Is Your God Still Too Small?
Sunday, June 26, 2005
Isaiah 66: 1-2
I Timothy 1: 15-17
Rev. Dean Snyder
years ago when I was a college student trying to figure out not just what I
had been taught to believe but what I really myself could believe, I came
across a book – one of the 25 or 30 most important books in my life. It is a
book that challenged and changed the way an entire generation thought about
God. The book was written by an Anglican priest, an Anglican canon, at one of
the cathedrals in
I must have owned six or seven copies of “Your God Is Too Small” over the years and gave them away and discovered there was none in my library. So, a number of months ago, I went looking on the Internet and found out it was still published. I got a copy and was surprised at how relevant much of what he had to say was these forty years later.
The first half of J.B. Phillip’s book is about understandings and images of God that are just too small. He has a list:
All of those were images of God that I carried around inside of my mind and my heart. J.B. Phillips helped me begin to understand that the God who created the universe, who was, and is, and ever will be, is larger than the way I imagined or thought about God.
Isaiah says, on behalf of God, this morning: “I created the universe. I created the heavens. The earth I created. Do you suppose,” God says in Isaiah, “that you can build a building that will contain me?”
This has always been our hope that we could build a building where God would live and, when we needed God, we could go to that building where we keep God. We would be able to find God and tap God’s shoulder when we needed God. But God says in Isaiah: “There is no building that can keep me or contain me.” There is no theology that can keep or contain God. No philosophy, no imagery, no understanding that is large enough for this God who created the universe and will be for ever.
Most of us – maybe all of us – live with images in our minds and hearts of God that are just too small.
I want to remind myself and you of that this morning by lifting up for you three words. They may not be words that come off the tips of our tongues every day, but they are three important words in the history of the church and even of all religions’ understanding about God. I want to lift them up for us this morning as a way for us to remember that the things we say about God are just too small.
The first word is “anthropomorphic.” The word anthropomorphic means projecting attributes, characteristics and feelings of human beings onto others who are not human – especially projecting those things onto God.
Now, whenever we talk about God we use human terms and categories to talk about God, because what else do we have? What else do we know? We talk about God as a person, because certainly we don’t want to say that God is less than a person. We talk about God as having feelings, because we certainly don’t want to talk about God as being unfeeling. We talk about God as forgiving because we don’t want to talk about God as being unforgiving. But all of these are human terms and characteristics that we have projected onto God because we have no other language that we can use to talk about God and the divine.
What we need to understand and to know is that these are all inadequate. They are merely symbolic and suggestive. They are illustrative. They point us in the right direction, but they are not comprehensive. God is more than our human terms that we use to refer to God. God is bigger than the box of humanity. All of our language is symbolic.
I talk sometimes, as the Bible does, about God being jealous. Well, there is a certain sense in which God requires our attention and our loyalty because God is simply God. So when the Bible talks about a jealous God, it is not talking about a God who is walking around with arms crossed, pouting and upset. It is talking about a God who is so much God that there is no way that we can worship anything else because all of our worship belongs to God.
The Bible talks about God being angry from time to time. I talk about God being angry. Well, God is not sitting somewhere furious at us. When we talk about God as being angry, it is a symbolic and suggestive way of talking about the things that we do that are so violating the goodness, the greatness, the justice, the righteousness and the beauty of God that is hard to think that God would not be upset. These are all human terms that we project onto God and we need to remember that they are symbolic and not real. They are meaningful, but not real. I am disappointed when I pastorally talk to folk who have a sense that God is, in some way, angry at them. God is beyond the human experience of anger. God is pure love. All of our attempts to describe the emotions of God are merely symbolic.
The second word that does not necessarily trip off our tongues every day that I want to lift up for us this morning is the word “apophatic.” It is a word based in Greek that goes back 1500 years. It was used by the early church theologians when they became concerned that we as Christians were trying to say too much about God – more than we could actually know. The word apophatic means that we know God and can talk about God mostly on the basis of what God isn’t, rather than what God is. We know that God isn’t human. We know that God isn’t finite. We know that God isn’t limited. We know more about what God is not than what God is. The deepest truth that we can arrive at about God comes when we reach the limits of our understanding rather than when we think we know everything.
I was listening to a lecturer talk about this concept of the apophatic, that which we don’t know, the negative way of knowing God, knowing God by figuring out what God isn’t. He tried to explain it by quoting a country and western song which I never heard sung, but which he said has a verse that goes: “Why don’t you shut up and talk to me?” I will say that even though I never heard the song, I have had the feeling. Haven’t you ever been with someone to whom you wanted to say: “Why don’t you stop talking, so that you can begin talking to me”?
The apophatic church theologians said that we come to have conversation and communion with God when we stop babbling and talking and simply learn in silence to be in God’s presence. We know God best when we don’t have any more words to use. That’s when we can really commune with God. Everything that we say about the divine is apophatic. It is limited. The full truth about God can only be known when there are no words to say it.
The third word is similar. The third word is “mystic.” Mystic means when we know and experience God who is mystery without God ceasing to be mysterious. If we think that we encounter God, come to know God and can explain God as a result of the encounter, that’s learning, that’s not mysticism. We are all meant to be mystics.
Wesley, when he founded this movement that became the
For most of us most of the time, because we are human, we live with a God inside our minds and inside of our hearts who is too small. Our longing and our need is to let go of trying to understand and be able to explain, and simply to be in God’s presence. Our longing and our need is to know that God surrounds us, that God leads and guides us, and that God was there before we were and will be there after we are gone. We are always in the presence of this great mystery whose final being is love – a love that is pure and incomprehensible and simply is. We are closest to God when we have shut up and begun talking.