If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Friday, September 5, 2014

Is Our God Still Too Small?

The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life.    J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small.

I first read J.B. Phillips book Your God is too Small back in the 70s. As a young Christian and student of the Bible Phillip’s book resonated with my experience of what I saw in many Christians’ narrow understanding of God. Phillips debunked a number of popular, but erroneous, images of God as ‘Resident Policeman,” “Parental Hangover,” and “God-in-a-Box.”  Even after more than 40 years since I read that book, I continue to be amazed at some rather narrow, but popular views floating around not only about God, but about the Spirit, Jesus, Scripture, and the church. If “our God is too small,” it is probably because our theology is too small.

It seems like many of us Christians need a bite size theology, a narrower and constricted theology that we can swallow; a happy pill to make us feel good. The immensity of our God and the earthshaking implications of our gospel have been shrunken down to a size where they can be placed in our front pockets for safe keeping.

God has become an old, white haired European man that looks and sounds like he grew up next door to us. The Spirit is not so much an uncontrollable, blazing fire as a small spark from the match we strike to warm our hearts every now and then. The Jewish Jesus, a revolutionary prophet that turned the world upside down has been turned into a middle class white American that jumps onto our particular political bandwagon. The Bible has become an infallible, devotional idol that reinforces our current worldviews and practices. The gospel has become a packaged formula that guarantees our ticket to heaven. And the church has become a comfy social club where “birds of a feather flock together.”

The tribalization of God turns God into a god of our people, our nation, our denomination, our religion. It is a “downsizing” of God that fits the divine into the box of the familiar and within the boundaries of our group identities.  This is the god of civil religion, the god “in whom we trust” on our dollar bills, who we invoke in nationalistic fervor, in war, and at baseball games with national anthems, and who we swear oaths to in secular courts. The god of our tribe is worshipped in churches that see themselves alone as the gatekeepers of the gospel, the right interpreters of Scripture, the true and holy church of God, or should we say “god.”

This is the god who was praised in segregated churches, who justified apartheid, and buttressed white supremacy.  This is the tribal god who excludes women from sharing their gifts in the pulpit and church and is called upon by those who curse small children crossing our borders fleeing violence and poverty. This shrunken god is trapped within our conservative or liberal perspectives and is willing to be used as a hammer against those who disagree with us. This tribal god is too small to transcend nation, culture, race, gender, and ideology. 

The bottling of the Spirit is an effort to keep the dynamic presence of God under our control. Pulitzer Prize winning writer Annie Dillard once described in Teaching a Stone to Talk our worship services as “children playing on the floor with chemistry sets mixing up a batch of TNT.” We have forgotten the power of the Spirit that we nonchalantly invoke on a Sunday morning. Dillard suggests we should all be wearing crash helmets!

Too often we enter the realm of the Spirit, particularly in worship, with the casualness of shopping at Walmart. Instead of taking our shoes off before the flaming presence of God’s Spirit, we, as it were, roast weenies on the dying embers of the spirit.  Our lack of expectancy, dependence on scripted worship, and general patterns of being unmoved from where we presently stand is evidence that we have bottled up the wind of the Spirit.

The domestication of Jesus has practically become a characteristic of American Christianity. The church has created a Jesus in its own image. Dr. Albert Schweitzer recognized the “strangeness of Jesus.” But, we have filtered out the oddness of someone from an ancient religion and culture with a different worldview in favor of either a divine figure floating above the earth or a “buddy Jesus” who thinks, believes, and acts just like our people. God forbid that we should portray Jesus as a black man, or take him at his word when he says things that run against our societal norms, like “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle….” Jesus is supposed to be one of us. He us supposed to support our political party, our ethical viewpoints, our lifestyles, and sit in our pews and go along with the consensus without disturbing our “peace.”

The taming of Scripture is an accepted practice in many of our churches. It starts with the instruction of our children in Sunday School. We take a story of the destruction of all humanity in an all-out apocalypse and turn it into a timid tale about a little thunderstorm, rainbows, and a floating zoo with the bobbing heads of giraffes sticking out the boat windows! As adults we still try to avoid those “texts of terror” that denigrate women, sidestep the implications of texts which justify slavery, whistle in the dark at apparent contradictions, and soften into pabulum the “hard sayings” of Jesus.

The rough places of the Bible are smoothed out and the valleys that depress us are lifted up, to borrow images from Isaiah. The strangeness of the Bible, like the strangeness of Jesus, is domesticated and tamed for consumption by white, middle class Americans. We have forgotten how to struggle with muscular texts of the Bible that seek to throw our faith into a headlock.  Our Bibles have become tame and limp. There is a need relearn how to wrestle, like Jacob, with the angels of these difficult texts until we receive a blessing.

The shrinking of the gospel can only lead to stunted Christians. Salvation has been shrink wrapped into a simple formula that can be encapsulated into four easy steps, printed on a tract and can be easily handed out to strangers like sugary candy. Forget about the ecological dimensions of the liberation of the cosmos. Never mind those people captive to capitalism, consumed by consumerism, and think only materialism matters. Sorry, but the gospel has nothing to say to racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and xenophobia. It’s all about getting me and mine through the pearly gates when we die. And that’s the gospel truth?

The parochialization of the church happens when we lose sight of the universal body of believers. We are not the totality of the church. Our race and culture does not define the nature of the church. Our way of worshipping is not sacred and written in stone tablets. Our images of God and Christ and the church are not universal. The church in all its delightful diversity is the universal church. There is a reason Sunday morning has been called the most segregated hour of the week. We are still hung up on that idea that “birds of a feather flock together.” It has been baptized into an evangelism strategy! Seek those who are like you! Here’s the church and here’s the steeple and open the doors and see how much they are alike!

A theology as big as the gospel is not an easy one to swallow, even for myself. I would rather worship a manageable God that fits into my neat categories and conceptions. I would prefer a Spirit contained within comfortable expressions of a dignified religion. A Jesus who fits my social, religious, ethical, and political agenda is, in the words of the Doobie Brothers, “just alright with me.” My preference is for a Bible free of those problematic texts, embarrassing stories, and hard sayings. Give me a gospel that is simple and ready to plug into the wall socket of any context. And I’m just fine being around those who look and think like me, thank you very much.

Except, our God is bigger than that! Our gospel is cosmic! Our Spirit is a burning flame! Our Christ is universal! Our church is worldwide! If that doesn’t expand your mind, your heart, your theology, and your actions, then your God is still too small.

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