Robert Wuthnow. The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012. 344 pp. $34.95.
The God Problem is a fascinating study of how people talk about their faith, and how they do so in a way that reflects their desire to appear reasonable. Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow observes that while the United States is one of the most highly educated societies on earth, it is also one of the most religious. Does that strike you as bizarre? In light of popular rhetoric, it wouldn’t be unusual to assume many Americans find religion to be problematic. And for the more critical, the problem with religion is that it’s simply irrational. This seems to be the song of many cultural tastemakers.
Let’s be honest: religion does include, and always has included, beliefs that are strange and weird for those looking in from the outside. That's not to mention the religious figureheads who’ve claimed to singlehandedly divert the paths of hurricanes or reenact Old Testament dramas and thereby receive divine assurance in their decisions. Religion quite often extends beyond the polite norms of propriety, does it not? But if religion is so problematic, why do so many Americans believe in God?
In The God Problem, Winthrow examines how middle-class Americans juggle the seemingly paradoxical relationship between faith and reason. Using the tools of discourse analysis and cognitive anthropology, Wuthnow takes the reader on a tour through the United States to sit in on 165 qualitative interviews in which he carefully examines remarks about prayer, tragedies and miracles, heaven, freedom in Christ, and science and faith.1 Wuthnow suggests that people’s faith is often guided—and perhaps restricted—by their own desire to seem reasonable:
To talk reasonably about God, Americans find ways to affirm that they believe in God’s existence, but at the same time steer clear of assertions that claim too much knowledge of God, or that make God too much like a human person, or that too dramatically contravene standard ways of thinking about the natural world and human behavior. (299)
The “God problem,” as it were, is that affirming faith seemingly requires us to find ways to make clear that we aren't bigoted, dogmatic, stupid, thoughtless, and heartless. In other words, one needs to find a middle path between dogmatism and atheism in order to be considered reasonable in American culture. According to Wuthnow, it seems that thoughtful, well-educated persons have figured out a way to be informed and devout by relying on multivocality—using the rhetoric of society’s pluralistic speech community—when discussing issues of faith.
Beheading the Horsemen?
Criticism that religion is irrational (and worse) have been voiced by prominent figures such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. These “four horsemen” of the new atheism have been relentless in their attacks on religion in recent years, but it appears the American middle class has managed to forge a path between fanaticism and atheism. They know, as Wuthnow claims, that while belief in God is often associated with irrational, uninformed, undemocratic, destructive, and fraudulent behavior, one shouldn’t assume that nonbelief is free from such ills. Perhaps the American public has largely ignored the new atheists as they’ve continued to propagate their gospel?
I would argue that Wuthnow offers an important counterbalance to the overly simplistic atheistic challenges of the “four horsemen.” He also gives the reader greater insight into how the average educated middle-class American thinks about religion. According to Wuthnow, the antagonism of academics toward religion isn’t representative of the general public. Generally speaking, the American middle class exhibits a laissez-faire attitude that is more conducive to frank discussions about faith. However, this type of deconstructionist passivism towards religion is more dangerous than the activist atheism because it’s far more elusive. We must, therefore, pay closer attention.
Learning to Listen Like a Sociologist
Wuthnow argues that the key to understanding how Americans manage the tension between faith and reason lies in the specific ways people talk about their faith—not only what they say but also how they say it. “Language is not an arbitrary or incidental accompaniment of behavior; it is behavior” (4). Taking cues from sociologists can be helpful for thoughtful pastors as they talk with and counsel people. Here are a few things Wuthnow describes as important tools in discourse analysis:
• Detecting subtle differences in phrasing sometimes makes all the difference in understanding what someone is actually communicating in a conversation.
• When doubt or lack of experience becomes evident in a conversation, people generally appeal to other authorities by way of disclaimer.
• Shifts in verbal register “break the spell” of seriousness in a conversation, and often involve injecting humor, introducing something completely out of context, betraying someone’s ambivalence, discomfort, or uncertainty regarding a topic.
• In conversation, listen for what language scholars call “intensifiers”—words like “absolutely,” “completely,” “extremely,” “perfectly,” and “strongly.”
Important things are communicated through implicit patterns of discourse and require paying close attention to the words used and the connotations they suggest (215). As a pastor who conducts membership interviews and practices pastoral counseling within my church family, I’ve come to understand the importance of actively listening to what people say (and don’t say) to accurately discern what they believe and how those beliefs affect the deeper issues of their hearts. Reading sociological studies like The God Problem not only helps us understand what the typical middle-class American believes, but also teaches us to actually hear with greater understanding. According to Wuthnow:
[M]ost people talk about God in ways that allow them to draw on ideas that make sense in any realm of life, not just religious. One of the reasons this happens is that people are exposed to a great deal of talk about God by people other than religious professionals such as public officials, newscasters, talk show hosts, characters in movies and books, writers, and bloggers. (145)
The Grammar of American Faith
Throughout the book interviewees discuss what they pray about, what they see and hear when prayers are offered during religious services, how they think about prayer and healing, how they understand heaven, how they explain natural disasters, and how they reconcile their faith with science. For many of the interviewees, it seems that the restrictions of naturalistic reason nuance their faith into vague elusiveness. For many, God is a flexible concept edited for compatibility with cultural discourse. This flexibility is also evident in the comments made by those claiming a conservative evangelical affiliation.
On the one hand, there is a spiritual openness in our society; Wuthnow shows that many people pray, believe in heaven, and are turned off by the hubris of science. On the other hand, however, it appears the spirituality of America’s middle class may be little more than a means of serving the utilitarian end of comfort. For many, God is a presence rather than a person. The vision of God presented by America’s public in these pages sadly bears little or no resemblance to the God revealed in the Bible. In fact, Wuthnow observes, in numerous qualitative interviews about a wide range of topics, “the Bible seldom comes up unless asked about specifically” (183).
I think Michael Horton is correct when he writes that “theology is the concern of every believer because it is the grammar of the Christian faith.” But theological analysis of the words presented by the interviewees in Wuthnow’s study reveals a certain ambiguity about the faith that is more shaped by the shared vocabulary of popular culture than by orthodox doctrines of historic Christianity. The haunting reality is that either those in America’s middle class are void of thoughtful reflection, virgins to sound theological instruction, or simply lack good answers to the bigger questions that have no utilitarian relation to everyday life.
1 The interviewees lived in 32 different U.S. states, included equal numbers of men and women, ranged in age from 18 to 86, and were affiliated with 33 different religious denominations and traditions or were religiously unaffiliated. They also varied in racial and ethnic characteristics, and some were recent immigrants. Nearly all had at least some college training, and a majority were college graduates.