Why is the typical Christian understanding of “God” such a problem? [Questioning Faith #2]

Ted Grimsrud—November 3, 2022

In my early teen years, I often engaged in conversations with my friends about God. As none of us were churchgoers, we didn’t simply repeat orthodoxies. We were all trying to figure things out for ourselves. We were pretty naïve, as near as I recall. I wish I could remember more about what we talked about. I do remember that at one point I decided I was an atheist—which of course meant that I was pretty preoccupied with the “God” I didn’t believe in. I would say now that I was only an atheist in relation to my conscious ideas about God, which were uninformed and basically had to do with some big, all-powerful person in the sky. It took me awhile to figure out that there was a different kind of God that I did believe in.

When I was 15, I attended my first funeral. It was an extra sad one, a popular guy in the community who died of cancer in his late 20s. During a prayer time during the service, I felt God’s presence and decided at that point that I did believe in God. I had little sense of what that meant, but I was eager to figure it out. I had a close friend who had recently joined the local Baptist church. In a careful, thoughtful way, he guided me in a process that culminated about two years later in my decision to accept Jesus as my personal savior. I then began a journey among the fundamentalists (defined as people who affirm that label for themselves).

A desire to believe in God

I think ever since, I have always sincerely wanted to believe in God and to live truthfully. At first that meant affirming the understandings of God that I received from the Baptists. Those were standard beliefs—God is a (male) person who is all-powerful, in control, and a jealous God. This God is just, angry at those who disobey him, and forced by the demands of justice to punish the disobedient. Accepting Jesus as your savior means that you will get to go to heaven to spend eternity with God. Jesus can save us and turn God’s anger to mercy because he died on the cross and took our place as the recipient of God’s punitive anger. God wants us to turn to him in prayer throughout each day, to read the Bible regularly, to share the gospel with others, and to worship with God’s people in church at every opportunity.

I believe that I truly wanted to affirm the understanding of God I was taught by the Baptists. And I tried to live within that perspective. But it never really clicked. I would say now that part of my problem was that the God I was taught about in church was significantly different from the God I had grown up with—even though I didn’t know I had grown up with God. I was not taught much about God explicitly, but I was shown things about God. My parents and older sisters all indicated to me that they believed in God in some vague sense. Insofar as they communicated about God in their actions, they showed me that God is merciful and loving, that God wants us to be curious and creative, that God likes people, that God’s world is worthy of our respect and care, and that God wants me to make up my own mind about things. I now would call that sensibility in relation to God my “embedded theology.” So, without knowing it, I had a view of God that remained present within me even as I tried to view God in a different way. Ultimately, I would now say that that embedded theology reasserted itself and became self-conscious—and deliberately chosen.

I would now also say that that embedded theology might have been a big part of the reason why I couldn’t get into the Baptist theology even though I wanted to. I never could quite enter into a world with a fearsome, controlling, punitive God who draws sharp lines between believers and unbelievers. I didn’t fear hell—either for myself or for my family and friends and others who were seemingly not believers.

Probably because of that sense of disconnect between my embedded God and the God I was trying to relate to in church, I was in kind of an intellectual fog for a number of years. The curiosity and will to understand that led me to decide that there is a God and to seek out a faith community did not die, but it was submerged throughout almost all of my college career. I didn’t have doubts about the theology I was taught, it just never came alive for me. That began to change in the summer before my senior year when I changed churches and encountered the writings of Francis Schaeffer (see the Introduction to this blog series). Schaeffer encouraged me to ask questions, not ignore or submerge them. He gave me confidence that to embrace my curiosity and passion to understand would actually help me be faithful.

The next step was when I discovered Mennonites and embraced Anabaptist theology. The key part of that move was my affirmation of pacifism—a conviction that was based on belief in God as a God of love. It has taken a long time for me to work out all the ramifications of that conviction (not that I fully have, even now), but the centrality of love was and is the core element.

Two tracks: Church and mind

Looking back now at these past 45 years, I see myself embarking (without really realizing or intending it) on a kind of dual track. One track would be quite compatible with Schaeffer’s agenda. I immersed myself into the life of the church—at first, an evangelical house church that was quite a bit more open than my Baptist friends had been but still affirmed pretty traditional views of God, and then the Mennonite Church. I became a teacher, a pastor, and ultimately a college professor. As a rule, my audience was people with conventional views of God who were looking for assurance and encouragement more than cutting edge thinking. The second track was, I could say, the world of my mind. I also continued to seek understanding and that understanding always evolved—ultimately beyond the confines of traditional Christianity.

The tension between these two tracks tended to be pretty low simmering. I was always aware that I needed to be cautious in voicing my more adventuresome thinking. That was rarely a major problem, because I found plenty of truthful things to say that were authentic to my convictions while also accessible to my audiences (both intellectually and emotionally). I had to be careful, but I felt that I could also be honest. Since I retired from teaching in 2016, I have not felt the need to be so cautious. That loss of caution has been strengthened in more recent years since I have found myself moving away from organized Christianity more and more. So, now I feel more comfortable simply writing what I think about God.

As I alluded to above, I never was comfortable with the idea of a God who is in control, coercive, and all-powerful. I tried to be. What helped my thinking clarify was coming to see that love is not controlling and coercive and all-powerful. I would say that the Bible can be read to teach that God is love—that is definitely the way I read it. Even more clearly for me, though, I have experienced God as love. I have not experienced God as controlling and all-powerful and coercive.

