Wednesday, October 26, 2011

God In Big And Small - A Response to Richard Beck

Richard Beck muses on the "bigness" of God in so much contemporary worship and Protestant practice.
One of the things I've noticed in this regard--something, to be sure, not unique to this age group or generation--is the prominence of a focus on God's bigness. Worship that seems to move my college students, and many other Christians, tends to focus on God's transcendence and awesomeness. "Awesome" just might be the most common word my students, and many other Christians, use to describe God.

This focus on God's bigness is often used in worship to create an acute sense of our smallness in relation. Ecstatic worship is often triggered by a felt sense of God's transcendent power, size, and awesomeness. I leave such worship psychologically stunned and overwhelmed by God's bigness. My sense is that a lot of contemporary worship is explicitly aimed at trying to create this experience. And that makes sense. Worship means "to bow down." Thus, to worship God means to "bow down" before God's power and size.

And yet, I wonder about all this. Particularly from a missional perspective. Specifically, I struggle with how the felt sense of smallness I experience in worship is supposed to transition into Christian mission. I do see how an acute sense of our smallness works as a trigger for ecstatic worship, but find it hard to see how that sense of smallness helps Christians learn to eat with tax collectors and sinners.

Put bluntly, I'm wondering this: How does an experience of God's awesomeness help you learn that God is love?
He answers, in part, by quoting from Wiesel's Night, as a way of seeing God's smallness in the executed corpse of a Nazi gallows. He then asks:
How can we learn to see God's smallness?


It is true that God is awesome. But, as Bonhoeffer observed, "God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross." God "is weak and powerless in the world." God helps us "not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering."

God is small.

God is that little boy hanging from the gallows.

God isn't powerful and mighty.

God is weakness and powerlessness.

So this, again, is what I'm wondering. Might a spirituality of God's bigness and awesomeness be hindering our ability to see the smallness and weakness of God? God as the child hanging on the gallows. God in the body of the demented mental patient. The craving addict. The senile old person in diapers. The starving child. The drooling retarded. The street walking prostitute. The homeless man on the park bench. The queer kid bullied on the playground.

Might our God be too big? Too big for us to see the smallness of God?

Where is God?

God is here--weak and hanging on the gallows.
Which places the conundrum at the heart of our faith front and center - the God who created the Universe, made of no people a light to the nations, blessed a foreign king as the agent of national salvation, whose countenance cannot be seen by human beings without killing them, hangs there for all to see in the brutalized corpse of Jesus.

It is an inescapable contradiction, one that cannot be resolved by reason or practice. At the heart of the Christian profession of the Gospel is the declaration that we as believers are a community gathered around the murdered body of a radical opponent of Empire. The proclamation of his resurrection from the dead, which destroys the one power all Empires have - the power of life and death, particularly for those who oppose them - is now shown to be hollow. All the same, this proclamation, conducted in fellowship with others, forms not only a nucleus of resistance against violence and destruction. In its dedication to the humility and willingness to sacrifice for others, it seems to replicate the powerlessness that renders, for those who bow before the altar of Empire, any set of values worthless.

The conundrum is inescapable - God demonstrates Divine power, the ultimate power over death and destruction, over Empire and conquest, over temporal negation and transcendent evil, by refusing to demonstrate that power. As the Body of Christ, the Church is called to incarnate this reality in our lives, in our worship, in our practice of the sacraments, in our evangelizing. Transcendence and immanence, the awesome grandeur of God and the broken, bleeding body on the gibbet, are not "dialectic"; they are the very real mystery at the heart of the Gospel.

I would agree an over-emphasis on either side of the equation can overshadow the inherent connection between each side. My own experience of worship has been, if anything, stressing the immanence, the "smallness" of God in being concerned with whether or not I, or any other individual, spends eternity in heaven or hell. As if that were the point of it all. At its best, however, Christian worship that affirms both God's transcendence and immanence, God's awesome might and God's total weakness ("even death on a cross" as a certain tent-making evangelist once wrote), leaves the mystery at the heart of Christian proclamation open, the wound in the side of the Savior. There are no answers to this mystery; it is what it is, and we must live it out, even to the point of registering our complaints at the far-too-many Christ-like corpses around the planet. In so doing, however, we cannot allow our grief and rage at Divine silence in the face of the cry of abandonment to overcome the great "nevertheless . . ." that comes with Easter. Both are a necessary part of the narrative, the call, the liturgy, and the life of the Christian.

God is both big and small. It's all right there in the passion narratives. We cannot escape it. We must only embrace it, and live it out the best we can.

Virtual Tin Cup

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