Washington -- God showed up last weekend on CBS television's ''Sunday Dinner.'' Not God, the creator of the universe, but god in the form of a syncretic, warm and fuzzy, everybody-can-know, impersonal spirit. Those who talk to this god really like him (or her) because this god requires nothing of them.
Playing Moses (or John the Baptist, depending on your choice of prophets), is Norman Lear, who took some heavy hits from the religious right in the '80s when he was labeled ''the most dangerous man in America,'' but gave as good as he received by founding the leftist ''People for the American Way.''
Mr. Lear testifies to a spiritual search of his own. He believes America has gone too far toward secularism. So, through what used to be called the ''miracle of television,'' Mr. Lear wants to bring us back to our roots, sort of.
"Sunday Dinner" follows a ''New Age'' story line in which everyone makes god into his or her own image rather than the reverse. But for television it represents a great leap forward. Until XTC Mr. Lear added his prestige to the subject, prime-time religion was a vehicle for producers, writers and actors to voice prejudices they would never think of directing against any other group.
Consider some religious themes on prime-time television as chronicled by the Media Research Center:
In the Showtime film, ''Flight of the Black Angel,'' an Air Force ace who happens to be a fundamentalist Christian goes berserk, murders his parents and brothers and shoots down several fellow pilots in what was supposed to have been simulated combat. He is thwarted before his final goal: dropping a nuclear bomb on Las Vegas. ''I'm doing [God's] work,'' he says. $H ''Everything [on Earth] must be destroyed. . . . [I'm] bringin' the light of heaven [to] the diseased, the unclean, the corrupt, the liars.''
Psychotic behavior on a smaller scale while doing ''God's work'' was the theme of an episode of ''Knots Landing'' on CBS. A character claims to have found God while serving time for vehicular manslaughter. Once freed, he tries to discourage his ex-wife from marrying another man. ''Our marriage [was] blessed by God,'' he tells her. ''God does not sanction divorce. I will not disobey Him, and I won't let you disobey Him.'' When she turns her back, he kidnaps her fiance and attempts to kill him.
A custody suit on NBC's ''Shannon's Deal'' is waged against an elderly couple who have kidnaped their granddaughter. The two are religious zealots, denounced as ''Bible-thumpin' hayseeds.'' Their son, a murderer, is also ''religious.'' ''When I stood there looking at [my wife] holding that rifle, that was an act of God,'' he explains, attempting to justify his crime. ''It was a flood. It was as unstoppable as a flood.'' Later, this ''devout Christian'' puts out a contract on the show's protagonist, a heroic lawyer.
Norman Lear's god on ''Sunday Dinner'' is not my God, but the show is a definite improvement over what we've been getting. Mr. Lear recently told Clark Morphew of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, ''I had the idea that the world of inner thought was being ignored. We have so drifted into a secular way of thinking, and we've ignored the things that really matter: wonder, mystery, love, gratitude.''
Some conservatives have criticized Mr. Lear for his portrayal of a watered-down god, but just as the Chinese sage Lao-tzu noted that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so the Bible promises that those who seek God shall find Him.
Some years ago I asked the atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair why she thought so many people were afraid of her. ''I'll tell you why some Christians are afraid of me,'' she replied. ''They are not sure what they say they believe is true. If they were, I wouldn't be a threat to them at all.''
I think she could be right. That's why ''Sunday Dinner'' is a worthwhile addition to the television schedule.
Having barely survived the ''Me Decade'' (the '70s) and the ''Greed Decade'' (the '80s), perhaps many Americans who have never considered a search for meaning outside of themselves will find in ''Sunday Dinner'' the permission they've been seeking to begin the most important journey of all. If they do and arrive at the source of objective truth, some of the credit might have to go to ''the most dangerous man in America.''
So, lighten up you conservative critics of Norman Lear. Haven't you heard that God moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform?
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.