Do you believe in a God who respects your personal space, one you can keep at arm’s length? Today, Barry Cooper explores the origins and impact of a philosophy that tries to place God at a safe distance.
Ten years before becoming the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong applied at a local Methodist church to lead a Boy Scout troop. Where the form asked for his religious affiliation, Armstrong apparently wrote the word “Deist.”
What is deism, exactly? The word comes from the Latin word deus, meaning “god.” So literally, deism means “god-ism.”
It’s the belief in a god who created the universe, but then, like an absentee father, has no ongoing involvement with it. This type of god has been described as “the divine watchmaker,” the idea being that once a watchmaker makes a watch, he doesn’t have to hang around for the watch to keep ticking. He steps away and allows it to run itself. So deism is the belief that God originally made the world and human life but has subsequently adopted a hands-off approach to His creation. There’s no such thing as a personal relationship with the God of deism because that’s just not the way He rolls.
Deism was a philosophy that first arose in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century England. I know; you’re welcome. It grew out of so-called Enlightenment thinking, which preached the idea that human reason was sufficient to make sense of all things and was humanity’s only hope if it wanted to grow to maturity. Reason, coupled with science, would lead inevitably to progress and ultimately to freedom and happiness.
Deism was appealing to Enlightenment thinkers for the same reason it’s appealing to people today. For a start, because deism admits no such thing as special revelation, there’s no need to hold to any embarrassing beliefs about the reliability of the Bible. The Bible is merely a take-it-or-leave-it compendium of human wisdom rather than divine self-disclosure. This is why Thomas Jefferson famously compiled his own cut-and-paste version of the New Testament with the awkward supernatural bits taken out. Deism wants Jesus’ morality but not His divinity.
And that’s really deism in a nutshell: Yes, I believe in God, but only one who respects my personal space, one I can keep at arm’s length at all times. The deist God doesn’t have anything too dogmatic to say about the way I should live my life—that’s for me to work out with my own powers of reason. There’s no devil, no hell, no judgment. That’s all a bit supernatural, and my powers of reason tell me that there’s no such thing as the supernatural.
The deist says God gave us reason, not religion.
But that, of course, just means that reason becomes your religion. Reason becomes your god and your savior. The god against which all other gods are judged. Reason is the way, the truth, and the life.
The Apostle Paul would certainly agree that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to establish the existence of a Creator. Romans chapter 1 says that. But as Paul knew, even the devil believes that God exists. Satan could quite happily list his religious affiliation as “Deist,” and he wouldn’t even have to cross his fingers behind his back.
Is that all that God wants—for people to acknowledge His mere existence and then carry on regardless?
The effects of emotionally or physically absent fathers has been very well documented. Fear, anxiety, our ability to form healthy relationships—the wound goes very, very deep. How much deeper is the wound when the heavenly Father is like that?
Make a religion out of reason, and that’s the kind of god you end up with: aloof, distant; someone who wants very little to do with you.
But the living God is a Father. Not an absent one, but an intimately involved one.
He is also Son and Spirit. Which means that far from being relationally distant, He’s relational in Himself. He always has been.
No wonder Jesus Christ was so problematic for Jefferson. Because when Jesus entered the world, He was inviting all of us into an intimate relationship with the inherently relational God.