Last week, I had to give a speech in class, and this is what I came up with. It’s entitled “Your God is Too Small.”
Whenever I fly, I try and gage whether or not the person next to me wants to talk. If, after a few basic introductory questions, they keep turning back to their book, that’s perfectly fine with me. However, if they seem like they want to talk, or need to talk with someone, then I want to be that person for them.
Not too long ago, I was on a short flight from Seattle, Washington to Boise, Idaho. I had just spent the weekend as a groomsman in a friend’s wedding, and was fairly exhausted from the weekend’s activities. I finally made my way to the back of the plane where it looked like I might actually have an empty seat next to me: one of the small pleasures in life – the empty seat. However, as soon as I figured out how I was going to fully enjoy this empty seat, a woman in her mid-50s came up next to me and said, “I believe I have that window seat.” (I always take the aisle seat. While you have to deal with the potential to have your elbow whacked by the mid-flight beverage cart, it’s worth it to be able to sneak a few seconds of extra leg room in the aisle). As soon as we both got settled in our seats, I began the preliminary questioning phase, and it didn’t take me long to realize this woman was a talker. And while I was looking forward to a short nap, I figured I could handle staying awake for another hour. I turned to her and asked the one generic question that you always feel safe asking: “So, what do you do?” When I asked this, she got a huge smile on her face, turned to me and said, “Well….”I’m a healer.” I knew I was in for an interesting flight.
After about fifteen minutes, I had a fairly good idea of some of her life story. She grew up in a Baptist church and faithfully attended Sunday School every week. She met and married a man who claimed to be a Christian, and while she wouldn’t go into the details, I believe something very traumatic happened between her and her husband. I’m guessing it was severe abuse but I don’t know whether it was mental or physical or spiritual. Whatever happened, she decided that if “his god” would condone things like that – she wanted nothing to do with that god. So she began studying many other religions and came to the conclusion that they were all the same and that they all preached the same message: a message of Love. She was currently working as a “healer” and her particular methodologies for healing included holographic repatterning and sound healing. We talked about many things: morality, sin, truth, love, Jesus, religions, healing, prophets, reincarnation, karma, my work at the church, her work as a healer….life.
It was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had. When we started talking about Jesus, I told her that Jesus made quite a few claims that He was, in fact, God. She corrected me and told me that Jesus only meant that he was “one with God.” She believed that we’re all children of God and that we must learn to center ourselves and get in touch with our inner God-self. Basically, each person is their own God. I told her that I was pretty screwed up, and that I lived in a pretty screwed up world, and that I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be God. We kept talking and when she realized I was talking about sin, her tone almost became that of an 18th century hell, fire and damnation itinerant evangelist:
“Adam, I do not believe in accidents. If we met today and sat together for only one reason, it was for me to speak to you that you are not a sinner. You are not a sinner! There is no sin. There is no sin – it does not exist. You are not a sinner.”
I told her that if I could buy that, I would simply be making a complete and utter mockery of Christ’s life and death on the cross. But she said the crucifixion was only a miniscule part of Christ’s life – the rest of the time he spoke of love. I said, “Yes, I totally agree. Love God & love your neighbor. Definitely. But he also said, ‘Repent and believe – the kingdom of God is near…’ – what about that?” She told me that was just added in by those silly men who wrote the Bible 600 years after Christ’s death. She also told me that the kingdom of God was in my heart…with my God-self.
We talked a lot about morality – rights and wrongs. She doesn’t believe in right or wrong, just “is.” Things are not right or wrong…they are just “is”s. Even 9/11, it wasn’t wrong, but she did feel bad for those religious fanatics, whom she would define as anyone who says, “My religion is the only true religion and you’re all going to hell.” All those who died in 9/11 are now in the angelic realm and watching over us.
All in all, it was a fascinating conversation, and I quickly realized I was sharing my life story with the epitome of a syncretistic and relativistic woman. She would preface most of her statements with “This is only my path, it might not be for anyone else…” or “Now, this is just what I’ve been told by my God-self” or “This is just what I think…” She never pressed her views on me. She quoted Scripture, talked about Jesus and God, used many Christian phrases such as one’s calling, prayer and talked about the importance of community & fellowship – yet she spoke just as much about Hinduism, Buddhism, and New Age Spirituality.
