Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Is Your God Too Small?

This spring’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, the earlier shootings in Newtown, CT, and our society’s collective reactions to them, sent me back recently to a book by the English author J. B. Phillips entitled Your God Is Too Small.

Writing in the 50's, Phillips, a clergyman and scholar, surveyed a world wracked by two decades of economic depression and world war, and concluded that the spiritual complaints of many persons were the result of their believing in a “small” or at least “inadequate” God.  Most, he noted, were attempting to navigate the trials and challenges of adult life with an understanding of God they once acquired in Sunday School, but never updated as they grew older and had to deal with the complications and complexities of life.  A concept of God that is helpful to an elementary school child, living in a reasonably safe environment, is simply not adequate to an adult facing unemployment, war, or terminal illness.

Phillips identified a collection of lesser gods that seemed to reside in the minds of parishioners or students as a prelude to his description of the God we know in Christianity.  Among the diminutive pantheon were the Great Disappointer, the Grand Old Man, the Parental Hangover, the Pale Galilean, and the Surly Judge.  Rereading these pages, I noticed that some of these lesser gods are still alive and well, though others have arisen to reflect changing times.  In fact, it struck me that the time may be right to revisit Phillip’s insights, possibly under the title “Your God Is Still Too Small”.  Let’s visit two of our contemporary micro deities.

One of our era’s more prevalent could be called The Indulgent-And-Protective Grandparent.  In keeping with the spirit of the times, the Grandparent may be of either gender, infinitely understanding, and tolerant of our personal idiosyncrasies.  Above all else, the Grandparent is comfortable to have around.  This benevolent spirit may have house rules, but knows full well that no one is going to keep them, so as long as the violations are not mean-spirited, nothing will be said.

Protective as well as indulgent, the Grandparent is usually imagined to be “watching over” us, and if we happen to get into a nasty scrape, we look to this protective quality to get us out unscathed.

The Grandparent is adequate to sunny days and warm weather.  When life is moving forward on an even keel the sense of this indulgent, protective presence can be reassuring.  However, it is not fit for the trials of life.  I once visited a person dying of lung cancer, still chain-smoking, and asking with apparent sincerity, “How can God let this happen?”  The individual whose evenings always included a few highballs, and blames God for liver failure, and the adulterer who believes God should “make” a wounded spouse come back, are invoking the same Indulgent and Protective Grandparent, who should be willing to overlook behavior and fix up consequences.

Another in the pantheon is The Personal Bodyguard.  One thing we moderns crave is absolute physical security.  My personal guess is that this craving has grown in direct proportion to the modern world’s loss of faith in an existence beyond this life.  If what we have now is all we get, then it makes sense to want as much as we can have for as long as we can have it.  In such a world, what gods there are ought to be in the business of making sure we get every possible minute.

Followers look to the Personal Bodyguard to fend off everything from tornados and floods, to random violence and directed attacks.  Such a hero-god is expected to make distinctions between good people and bad, as well as between adults who have had a good life and children and youth who are just getting started.  Because all people die, believers in the Bodyguard are stuck with the idea that each death or injury is the direct result of the Bodyguard deciding not to protect this or that person.  If that is what we expect God to do, it is inevitable that persons who believe in the Bodyguard are always and everywhere raising the plaintive cry, “Why?”

Both the Grandparent and the Bodyguard are based on the assumption that God is benevolent, and desires good for people.  So far, so good - Christianity agrees.  But both ideas fly against the clearest imaginable cautions of scripture.  To those who want a god of endless indulgence, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.  I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)

When people complained that innocent lives were lost in the collapse of a tower, he answered that such disasters befall good and evil people alike (Luke 13:4).  He told another crowd that rain (which can be either a blessing or a flood) falls on all regardless of who they are (Matthew 5:45).  These are not isolated proof-texts, but representative examples of what Jesus taught.  His message, in other words, was that we live in a dangerous world where good and bad things happen to all sorts of people.  Violations of the physical or moral laws do have consequences, but equally important, there are bad experiences, which are neither the punishment nor the failure of God.

How many more lesser gods are common to our time? And how can we describe the real God?  Send along your own nominations by email:  tospeakofgod@gmail.com.  Ferreting out these poorly defined, but inadequate substitutes is a step toward reflecting seriously on the fully adequate God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  Stay tuned – more thoughts, perhaps yours, will appear from time to time in future posts.

Howard MacMullen
©May, 2013

Note:  Your God is Too Small, by J.B. Phillips, can still be found, and is even available for Kindle.

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