Bailor University conducted a huge survey from 2006-2008 on Americans’ beliefs about God. Their conclusion was that there are four primary notions of God. This means that when people talk about God in general – when they ask or answer questions like “Do you believe in God?” – they’re usually referring to one of four “images” of God.
This helps to explain why we have such a hard time communicating with people about God – because there might only be a 1 out of 4 chance we’re using the word the same way. Add more people to the conversation and the odds of all using the word “God” to mean the same thing decreases perspicaciously. (Moreover, but I don’t want to get into this here, the word belief means different things to different people.)
Here are the four different notions adults have of God:
A – Authoritarian God
God is authoritarian, angry, and willing to inflict divine retribution on your sins. You ate a cheeseburger when you shouldn’t have? God is gonna strike you down. This is not a very happy God. This notion of God is most like an angry and jealous dictator – or a dry drunk.
B – Benevolent God
God is benevolent, kind, loving, nice, caring. After you’ve devoured that cheeseburger, God says, “Really? You ate that? I’m sorry you felt you had to have that. But I understand.” God is understanding, compassionate, maybe even lenient and forgiving. This notion of God is most like Santa Claus.
C – Critical God
God is critical. God looks at you, sees you eating a cheeseburger, and makes a note of it. God says, “You and I are gonna talk about that later.” Rack up enough negative points and you might not make it to heaven or you’ll get clogged arteries. This notion of God is somewhere between a snarky judge on ‘American Idol’ and a parent who’s angry at you at a nice restaurant but doesn’t want to cause a scene by confronting you outright in public.
D – Distant God
God is distant. God is like a great clockmaker who made a clock, set it in motion, and left. God no longer has an active role, and is not involved in the day-to-day running of things. God doesn’t really care if you had a cheeseburger or not. Your life is completely irrelevant to God.
Those are, in a nutshell, what the researchers at Bailor University came up with.
I would like to introduce a 5th category.
E – (the) God (of Your Understanding)
God is whatever you happen to believe God is.
Find and be with (the) God (of your understanding).