St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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What Does Our Belief in God Really Mean?

“Belief in God” often means, in our society, belief in a vague force that is the cosmic projection of our way of life. You wrap yourself in the American flag and spout the formulas of freedom and call it faith. “God,” in this scenario, becomes a way of talking about societal norms and values we have bought into and do not question. That purchase can be political correctness, on one hand, or it could be conservative critique on the other. In either case, we invent God and then use our invention as we wish. How neat! Such belief is an investment in our own distorted mental construct of God. Then we use this “belief” to seize the moral high ground because, after all, who can argue with “God”?

I don’t accept this understanding or interpretation of God. This is not real “belief in God,” and those of us in pastoral ministry experience deep frustration because of such gross misinterpretations. We are not interested in a god who merely underwrites the status quo, whatever it might be.  God stands against us in judgment as well as with us in love. God calls us to be a light to the nations, a beacon of hope, and a cradle of healing balm for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger within our gates. God is not satisfied with appeasement through prayer or ritual. God is a force driving us to social good.

How did belief in God come to mean a cosmic justification for what we already believe? To answer this question it helps to return to the prophets. The prophets came along precisely as the nation of Israel was turning inward and away from the values that made it unique among world cultures. Under the kings, Israel became affluent, complacent, and resigned to its status as a royal society among royal societies.

Sound familiar? Indeed, it sounds like much of our society, where people continue to blame the poor and the sick for their condition, and where we demonize “the other” and the stranger within our gates.

In Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann’s word, Israel (and we?) became numb to social issues of injustice and oppression. The prophetic message reveals this numbness as selfish and callous and calls for return to real values.

“Belief in God” can be hollow and void of any meaning except for the comfort we associate with it. This is not what belief in God meant for the prophets or for Jesus. Where is the challenge, where is the vision, where is the impetus to reevaluate your life or your culture?  Where is the power to comply with the values you say you hold? Those are the things that matter, and that can move us into a hope-filled future.

We must “let God be God” (J. B. Phillips) if a claim of belief is to mean more than a statement about ourselves. If God really is, God is neither a figment of our imagination nor a psychological term, but a Presence who stands over against us with both judgment and grace, who is as near to us as our breathing and yet remains as distant from us as the space beyond the stars.

In God “we live and move and have our being,” and this is not the logic of the world, which invites us to make ourselves central and self-important, to the detriment of others. Even though God remains hidden in creation and our neighbor, that’s where we meet God. Either God is all in all, or there is no God. Everything else is delusion.

published 01 October 2010