Friday, July 23, 2010

God in Popular Consciousness

Over the years, I have come to understand something about Christian belief in God: a lot of folks, whether they are casual believers or weekly church-goers, whether they are Protestant, Catholic, or non-denominational, whether they are male or female, black or white, American or foreign-born, rich or poor, rural or urban, east coast, west coast, or Midwest – regardless of any of those things, many have a stunningly shallow conception of God.

That may sound like a harsh and blanket criticism, but it is not intended to be so. Certainly there are plenty of folks, from all those categories, who have very well-developed, consistent, deep, and meaningful conceptions of God. And one can argue over how to even establish what constitutes “deep” and “shallow” in such a metaphysical discussion. But it certainly seems, to this casual observer anyway, that the deep believers are heavily outweighed by those for whom God is just a sweater they put on from time to time, but mostly just gets moth-eaten in the drawer.

I was thinking the other day about some of the more typical and traditional views of God, as accepted by a lot of Christians and Jews around the world (and a lot of other religions, for that matter), and it struck me that a lot of folks pretty much treat God like Santa Claus for Adults. Or, reversed, Santa Claus is God for Children.

In any case, consider the following similarities:

1. Santa lives above us, at the North Pole, which is a magical place no one can see. God lives above us, in heaven, which is a magical place no one can see.
2. Santa gives us things we ask for in letters or in person. God gives us things we ask for in prayer.
3. Sometimes Santa doesn’t give us what we ask for. Sometimes God does not answer our prayers.
4. Sometimes Santa brings us things we didn’t ask for. God too.
5. Santa is a man. So is God.
6. Santa is old, with a white beard. God is the Old Man In the Sky.
7. Santa “knows when we’ve been bad or good” and can essentially monitor our behavior all year long from afar. God has this omnipotent quality too.
8. Santa is immortal. So is God.
9. Santa can perform miraculous feats such as entering and exiting locked houses and individually bringing toys to all the world’s children in a single night. God too can perform various kinds of miracles.
10. Santa is surrounded by a retinue of elves. God has angels.
11. Santa rides a sled through the sky, pulled by magic reindeer that can fly. In Jewish mysticism, God rides a chariot through the sky, pulled by magic horses that can fly.
12. Santa likes milk and cookies. God likes milk and honey.

Okay, so that last one was kind of a joke, but you get the point. Either way you look at it, Santa Claus is God for Children, or God is Santa Claus for Adults.

Do we want to live our lives putting God on like a sweater and viewing God as little more than Santa Claus for Adults? Or do we want, as the apostle Paul said, to give up our childish ways and come to a deeper, more meaningful, and life-changing understanding of God and our relationship to God? In following the example of Jesus, I have chosen the latter.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the road less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Anonymous said...

This is an EXCELLENT observation and probably explains a little of my own personal "crisis of faith" if you want to call my agnosticism that. God IS presented to us as just another Santa Clause, and just as you reach a point where your suspension of disbelief in Santa Clause wears thin, so to does this sort of simplified version of God.

I should note that I don't feel "in crisis" about my beliefs (or uncertainty thereof), so much as sad that I no longer can muster blind faith. There are times when I catch myself really wanting to believe that there is a God who will directly intercede in a given sitch for me, and it's difficult to be honest with oneself when you really just want to pray like you did at five years old!

Scott said...

I tend to agree with Bishop Spong that a lot of agnosticism and atheism is just a rejection of the institutional God, which is frequently like Santa Claus for Adults. Like Spong and so many others, I'm pretty much an atheist as far as that sort of God is concerned.

Rev. Allen C. said...

Great post. This was one of my important transitions of faith, b/c I too once felt that believing in God was pretty much like believing in Santa Claus, especially the whole "he sees you when your sleeping" guilt-ridden feelings. But especially of late, I have learned and try to pass on to my congregation a meat and potatoes kind of faith like Paul better described a mature Christian (tho I don't think he used the phrase meat and potatoes). God is not some white bearded fellow who keeps lists and rewards those who are nice. God is the presence, the purpose, and the passion by which we live lives thru which we strive to embody the grace and love that Jesus himself had. I guess an added observation is that faith isn't so much believing in Santa Claus, it's trying to be like Santa Claus every day of our lives.

Glad your finding time to blog. I'm plowing through my Google Reader this morning trying to catch up on those serene musings and orbits around the moon, and what Brian Leonard's status is -- that could be a huge loss.

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