In a front-page article in "USAToday" on Sept. 12, for example, the study that is analyzing responses to 77 different questions reveals some interesting things about the attitude of people toward God. The very word "God" may very well mean something quite different to you than it does to your neighbor.
Sociologists from Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion have identified four distinct images of the Creator's personality and attitude toward human beings.
These four takes on God — labeled Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant by the researchers — are claimed to "tell more about people's social, moral and political views and personal piety than the familiar categories of Protestant / Catholic / Jew or even red state / blue state."
The 31.4% of Americans (43.3% in the South) who envision the deity as The Authoritarian God see him as deeply involved in all things going on in human experience. And what he sees principally makes him angry. He wants us to shape up and fly right. Harsh judgments are pending for those who don't.
The Benevolent God is the understanding of 23% overall (28.7% in the Midwest) who also believe in God's sovereignty and deep engagement with humanity. These believers acknowledge absolute divine standards and tragic human failure in light of them. But they are more inclined to see God as grieved rather than angry, more apt to think of eagerness to pardon than to condemn.
A third group of some 16% (21.3% in the East) pictures The Critical God. This group has fewer moral absolutes on issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Yet its members see God as critical and judgmental toward the human condition, although they have little expectation of either divine wrath or help.
Scholars and the general public will discuss the meaning of all this data extensively — until the next polling data is gathered. But the obvious should not be missed. Faith seems well-nigh instinctive to Americans. To people everywhere.
God created humans "so they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27 NIV).