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Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and Jenna Elfman, among others, have catapulted Scientology to the forefront of post-modern religious expression. Some Hollywood watchers have called the phenomenon the “Kabbalah” of 2007.

It would be easy to take potshots at Scientology’s more outrageous tenets, but I think it is more fair and helpful to ask what is fueling the craze. In this light, in Wednesday’s posting I will give a summary of Scientology beliefs and practices, as I understand them. Today, however, I want to approach the question from the opposite direction: what is turning people away from traditional religion?

I think there are lots of reasons, including the scandalous antics of some religious leaders. But, from my experience, the biggest reason is a misconception of who God is in the first place.

Below, I will lead you through a few categories of what I consider to be common and false depictions of the divine. Each, I believe, influences negatively our understanding of God, and therefore makes more attractive the latest craze in religious expression, whatever it may be.

I am not going to offer a rebuttal to any of these depictions of God. I think you can do that on your own.

I must admit, I’m writing on this topic in part for selfish reasons. I want your feedback. I am interested in knowing whether these categories correspond to what you have experienced in your own lives, what you have been taught, what you believe, consciously or unconsciously. On Friday I will post some of your responses.

1) God the Vending Machine

God the Vending Machine is a machine we use to get what we want. Drop the coins, express our wish, and hope it works. Once we’ve got our product we are back to our busy life and the vending machine is long forgotten. When we don’t receive an instant response, we assume the God machine is broken. We press the buttons harder, just in case, and hit the coin return to get our money back.

2) God the Clockmaker

The clockmaker God is the Supreme Being who sets things in motion, like the inner workings of a good Swiss watch, and leaves us to our own fate. He is “out there somewhere” but is not really in touch with reality. He looks down on the world from a distance and doesn’t really care or just can’t do anything about our problems. He is a bit like us when we watch a bunch of ants fighting a life-and-death combat. At most he is amused, but he surely won’t interfere. He is the watchmaker who got the thing going and now just watches it tick. The wise creator has capped his quill pen and allows us essentially to write our own demise. If the world is to be saved, it’s up to us because God isn’t about to intervene.

3) God of the Buffet

Perhaps the most common depiction of someone like God is what I like to call God of the Buffet. As we go through the buffet line we pick what we want: a salad, a little pasta, roast beef, some potatoes, another veggie, and then some fresh fruit and a little cheesecake to top it off. Likewise we pick out our beliefs. We may take Buddhist meditation, Hindu mysticism, the Jesus figure of love and forgiveness, a touch of New Age, and, of course, we leave out the rules.

In the end, the God of the Buffet boils down to intellectual and religious relativism. It holds that truth is subjective, and so each of us can choose his religion as he likes, all of them being equally valid. Instead of acknowledging that God is perfect, the God of the Buffet is mutable. He is employed as a motivating, comforting, or disciplinary force when it’s convenient. He vanishes when we no longer need belief.

4) God the Cop

He’s the cop just waiting to catch me speeding. If I’m not perfect, he’s against me, and eventually he’ll catch me. He is the wrathful God of fire and brimstone. We subordinate God’s supposed attributes of love and forgiveness to images of a vengeful God—based primarily on recollections of Old Testament accounts.

God is not a father. He is not a mother. He is just an old man ticked off by so much sin. We fear even minor infractions may stir him to strike back, to send a lightening bolt hurling from the heavens. God the Cop keeps us in line by offering punishment and reward. We are much like a puppy that will roll over or beg once he learns that he won’t get a treat if he doesn’t.

5) God as Dessert

God is dessert sitting in the freezer for later. He is the fine china collecting dust in the cabinet that we think we might need for some important dinner party at some point in the future.

In other words, I don’t need God now. I’m saving him for later. God and faith require too much time and energy. I want to spend the prime of my life on other things. Not getting too involved in religion also keeps me in the bliss of ignorance. I prefer to live without the guilty conscience that I assume will inevitably accompany the pursuit of religious truth.

Look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for your time.

God bless, Father Jonathan

What I've Been Reading:

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