Occasionally I am asked by people from various walks of life, “Do you believe in God?” This question is often asked by those who have been seriously wounded by sick versions of religion which require belief in a wrathful, rigid, unforgiving, demanding, all-determining God. My answer is always the same: “Tell me what kind of God you are talking about, and I will tell you if I believe in that God.” I give the same kind of answer when I am asked if I believe in Jesus: “Tell me what kind of Jesus you are talking about, and I will tell you if I believe in that Jesus.” There are so many versions of Jesus going around from the sappy, sentimental Jesus to the violent, warrior Jesus and everything in between, that I am not sure which Jesus people are talking about these days.
Brian McLaren, a gifted writer and contemporary theologian, writes about the different versions of God people develop, and he points out that these versions can be compared to the way human beings experience life from one stage to another—from infancy to adulthood. Psychologists tell us that the impressions of God that children develop first come from their parents (a scary and humbling thought). I believe today it is critically important that we listen to McLaren because the stakes are perhaps higher today than ever before regarding what we believe about God.
Version 1 God: When we were infants, we were all incredibly selfish. As McLaren says, “You didn’t care whose ear you screamed in, whose lap you pooped on, whose shoulder you threw up on, whose sleep you interrupted for the ninth time in one night. YOUR hunger, YOUR thirst, YOUR comfort, YOUR relief—all that mattered was YOU! ‘I want what I want when I want it!’ was your motto, even before you had the words to say so. You needed someone to come when you called, clean up your messes, satisfy your demands, kiss your scrapes and bruises and keep you as happy as possible as much as possible” If you had parents who did these kinds of things, you were gifted with the possibility of developing a primal trust in God. This Version 1 God was a God who would take care of you.
Version 2 God: As you grew from infancy into toddlerhood and childhood, you were still probably selfish, but occasionally you experienced a generous impulse. Maybe you let a friend play with your toy train or doll and your mother praised you for sharing. At this stage you are developing a rudimentary concept of sharing and generosity. Version 1 God was still there to clean up your messes and meet your needs, but Version 2 God also had the task of calling you beyond selfishness to generosity. Version 2 God mirrored your parents and other caring people as they encouraged you to be nice and polite, to say please and thank you, and to play with others.
Version 3 God: As you grew older and went to school, you discovered a world of rules and schedules. You couldn’t just leave your seat any time you wanted to. You had to do your homework whether you wanted to or not. And you learned rules for math, grammar, and sports. And when you got to high school and tried to get a driver’s license, you found out there are many rules for being behind the wheel and on the road. Version 3 God is a God of rules and fair play. This God rewards those who keep the rules and punishes those who break the rules. Version 1 God and Version 2 God were still there. God was still meeting your needs and calling you to generosity. But like growth rings on a tree, this season’s new ring embraced those other rings left by previous seasons. Version 3 God, embodied in authority figures outside the home, grew in importance as you had to navigate life in a social world full of rules, both written and unwritten.
Version 4 God: As a young adult, perhaps you fell in love for the first time. There was probably considerable selfishness in that love relationship on both sides and some bumpy roads as you experienced disappointments, betrayals and heartbreaks. But through experience (one would hope) you learned that love comes with a risk and authentic love demands sacrifice as well as giving and receiving forgiveness. At this point you are ready to embrace Version 4 God who is a God of affection, faithfulness, forgiveness, and family.
You began to learn as an adult that you had commitments to your mate, your children, your wider family, your workplace, your handling of finances, and your community and nation. As your family grew with your own children who began to learn all that you did at each stage and as your associations expanded to include different constellations of relationships which you now include in your devotion and love, you understand that there is a WE that you belong to, are committed to, and care about.
