“Faith creates the deity.”
He wasn’t trying to be heretical. He was just trying to take seriously what the Bible says about gods and our relationship to them. From Genesis forward, God, the creator, goes by many regional names and qualitative descriptions in the Hebrew scriptures. El Elyon (“God Most High”), Adonai (“Lord”), Elohim (“God of gods”), and El Shaddai (“the many breasted one”) are among the most popular. Then, as of Exodus, the mysterious YHWH, the unpronounceable anti-name given to Moses at the burning bush, begins to push those other identifiers to the side. By design, we don't really know anything about this unnameable name other than that it's associated with One who has a particular concern for the poor and the marginalized.
As we move into the proto-Trinitarian thinking of the Christian Testament, Jesus becomes the face of God the Father (note that "father" is a metaphor, not an identifier) by the power of the Holy Spirit, but just like YHWH, that also seems to be a paradoxical refusal give us an easy handle on the divine. So, biblically, “God” is not a proper noun, despite how comfortable we get using the term that way. If the creator of the universe had a birth certificate, it would not read:
Name - God
Birthdate - 01/01/00
Birthplace - The Center
Parents - Judith and Reginald van Nihilo
If we understand all that, then it suddenly becomes non-sense to ask the question: "Do you believe in God?" There is no one or no thing out there named God van Nihilo. It is actually we who make someone or something into a god when we worship or entrust ourselves to him/her/it like a god. So the only meaningful faith question under the stars is not "Do you believe in God?" but, "Which god do you believe in?" It could be the same one that Jesus of Nazareth trusted, or the one that Donald of Trump trusts, or any of a million others.
And this is what Luther meant: whomever or whatever I trust to sustain my mortal wellbeing, the future of my family and the people I worry over, my hopes, my sense of meaning and purpose, and the rest of my entirety as a person, that is my god. Of course, pretty much none of us have integrity enough to just choose one god and stick with him/her/it. Most of us have a jumble of gods to whom we lend our faith in varying degrees and often simultaneously throughout the day.
Whenever people say, “I’m a believer,” I find that to be about the least exceptional piece of information possible. It’s like saying, “I occupy geometric space.” In our nominally Christian culture, they, of course, mean, “I’m a believer/entrust-er of the God of Jesus Christ.” But if they were totally honest with themselves, that’s likely not the whole truth, is it?
If we could do a brain scan and look more closely at whatever neurological happenings are associated with existential trust, there was perhaps a spot somewhere between 11 and 11:02am on Tuesday, another moment after a close call in traffic on their Thursday commute, and another during the seventh chorus of “How Great Is Our God” on Sunday morning, where they may, at some ambiguous level, have managed to place a great deal of conscious mortal trust in the hands of the God of Jesus Christ. But as a pastor, I wasn’t born yesterday. I know, if they’re anything like me, there were far more moments throughout the week—like when they were looking at their mutual fund statement, or humble bragging about their kids at soccer practice, or tying on one drink too many, or jumping off the couch and yelling at a referee on TV, or having a “we need to talk” conversation with their spouse, or closing a huge account that they’d been working on for weeks—where they had put their trust in a different kind of god entirely.
It gets even more confusing when people start referring to the God of Jesus Christ with all the right language, but then construct a different sort of deity entirely with the qualities they attribute to that entity: warlike power rather than suffering love, boastful arrogance rather than humble self-emptying, small-minded nationalism rather than universal love.
The folks who say “I’m a believer” aren’t lying. They believe in many gods indeed. I know because I’m one of them. And I’ll try until my dying day to become more consistent with where I place said belief, but at time of writing, that effort hasn’t born much fruit.
Fortunately, there was another side to what Luther was saying. If we are this bad at choosing the right god, then establishing a relationship with the truly divine must have exactly nothing to do with our waffling efforts at reaching god with our faith and must have entirely to do with God reaching us with grace. God must establish a new and very one-sided covenant, because the other end of any two-sided covenant, I’ll drop almost immediately.
Like the philosophers in Athens, we create all kinds deities and religions, and it’s neither here nor there. The one true God let’s us play at religion and have our fun and then comes to us in a manger, in a cross, in bread, wine, and water.
Cheers and Peace,
Jared Witt (Twitter: @realjaredwitt) is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community. Checkout this blog weekly for reflections and updates or subscribe to our newsletter so that you never miss a thing.