A Personal God?

Fr. Steven Kostoff

This article is from Fr. Steven’s weekly articles from the OCA parish in Cincinatti, OH. The parish had been discussing religion and public life and this is his response to a survey that he had read.

It is reposted with his permission. - Fr. Christopher

Recently, The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life published its findings about religious life in America - primarily concerning attitudes and perceptions about God and faith. I shared some of this data with you last week emphasizing, of course, what was revealed to us about Orthodox Christians in North America. At least we made it into this poll! Due to our "minority status," that does not always happen. The results were at best ambiguous, and at times less than encouraging. The one result of the poll that proved to be the most distressing, and which drew a good deal of comment from some of you in the parish, was the finding that only 49% of Orthodox Christians believe in a "personal God," though 95% of Orthodox Christians claim to believe in God (God's very existence, I would assume this means). If someone can possibly account for the remaining 5% in a plausible manner, please let me know. Is there a hidden subculture of Orthodox Christian agnostics/atheists just waiting to "come out" and explain the incoherence of their position? Orthodox Christians also made a lackluster, middle-of-the-pack showing with 56% answering affirmatively to the statement that "religion is very important in their lives." And an anemic 34% claimed to attend a religious service at least once a week. That alone should prompt more care about the careless use of the well-worn phrases of "true Church" and "true Faith." As many of you responded, these polls are notoriously random in their polling techniques, and the questions themselves may not be fully understood - if not totally misunderstood. Randomly chosen "cradle Orthodox" who have either fallen away from the Church, or who are nominal in their commitment to a "religious life" in the Church are going to push those statistics downwards. As I wrote earlier, there can exist a huge gulf between an "ethnic Orthodox" and an Orthodox Christian. To identify oneself as "Orthodox" does not mean that a person is consciously Christian. That may be quite unfortunate and contradictory, but I am certain that that is true in many instances. In other words, I am equally certain that those polling statistics would not hold up in a viable, thriving Orthodox Christian parish. For this reason, it is understandable that many persons are rather dismissive of, or unimpressed by such polling results. (I also believe that polls have the unavoidable tendency to make even religious questions seem trite and superficial).

Nevertheless, it would be willful blindness to claim that religious polls do not reveal something of importance about religious beliefs in general, or about specific religious groups in particular. Random or not, why is it that so many self-designated Orthodox Christians will not commit to believing in a "personal God?" Or, why is it that so many Orthodox Christians are apparently quite susceptible to the bland temptations of secularism, or the blandishments of popular atheism? Why, indeed, are so many Orthodox Christians "fallen away" from the Church? Do we need to face up to a catechetical crisis in the Orthodox Church, meaning a lack of coherent and convincing teaching from our clergy, theologians and appointed teachers who are failing to respond to the ever-expanding marketplace of competing ideas? Perhaps, ultimately, we are simply living in an age when human beings are no longer attracted or troubled - or even "tormented" as Dostoevsky was - by the "God question" as long as their material needs are adequately met. As one of Flannery O'Connor's characters, Hazel Motes, said: "A man who has a new car ain't in need of redemption."

Trying to address those questions here and now is beyond the scope of this "meditation." Although, I believe that the questions above are worthy of some careful reflection in the future. Actually, my initial impulse for writing further on this theme was prompted by both a response by one of our parishoners and a question from another that I received yesterday. Someone raised the very real possibility that the actual phrase "personal God," would not be understood by many Orthodox Christians. In the minds of many, according to this response, this phrase could mean that "God and Truth is whatever I as an individual determine it to be (implying that the Church is not the authority) which is a Protestant concept." He further stated that "I suspect that many older ethnic Orthodox (my grandparents for example) would not understand what that means." The legitimacy of such a response was demonstrated when someone approached me yesterday and expressed confusion over this term "personal God," interpreting it in a manner very close to the one I just shared with everyone. Therefore, with the modest goal of trying to add some clarity to the topic at hand, I would like to briefly address the meaning of the phrase "a personal God."

If I am not mistaken, the phrase "a personal God," fairly current in contemporary religious discourse, is meant to say something first about the nature of God, rather than our subjective or "personal" understanding of God. To paraphrase the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, we believe in "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," and not the "god of the philosophers." The former is "personal" but the latter is "impersonal." This personal God is the God of the Scriptures Who is love and not the Unmoved Mover of the Greek philosophers. The God who reveals/shows/manifests Himself to persons so that a conscious and living relationship, ultimately based on faith, hope and love can be created, sustained, and ever deepened. A "personal God" means that God is concerned about, and engaged with the world and human persons. God cares about our lives and our destinies. "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will. But even the hairs of your head are numbered." (MATT. 10:29-30) As the Russian elder, Macarius of Optina put it: "To hold the faith does not only mean that we believe God to be our Creator. It also means that we recognize His unceasing and detailed attention to our good .."

A "personal God" is not the God who remains aloof from the world, as if God is a cosmic clockmaker, who wound up the universe and now allows it to "run" on its own inherent laws free of providential care and engagement. (That would be the "God" of deism, the belief of many of the Founding Fathers of our country). "For God so loved the world ..." could only be said of a personal God concerned about the direction and destiny of the world - a world that exists because God "loved" it into existence. God desires that we will all be saved "and come to the knowledge of the truth." (I TIM. 2:4) This is the God that we worship in the Liturgy and that we pray to in our homes "in secret." We then extend our belief in "a personal God" to our "subjective" and "personal" relationship with God, based on the faith that we can "know" God in His self-revelation. That means through the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. Every human being has the potential to have a "personal" relationship" with the "personal" God of Christian revelation. One can believe that an impersonal deity exists, but one cannot relate to such a "God." We thus return to my initial point that the term "a personal God" is meant primarily to tell us something about the nature of God, and then by extention about our relationship with God. It does not mean a God that we "create' through our personal ideas or musings. At least that is how I understand the term as commonly used in contemporary religious discourse.

Perhaps some Orthodox Christians were fooled by the wording of the question. Perhaps a clearer understanding of the phrase " a personal God" would have yielded more promising results. Perhaps Orthodox Christians need to take their faith more seriously and to ask themselves more probing questions about God and life. Perhaps, a bit more "personally," each one of us who makes up the 34% of Orthodox Christians who claim to attend church "at least once a week" needs to pose the question: "Do I really believe in a personal God?"