A quotation often attributed to Blaise Pascal came to mind this past week – “there is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator.”1
I had been reading a newspaper article about a provocative new book that examines the relationship between a person’s image of God and their attitudes to economics, justice, social morality, politics, love and life in general.2 “It is the shape of God,” I said to myself “and how that affects my interaction with the world – my worldview.”
“Your God is too small!” wrote J.B. Phillips3 in a book that challenged my concept of God many years ago. Among the “small” notions of God he exposed were those of the “resident policeman,” the God of burly legalism and summary judgment; the “grand old man” of ancient history – the God who is tired and removed from the clamour of modern life; “absolute perfection,” the God whose unqualified demands are unrealistic and impossible for humanity to attain; “managing director,” the God who is concerned with the complex issues of the universe but not involved or interested in the petty little details of human life and death.
The book had a powerful impact on me, and little by little I began to realize that I had replaced the fearful “God as policeman” of my youth with an equally erroneous notion of God as “managing director,” who could not be counted on or called upon to concern himself with the adventures and mishaps of my life. Both these “shapes” of God, at various times in my life, found expression in my social attitudes and behaviour.
The book4 quoted in the article, while quite different from J.B. Phillip’s book, similarly describes four different notions of God and how these affect individual perceptions and relationships to the world. Not surprisingly, the four “shapes” of God are directly correlated with social and political attitudes.
The shape of God as “authoritative” focuses on moral, social, and political expectations. This view is often reflected in demands for conformity, and the explicit or implicit exclusion of people and groups who don’t conform to those core beliefs and moral values. People are marginalized and rejected on the basis of inclusion or exclusion from God’s favour; they are either good or evil, with us or against us. During my travels in Asia and the Middle East I frequently encounter the hostility of social and political damage caused by people who denounce and humiliate people on the basis of religious difference.
A contrasting shape to this is that of the “benevolent” God who embraces the world and who loves and cares for all people. This notion of God is reflected in open engagement with people in need, regardless of their creed or culture. It idealizes and seeks to express God’s unconditional love by serving the poor, caring for prisoners, embracing immigrants and refugees, and defending the exploited. Inevitably the most powerful witness I have seen among prisoners has far more to do with love and acceptance than with moralizing and judgment. I find that broken and hurting people are attracted more to someone who loves them than to someone who preaches at them. Often in dealing with incorrigible and unsavoury characters I need to remind myself that the good news of the gospel is Jesus, the one sent by the God, who so greatly loved the world that He did not come to condemn the world and its people but to save the world.5
Another shape is the “critical” God who keeps a precise record of good and evil in the world, but who will ultimately act by delivering justice in the world to come. This notion of God reflects in a kind of detachment from, or resignation in the face of human suffering and injustice. Healing and judgment are both deferred to the coming of God’s kingdom, the life hereafter when all good will be rewarded and all evil will be punished. It is not my problem, not my responsibility – there is no need to take responsibility in responding to other people’s problems, no need to confront evil and injustice, no need to be politically active. It is enough to pray and to believe, hoping for the coming of God’s kingdom when He will set things right.
The fourth shape is that of the “distant” God who created the world, set things in motion, but who is not intimately involved with the world and its people. It is difficult if not impossible to really know this God personally for he is remote and impassable. Although the world was formed by Him, what happens now is a continuing struggle between human advancement and inhumanity, between good and evil. Belief in the existence of God is one thing, but in the real world we are left to be masters of our own destiny and captains of our own fate.
As I read the article I could not help wondering what the God-shaped vacuum in my life looks like? Today, tomorrow, and the next day after that, my concept of God will inevitably be expressed through my attitudes, relationships, work, and politics – how I think of justice and the treatment of prisoners.
If I see God as being mostly strict and judgmental then I can easily demand tough prison conditions and the punishment of prisoners until “their debt to society is paid.” On the other hand if I understand God as truly compassionate and loving, caring for sinners and suffering with those who suffer then I will be moved to join Him in works of love and mercy by embracing prisoners with the possibility of forgiveness and freedom. But if I see God as being a record-keeping God who will ultimately reward all good, punish all evil, and rectify all wrongs then I just need to focus on my own affairs and let God take care of the rest – prison and prisoners, victims and their families are not my responsibility. And if perchance I believe in an impersonal God who has abdicated everything to human responsibility then my work with prisoners and in seeking justice has more to do with human improvement and social development and not so much to do with bringing “good news” to prisoners.
I wonder about the shape of God in my life – and I wonder what shape of God I am projecting into the world through my relationships, attitudes, and work.
No one is ever really at ease in facing what we call “life” and “death” without a religious faith. The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child … unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by a great effort of will, he does do this he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and co-operation.6
1 There is no evidence that Pascal, the French mathematician actually wrote these words. Most likely this statement has been extracted from a passage in “Penses” (#425) “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
2 “God views and issues” by Cathy Lyn Grossman, in USA Today (October 7, 2010) – a review of the book, America’s Four Gods by Paul Froese and Christopher Bader (Oxford University Press, 2010)
3 Your God is Too Small, JB Phillips (Macmillan Press, London, 1961)
5 John 3:16, 17
6 J.B. Phillips op.cit (from the introduction)
Ron W. Nikkel is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship International (PFI). For more information, visit the PFI website.