It is difficult, indeed almost impossible, to know how many Americans believe in God. Why? Because the word “God” means different things to different people. Mr. A may have one idea of God while Mr. B has quite another, even though they both tell us that they believe in God. It’s like “democracy.” Communists and anti-Communists both called themselves democrats, but they had radically different ideas of democracy.
A couple of centuries ago, almost everybody in the western world (which used to be called Christendom) had pretty much the same idea of God. You might be Catholic or Protestant, but your idea of God was a Supreme Being who had created the universe; omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent; the foundation of moral law; a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the judge of human beings, who would send unrepentant sinners to Hell; incarnate in the man, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose from the dead.
That’s the idea of God still held by many people. But certainly not by all. Not nowadays. Over the last couple of centuries, many who call themselves Christians have become more “liberal” or “modernist” in their religious beliefs. For a long time, religious liberalism flourished almost exclusively in the Protestant world, but after Vatican II it has lifted its head (ugly head, orthodox Catholics would say) in the Catholic world, too. Liberal Christians have produced a new idea of God.
How to describe this new idea of God, this liberal or modernist idea, this neo-Christian idea? This is not easy to do, since liberal Christianity has no central authority that can tell us precisely what counts as neo-Christian orthodoxy. Moreover, if there is a neo-Christian orthodoxy today, it will probably change tomorrow. That’s of the very nature of religious liberalism; it cannot stop changing, getting more and more liberal, more and more modern. But let me try to give a description.
The old God (the paleo-Christian God, we may say) considered sin to be a horrible thing, worse than illness, poverty, ignorance, ugliness, or any other bad thing. Sin was so bad from God’s point of view that he was prepared to send us to Hell for being unrepentant sinners. And it was so bad that God was willing to send his Son to suffer and die in atonement for our sins.
The new God, by contrast, isn’t a stickler about sin. Of course, he’d prefer that we not commit sin, but sin isn’t such a big deal that he’d be willing to punish sinners by sending them to Hell for eternity. The new God is too nice to do that. Far too nice. Nor would he do such a metaphysically strange thing as have the second person of the Trinity become human so as to be able to suffer and die for our (not-so-terrible) sins. Not to mention that the new God is a non-Trinitarian God; to the modern mind, the Trinity makes no sense.
What, then, are we to make of Jesus? Who was he if he wasn’t the Son of God, if he didn’t die for our sins? To the neo-Christian Jesus was a perfectly splendid fellow, a great teacher and a model of morality; an ancient anticipation and forerunner of Martin Luther King, Jr. What did Jesus teach? Tolerance, which is what He had in mind when he said we should love our neighbors as ourselves.
What greater love can a person show than to tolerate the lifestyle of his neighbors? And Jesus taught that we should take at least some trouble to improve the material condition of the lower classes. How? By not grumbling about taxes and by voting for liberal politicians.
But what about great sinners like Hitler and Stalin? Will they too avoid Hell? Well, that’s a hard one. The new God is, generally speaking, very forgiving when it comes to sin; I mean, what’s a few lies, thefts, and adulteries among friends? Is it possible that people like Hitler and Stalin and a few others may have gone too far, even for the merciful and forgiving neo-God? Who knows? If there is a Hell (a very doubtful proposition), perhaps ten or twenty damned souls reside there, all of them guilty of the great sin of intolerance. That’s what mass murder is, a form of intolerance.
If the new God is “soft” on sin in general, he is particularly soft on sexual sin. The old God, one regrets to say, had real hang-ups about sex. He was a puritanical God. He got unreasonably upset about things like fornication, unmarried cohabitation, adultery, and homosexuality. He was so much the puritan that he even objected to a man looking at a woman with lust in his heart.
The new God realizes that these sexual “sins” are not always desirable; but they are usually harmless, and much of the time they are positively good. The new God keeps in mind that we are humans, made of flesh and blood. We are not bodiless angels. The old God said, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” The new God says, “Love the sinner, and please don’t make a fuss about the sin.”
But what about abortion? Needless to say, the old God, the puritanical God, hated it. But the new God, realizing that we cannot practically speaking have a moral regime of sexual freedom without abortion, tolerates abortion while feeling a bit sad about it. He believes that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare – and he puts a stress on rare. And he especially wants us to know that he is not pro-abortion; he is pro-choice.
Matthew Arnold, the great Victorian poet and critic and a very liberal Protestant, created a famous minimalist definition of God: “the eternal not-ourselves that makes for righteousness.” A more up-to-date definition would be: “God is the ever-changing not-ourselves that makes for virtually unlimited tolerance.” In Greek, the word “theos” means “anything goes.”