A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Our God Is Too Small

Methodist blogger, John Meunier calls attention to the "supernaturalism divide" between the northern Christian church and the southern Christian church. John quotes Peter Berger on the subject:

A few months ago I was talking about this North/South split with a Methodist minister in Boston. I said that, it seemed to me, the North could be put on the defensive over this split. When he asked what I meant, I said: "I would like you to explain to an African Christian why you do not raise people from the dead in your church." I said that the African interlocutor might go on: "Jesus did. The Apostles did. We do. Why don"t you?"

Thanks to our "Enlightened" and Deistic fathers and mothers in the past few centuries we have inherited a miniature God, a God that has been tied down, a God who does not intervene in our world in any dynamic way. As N.T. Wright states, the God of the Enlightenment is one who stays upstairs and lets us have control of the downstairs. In our "Enlightened" Western world we have created God in our own image-- a powerless God who does nothing we cannot explain, an absentee landlord God who leaves us only with reason to make our way through the world, a domesticated God who never stirs things up, who is always civil and who just wants us to improve our lives instead of insisting we renovate them. In short, the modern Enlightenment God is not very interesting.

The Modern Enlightened Western God is not the God of the Bible. Indeed, the very way we structure the discussion with the natural/supernatural dichotomy is in itself problematic. The Bible makes no such distinction. The Bible does not view God as spending most of his time in the upstairs only to occasionally wander downstairs to do something miraculous and then once again retire back to the attic. The God of the Bible is here. The God of the Bible is always here. The God of the Bible is working, often behind the scenes, working in the actions of the faithful and in timely words of wisdom. But God also continues to confound us in his actions, doing the unexpected-- and not only doing the unexpected, but also performing the unexplainable.

The debate is not over the natural vs. the supernatural; the argument is over whether we are going to shrink the God of the Universe into acting in the miniaturized ways we deem appropriate, or are we going to let go of our desire to control the downstairs and let God be God and let our always surprising and untameable God work in ways God sees fit?

The question is not whether we can raise the dead. We human beings have no such power apart from the modern marvels of medicine. But God can raise the dead without the aid of drugs and machines. That very claim stands at the center of our faith. Easter is not a post-it note stuck in the margin of the Christian narrative. It is the story that give life to the narrative; it is the story that makes the narrative true. And if God can create life... and you and I are proof of that... then surely God can raise the dead. He has done so; and can continue to do so if God so chooses.

There are more than a few reasons why the church in the West is in decline. But surely one of the reasons it is so is that in our miniaturization of God, we have created a God that is simply not very interesting... a God whose favorite flavor is vanilla. We have our "Enlightened" fathers and mothers to thank for such a boring deity. But we as well are without excuse because too many Christians in the West have become apologists for such a tamed, domesticated divine being. We have created a God acceptable to Christianity's cultured despisers.

We northern Christians can learn a few things from our southern Christian sisters and brothers. I have worshiped with them. I have been part of their healing services and assisted them in their mission to the those around them. Their God is the God of the Bible. Their God is interesting.

Is it any wonder that their churches are growing? Is it any surprise that our northern churches are in decline? No one wants to watch a dull movie. No one wants to worship a boring God.


Jim said...

I sense a great Easter sermon in here.

Also, having been in Alaska for 14 years after moving from the Indiana Conference after three years I have sensed that those divisions between North and South can, in ways, apply to the difference between Pacific Northwest and the rest of the Lower-48. While Christianity is still a large part of culture, it's a far cry from what pastoral friends in Indiana and Mississippi find themselves in. Therefore there doesn't seem to be as much pressure to "fit in" with society. We seem less "enlightened" -- in good ways.

After 14 years, still working on what this means.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Allan,

To be clear, do you think Christians should seek a bigger god praying for God to raise people from the dead?

Your conclusion seemed to imply that a miracle seeking church would grow, so American should start seeking miracles!

Should Christians also pray for protection for tsunamis too instead of building warning systems; pray for protection from disease instead of raising their children in the scientific method to develop new medicines and new interventions. Stopping a tsunami should be the duty of a big god too.

