There is a Korean legend telling the story of the four legendary gods. An English reading of the original Korean title is Tae Wang Sa Shin Gi. “Tae Wang” refers to the title used by kings of Goguryeo, and means “the Great King.”
“Sa Shin” literally translates to “four gods,” however, a more accurate description of “Sa Shin” would be “four guardians” because the Sa Shins are mythical creatures that serve the Great King. Although they possess supernatural powers, they are not strictly deities. Rather, they are servants of god of heaven.
A recent sociological study in the US has coincidentally arrived at the tentative conclusion that if not four completely separate Gods, then at least four distinctly separate views of God hold sway in the United States of America.
Although much of the Christian religious tradition refers to belief in one God, from the outset there has been much debate about the meaning of the status and dominion of this God, and by inference, debate about what it means to call Jesus the Son. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus posed such a question to His twelve disciples, contrasting the world’s view of His person with that upheld by His Church:
When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Yet this by no means settles the matter. Indeed the disciples themselves saw the meaning very differently and early on there was a split. Those like Thomas who favoured the view that Jesus had the light and claimed we too might have a portion of the light. This contrasted strongly with those like the author of John’s gospel who regarded Jesus as a manifestation of the exact nature of God – and therefore quite different to the rest of us.
Even a superficial reading of different parts of the Bible suggests that different aspects of God have called for different responses from those who seek to follow their faith in God. Whether or not the different images of God are sufficiently different to show that different God types are being followed is still an open question. But at the very least, if we assume that the different views about God are partially mutually exclusive we then have the possibility that in Christian tradition different views of God are shaped by popularity of opinion and have the potential to lead to different responses and actions.
From a sociological point of view the degree of support for each of the main God descriptions is potentially measureable and now two sociologists from Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, from Baylor University in the US have made an attempt to do just that. As sociologists, they are not so much interested in the truth of any religious viewpoint, but in first describing what the main viewpoints are, and from there, the influence that such viewpoints have on other values and consequent actions. Their study is based on the results of 3,300 telephone surveys undertaken in 2006 and 2008, as well as 200 in-depth interviews. When Froese and Bader analyzed the data, they decided the views of Americans could be categorised according to four fundamentally different conceptions of “God”. These were: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical and Distant. A USA Today article on the Froese/Bader study offers a brief summary of these conceptions:
• The Authoritarian God (apparently supported by 31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs. According to Bader such a God is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on “the unfaithful or ungodly,”.
He goes on to say those who envision God this way “are religiously and politically conservative people, more often black Protestants and white evangelicals.” (Perhaps this is the God of the Tea Party?)
•The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half of those following this notion of God (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values.
But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible, Froese summarises:
They’re inclined (68.1%) to say caring for the sick and needy ranks highest on the list of what it means to be a good person…. ( Could it be that here we seem to be getting closer to the Obama God.)
• The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he’s not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort.
“This group is more paradoxical,” Bader says. “They have very traditional beliefs, picturing God as the classic bearded old man on high. Yet they’re less inclined to go to church or affiliate seriously with religious groups. They are less inclined to see God as active in the world. Their politics are definitely not liberal, but they’re not quite conservative, either.”
Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage, or embryonic stem cell research.
For example, 57% overall say gay marriage is always wrong compared with 80.6% for those who see an authoritarian God, and 65.8% for those who see God as benevolent. For those who believe in a critical God, it was 54.7%.
•The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is “no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us,” Bader says. Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own.
This has strongest appeal for Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews. It’s also strong among “moral relativists,” those least likely to say any moral choice is always wrong, and among those who don’t attend church, Bader says.
Only 3.8% of this group say embryonic stem cell research is always wrong, compared with 38.5% of those who see an authoritarian God, 22.7% for those who see God as benevolent and 13.2% who see God as critical but disengaged.
What would now be interesting is to see how these results come out when the study is duplicated elsewhere. First we need to know that the results are sufficiently robust when the study is replicated in the US. The results should not be assumed to come out the same in this country. But the study would be easy to duplicate here. For example in the Methodist Church in New Zealand there are large sections with clear ethnic affiliation. Eg Tongan, Samoan, Fijian, Maori and predominantly European congregations. We might suspect that the Pacific Island groups had a different God in mind when they gathered to worship than for example the predominantly European congregations. Only a survey would establish if indeed this is the case, and this in turn might have implications for those who are anxious to highlight the Methodist stance on varying social issues. Similarly placing each of the main churches in New Zealand in terms of the same categories might help explain differences in attitude and even behaviour.