God's identity

One major difference between the Christian denominations is the way they portray God. In most Protestant mainline churches God is less personal, and more virtue. In a philosophy class I took at Dalhousie university professor George Grant, a Christian, often spoke of God as Truth, Justice, and Love. God was experienced in the moments when our lives became instruments of Truth, Justice and Love. One could touch that experience deeply, God was a Holy Presence. Grant would tell us that he became a Christian when he walked through a farm gate in England soon after the War had ended. He just knew God.

But that is just not enough for many Christians who are searching for a far more personal encounter with God. For Roman Catholics that experience is far more personal than for mainline Protestants but not nearly as personal as it is for evangelical Protestants. For Roman Catholics God is Father, a wholly kind, authority figure, who executes mercy and care and wisdom in equal measure. The Father-like image is always present in their conversations about the identity of God. But for evangelical Protestants the personal connection to God goes far beyond virtue or even a loving Father, it is an intimate, deep, emotional presence. In mainline churches one gets the sense that we parishioners all share in some measure access to the God of Truth, Justice and Love. In Roman Catholic churches one gets the sense that we are all sisters and brothers, sharing in the Father’s attention and care. But in evangelical churches the impression that God spends all day and every day focused on the believer. It’s more like a father and best friend all rolled up into one. No matter how critical the concern, how small or large the challenge, God is there beside us showing us the way. Moreover what this father-best friend wants from us is devotion, adoration, total commitment, loyalty, and praise. In the mainline churches what God requires is to live justice, love kindness and walk humbly.

Which brings me to the way each of these Christian expressions of community identify God. In the mainline churches we are often, rightly, accused of being cold, stiff and emotionally straight-jacketed. Our liturgies seems to squeeze the emotions out of us. In Roman Catholic churches there is emotion but it is the emotion of a loving daughter or son for a loving Father. That is emotion and it can be deep but often the experience is more like a household and in a household there is emotion but most often calm and steady affection. But in evangelical churches the emotional experience is intense and constant, since God is with me and focused on me in every day and in every way this relationship is raw and real. When I am up with God I can’t tell God how much I love God enough. If I am down in the depths of despair then I can’t shout loud enough to God to reach in and pull me out. And I fully, 100%, believe and expect God will pull me out. And if God doesn’t then only two responses are possible; either I have done someone wrong and God is teaching me a lesson or God is not paying attention and I need to get God back over on my side to set things right.

There are strengths and weaknesses in all of these images and experience of the divine. I can see why people in the midst of addiction and extreme illness turn to evangelical forms of faith to find their way back to life. The other expression will never suffice. I can see why people of faith with a strong need for an authority figure in their life and a need for ritual and tradition to keep them centered would turn to the Roman Catholic Church. The other expressions of faith would feel insufficiently transient. And I can see why persons like me, who are drawn to the virtues of Truth, Justice and Love and who feel a personal or emotional experience of God feels a little too self-centered would lean to the mainline tradition.

The variety of Christian expression allows believers access to a love and a presence they otherwise would miss. Without this faith we believers would feel lost and alone. With this faith we are made whole and connected. Thanks be to God.