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It strikes me as imperative that the human race (or at least the religionists involved) come to a firm decision as to whether:
It obviously can't be both ways at once. This is a true "either/or" which has to be decided one way or the other. The outcome of human history depends upon it. But who is to say? So, it is here I propose to do a referendum and let the different constituencies register their own opinion. You can keep score (if you have computer enough to do the job).
The confidence that a God of this character actually exists and lives among us--this goes back at least as far as the writing of the Hebrew scriptures (certainly to what we now know as the Book of Genesis). And what is there self-evident is that these writers consider themselves to be recording what they accept as a factual account of God's existence. They definitely do not see themselves as the human inventors of a legend about a God-figure, which story may someday prove helpful to the race. Consequently, the constituency voting for the actuality of this biblically-defined God soon comes to include all the billion upon billion adherents of the biblical faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And we are not speaking only of those God-believers who are presently alive; no, we are looking at the vote of all those who have ever professed the real existence of this God. Certainly, within the whole of human history, there has never been a referendum that comes anywhere close to being as unanimous as this one. If there is any one item upon which the race as a whole has a chance of "getting it all together," it is around this understanding of the real existence of God.
And for the slightest constituency of all (not so much as a billion-to-one count) now to come on, offering to set the religious world straight by clarifying for us the fact that they know more about gods than does this vast majority of believers; and that they know that our God doesn't actually exist--well, credit the vote of that constituency as you will; it surely is no part of "the bigger picture."
But the as much as universal referendum that votes for God does not stop with a head-count, as impressive as that may be. Very many of these voters go on to attest that they have had personal contact with this real God. They claim to have known him, to have felt his presence, to have been in prayer contact with him, to have seen his glory, to have known themselves to be loved by him. No one can convince these people that the one they know as God is actually nothing but a creation of human imagination.
And even more to the point, very many of these voters have totally dedicated themselves to the reality of this God. They know him as real; they love him as real; they dedicate themselves to him as real; they are happy to lay down their lives out of faith in his reality.
Allow me to recount my own history with God--using myself simply as a common example of what would be true for billions upon billions of believers. As with all the adherents of this biblical faith, this is the tradition into which I (and my ancestors) were born and raised. This tradition has been the whole of my life and faith. I have never considered, desired, or wanted any other faith. I would sooner give up my life than to give up this faith. It has never crossed my mind to question this faith in any way. This faith is "me"; and under any other faith or thought-system I would not be at all the same person I am in knowing this God.
And there is, then, the matter of "solemn vows." Through the very solemn vow of baptism, I became one of this God's people; he owns me. When I married my wife, it was done with solemn vows pledged "before this God." My theological education was vowed as being done under this understanding of the reality of God. And, again with solemn vows, I was ordained to the ministry of this same God.
And if anyone had come to me suggesting that I consider changing my faith to a more rational and up-to-date one, my response automatically would have been, "That isn't even an option for me; I am already committed to the real God." And my personal story here is not in any way unique; over the millennia literally billions of fellow believers would have read things just the way I have done. Our referendum is not so much a matter of counting votes as it is of honoring "commitments."
The voters here are those commonly called "atheists"; they simply do not believe in the existence of any sort of God (and to call some of these people "agnostics" doesn't really affect the vote count). But these people are of no particular threat to real-God believers. Most atheists aren't interested in religion (period). They aren't out to convert or attack anybody--and couldn't care less about who believes in what gods. They want only to be left alone in their unbelief (which, of course, is their privilege). For the most part, these atheists are honest and upright people who are quite ready to speak their opinion of God without obfuscation. There is, of course, no way of getting a count on this constituency; it is there, but is irrelevant to our study.
For each of the above two constituencies I have high and honest regard--even where I cannot begin to agree with them. These people are at least acting above board. However, I am very sorry that I can't say the same thing about our third and final group.
