No two Christians worship the same God.
When I was still a theology major in college, I remember reading a book comparing and contrasting Wesleyan-Arminian theology with Calvinist theology. The result? I became thoroughly convinced that in a very real way, the two sects of Christianity were not worshipping the same God. I was uncomfortable with proposing the idea that one of them was “wrong,” but it seemed obvious to me that there were some irreconcilable differences between a Calvinists perception of God and a Wesleyan’s perception of God. Each school of thought reduces the essential qualities of God to different attributes. While the characteristics of justice (Calvinism focus) and mercy (Wesleyan focus) are not mutually exclusive, the elevation of either of these characteristics over the other does present a different person.
The Calvinist God is defined by his strict adherence to justice. His creation of the universe and His relationship to it are quite different than a God whose essential property is mercy. Although my systematic theology professor—a man who I admire greatly for both his intellect and integrity—came very close to making the claim that these two conceptions of God are not presentations of the same divine person, but he always shied away from saying it outright. And with good reason, the claim opens up a Pandora’s box of sorts.
There are some very serious ramifications for this line of thought. It indicates that at least one of these two sects of Christianity is not worshipping the correct Person. They are worshipping an idol of a God. A twisted version of the “one true God.” Then again, these are not the only two “versions” of God within the Christian faith. Catholic theology, charismatic theology, orthodox theology… they all present their own spin on who God is. Despite the surface similarities between the deities of each of these schools of thought, to say that the God of the Southern Baptist is the same as the God of the Russian Orthodox is a bit of a stretch.
Even within these various schools of thought, are there any two persons who worship the same deity? Do any two Baptists have an identical understanding of who God is? When I was a devout Christian, I had serious differences of opinion with those to whom I was close in the church. Although some of them seemed innocent enough, some of them created within us a very, very different idea of who God was.
Granted, my perception of someone does not necessitate that they fit into that perception. The fact that four people all might have a very different understanding of who I am does not mean that any of their thoughts have an effect on my personhood.
But Christian faith is a little bit different than a casual friendship. For the Christian, faith should have affects on all aspects of life. Faith determines how one views the world, interacts with other people, and makes decisions. So a Christian’s understanding of their God is absolutely crucial to their so-called relationship with God—and by extension their relationship with the world.
The way I see it though, these slight (and great) differences of opinion on who God is not only cause Christians to interact with God and the world differently, but they create individual Gods that each of them serve and worship. The difference between a transcendent deity and a material being is that while our perceptions of other people are skewed by our own prejudices and experiences, there is a physically existing person to serve as a basis for our understanding. With a deity, we have nothing but ideas, outside influences, prejudices, circumstances, and experience to serve as a basis for understanding that deity.
In any church on a given Sunday, there might be a hundred people all singing a hymn or worship song, listening to a sermon, or partaking in a prayer. Each of those hundred people have slightly—and sometimes greatly—different views of who the object of those songs, sermons and prayers is. They are each worshipping their own god, a synthesis of their own tastes and the influences of external stimuli. None of them are objectively worshipping the same God.
The whole thing seems interesting to me in light of the fact that I often hear an “us vs. them” attitude among certain sects of Christians, but even amongst themselves, there really is no united idea of who the supposed core of their existence is.
I have a mild—and perhaps masochistic—addiction to conservative Christian talk radio. Weird, I know, but I can’t get enough of it. I listen as co-hosts take turns viciously attacking liberals, atheists, feminists, homosexuals, and everyone else with an agenda to bring down the demise of western civilization. I can’t help but smile when I think about the slight—and perhaps huge—differences in opinion between the hosts on who God is. If only they were able to understand the other’s idea of who God is, they would more than likely turn on each other.