The Evangelical God Is Too Small

Dear Mr. Lough:

Again I thank you for sharing, in a deeply personal way, some aspects of your life and ministry that I had not seriously considered before. Here’s what I took away from your last two letters. (Read them here and here.)

The course of your pilgrimage and the scope of the changes in the way you understand truth, faith, and Christian discipleship have taken an emotional and psychological toll. And while you readily acknowledge that you are less certain about a lot of things than you used to be, you are clearly okay with that.

I understand why you write that you “don’t want to die alone,” and I can tell that you miss the comradeship of those to whom you used to relate as peers and colleagues. Despite all of that, however, I sense that you would never go back to where you were ten years ago, even if that were possible. And therein lies the heart of my next question.

If you were forced to reduce the factors that have influenced the course of your pilgrimage over the past decade to one single, overarching concept or principle that looms so large it effectively summarizes the heart of what you call your “new way of seeing,” what would it be?

I look forward to your response. Thanks, Mr. Lough, and…

Keep the faith,

Kathryn


Dear Kathryn:

Indeed there is such a comprehensive and overarching principle at work in my “new way of seeing.” It is this: I determined that, as an evangelical Christian, my way of perceiving and relating to God was inadequate. The God of evangelicalism was simply too small. Here’s what I mean.

About two years ago, I watched an episode of a documentary series called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the follow-up to a series called Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, first broadcast in 1980 and hosted by the late Carl Sagan. I never watched the original series, mainly because I had heard that Sagan, an astronomer and astrophysicist, was also an atheist. Given my presuppositions at the time, that meant that he could have nothing of value to say about the age or origin or boundaries of the universe. (For the record, Sagan actually denied being an atheist, which he defined as one who believes there is irrefutable proof for the non-existence of God. He did, however, reject the idea of God as a personal being.)

The new series is hosted by Neil de Grasse Tyson, who, as a young college student, was strongly influenced by Sagan to take up science as a career. Like Sagan, he became an astrophysicist, and, also like Sagan, he rejects the idea of a personal God who created and now controls the universe.

Somewhere along the way I had come to the awareness that “all truth is God’s truth.” So simple, yet so profound. The first time I heard that statement, I knew it was consistent with all that I believed about God and the universe. The one problem with it, of course, is how to determine what really is truth.

More than that, how do I deal with the reality that I no longer regard as truth some things I was totally certain about in the past. And further, is it okay to believe that there are very few things about which we can be confident that we know the full, total, and complete truth? The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as it were?

The main thing I took away from that episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a new awareness of the enormity of the universe. Scientists estimate there could be as many as 300 billion stars, many much larger than our sun, in the Milky Way galaxy. Each one could have its own system of orbiting planets. And here’s the almost incredible thing—there may be as many as 300 billion galaxies in the universe. As many galaxies as there are stars in the Milky Way!milky-way-earth-location

If there is a God who made this vast universe, and if that God somehow took on human form, as Christians believe, in the historical figure of Jesus, then I feel fairly confident in asserting that we humans cannot fully comprehend God and the God-man. Furthermore, that God does not deal in trivialities.

More than thirty years ago, I attended a series of lectures by the late Dr. John R. W. Stott, one of the most respected voices in evangelical Christianity at the time. I still remember one particular sentence from one lecture as clearly as if I had just heard it for the first time five minutes ago. Dr. Stott said,

Most non-Christians in the west don’t reject the Christian message because they find it false. They reject it because they find it trivial.

Thirty years later, I find that statement just as jarring but with the same ring of truth as I did then. And yet, when non-Christians—both secular and religious or spiritual—observe the contemporary Christian community in America, I fear they have little choice but to conclude that much of what we do and say is trivial.

Our petty rivalries and in-fighting. Our backbiting and jealousy. Our crass misuse of power and authority and resources. Our violation of the trust placed in our leaders and teachers and clergy. Our manipulation of vulnerable people for our personal gain. Our materialism and superficiality and hypocrisy.

We have created a God in our image, one that we are then able to use for our own purposes and to advance our own agendas. And non-Christians (along with those who once considered themselves Christians but are no longer involved in organized religion) find the whole enterprise unworthy of any reasonable concept of a creator-God. They never get a chance to consider spiritual depth and theological complexity since they can’t get past the trivialities of people who claim to be disciples of Jesus and servants of the Most High God, yet act like self-centered babies.

Much of what I saw in that episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was familiar to me from my science classes in high school and college. There was, however, one bit of information—and one important character—which I encountered for the first time. It was the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th century monk who challenged the teaching of the Catholic church with regard to the origin and development of the universe.

Influenced by the theories of Nicholas Copernicus, Bruno advanced the idea—directly contradictory to church dogma—that the earth revolved around the sun and was not itself the center of the universe. As a result, he was accused of heresy, tried and found guilty, and burned at the stake on January 7, 1610. At his trial, Bruno was asked how he could promote a theory so much at odds with the teachings of the church, to which he replied: “Your God is too small.”

Over the past few years, as I have reexamined virtually every aspect of my life and my most fundamental beliefs, I have had to conclude that my idea of God was truncated and self-serving. My God was indeed too small, and I was likely contributing to the perception that Christian faith could be caught up in trivialities altogether unworthy of the God who created the universe and then stepped into it in the person of Jesus.

Some say I have abandoned the true faith and succumbed to the influence of postmodernism. I think I have matured in my faith while still maintaining a commitment to what Brian McLaren calls “a generous orthodoxy.” Thank you, Kathryn, for giving me a chance to share the fruit of my faith development and spiritual formation. I look forward to hearing from you again.

Best,

Arthur


Here’s what others are saying about my autobiographical novel, The Long Road from Highland Springs: A Faith Odyssey. (Tap the title or the cover image to go to the book’s order page on Amazon.com.)

“In Eric Kouns’ debut novel, a man looks at the progression of his religious faith as he tells Capturethe story of his life. Kouns has created a character called Arthur Lough, whom he identifies as his ‘alter ego,’ as a way to examine his own doubts and struggles. His reflections are consistently compelling. This is a personal novel that presents an engaging examination of doubt, change, and faith.” –Kirkus Reviews

“This is an absorbing memoir… the tender story of a life tormented by disappointment and depression, yet sustained by the unshakable hope for the kingdom of God.”   –From the back cover blurb by David Swartz, Assistant Professor of History at Asbury University and author of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.

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