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Life Arts    H1'ed 8/2/20

Is the God You Accept (or Reject) Small or Big?

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This week, instead my usual homily, I want to share some more general reflections about God and faith. For what it's worth, my desperate point is to rescue from irrelevance the system of meaning that I have valued all my life, but which has been (perhaps irredeemably) discredited in the eyes of the young. As I originally understood them, those beliefs have largely assumed irrelevance for me as well.

My rescue mission's purpose is also to confront the sobering truth that the Catholic fundamentalist version of Christianity in which I was raised as well as its white evangelical counterpart so prominent in our culture today, are not the only or even the dominant interpretations of Christian faith. Both represent ways of thinking about Yeshua and his message that are hopelessly dead to most of us former believers. Basically, it's because the god of such faith is so very small. Our culture has mostly identified all faith with what I call "small god christianity."

However, there are other ways of thinking about Christianity and of appropriating its profound wisdom. At the risk of trivializing it, let me call it BIG GOD FAITH. But really, it's much more than that.

The More is reflected in onomatopoeic terms, like Yahweh and Allah that mimic the sound of the very breath we breathe. It's what St. Paul's describes as the One in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). It's the World Spirit, the Universal Life Force, the Ground of All Being, Love Itself, or simply the Ineffable Great Original Mystery. It's the implicate that unites all of us in a single I AM - joined by heartbeat, breath, inner life force and expanding consciousness.

Small god Christians

By contrast, here's what I mean by small god christians. No offense is meant by that term. It represents a stage of understanding that all of us must pass through. For years, I myself enthusiastically embraced the set of concepts I'm about to describe.

In fact, we ran into it about a week ago, when proudly Christian Congressman Ted Yoho (R. Fla.) offered what everyone called his "non-apology" for referring to his colleague, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D. NY.) "a f #cking b #tch." Yoho ended up invoking his Christian faith as somehow connected with the passion which made him confront Ms. Ocasio Cortez to her face, directly calling her "disgusting." She had had offended Mr. Yoho by saying that increasing crime rates in New York City are connected with poverty and joblessness brought on by the corona virus pandemic.

In his "apology," the Florida congressman referenced his own experience with poverty. He said he and his wife got themselves off food stamps by sheer hard work. That proves, he said, that anyone can do the same without breaking the law. Mr. Yoho also said, "I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country."

Within the context just described, Yoho's self-justification and invocation of God fits him into the "small god christianity" category I'm wrestling with here. Small god christians embrace a faith that displays (among others, of course) the following characteristics. Like Mr. Yoho, believers in a small god tend to be:

  • Biblical literalists: They find it difficult to appreciate biblical poetry or myth as worthy vehicles of transcendent meaning. For them, the story of creation, crossing the Red Sea, survival of wanderers in the desert, of healing, loaves and fishes, walking on water, resurrection and ascension would be untrue unless they happened physically and historically.
  • Self-sufficient individualists: Without knowing it, most have internalized what Max Weber described in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Like Mr. Yoho, they've identified economic success and higher levels of consumption as somehow proving their Christian worth.
  • Advocates of law-and-order: Small god believers are law-and-order people. For them, observance of law is synonymous with moral rectitude.
  • Ethnocentric: The divine object of small god faith is essentially concerned with "Americans," and has little or no empathy for others, especially if those foreigners belong to other religions - let alone if they are Muslims. It's as if Americans are exclusively God's chosen people.
  • Micro-moralists: That's what e.g., Roman Catholic Attorney General William Barr has specifically said all Christians should be. The teachings of Jesus are limited to matters of personal morality and have nothing to do with social justice. Mr. Barr's god is small; the divine concept of goodness is narrowly individualized. It has nothing to do with racism, sexism, classism, or environmental destruction.
  • Obsessed with a single "social" issue: Even more stringently, those with small god vision tend to focus exclusively on the single issue of abortion as overriding every other moral concern. As a result, they find themselves able to support a candidate like Mr. Trump despite his lifelong problems with marital fidelity, his self-identification as a sexual predator, his association with and sympathy for convicted pedophiles, and his appointment of a Secretary of State who brags about lying, cheating, and stealing. In fact, all is forgiven almost anyone, as long as they are anti-abortion, which nowhere in the Bible is even identified as a moral issue.
  • In denial about omnicide: By their advocacy of a renewed nuclear arms race and their denial of climate change, small godders have actually embraced human and animal extinction as an article of faith. In their embrace of the Republican Party, they have identified with what Noam Chomsky accurately describes as the most dangerous and nefarious organization in human history.

