Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Your God is Too Small

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

The point of my sermon this past Sunday (hopefully it came across) was that all of us are in need of a God who is bigger than we are—a God that is not our own creation.  A God whom we fully understand, a God who fits all our own biases or prejudices, or a God who makes no claim upon our lives is a God unworthy of our devotion.  Indeed, we do not and cannot devote ourselves to such an inadequate God; rather we use such a God for our own convenience and to justify our own desires.
            In the moment of preaching Sunday, I left out part of what I had planned to say; it didn’t seem to fit.  I feel it is worth including this week at least in the newsletter, because it further illustrates the point of my sermon which is one I feel we cannot hear too often.  I will probably always remain indebted to a small book by Anglican clergyman and Bible translator J.B. Phillips entitled Your God is Too Small.  (available in full on-line)  Written in the late 1950’s, the slim book (less than 100 pages) divides views of God into two categories: destructive and constructive.  Phillips’ “constructive” or healthy/positive views of God are not too original, but his list of “destructive” views of God remains a helpful and accessible tool for thinking about views of God that limit spiritual growth and promote unhealthy and damaging forms of religion.
            His list of “destructive” views of God includes:
1. Resident Policeman—God is more than our socially conditioned consciences.
2. Parental Hangover—God is more than our experience of earthly parents.
3. Grand Old Man—God is not an out of date religion held by our ancestors.
4. Meek-and-Mild—God is not a sentimental and nonthreatening familiarity.
5. Absolute Perfection—God may be perfect but God loves those who are imperfect.
6. Heavenly Bosom—God is not escapism.
7. God-in-a-Box—God is more than the beliefs of a particular church or denomination.
8. Managing Director—God may “run” the universe but is still concerned with us.
9. Second-Hand God—God can only be “known” by first-hand experience.
11. Negative—God is a source of life and vitality not a mere source of prohibitions.
12. Projected Image—God is not a projection of our own insecurity or self-hate.
Phillips also touches on other “destructive” views of God, such as a God who is only for the elite, a depersonalized God who is only the Enlightenment’s highest ideals and more.
            Phillips’ prose sounds a little archaic to my American ears fifty years after he wrote them, but I am grateful for his insistence that we humans continue to limit our understanding of God in order that God might serve our own purposes.  With that warning in mind, I shall with some “fear and trembling” offer up some other “destructive” or inadequate Gods for you to consider.  (For most of these, I remain grateful to theologians who have written since Phillips’ time.)
  • ·       A Male God—Feminist theologians have rightly criticized the church’s long tradition of God’s authority with maleness, reminding us that God is greater than a specific gender and exhibits both masculine and feminine qualities.
  • ·       A Caucasian God—African-American male theologians, along with Womanist (African-American female) theologians, Asian and Latin American theologians have rightly charged the church with perpetuating a God who validates the consolidation of power by Caucasians over other peoples.
  • ·       A Heterosexual God—LGBT theologians and their allies offer the view that God is greater than sexual orientation or even sexual attraction.  A God who is only heterosexual reinforces the judgment and oppression of LGBT people.
  • ·       An American God—Many are the theologians and Christian laypeople outside of the United States who challenge the views that God is the property of our country alone and Americans are a chosen or superior people.
  • ·       A Capitalist God—Theologians and ethicists argue for a God who does not operate according to the rules of western capitalism.  God does not operate according to the accumulation of wealth but by graciously giving of God’s gifts to undeserving sinners.
  • ·       A Political God—God is not limited by the left vs. right political spectrum and refuses to be limited to one side or the other.  All theologians of any self-awareness recognize that God rejects any human claims to absolute truth in the political sphere or any other.
Why talk about inadequate views of God?  Only by doing so can we gain the proper humility before God, and only when we are humble can we begin to serve God.  I hope God blows apart our limited understandings of the divine.
      Grace and Peace,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I, too, have read this book several times in my life. It is a very important message. Thank you for your insights and encouraging us all to continue to seek God regardless of our attachment to a particular theology or sect. I've found that the more questions I ask, the more I argue with God, the closer He is to me. I'm sure He loves the confrontation - it's called a dialogue, something He misses in this generation. From "PS>"