for
shots that hurt. (Of course, this is somewhat of a guess as my dogs
don’t express themselves in words as much as they really drag their
feet when we get to the vet’s office.) Neither likes visiting the vet
much more than I enjoy trips to my dentist to get the plaque scraped
from my teeth.
Perhaps God causes me “pain” for reasons that are beyond my understanding?
God is a friend I can reach out to and be with at any time I feel the need to reach out and share.
A daughter, the mall, & God
woman I know had an “a-ha” moment understanding her relationship with
God after her daughter asked to be taken to the mall yet again. I
realized that all I ever do is ask God for things…that must be very
Predicate theology is the notion of acting godly. God, not as a noun, but as an active verb.
an analogy, a person can act Scrooge-like whether Ebenezer Scrooge was
an actual person or not. Accordingly, people – no matter what they
believe or don’t believe – can act godly.
friend, Alan, expressed that he had spent his entire life, up until his
father died, being a “good child” in God’s eyes – never complaining or
asking for anything. After his father died he cursed God for making
death. “It was only after my cursing God that I found I could have a
real relationship with my Higher Power.”
of the wisest women I know said – and I’m basing how wise she is on
this phrase that I overheard her say – “I don’t know much about God, I
just know that I’m not it.”
Twentieth century German-born, U.S. Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich referred to God not as being out there, but as being “the ground of our being.”
Panentheism is the notion that everything is in God and that God is in everything. (This is not the same as pantheism
– without the “en” – which maintains that “everything is God.”)
Panentheism maintains that there is more to God than the material
universe, that God is transcendent and non-personal, and that God is both the creator and the original source of universal morality.
a website, I found a collection of the following notions of God that
were written as jokes. Nonetheless, they encapsulate some profound
views of the divine:
Noncommittal: God loves humanity, but isn’t “in love” with humanity.
Codependent: God enables us to sin wo that we’ll need rescuing.
Common-law: Since the beginning of time, God has assumed sole responsibility for Godlike acts, but has not legally been established as “God.”
Sports: God occasionally intervenes when a big play is needed.
Chairgod of the board: God sets the agenda, but doesn’t get involved in day-to-day operations.
Some of your own
How about you?
Write down any encapsulations of God that you like or that work for you.
If you don’t have any to add that you like, consider it a spiritual-religious exercise for the week: Find some notion of God (whatever you want that word to mean) that, while not perfect, helps you to get a sense of what it is that you do mean when you use that word.