Intuitively, I'm convinced, the young and other former believers and those who identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious" find most or all of the characteristics just listed repellant and impossible to endorse. The god reflected there is just too small, narrow, "American," and, frankly speaking, childish.

Big God Christians

For their part, what I'm calling "Big God Christians" exhibit the following differences from their small god counterparts on the topics just described. Big God Christians are:

  • Biblical contextualists: They reject the idea that the Bible is the very word of God valid for all time. Instead, they see it as one of the great books of ancient wisdom along with the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao of Lao Tzu, the Holy Koran, and others. Moreover, Christians in this category realize that the Bible is not a single book, but a collection of books of different literary types including: myth, legend, debate, fiction, law, annals of kings, letters, song, poetry, riddles, jokes, parables, allegories, and even "history" - but as understood by ancients far less concerned with what we might call historical accuracy. The books were written by various authors under wildly different circumstances, for different reasons, and with profoundly discordant understandings of God. As a result, to treat this biblical "library" as a single book or as history in our sense is to distort the meaning of individual entries in The Book. An interpretative rule of thumb for contextualists is what scholars have called "the principle of analogy," i.e. we cannot expect to have happened in the ancient past what is thought or proven to be impossible in the present. Scholarly biblical analysis starts from there. Big God Christians implicitly begin there as well.
  • Communalists: Again, as Weber has shown, those with transcendent God consciousness realize that the emergence of the individual as prioritized over community is largely a modern construct. It is intimately connected with the correspondent emergence of capitalism. The common good is central to the ethical concerns of biblical faith as it is for all other originally tribal religions.
  • Moral anarchists: Those with faith in an unlimited God realize that some laws (e.g. governing slavery, mistreatment of women or children, or forbidding same sex relations) require disobedience in the name of a higher law. In this, would-be followers of Yeshua attempt to reproduce his tactic of faith-full rebellion which led him to repeatedly break Sabbath regulations and even to symbolically destroy Jerusalem's temple by his destructive direct action there (Mark 11: 15-19).
  • Radically ecumenical: Those who recognize the infinite and ineffable character of what some call "God" also realize that S/he cannot be exclusively "owned" by any one culture. All people in every nation necessarily have access to God-consciousness. Christians have much to learn from Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, agnostics and atheists.
  • Macro-moralists: Those under the Big God tent recognize that inherited legal, cultural, and social structures have been destructively patriarchal, racist and classist in ways that transcend individual responsibility. Those patterns have also obscured the social justice roots of key biblical stories like the exodus, the prophetic tradition, and Yeshua's life and entire career. Sinful structures (like slavery and black-market capitalism) exist. They are as wrong as any personal failing.
  • Universally Pro-Life: Those who recognize the immense God of All Life aspire to be similarly pro-life. Their concern is not limited to the unborn, but extends to victims of war, capital punishment, hunger and poverty.
  • Defenders of creation: On this, it is sufficient to read Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change and related problems. At this moment of history, there is simply no greater concern for people of faith who honor what they see as God's creation.

Conclusion

As I pointed out here in last week's homily, the Christian tradition contains many contradictory understandings of God and morality. That's what trips up many would-be believers as well as those who have abandoned their religious roots. In the Bible, we find a God who is variously understood as nationalistic and favoring Israel alone. He is often nothing more than an unmitigated and bloodthirsty God of war. He is often portrayed in terms that are childishly magical and vengeful.

However, as understood by Jesus, whom Christians believe embodies the ultimate revelation of the Divine Self, we encounter a non-violent Father-Mother revealed as present not in kings and nobles, but in the poor, in the houseless, immigrants, the working class, those born out of wedlock and considered enemies of organized religion and the imperial state. In Yeshua, God's final revelation takes place in the torture chamber and on death row. That's the God who is resurrected, survives, lives on, and introduces a new heaven and a new earth here and now, this side of death (Revelation 21).

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Retired in 2014, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 40 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program. His latest book is (more...)
 

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