Saturday, March 26, 2016

Your God Is Too Small

“Your God Is Too Small” is the title of a book written by English Bible scholar and Anglican clergyman J. B. Phillips.  Published in 1961, it was quite popular among young Christians during my college years in the ‘60s and has never gone out of print.  Today paperback and electronic editions are available from a number of sources.
Phillips acknowledged that, while modern science, technology, and social interconnections have expanded immensely, for many Christians, our conception of God has remained static for centuries.  He challenged his readers to stretch their understanding beyond the formulas of ancient creeds and to recognize that God is expansive enough to encompass everything we encounter in contemporary life.

As I read articles and comments in both print news and on-line media regarding religion’s impact on our daily life, I find myself frequently calling this thought to mind. Whenever I read a letter to the editor complaining that God has been excluded from our schools, I want to say, “Really?  The God you worship can be so easily pushed out of part of creation by human action?  Your God is too small!”
This idea that God has somehow been driven out of our public schools is so common a theme that I want to examine it from both a theological and a legal standpoint.  First, let us recognize that human language is and always will be insufficient to describe God.  God is infinite; we are finite.  What we say or write is always partial and incomplete.  Thus we need to keep in mind that all language about deity is metaphor.  Over the centuries the mystics and poets have often understood this better than do scholars and theologians.  That is not in any way to downplay the importance of scholarly, theological work, but simply to observe that the rich, multi-faceted images of the poet can touch the heart-connection that we seek with God when the language of academe cannot.
With this in mind, we can turn to Paul’s sermon to the people of Athens, in which he declares that “In God we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)  This indeed is an expansive image.  It tells us that human action can no more expel God from a part of creation than the fish can expel the ocean in which it swims.  The creator encompasses creation. 
Another way to look at the expansiveness of God is through the story of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, where he learns to name God I AM.  Humanity is part of a vast, expanding universe.  Though the magnitude of it is difficult to grasp, we know that it had a beginning, and we presume that it will have an end.  We, and the universe, exist within a time-space continuum with a past, a present, and a future; a before and an after; an up and a down.  The great I AM, as revealed to Moses, does not have such limits.  When we realize this, the idea that God can be “kicked out” of anywhere becomes laughable.
Why, then, do some continue to insist that God has been expelled from our public schools?  This insistence represents a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps a deliberate misrepresentation) of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions of more than a half century ago.  The first was Engel v. Vitale, handed down on June 25, 1962, which ruled that school officials could neither compose nor sponsor organized student prayer in public schools.  A year later, in Abington Township School District v. Schempp, the court expanded their ruling to include school-sponsored Bible reading.
Neither of these decisions prevents a student from praying, reading a Bible or other religious text, or otherwise engaging in devotional acts, so long as they are done privately and with no disruption of the academic day.  Nothing stops a student from praying silently before a test or reading a Bible, Torah, or Qur’an during free reading periods.  If the school permits student-led clubs of any kind, it must accommodate student requests to organize a Bible club or study group under the same rules and restrictions as the others.  What the school may not do is offer, organize, or impose any religious activity led by teachers, staff, or administrators on school property and/or during school time.  These rules assure students’ First Amendment rights in two ways – students enjoy the guaranty of free expression while also being protected from religious coercion by school personnel.
The claim that God has somehow been forced out of our public schools is frequently accompanied by statements that such supposed action has caused God to remove protection from the students, thus permitting the horror of school shootings that has become all too common in recent years.  This depiction of a petty, vengeful God who retaliates for a supposed snub by allowing innocent children to suffer is deeply troubling and bears little resemblance to the understanding of God’s nature that Jesus proclaimed in the Gospels.  It is also easily refuted by an example from here in Lancaster County – the shooting at the Nickel Mines Amish School nearly ten years ago which left five girls dead and five more seriously injured.  Certainly daily prayer and Bible reading are an integral part of Amish education, yet they provided no protection when a murderous shooter invaded the Nickel Mines school.  Thus the argument collapses under its own weight of illogic.
During this blessed season of Easter I invite all my Christian readers to rejoice in the expansive love of God which no tomb or edifice can contain.


  1. Well, written, but my question would be, "how do you know that your description of God is the right one?"
    The Bible contains passages of love and caring as well as wrath and vengeance from its deity. I don't believe either represents reality, but the God of the Bible kills the Egypian first born and banishes people to the fire reserved for Satan and his demons.

    1. Your question is a good one, Roy. In all honesty, I neither know that my description of God is "the right" one, nor am I convinced that there is a single right one. As I said in the column, I believe that all language about Deity is partial and incomplete. My understanding of the Bible testimony is that it is the story (actually, a collection of many stories) of a people of faith as they live and grow in their understanding of God. As such, it contains many diverse voices, some of them arguing with each other. For example, the book of Job is clearly an argument against the static good = blessed/bad = cursed dichotomy expressed in most of the Wisdom literature.

      As a Christian I give most weight to the understanding of God as preached by Jesus and written in the Gospels, while recognizing that even the Gospels are a mixed bag of contradictions. It's an inevitable result of fallible human transmission. That's where trust and faith come in, and one can only settle those questions for oneself through lots of prayer and study.

      So I offer what I know in my heart, as well as what I understand in my mind, and if it resonates with others, I am quite glad.

    2. >As a Christian I give most weight to the understanding of God as preached by Jesus and written in the Gospels, while recognizing that even the Gospels are a mixed bag of contradictions

      As a Christian, I assume you believe the message of Christ is important? However, the Deity has chosen this method to express his message; a method containing contradictions, misrepresentations, and tainted by fallible human transmission.

      >That's where trust and faith come in, and one can only settle those questions for oneself through lots of prayer and study.

      I am sure you recognize that this is a poor means of arriving at a conclusion. This is particularly true if the conclusion is about something important.

      When left to trust and faith, people come to all manner of conclusions. This includes conclusions that you might believe represent versions of God that are too small.

  2. I read and was influenced by the book "Your God is too small," those many years ago, and appreciate your reference to it in your column, Marian! You articulate your interpretation of the civil laws concisely, this is very helpful to understanding that students are not forbidden from personal prayer. Well done.