As to number of adherents (the constituency's head-count) this group has by far the smallest of the lot; not so much as even a drop in the bucket--compared, say, to the billion-fold believers that make up Constituency I. Our concern here certainly is not that these people are about to take over and dominate or redefine the faith. No, at this point, the great mass of True God-Believers is still very much in control of things theological.
Instead, it is the matter of honesty and forthrightness (playing fair with one's fellows of the faith) that is the issue before us. There are some cases in which I can speak from personal knowledge and observation--just keeping my eyes open. But, then, I also have a friend who is director of a foundation that sponsors inter-faith dialog; and he spends his time setting up speakers for these conferences, and then attending them, listening to them, and reporting their findings. And he confirms that I am correctly reading the referendum on the real existence of God as Constituency III presently understands it.
Constituency III is made up almost exclusively of theologians, seminarians, and church leaders--the most highly educated and respected religionists around. Yet their vote-count is miniscule for all that. Constituents III see themselves as being leaders; but that doesn't mean that Constituents I reciprocate by becoming their followers. Not by a long shot.
It is quite possible that every one of these No. III constituents began his career as a full-fledged member of the God-believing Constituency I. As I described my own religious pilgrimage above, these people, too, were firm believers, sincerely taking all the right "solemn vows" as they moved through college, seminary, and into professorships and/or the ordained ministry. With as many such people as I know, there is no question but that they were acting in complete honesty and integrity. They were true God-Believers.
Yet, somewhere along the line, something went amiss. There was a failure of faith (or at least a change of faith). Under the pressures of rational modernism some of these religious leaders (not all, certainly, but some) changed their vote on the GOD referendum. No longer could they vote that God actually existed; the best they could do was affirm that the God-Idea was a creation of enlightened human culture.
Of course, what should have happened at this point is that, in all honesty, these new non-believers have openly confessed the new non-faith that was in them, resigned their church positions that were no longer based on valid premises, and publicly moved their memberships to groups in which they could honestly believe.
But at least in most cases, this becoming open and honest with the congregation is not what was done. No, such a getting honest would simply be too costly; it could cost the individual the loss of his position, of his employment, his reputation, his honor--almost everything. So at least all of such people as I have known have gone for a different solution. What they will do is teach and preach a confused enough message that the hearers will think they are getting the biblical gospel--when that is not the intent at all.
A person can manage to sound biblical even while promoting a godless gospel. And just because a person can, with fervor, sing familiar hymns doesn't mean you are obligated to believe him. Any "smart cookie" can practice his own godless theology on his own time and still lead the congregation in it's old-fashioned nonsense, as he is paid to do on Sunday mornings.
But my friend of the high-level inter-faith dialogs tells me that he there hears a great deal of pontificating--and comparatively little witness to the reality of the biblical God.
My final suggestion is going to be "do nothing"--but I suppose I had better explain that. However, don't play it as though the pagan hordes are at the gate and about to take over the City of God. Remember the counts of our referendum and know that we are actually talking about a pesky midge in the eye of Gigantic Faith. It is not the Church of the Living God that is going to be hurt in this little dust-up. The hurt will be wholly that of the proud God-deniers who damage themselves in their readiness to deny God.
In times past, these people would have been identified as heretics. The Church would have booted them out--or, just as likely, executed them. Now the Church may have been well justified in doing so--but that doesn't make it a wise thing for the church to do. The purging itself of heretics does not read as one of the Church's better chapters.
So, yes, it is entirely proper to talk to these heretics about the state of their faith, their understanding of God and relationship to him. We should talk to such people about their understanding of the "solemn vows" and occupational promises by which they achieved prominence in the church. We can ask about what obligation a leader has toward the people he serves. But then we can leave it at that (rather than instigating witch hunts). We can well trust that God himself knows even better than we do just how to handle heretics and God-deniers. In fact, he may even be able to save some of them.
Our calling, then, is clear: We can be so "all over the place"--preaching, teaching, living, and proclaiming the Gospel of God--that deniers can't even find a soap-box on which to stand.
The Referendum of God properly has been referred to God himself.