Human beings want religion not God. Or, to put it slightly differently (and perhaps in a more nuanced manner!), they all too easily equate religion with a very particular, culturally determined, idea of God. They name their religion – their rites, their laws, their stories – divine or Bible-based. They find mystical origins for their laws turning those laws into unquestionable truths.
However, what really happens is a domestication of God. God is made into what “we” want God to be, usually just a better more perfect version of ourselves. The result? God is certainly honored. God is part of the landscape and discourse. Yet, God is honored only with the lips but far from the heart. God is abandoned and replaced with culturally constructed versions! And human traditions (precisely a culture’s prejudices) are divinized.
Of course, everyone and every group needs some structure to regulate its life. This is why we have laws in the first place! But “law” can take on many forms. Rituals, for example, help frame life from our youngest childhood onwards. A nation needs its rituals as well, its stories that identify and set it apart (stories that get repeated unceasingly in heightened electoral periods!). But when the structures we create are identified with God, when the insights and traditions that formed a nation are uncritically mythologized, even distorted, God is fossilized, engraved in stone and finally even used as a weapon of judgment. God then is actually far from that structure, from those stories, from that tradition. For God cannot be fit into any one structure. God cannot be reduced to any one nation or class.
This weekend, we are caught between two national conventions, determining and setting the political agenda and rhetoric for the next few months (and maybe years). God will be invoked by both sides (whether God likes it or not!). Lip service is quick and easy but also very dangerous. American political rhetoric takes God and turns God into a national religion: God becomes the explanation rather than the question. “God” is cited as the source of our rights yet these rights are very culturally defined – the right, for example, to carry guns (who else in the world considers this an inalienable right?!) but not to have health care. Anyone who opposes this invocation of God is labeled an unbeliever or, perhaps even worse, as opposed to the God of America (see the recent article by Norman Lear, “Paul Ryan: God Says That I Can Carry a Gun?”).
I’m reminded of a text by Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov in which he boldly states (long before Rob Bell) that hell is not part of God’s creation but rather the invention of so-called “good” people. The “good” people need a place to put all those who are not like themselves (the poor, the unsuccessful, gays, single mothers, etc.) – all those who don’t follow the “laws” as the majority defines them! The possibility of judging, condemning others makes the so-called “good” people more self-assured and confident in their own salvation. God is forgotten and only national, patriotic, “American” traditions remain.