Christian Century

January 1, 2022

Ranging widely through popular treatments of contemporary physics and anthropology, public opinion polls and popular culture, Phyllis Tickle hears God-talk just about everywhere. The interesting and disturbing question behind her broad, breezy and at times thin survey is “Who is this God whom everyone in postmodern America is talking about?”

For starters, this is the God made possible by the work of the “brilliant” Joseph Campbell, aided by Bill Moyers. Tickle likes Campbell because he leads modern materialists hack to “transcendent reality.” Through the metaphor of “myth,” Campbell revealed “the hidden presence of a universal truth that can be entered into, like a grand ballroom, through many doors.” This insight, says Tickle, was lapped up by an eager laity and “proved to be a body blow to religion and institutionalism as well.”

Dull, exclusivistic theologians and the irrelevant ecclesiastical institutions they serve are what the new God-talk is struggling to leave behind. Tickle praises not only Campbell but Carl Jung, John Spong, Thomas Moore and Della Reese of the popular TV show Touched by an Angel for their “democratization of theology.” She praises Martin Marty for his “objective, dispassionate, nonpejorative analysis of theology” (and all the time you thought he was a Lutheran!). These folk have helped to liberate God-talk from the church’s “institutional cowardice” so that we can at last affirm that everyone down deep is religions and just about everyone talks about God.

But again, which God? Tickle calls herself a “secular Christian.” Although she does not define the term, I gather that it means anti-institutional, anti-traditional, anti any concept of a deity who has specific shape or contour and who makes ethical demands on people-in short, the amorphous deity of millions of affluent Americans.

Tickle would say that I`m indulging in mere “doctrinal niceties,” which she praises Sophia worshipers for disregarding. However, the womanist and ecological theologians and the New Agers whom she praises do a great deal of theology precisely because they know that the way we define God makes all the difference in the world.

I agree with Tickle that “more theology is conveyed in, and probably retained from one hour of popular television than from all of the sermons that are also delivered on any given weekend in America’s synagogues, churches, and mosques.” But I don’t agree that this is cause for rejoicing. The God of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob and Jesus has always been a tough sell and is especially so in our narcissistic, sentimental, acquisitive culture.

The cover design of this book seems peculiarly appropriate. It reproduces Norman Rockwell’s painting “Saving Grace,” depicting an anachronistically clad woman and a little boy bowed in prayer in a crowded cafe, watched curiously by two young cigarette-smoking guys. Like the picture, the God-talk Tickle celebrates is sentimental, vaguely religious kitseh-the traditional bane of American religious discourse. She presents it as some kind of rebellion against the culture. In reality, it is capitulation.

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