So, there we were — two people — with so many different views on life, God and spirituality. And yet, we were simply sharing our stories with one another. Eventually where we completely diverged was that for her, Love is Truth. And for me, Jesus is Truth. Yes, we disagreed with one another and voiced those disagreements. But we left having learned from one another. She didn’t view me as a radical, religious fanatic…I shared with her the Good News that has impacted me…she shared with me what motivates her. And as we stepped off the plane, we went our separate ways…
Sometimes I just want to tell some people, “Your God is too small.” Not everyone. But I think you know the people I’m talking about. These people know God. These are the people who are constantly referring to Jesus as their “Personal-Lord-and-Savior Jesus-Christ” – as if Personal-Lord-and-Savior was his first name, and Jesus-Christ his last. These are the people who really don’t have many questions. These are the people who look at the Bible, read it and insist on a very black and white, either-or interpretation of scripture.
Sometimes I just want to tell them, “Your God is too small.” And not all the time. Many times I’m impressed by their spiritual devotion, their piety, their overwhelming zeal for missions and desire to convert as many heathen as possible. But as soon as they start talking about “who’s in” and “who’s out” – I get nervous. Not necessarily because I think they’ll point at me and say “Ohh, he’s out. Yah, definitely out.” Frankly, I could care less what they think about me. I just tend to get a bit uneasy whenever anyone claims to speak for God on issues that only God can, and will, decide.
I’m really not sure why anyone wants to have a small God. I don’t think they do it on purpose. I just think sometimes it comes down to fear; a fear of not knowing, a fear of others who are unlike them; a fear of uncertainty, a fear of being wrong. What if God isn’t as wrathful as they like to believe? What if God is more gracious than they could fathom? What if God loves gays just as much as Aunt Barb’s cute little daughter Susie? It’s the “What if” questions that lead to confusion, uncertainty and therefore, a narrower view of God. When people begin to act on these feelings of fear, and when they begin to tell me who God is going to love and who God is going to damn…who is IN the kingdom of God and who is OUT of the kingdom, that’s when I want to stop, yell at the top of my lungs, “YOUR GOD IS TOO SMALL!” Thomas Merton’s God was definitely NOT too small. In fact, there have been many who claim that Merton’s God was probably a little “too” big. Listen to these words of Merton:
“The more I am able to affirm others, to say “yes” to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone. I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot “affirm” and “accept,” but first one must say “yes” where one really can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.”
Hmmm, truth. That is generally the kicker. As soon as someone mentions Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists…the initial knee-jerk reaction is, “But that is not the Truth. Christianity is the Truth. Christianity is the one, absolute truth.” Now, while it could be fun to try and deconstruct some truth right now, that is not my intent. I am reminded, however, of the verse in the Gospel according to Saint John, that says, “Christianity is the Way, the Truth and the…” Or is it? Was it Christianity, or was it Jesus? JESUS is the way, the Truth and the Life, not Christianity, especially what American evangelicalism has turned Christianity into in the past century. The beautiful thing about “Truth” is that it is not mine – it is not yours – and it certainly doesn’t belong to those whose God is too small – Truth belongs to God, and God’s truth can be found in some of the most surprising places.
Truth be known, I really don’t want a small God. When it all comes down to it, when I’m standing in line at the pearly Gates, I want to be condemned for having a God that was too big. I want to be “that guy” who believed in a God that was TOO gracious, and a God that was TOO loving, and a God that was TOO HUGE. I want to believe in a God who brings those into relationship with God that we would never guess; a God full of surprises. That is the God I believe in. A wild God who faithfully pursues all, not just a select (or an “Elect”) group.
And while this is the God “I” believe in, I also need to be careful in my judgments on others – while I may disagree with others whose God is “too small” – I have to remember that I definitely don’t have God figured out. And as soon as I believe that my “really really big” God is really who God is, I’ve simply put God back into a “really really small” box – and it’s particularly at those times, when I stop, take a deep breath, and say to myself, “Your God is too small.”