One of our liberal-evangelical heroes, J. B. Phillips, once wrote a book with a title that we love: Your God Is Too Small. Phillips’s message was right on target, for his context and also for ours. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how good you are, or how attractive you are. It doesn’t matter how much you read the Bible, how much you pray, or how much you give to church and charity. It doesn’t matter what your culture is, what your gender is, what your skin color is. It doesn’t matter who your relatives are or who you know, where you went to school, or where you live. Your God is too small.
Like many difficult truths, the people who cannot easily accept this fact of human life are also the people who need to hear it most urgently. Some people make God so small that God actually vanishes from their lives. These people assume that, since it seems unlikely anything conclusive could ever be known about God, if God even exists, it is best not to bother trying to get to know God at all. In Christian circles, it is more common to encounter people making God too small through believing that they fully understand God and God’s motives. They create or absorb an image of God that is probably related to the Bible and reflective of their local community’s culture of Christian belief. But then they allow this image to take the place of the actual God, relating to the image exclusively rather than using the image to relate to a God who breaks all images. Worst of all, they often speak proudly about who God is and what God wants, as if they were the one speaking from the eye of the storm. And they sometimes speak in a way that is desperately limited by superficial understanding of the Bible and very limited self-awareness.
The Bible’s striking images of God collectively express a persistent refusal that God can be captured in a consistent set of human concepts. They also affirm the spiritual practice of imaginatively engaging God through diverse images—sometimes heartwarming and sometimes disturbing.
God is likened to various parts of nature such as a whirlwind, a cloud, and a pillar of fire and to such animals as a hen, an eagle, and a lion. God is pictured as a tower, a shield, and a garment. God is described using social roles and activities including creator, potter, shepherd, father, birthing mother, and bridegroom. God is assigned human qualities and responses such as intelligence, will, memory, anger, and forgiveness. God is spoken of as possessing human form, with eyes, arms, and hands, as walking around, and speaking with a voice.
We are drawn to particular images at certain times and for certain reasons. There is an important difference between rigid attachment to particular God images and the changing psychological realities of the developing human life. When we are young we need concrete images of God to make the divine reality tangible; that is quite appropriate. Throughout our lives we rely on images to articulate and nurture our relationship with God. Such limitations are not a problem in themselves. Picturing God in such a way that we can relate to God is what makes religious life important. God is a loving father or mother, in that we believe we can trust ourselves to God completely. God is a friend or confidant in that we believe God knows our thoughts and needs before we utter them, and it is safe to share our deepest longings with God in prayer. God is judge and avenger, in that we believe that the sin and injustice of the world will encounter a divine reckoning. Our working images of God are tailored to our particular needs for God and to our creative, yet limited, ability to imagine that which we believe but cannot fully conceive. Thus, it is developmentally appropriate and psychologically intelligible to use God images to engage the incomprehensible and image-breaking divine reality.
The problem arises when we begin to think that our favorite image of God is the only one or the best one. We lose track of the contrast between God’s infinity and our finite humanity. This tendency may be part of the human condition, but it is a trap that mature Christians in every generation learn to avoid. Unfortunately, the history of Christianity is filled with examples of people, sometimes very influential people, who have not reached this level of maturity. Liberals, evangelicals, conservatives, biblical literalists, fundamentalists—all of us—tend to assume we have the inside track in a race to understand God. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are certain they are right. The Southern Baptist Convention believes it has the truth well in hand. Bishop Spong knows he is right. The Jesus Seminar thinks it is right. David Koresh believed he was right.
It is a common failing of liberals to feel so socially and educationally superior that any conservative who derives his or her faith principally from some external authority must be a simpleton who refuses to accept reality. Likewise, conservative evangelicals commonly regard those who disagree with their favorite image of God as spiritually defective and morally impure. We all run the risk of reducing God to a size that fits comfortably into our small lives.
Liberal-evangelical theology combines humility and passion. We believe in God, and we also believe there is more to God than we could ever know. We follow Christ trusting that discipleship helps us by grace to craft lives that are pleasing to the God who is both known and unknown to us, and in fact is known partly as unknown. Our images of God are not the same as the reality that the images help us to engage. Liberal evangelicals speak passionately and openly about God, all the while actively listening and watching for how the God who surpasses all understanding does not fit our precious ideas. Liberal evangelicals treasure their God images, but they also know their images of God are too small, and they believe that God is big enough to forgive all limitations.
It is important to acknowledge that we often hurt others with our small images of God. Christians have often pictured God as a man, which has reinforced sexual stereotypes and greatly retarded cultural recognition of the true equality of spiritual dignity between men and women. In fact, Christian churches needed to be rescued from this great sin by a secular liberation movement—clear evidence for Christians that the Holy Spirit works outside as well as within the churches. Similarly, white Christians have typically pictured God as white, which helped them rationalize their enslavement of black Africans. Slavery was often seen as a divinely mandated elevation of the supposedly “subhuman” estate of native Africans. It is impossible to believe that white Christians could have reasoned this way had they pictured God as black.
The fact that our small images of God are so socially potent is one of the sources of great evil in the history of human civilization. It is one of the reasons why idolatry is not merely a matter of poor judgment or spiritual immaturity or theological insecurity. A lot can ride on culturally embedded idolatrous God images. Liberal-evangelical Christianity is primed by its humble expectation that God surpasses all images to be alert to the terrible side-effects of idolatrous attachment to any images of God.
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Found in the Middle! Theology and Ethics for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Found in the Middle!
Theology and Ethics for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical
by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner
As a follow up to Lost in the Middle?, Found in the Middle! offers a foundational approach to the theology and ethics that undergird a congregation where moderate Christians can thrive. Wildman and Garner serve as helpful guides on a quest for a humble theology, an intelligible gospel message, a compelling view of church unity, and a radical ethics deeply satisfying to most Christians with both liberal and evangelical instincts.
Lost in the Middle?
Claiming an Inclusive Faith for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical
by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner
There exists a deep and broad population of Christians who feel the labels of “liberal”and “evangelical” both describe their faith and limit their expression of it. By working to reclaim the traditional, historical meanings of these terms, and showing how they complement rather than oppose each other, Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner stake a claim for the moderate Christian voice in today’s polarized society.
What’s Theology Got To Do With It?
Conviction, Vitality, and the Church
by Anthony B. Robinson
Theology can be a loaded word for mainline Protestant congregations. It often suggests the dogmatic or implies fault lines for conflict. But when unleashed from its narrow academic sense, “theology” offers a powerful way to get at many of the issues that affect the health and vitality of congregations. Defining theology as the “core convictions” that help a congregation understand its common perspective and shared identity, Tony Robinson examines the problems that occur when congregations are reluctant to focus on theology and are unsure of their beliefs.
Claiming the Beatitudes:
Nine Stories from a New Generation
by Anne Sutherland Howard
In Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation, Anne Sutherland Howard asks the questions, “What would the beatitudes look like today?” and “is it possible to live a beatitudes life in today’s world?” Through nine remarkable stories of ordinary people, we are introduced to a world where the beatitudes are not an unreachable moral standard, but a simple set of guidelines by which we should live our lives.
When God Speaks through Worship:
Stories Congregations Live By
by Craig A. Satterlee
When God Speaks through Worship: Stories Congregations Live By is a collection of stories of congregational worship in which God’s ongoing presence, speech, and activity are apparent. These stories of proclaiming the gospel, teaching the faith, praying, singing, baptizing, blessing, and sharing bread and wine in Jesus’s name share the purpose of these activities in worship, yet still challenge the reader to explore the motives behind them.
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