Your article here was unclear just what you think a bigger god should do. You lament the small god, but you don't come out and tell us just what we should expect from a larger one. Or perhaps I am missing something.

I found your blog because James Mcgrath posted linking your post and my post called "Arguing for a Tiny God".

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your questions and comments. And thanks to James for his post too.

My post is not about being an intentionally miracle seeking church. My point is that when we make decisions as to how God must act in this world, we have miniaturized God and in a sense written a job description by which the Almighty act. We should let God be God. I do believe that God can work "the miraculous" if God so chooses. I also believe that generally God works through the ordinary.

I think James misses my point. It's not a problem between God being a micro manager vs. delegating the job out to others. As a committed Wesleyan I truly believe in human freedom, and I believe that God allows our freedom to be used what God desires as well as what he abhors.

I am simply saying, let God be God- the God of the Bible who allows the seasons to come and go routinely each year as well as the God who raises the dead and does the unexpected. I do not think it is an either/or choice. It is both/and.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Allan,
I answered these points over on James' blog.
Do you think God still raises the dead, cures disease (can heal an amputee), stops earthquakes (or causes them), creates war and disasters to punish sinners?
Do you still believe your god acts like he did in the OT?
Do you think he should be petitioned to help on these issues?

"Let God be God" really doesn't answer that.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Yes, I believe God can raise the dead if God so chooses. If I reject that, I reject the central claim of Christianity. Does that mean I expect God to raise the dead today. Generally I assume that the dead stay dead, but I would never rule out what God might choose to do. I do not believe God creates wars and uses disasters to punish sinners. That's a different matter than God acting for the good. Now whether or not God chooses to heal someone who is ill is another matter. I do not assume the miraculous occurs on a regular basis, but God can and does do the unexplainable if God so chooses.

Second, yes, God's actions throughout history are consistent, though the coming of God in Jesus Christ is now the lens through which we view the OT.

Third, I believe God answers prayer. Prayer is not simply an exercise meant to make us feel better. And I think it is entirely appropriate to pray for someone's healing, though God will choose what God will do.

Allan R. Bevere said...

One more point: The problem here is that it is not a choice between chocolate or vanilla, or between that God must always act within what we understand as the "natural order" or in some way that is unexplainable. I proceed on the assumption that God works mostly within the former. Why would God not act primarily within the order God has created? Yet, I do not want to say it must always be that way. Years ago when I was in Cuba, at the end of a worship service I was asked to pray for a woman who had had a high fever for over a month. Doctors performed every test they could and found nothing. She had been given medication to no avail. I anointed her with oil and prayed for her. Two days later she came to the house where I was staying. Her fever was gone (and it stayed that way). Now, was that a miracle or psychological? I cannot prove it was a miracle, but neither can you prove it was psychologically oriented. All I am saying is that we need to allow God to act in such ways, knowing that the reason we refer to it as miraculous is mainly because it is not the norm.

Sabio Lantz said...

I explain something as "natural laws" and you say it is "natural laws + a god" but from the outside and inside everything appears exactly the same. The law of parsimony makes your "god" meaningless -- well, it makes you feel good, that is all.

I understand the deist god -- he sets things in motion and thus, in a way, his pre-programmed action is working all the time. But you want your god to be acting all the time but indistinguishable for not acting. That is a mere play with words.

As for the fever story: Seriously? Those are a dime a dozen in tons of religions, chiropractors, acupuncturist and many more. And if you have read my blog, you will know that I know wherein I speak.

Allan R. Bevere said...


You and I obviously have some very different assumptions and a very different worldview.

Sabio Lantz said...

Indeed, we do have "some very different assumptions and a very different worldview." We may share much also, who knows. I try not to surround myself only by the same voice.

Allan R. Bevere said...

I like diversity of perspective as well... may the conversation continue.

Sabio Lantz said...

Oh, I thought you were trying to shut it down. Do you know what The law of parsimony is? You are familiar with the argument, I'd imagine?

Allan R. Bevere said...

Sabio, I am familiar and I was not trying to shut down discussion.