Spirit Alive: Is Your God Too Small?

Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and beyond.
July 26, 2016

With Heart, Soul, and Mind:


How Big Is Your God?

It Depends on How Big Your World Is

Your God Is Too Small, written by J.B. Phillips in 1952, posed an interesting question to Christians: How big is your God? In his book, Phillips encouraged "Christians to redefine their understanding of a creator without labels or earthly constraints and instead search for a meaningful concept of God." He believed that the "trouble facing many of us today is that we have not found a God big enough for our modern needs." As Phillips put it: "We can never have too big a conception of God."
Even though Phillips wrote this book over fifty years ago, the same dilemma seems to lie before us today:
Is our God big enough to encompass the realities of the world we live in? This question reminds me of something a good friend told me years ago. When I asked him why he no longer found religion helpful in his life, he said: "Lowell, what happened was that my life experience simply leaked out beyond the confines of my faith, much like ice cream does when it melts and leaks out from its packaging." That image has stuck with me all these years. Is your concept of God large enough to contain your real life experiences in good times and in bad? Or has it become an ice cream container that is no longer able to hold its expanding contents? How big is your understanding of God? How big is your world?
These questions are very real, because we live in a complex...sometimes confusing, even contradictory world. But the truth is that we live in more than a universe; we actually live in a "mulitverse." Frank Wilczek says as much in his wonderful book A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design. Now Wilczek isn't just a casual observer of nature, he was the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004 (amazingly, he received it for his work as a graduate student). He is now the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT, so he thinks about these matters in a deep manner...both scientifically and philosophically.
Throughout his book, Wilczek reminds us that the world is a "work of art" and that thanks to quantum physics...along with our natural human desire to understand the world through story and narrative...this reality is abundantly clear. In his words: "We'll find that Nature is inventive in her language. She stretches our imagination with new kinds of numbers, new kinds of geometry-- and even, in the quantum world, new kinds of logic." Wilczek goes on to remind us that Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist and philosopher, believed that "you can recognize deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth." Indeed, while the world is made up of equations and formulas, it is also a work of wonder and awe. Great scientists seems to be in agreement on this. I have a T-shirt with a quote from Albert Einstein that says: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious."
The truth is that we live in an ever expanding...rather than in a shrinking,confined...world. On one level we, as humans, struggle with this all the time, because this reality makes is difficult for us to control, convene, define, and defend things through our own worldview with complete certainty. This seems to be especially true today as the realities and complexities of globalization and science continue to challenge our old, familiar understandings. Think about it in simply in terms of neurological studies and what we've learned about the human brain in just the last decade.
And in the midst of it all, we struggle to make sense of life as we bump up against conflicting truths and understandings all the time. Yet, woven together these understandings ultimately help us describe our world. In the process, we get to enjoy the mystery, surprise, and spirit that is at the very essence of life.
The problem and tension associated with this takes place because we live in community with one another and don't always see things the same way. Because of this, it is easy to lose track of the notion that the world is a "work of art," full of opposing, deep truths. Instead, we frequently pay more attention to the arguments and struggles we have with one another over the differences that divide us and our various understandings. In fact, there are lots of "basics" that we simply don't agree on among ourselves. But Phillips' questions still lurk just below the surface: How does our concept of God fit into our understanding and experience of life today? And, is God big enough to be relevant in a world such as this?
On one level there is no simple response, no clean explanation, no comforting words that can make sense of it all. But, at the same time, as long as our worlds continue to expand, much like the universe itself, then our concept of the world and our understanding of God will never be confined by the realities we face, even when they feel overwhelming.
This is precisely why mission and ministry is so important. These activities, by their very nature, take us outside ourselves, our churches, and our worldviews. And this is a critical aspect of being a healthy, vital church...let alone being one that appreciates the "work of art" that the world truly is. Through our encounters with others our universe becomes a "multiverse" and we naturally change...and in the process our understanding of God grows as well.
I had the privilege of attending our recent Western Jurisdictional Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. It
was an historic, spirit-filled,and surprising time. As you know by now, the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, as the first gay/lesbian episcopal leader in the United Methodist Church, was not only significant, it also took us into uncharted waters as a denomination. Many were delighted and overwhelmed by this election. Others struggled mightily with the decision. In Scottsdale, there were many powerful, touching moments scattered through our time together, as various people spoke about their understanding of the world...and faith. But I will always remember the words of one Korean laywoman, who was struggling with this new direction. After Karen Oliveto's election as bishop, she said to the conference members: "We will need your help to guide us through this unknown world."
It seems to me that this is what we always need to do for one another as Christians moving together in the world. We need to confront and engage new understandings, receive new insights, and struggle with unfolding realities with one another...even if they don't always fit neatly into our worldviews. Such is the nature of life itself. It is why the world is a "work of art" and a mystery.
It is clear that our expanding understanding of the world will not be pain-free, but together we can serve as guides for one another in "this unknown world." The God we worship is only as big as the world that we are able to comprehend and live in, even when it seems to be full of conflicting truths and expanding realities.
In the end, I want to walk with a God who is bigger than me. I want to live in a world that I don't fully understand. I want to discover mystery in everyday life, which means I need to be out-and-about, engaging the world, and discovering news things...challenging the assumptions that I've made about life and others! In fact, I'm beginning to think that God starts shrinking the moment I start standing still.
Blessings on your journey,
Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. It seeks out where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities.
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Lowell Greathouse
Lowell Greathouse is the Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. He looks for places to find where the spirit is alive and help them grow in vitality and fruitfulness. Share with him at lowell@umoi.org