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“May this book give you the comfort and understanding of God’s Way… I hope you learn to love and respect the word of God as I have. Let him be a daily part of your life.”
These words were penned by my mother on the front cover of The All Color Book of Bible Stories, retold by Patricia J. Hunt and illustrated by Giovanni Caselli (published by Octopus Books Limited, London, UK) and given to me and my little brother shortly after I turned four years old on Christmas of ’79. The book would be my first “bible” and her words—and for that matter, the words of the illustrated stories themselves—would not be taken in for many years after. But it would be the pictures that grasped me so, that would bring me back to turn the pages. Also on the inside covers, front and back, were animals arranged in a progression going two by two obviously from what I later would learn to be the story of Noah’s Ark: two deer, then two bobcat-like animals, two gazelle, baboons, cheetahs, skunks, hyenas, and finally two oryxes (admittedly, I just had to look up the spelling of the plural of that one.)
Animals have always had a huge place in my life. And also, apparently, did that children’s bible if its worn paper and compromised binding tell anything. I loved paging through that book with the pictures coming alive in my imagination: Joseph and his brothers, Moses and the burning bush, Daniel in the lions’ den, and Jesus. Something incredibly cool that I realize now looking back is that almost half of this illustrated book is made up of stories from the New Testament.
We were not, back then, a church going or particularly “religious” people. It wouldn’t be until I was ten years old that our family would “go to church.” Yet I think of this beginning because my faith was so nurtured by my mother giving me this gift, such a small but substantive act.
I think also of my grandparents, again not religious or church going folk and yet how much my understanding of God was formed by them. My grandpa was a farmer and when it came to things of religion was much more a skeptic. He questioned the institution of the church and wrestled with issues of doctrine and theodicy and came out almost agnostically so in the process. And yet, how often I heard him say, “I don’t know how one could be a farmer and not believe in God!” as he would ponder a tomato seed in the palm of his hand. I suppose there was a bit of a mystic in the old codger. If it was my mother who first introduced me to the Word, then it was certainly my grandpa who first gave me an appreciation for God the Creator as we walked through the woods and he’d teach me the names of the various hardwood trees.
Then there’s my grandmother, a hearty woman and a farmer’s wife—which in all fairness is not entirely accurate, for she was just as much a farmer herself knowing quite well how to bale hay or pull calves as well as prepare noontime dinner and evening supper working around weather and/or field conditions. She was a fuller figured lady, or how we would put it back then, heavy-set. And I only note this because it meant for a little child she had a big lap to crawl up into. How many times as little boys after a long day of play was grandma ready to fold me and my younger brother up into her lap and embrace us in her arms. This is not a trifling thing! To learn as a child in a palpable way love and security, comfort and provision is an amazing blessing and I experienced that with my grandma. Years later in studying the doctrine of God or contemplating the Heidelberg I think of her. When I ponder the reality that I am not my own but belong to someone, I remember the immense comfort experienced in her embrace.
To have faith planted and nourished by our family members is certainly not, at least historically, unusual. Nor is it odd that our understanding of God is often influenced or even defined by our relational experiences within our family of origin. I happen to be thankful for the various ways that my family members affected my faith formation and understanding of God and I realize that not everyone may feel that way for themselves. Furthermore, casting that net a bit further, I would add significant “faith families” in the congregational/parish sense of that phrase certainly influence a young person’s relationship with the Divine. I could just as beautifully recall the various church homes that have journeyed with me through the years and profoundly impacted my faith and understanding of God. All of which leads me to recall the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion survey that was reported in 2006 entitled American Piety in the 21st Century where they expressed that in a nation that overwhelmingly believes in God, that understanding of God is not necessarily the same. They actually discerned that there were four different but dominant ways of perceiving God:
Type A: Authoritarian God: Individuals who believe in the Authoritarian God tend to think that God is highly involved in their daily lives and world affairs. They tend to believe that God helps them in their decision-making and is also responsible for global events such as economic upturns or tsunamis. They also tend to feel that God is quite angry and is capable of meting out punishment to those who are unfaithful or ungodly.
Type B: Benevolent God: Like believers in the Authoritarian God, believers in a Benevolent God tend to think that God is very active in our daily lives. But these individuals are less likely to believe that God is angry and acts in wrathful ways. Instead, the Benevolent God is mainly a force of positive influence in the world and is less willing to condemn or punish individuals.
Type C: Critical God: Believers in a Critical God feel that God really does not interact with the world. Nevertheless, God still observes the world and views the current state of the world unfavorably. These individuals feel that God’s displeasure will be felt in another life and that divine justice may not be of this world.
Type D: Distant God: Believers in a Distant God think that God is not active in the world and not especially angry either. These individuals tend towards thinking about God as a cosmic force which set the laws of nature in motion. As such, God does not “do” things in the world and does not hold clear opinions about our activities or world events.
Atheists: Atheists are certain that God does not exist. Nevertheless, atheists may still hold very strong perspectives concerning the morality of human behavior and ideals of social order but have no place for the supernatural in their larger worldview.
I don’t want to beat a dead horse. But nonetheless, this report is in my mind as I mull over my own spiritual formation as a wee lad and how I understand God—formation both from my family and the various congregations eventually of my youth—and recent discussion on this blog of RCA/CRC distinctions and conversations of merger and more importantly, reactions to the RCA General Synod. To state what I think is the plainly obvious, we don’t all understand God the same. As I shared in a message with friends a week ago:
This is about Jesus. This is about who God is and what God is all about, and somewhere, somehow, a part of the church has gotten that different. This is so not about some other issue. This is about the Jesus issue and what it means to be Christian. I don’t mean “status confessionis,” but rather “how” we in the church respond.
So I’m contemplating how I understand God and asking the same question about the church and perhaps not so simply stating that we don’t see God the same. Nor am I inferring that we have to. Although, being in a similar ball park might be helpful. But I wonder about you. How do you understand God? How was that affected, positively or negatively, by your family of origin? And just as importantly, by your church family of origin?
No big wrap up, just wondering. Remembering and wondering.