As a publisher it should come as no surprise that we tend to see daily headlines or intriguing quotes as prospective book titles. In that vein, I’ve recently been unsettled by a theological conundrum. Simply stated, it seems to me that we Evangelicals are in danger of becoming defacto Deists. I’ve managed to suppress this concern for years, but I’m now fully out of the closet.
When I suggest that Evangelicals may be defacto Deists, I’m not saying we fully embrace sixteenth-century European Deism, which later influenced American founders like Jefferson and Franklin. It’s something subtler that I’m observing today. Surely I’m not the only one who reflects on this matter, but a deafening silence on this issue suggests our discomfort with commonplace answers.
What is a Deist? The great theological reference work, Wikipedia, says “Deism holds that God does not intervene with the functioning of the natural world in any way, allowing it to run according to the laws of nature that [God] configured when he created all things. God is thus conceived to be wholly transcendent and never immanent.”
Said another way, a Deist is one who believes that God wound up His universe – carefully putting in place the laws of nature – and now sits back, empathetically watching as the world winds down to the Second Coming. God doesn’t interfere or break into the natural order at all.
That begs the question – after creating the world, miraculously calling and repeatedly rescuing Israel, sending his Son Jesus, who along with his disciples, performed signs and wonders, and then miraculously providing Scripture and a saving Gospel – what’s this all-powerful God doing now in the 21st century? Did God’s recordable work end 2,000 years ago – around A.D. 90?
Most classic Deists believed in God’s past creative activity, too. Though some Deists were understood as agnostics, I’m not sure most would accept that label. Deists believed in God, but they also held that God had stopped breaking into time and space, interfering with the laws of nature.
It seems many Evangelicals, in effect, hold some views in common with the Deists: That disease, hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, evil dictators and corrupt regimes have their destructive effect on humankind, and that God allows that to happen without intervening. Sure, God grieves about all this, but he knows the end is near, and he longs to bring his Chosen home to Heaven.
How does a Deist-like theology play out in everyday living? When faced with trial, sickness, danger, we pray, but do we expect anything to really happen? So then, we tell ourselves: The real purpose of prayer is to align our hearts with God’s will; or, since God knows what’s best for us, we should understand “no” is his loving answer when our prayers are not answered. Ultimately, we live in blind faith that we are finite and that ours is a mysterious God.
Having taken that position, if an overzealous Evangelical neighbor dares to say he prayed in faith for a specific blessing – whether for health, happiness, success or material need – and then boldly claims God did something overt in answer to his prayer, the Deist within us tends to tense up, fearful that theology has run amok.
I’m not arguing for a prosperity gospel or against my own traditional, orthodox Evangelical heritage. I am just asking a simple question: “Today, in this 21st century, are we comfortable letting God out of that claustrophobic box, allowing him be the God who has surprised and blessed his beloved people from the beginning of time?” Maybe we should sit back, relax, and let God be God.
I suspect there’s a book here somewhere.