By Bob Setzer
On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, bright and early at 8 a.m. sharp, I teach “Introduction to the Old Testament” at Mercer University. Recently, I gave my students an assignment: “When you say ‘God,’ Who or What do you mean? Write your answer in 25 words or less.”
The answers were revealing. Several students thought of God as a philosophical or cultural idea. One wrote, “God, if not personal, is the whole sum of all ideas and morals central to the faiths that invest in him.”
Another 10 or so students thought of God as an impersonal being, someone unknown and probably unknowable, but nonetheless present as a cosmic, guiding force. A typical response: “By God I mean the Judeo-Christian and Islamic concept of an all-powerful being who is like, but not, human, and who is interested in and influences human history.”
The other half of the class gave voice to a more personal image of God as “Father,” “Friend,” “Lord,” “King,” “Savior,” or “Jesus.” One student wrote, “Our Lord, the one who helps guide us through life and gives us the power and faith to go on the journey.” Another wrote the wrenching confession, “The reality or being that saved my life and gave me a second chance, but also took two of my friends. A mysterious character.” That one weighed on my heart.
It is revealing that in a class of 30 college students in the Deep South there is no broad consensus about who or what, exactly, “God” is. Despite much wishful thinking to the contrary, many Americans do not believe in the same God, if they believe in any God at all.
So when politicians or political figures clamor for America to get “back to God,” which God do they mean? The tribal god of their political party or persuasion, who smiles benevolently on their agenda while plotting retribution on their enemies? Or the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who refuses to be confined to the genie bottle of our beliefs (Ex. 3:13-14; 20:4,7), who has a passionate concern for “widows and orphans” (James 1:27), and who implores us to pray for our enemies, rather than relish their destruction (Matt. 5:44-45). Sadly, I hear precious little about that God in our political discourse.
The back-to-God rhetoric sounded in the political arena has great mass appeal. But strip away the pious gloss and what such language usually means is: “America needs to get back to my God, my values, my beliefs, my agenda.”
If America were really to get “back to the God of Jesus,” there would be fewer smug, self-serving appeals and a lot more genuine respect, caring, and compassion. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.