Tallahassee Democrat writer Gerald Ensley wrote a report on some billboards that have sprouted up around Tallahassee. (Local Atheists State Their Case, Sept. 7, 2012). The billboards proclaim, “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.” As he was writing his piece, Gerald phoned and asked me for a comment. Specifically, he asked if I found the billboards offensive.
I didn’t get the message before Gerald had to meet his deadline (I’m hard to reach on Fridays.) but if I had been able to respond, I would have said that I certainly am not offended by such a billboard. On the other hand, I’d like to find out more about the God the sponsors don’t believe in. It’s very likely that I don’t believe in that God, either.
On Wednesday evenings the Adult Enrichment Series at First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee is looking at Marcus Borg’s book Speaking Christian. Borg maintains that there are at least three paradigms for thinking about the character of God.
The first is “God as Indifferent.” This is the clockmaker God of the Deists and rationalists who takes no interest the affairs of human beings. This concept of God produces a kind of “practical atheism.” It doesn’t matter whether you believe in this God or not. Basically, this God doesn’t care.
The second paradigm sees God as loving, but also as punitive and threatening. God is seen as the enforcer of requirements, whether of belief or behavior or both. Borg thinks that, although this idea of God is certainly based in some passages of scripture, it is not consistent with the God we know in Jesus. It is consistent, however, with what he calls “heaven-and-hell” Christianity – the Christianity that he rejects as a distortion of the Christian faith.
The third paradigm is that of a loving, gracious, and compassionate God. Life under this God is not about meeting requirements, but about a deepening relationship. This God is not to be feared and appeased, but embraced and loved.
I find Borg’s categories helpful, but theologically inadequate. He seems to miss that law in the Bible is a function of God’s love and fails to convey the richness of the gospel. On the whole, however, I’d rather serve Borg’s “loving, gracious, and compassionate God” than the alternatives he proposes.
Some people say they believe in God, but live lives that belie that belief. Some people say they don’t believe in God, but live loving, gracious, and compassionate lives. The latter are closer to the kingdom of God than the former, whether they acknowledge God or not.