An Ordinary God

Reposted from Chaplain Mike, the Internet Monk.

Moses on Mt. Sinai, Gerome

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen. ~ Romans 11:33:36, NRSV

In an opinion piece at RNS, Mitchell Stevens argues that, while society is not becoming less religious, the “god” people worship has generally become diminished. God is a mere shadow of his former self.

God is not, to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s image from 1882, dead. And neither is religion approaching extinction, despite what its staunchest opponents may have wished. The number of people in the world who have rejected religion has been rising rapidly; nonetheless, as of 2012 only 13 percent of the world’s population would describe themselves as convinced atheists, according to a global survey by WIN-Gallup International.

Here in the United States, only 5 percent would accept that designation. However, religion has been growing much less important. God once was seen as commanding the entire universe and supervising all of its inhabitants — inflicting tragedies, bestowing triumphs, enforcing morality. But now, outside of some lingering loud pockets of orthodoxy, we have witnessed the arrival of a less mighty, increasingly inconsequential version of God.

Stevens supports his case by making the following observations:

  • Religions explain much less than they used to.
  • God is being given less credit for the outcomes of our personal experiences.
  • The worship of this God is also less demanding, and religions tend to impose fewer restrictions on adherents. People are also less likely to go along with the standards religions might promote.
  • Most today hold their religious beliefs more lightly than their ancestors.

The commenter quotes the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who predicted that religion would not be “o’erthrown” but simply become “unregarded.” Then he concludes:

Religion’s supporters can take comfort in the fact that, so far, most minds still find room for some sort of God. But as religion recedes and we contend less and less with the strictures of ancient holy texts, it is an increasingly distant, indistinct, uninvolved, ordinary God.

Mitchell Stevens is describing life in a secularized age, with little room for transcendence, mystery, awe, and humility. In our world, humans can recreate any sort of miracle or spectacle by means of CGI on a 3-D Imax movie screen, and so it has become hard to be “wowed” by almost anything. The most distant stars in the universe and the smallest particles of matter seem accessible to humans, and the fact that I can view them all and hear them explained in my living room or on the device in the palm of my hand threatens to diminish the wonder of life itself.
As I sit here tonight with my laptop, I have easy and quick access to a quantity of information my ancestors could never have imagined even existed. They gazed into the night sky and felt miniscule. They could explain so little, compared to what we know today. Sure, we still face intractable challenges like cancer, poverty, and warfare, but the very fact that we see them as “challenges” rather than as “powers and principalities” holding dread sway over us signals that we live in a different age. Is it possible for us to imagine anything we cannot ultimately master, given enough time and resources?
Is it still possible for us to imagine a God who is beyond our knowledge and control? Where is this leading? Religion may have a future, but what of God?
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