Of course, many people get stuck in an early version of God. As McLaren says, “Many of us are still angry and bitter that Version 1 God hasn’t solved all our problems and made life as cozy and easy as a warm blanket and a dry diaper. (The God that many alienated and former believers have rejected is Version 1 God.) For others, Version 2 God is all they can handle—a gracious God who wants us all to be nice and get along. When the hard knocks of reality confront those stuck in Version 2 religion and life no longer seems fair, they too might be tempted to abandon the god they had previously embraced. For those who prefer a world defined by rules (law and order), Version 3 God is their favorite, and they would very much like to impose Version 3 God on everyone else. Of course, you may then realize that you would also like to convert everyone to the loving Version 4 God! You wish everyone could migrate from selfishness to other-centeredness, from self-interest to the common good, FROM ME TO WE. You have arrived at Version 4 God and wish everyone else would too!”
Many Christians believe that they and Christians like them worship and serve Version 4 God. But guess what? Version 4 God IS NOT ENOUGH! Version 4 God is a vast improvement over the first three versions of God, but there is and always has been a problem with Version 4 God. The problem is found in this question: WHOM DO MOST OF US INCLUDE IN THE “WE” OF OUR FAMILY/COMMUNITY/CIRCLE OF LOVE? For much of its history, the church has had a very exclusive “we” in its definition of “we.” The versions of God that all religions have cherished have too often led their adherents to offer affection, faithfulness, and forgiveness only for people from their religion, ethnicity, or tribe. We, us, and our may be an improvement over I, me, and mine, but in our kind of world today belief in Version 4 God can cause major problems. As McLaren says, “The same Version 4 God who inspires individuals to progress from the personal selfishness of me to the social maturity of we is the violent God whose genocide card we keep in our back pocket if we are threatened, or if they have something we desire. The word we, it turns out, can be pretty dangerous, because it can otherize and dehumanize those who aren’t like us.”
Version 4 God may have served a needed purpose in caveman and tribal days as people tried to survive, but today’s world is very different. With the advent of weapons of mass destruction and the threat of ecological disaster (not to mention the lethal consequences of a pandemic), there is no longer any us and them. There is only “us” and that “us” includes all of nature and the entire planet. If we continue worshipping and serving Version 4 God, there can be no winners in future—only losers. Every “we” would be exterminated.
As McLaren writes,
We need Version 5 God to emerge, a God of inclusive we, the God not just of us but of all of us…We need to migrate to a grown-up God.
We need Version 5 God to lead us away from the precipice of cataclysmic war.
We need Version 5 God to save us from paralyzing polarization.
We need Version 5 God to teach us to wisely revere and care for the earth upon which we all depend.
We need Version 5 God because we now realize we have evolved together with all other forms of life on this tiny, fragile planet which means all creatures are our relatives, our relations. We are all part of one family tree, one web of life, and we need our understanding of God to embrace that reality.
This Version 5 God is primarily a God of compassion for EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING. Jesus taught that compassion and solidarity with others (all others) was the primary characteristic of the God he called Abba. With that in mind, let look at a passage from Matthew which is part of the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew 5: 43 states the “us” versus “them” so prevalent in the world of Jesus’ and in our own day. “Love your neighbor” and “hate your enemy.” Who were the “enemies” of Jesus’ hearers? Romans, Samaritans, “sinners,” Gentiles, etc. Jesus alternative is to love and to show compassion for one’s enemies. Why? Because God has compassionate love for God’s enemies (those who reject the ways of Abba). Jesus says that if we only love those who love us, we are no better than those who don’t even know God (the God he came to reveal). When we limit our compassionate love, we are practicing Version 4 religion. What makes the way of Jesus Christ different is a God whose love is completely, absolutely, and undeniably UNCONDITIONAL, INDISCRIMINATE, SELF-GIVING, AND EVERLASTING. Even on the cross in unthinkable agony, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
It’s time, indeed, past time, for those who claim Jesus as their Lord to embrace the Version 5 God of unlimited compassion. I believe that this is the primary calling from Jesus for our day because continuing Version 4 God religion is a certain route to cataclysmic disaster for our world and our time.
[The book this article is based on is The Great Spiritual Migration by Brian McLaren. I highly recommend this and all other books by McLaren.]