There was an interesting article in the NY Times last week, “Americans: Undecided About God?” by Eric Weiner. From his viewpoint, the Christmas season affords an opportunity to “reconnect with our religious heritage”. He also sees it as a time to lament the “sad state” of our national conversation with God and wish there were another way.
Weiner identifies with the “Nones”, the roughly 12% who have no religious affiliation (25% among younger people). Nones are the undecided of the religious world, who dabble in everything from Sufism to Judaism, who are looking for another way. They may not believe in God, but they hope to one day. It’s just that the current God of choice is not so inviting. He is too angry, according to Weiner. What is needed is someone to reinvent a new way of being religious—a religious operating system created by a Steve Jobs sort, who can create “religious” in a way that is straightforward and unencumbered, intuitive and interactive.
My first response is to applaud Weiner for his honesty, as well as his desire to find a God that satisfies the soul. He sees a world in which God is not a lot of fun, an angry God who is constantly judging and smiting his followers. Like him, I would have no desire to follow this sort of God. Like him, I would want a God who laughs often and well.
What’s unfortunate is that Weiner has apparently never met Jesus. If he claims to, it has been an imposter under a similar name. Jesus is nothing like the God he seems to be rejecting. No one has probably walked this earth and laughed like Jesus. He not only went to some of the parties, He made sure there was plenty of wine. No one has ever extended grace and mercy like Jesus. No other God has submitted to human form, left the kingdom of heaven for the slums of earth, and emptied Himself in order to identify with us, feel our pain, and pay the price for our failures but the one true God. This is what Christmas affords us an opportunity to connect with!
The One who marks the heavens and weighs the mountains makes Himself little so that He can make much of us. Most gods of our making make themselves big in order to make us small. They come to be served. Jesus came to serve. And yes, He is a God who does get angry, but it is an anger mixed with compassion and grief. There is mourning to be done for those who do not know the deathliness of their situation. There is anger directed at the evil that corrupts our world and ruins our lives. He takes evil and its deadly power with utter seriousness. This is why He came to Bethlehem. He is the essence of love as well as the Protector of justice. He is a God who will bring to account those who rob the young of their innocence, create bombs behind closed doors, and oppress the poor. If God is not angry at all of this, who would want to follow Him?
Nor has Weiner really met the “Haves”, those who do have an affiliation with the community of Jesus, who do in fact embrace a faith straightforward and unencumbered. Yes, some are running from organized religion. This seems to be in vogue. The church in all of its sweaty, smelly, concreteness can at times be unattractive. But even the most spontaneous and prophetic movements cannot last without some institutional form. The alternative, anarchy, is not all that great (who wants to be part of something like Occupy Wall Street long term?) Institutions can impede the imagination, but buildings and liturgy and pastors can also provide the framework and accountability to do something great. Our task is to love the church, in all of its smelliness, in the same way God loves a people He calls His Bride.
After reading the story of Steve Jobs and his tendency to go ballistic and be abusive, I think I will stay with Someone who did not invent religion, but came to call us back to who we were created to be in the beginning. I will stay passionate about Someone who invites us into the most intimate personal relationship, the most profound spirituality. Jesus alienated the existing religious authorities because He addressed the issues of the heart rather than the hand. It is the interior that is the real toxin, and only Jesus can heal us from our narcissistic tendencies and bring us back to a better center.
Weiner seems to view all of this as superstition, and prefers to identify himself as a modern day rationalist. But the rationalists I have met generally have no room for God because that space is too crowded with self. But maybe this fits Weiner’s worldview, a world that wants a god they can make of their own; a form fitted god that accommodates to man’s wants; worship reduced to the spiritual stature of the worshipper. It’s all rather empty. Only the one true God, fleshed out in Jesus, can meet our needs. Truly knowing Him, who would want another way?