Taking “God is love” seriously

How far do we take the affirmation that God is love? As I have lived with it over the years, I find myself taking it further and further. God is love—period. That is, love is God. God is the dynamic of love in the world. We see it in our own lives. We see it around us. We see it in stories we learn about other cultures and about past human lives. But we also see it in nature, most obviously among mammals.

As we also see in our own lives, though, love is—in a real sense—weak. It’s not just that in love we choose not to coerce or control others. It’s that we can’t control—and when we try, we depart from love. Even more, the presence of love in our lives does not keep bad things from happening to people we love. History, in fact, is a long litany of bad things happening. When we are honest about the past, we realize that while love is creative and life-giving, it is over and over unable to make things work out for the good in any simple and direct way.

The more I live with these realizations about the weakness of love, the more I have to conclude that God is weak. God is not in control—not because God chooses not to be but, it would seem, because God can’t be. The contradiction between coercive, controlling power and the power of love needs, it seems to me, to resolved on the side of saying that God by God’s nature is weak.

So, that leads me to conclude that almost all of what I was taught by the Baptists about God was wrong. Not only the Baptists, though, but most of Christianity throughout its history at least since the 4th century has understood God in ways that I now think were wrong. They are wrong insofar as they include the notion of God being in control and all-powerful. In fact, in relation to traditional Christianity, I could accurately be characterized as an atheist.

However, I don’t think of myself as an atheist—I never have since I was 15 years old, and I never will. Why do I say that? In a word, it’s because of love.

I can’t explain where love comes from in relation to the vast randomness of what does seem to me to be a universe best understood in evolutionary terms. I’m not interested in trying to argue that we need to posit God in order to explain the origins of love. I’m more trying to think descriptively. Love exists. Love is life-giving and creative. We wouldn’t have human or other mammalian life without love. I’m fine with calling this life-force God.

Looking at it from another angle, I believe that human beings are inherently religious. That is, we inevitably have a hierarchy of values. That which is at the top of the hierarchy is what shapes how we live and what we think of as most important. Tragically, too many of us too often have something other than love at the top of the hierarchy—with devastating consequences for human life and, as we now realize, for the planet itself.

When we don’t acknowledge this religious dynamic, the hierarchy can exercise hurtful power over us without our even realizing it. I would suggest we have two different, equally problematic, possibilities. One is the atheistic possibility where we think we don’t have a hierarchy and then top values other than love are smuggled in. The other is the theistic possibility where we have a God at the top that is not a God of love. This second possibility has shaped the Western world with the consequences of war and empire and domination where Christians have imitated their coercive and punitive God with devastating impact.

So, I do believe that affirming the reality of God is important, even necessary—but only insofar as it is the same thing as having love at the top of our hierarchy of values. I think this can be done without using the term “God,” a term that the long, violent history of theistic religions has profoundly problematized. Affirming love is what matters. Love is God whether we name it as such—so long as its central in practice.

Questioning Faith blog series

9 thoughts on “Why is the typical Christian understanding of “God” such a problem? [Questioning Faith #2]

  1. Wow! Amen and amen! If a worshipping community comes out of this, please consider me in! Though history will not likely give you the chance, if you had it, would you prefer “Grimsrudists,” “Grimsrudians,” or “Grimsridites,” or something else as the name? Maybe one in English, another in Dutch, different renderings in every language. Menno Simons didn’t get to choose and almost certainly wouldn’t have wanted folks who saw things like he did taking his name at all. BTW at least “Mennists” (rather than “Mennonites”) had a ring that four plus centuries later could rather poignantly be associated with a cartoon character named “Dennis.” 🙂 Also . . . though Harrisonburg is in a beautiful setting, I do not want to move to the U.S., so please don’t make that a requirement.

    1. Thanks, Craig. I haven’t been thinking of a worshiping community—but if that happens, I’d probably prefer “Tedians.” If anyplace, I would think somewhere in Canada (maybe the Canadian Rockies) would be the best location.

  2. Interesting thoughts, Ted, as ever. There’s much here that I can relate to. I like the way you highlighted “embedded theology” and its formative nature. And I too came to the realisation a few years ago that love (and, by extension, God) is necessarily non-controlling and thus, in human terms, weak.

  3. Thank you Ted. I have never understood God as a controlling, punitive All present Spirit. I agree that reaching the age of retirement does give more inner freedom to search for a deeper understanding of the source of life for all of creation. The love for life, love that surpasses all understanding may be a better way to express today what holds us together. I can imagine that the first and highest priority is love. However just like all the words we use to express the our Gegenuber, JHWH, or, love also has to be recognized as agape and searched for as well as become known as something fragile and uncluttered. Most of all we have to be willing to let go of all the false images and all the hurtfull connotations which pop up and stand between our own brokenness and the Gegenuber.

  4. I appreciate hearing more of your journey, though I’ve heard parts before. The phrase, “embedded theology” is a good one. Sadly, it seems more people (or a great many) have a touchy, exacting, punishing God embedded, than what you have.

    Mine is closer to yours. My mother’s graciousness may have been a combination of her deep Mennonite family roots and natural personality. My Dad was less consistent but overall had a loving embedded God, it seems. And mostly displayed it, tho a believer in “soul sorting”, substitutionary atonement, eternal punishment, etc.

    On a conceptual level, I forget how much we’ve discussed your interaction with Process theology, but you seem right there, probably to a “T”(heology). Thomas Jay Oord, “God Can’t”, etc., probably particularly… he was ordained and taught quite a while among Nazarenes, and retains (I believe) some of his Evangelical sentiments or values, if not the formal dogma (PhD from Claremont, participates with Cobb Institute (cobb.institute), etc. Definitely also into the “weak God” idea, if not that exact term… not sure on the latter.

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