Brimstone God vs. Hippie Jesus
Apologists for Christianity or people trying to win back reverts occasionally will make the following argument:
You were probably taught that God was an authoritarian egomaniac. If you didn’t follow His laws, didn’t pray enough rosaries, didn’t go to Confession enough, or did have too much fun, He would condemn you to Hell. But God isn’t like that.
Which of course is true to an extent. But I’ve always wondered why this “defense” needs to be made at all, since it’s virtually the opposite picture of God that I received as a youth. Since I 1) stopped going to church after Confirmation, 2) wasn’t catechized well in my CCD classes prior to that, and 3) didn’t understand what relevance religion had on the other 167 hours of the week, I’m not so deluded as to think that I had an accurate impression of God at the time. But the image of God as a heartless enforcer of laws would have seemed completely foreign to me.
No, my suburban upbringing in the 1980s (including parish life) showed me the Acoustic Guitar God. Jesus was our buddy, and if Mass was supposed to represent heaven on earth, then the choir of angels surrounding His throne were accompanied not by organ or Gregorian chant but by folksy riffs and lame lyrics.
I’m sure this is a generational thing, and may even be a regional thing. In my current home of the Bible Belt, the Protestant influence may have kept Hippie Jesus at bay. I’ve had discussions with older colleagues who question why the church in their childhood only emphasized rules and not a personal relationship with Christ.
So perhaps the pendulum in the 1940s and ’50s swung too far the other way during the 1970s and ’80s. The “laws without love” God promoted obedience and high Mass attendance, but no depth of theological reflection or an understanding of “why.” The “love without laws” God promoted (temporary?) enthusiasm, but also apathy and emigration.
The reality is the both-and; that “God is love,” and “I came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” Jesus loves us so much that He died for us so that we could be united with Him; that union is best achieved by following His will and direction.
I’m still somewhat partial to the fire-and-brimstone God for now, only because the “love is all you need” God can’t really compete with secular consumerist culture. The sexual revolution, fueled by contraception, sought to free humanity from the shackles of interpersonal morality, leaving only intrapersonal morality (“if it’s true for you, that’s great, but it may not be true for others”). Everywhere I turn, society is telling me that “there are no limits,” I can do whatever I want and no one is allowed to “judge” me. Why would I want a God who is likewise so laissez-faire?