Posted by: allenrachel | February 22, 2009

How Big is Your god?

Life's Mysteries

The New Atheists issue the challenge to all believers: Prove that there is a God. If you can prove it, we’ll believe it. The gauntlet has been thrown down and the challenge issued, and we are left to try and prove something that is, at its very core, mystery, the main subject of chapter two in Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God.

It is a mystery that some people believe and others have no faith, while some people come to conversion when others are raised in a church only to reject everything they were raised to believe. Johnson would say that our context can help explain the human side of this mystery. We live in a world defined by what we can learn from science, what we experience politically, and what we can break down intellectually. She observes that “astute thinkers…had measured the inadequacy of the idea of God against whatever benefit it might bestow on human beings, and had found it wanting” (26). We ourselves have fallen into this same trap before, comparing an Old Testament God to a New Testament God and failing to be satisfied.

Our god is too small. We are creating him in our own image, rather than the other way around. We have turned the dynamic, living, incomprehensible God into an idol.

Johnson draws heavily on notable theologian Karl Rahner, who names the ways modern society challenges faith, from your basic atheism and agnosticism, to positivism, secularism, and religious pluralism. I would say that there are theologians among us who know and understand science, philosophy, and the secular world we all live in, but we still have our faith. I would agree with Johnson that “mature spirituality requires integrating the basic experiences of one’s life into a wholeness before God” and “modernity forms a crucial element in the act of faith” (29). As Rahner has said, “The struggle against atheism is first and foremost a struggle against the inadequacy of our own theism” (30).

But our inadequate theism and modern world is the only context in which we live, and it is a context that needs to understand all that is possible about the real God. I particularly liked Rahner’s focus on curiosity, probably because I’m currently looking at the sky and asking “What should I do with my life?” But I think this definition of human curiosity is true at all stages of life, for all people. I know that I’m not going to wake up one day with all the answers.

We want answers, though. We want this mystery of God to be a mystery we can solve, like a literary or movie thriller. We aren’t satisfied with the cop-out solution that all will be revealed in due time, that when we die and meet our Maker, He’ll spell it all out and we’ll understand everything. Again, our god is too small.

The real struggle is that we were made for answers – insofar as the answer is God. Johnson writes that “Human beings are oriented toward boundless truth. If this were not the case, then even a person’s first question would never be asked, let alone the questions of the human race as a whole, for having to halt at some regrettable limit would alter the nature of our mind” (33). We are driven by this profound yearning to know, an immense and driving longing toward truth. Call it truth, call it ‘the more,’ or call it God, we were created for self-transcendence.

We struggle with the reality that God, at the same time, is wholly and completely Mystery Ever Greater and Mystery Ever Nearer, or fully transcendent while being at the same time fully immanent. The reality of God is so far above all created matter, and yet, the reality of God is in all created matter. Yet it is unsatisfactory for our human curiosity to throw up our hands and say, “Well, it’s just a mystery.” Johnson posits that even the beatific vision in heaven will probably fail to satisfy – God will still be incomprehensible because He isn’t something to figure out. He is, rather, “the very substance of our vision and the very object of our blissful love” (38).

Jeannine Hill Fletcher makes a great point – “incomprehensibility is not so much a sad reflection on human limitedness, but rather the exuberant celebration of God’s limitlessness [and] overabundance” (38). We are inclined to focus on our own shortcomings, our failure to understand, rather than celebrate the greatness that is God. This greatness is incomprehensible, and yet, through the Incarnation and Grace, Johnson shows the ways that the holy mystery enters our lives in a very understandable way. God would not give us this longing to know, this unquenchable curiosity, and leave us without any means to satisfy our yearning. Through the Incarnation, the person of Jesus Christ embodied God’s prodigal love, solidarity with those who suffer, and hope for a future full of life. The reality of God made man shows us the way God loves and seeks the beloved, humanity. The reality of uncreated grace, or God’s own Spirit of love imparted freely to all human beings, continually approaches us and asks us to draw near. Through Christ and the Spirit, we can see our transcendent God fully “engaged with all the realities of the world” (42).

From this starting point, understanding transcendence and immanence, God’s incomprehensibility becomes more than just an itch we cannot scratch, but a source of wonder and awe, providing real joy in a world that is marked by pain. If we are able to accept this in faith, and “Let God be God!,” then we will understand the true meaning of Christian doctrine: The absolute fullness of God is as close to us as our breathing, being at once our “salvation, splendor, and support over the abyss” (44). Drawing near to the reality of God makes life “an adventure held safe in God’s mercy” (44), a powerful tool for fighting against the meaninglessness and despair we’ve seen so prevalently in the New Atheists.

I think those of us in this room can bear witness to the fact that human authenticity comes from nearness to God. We have seen genuine faith in action – more than lies that create fear, we have witnessed belief in God create people who live “bravely, eagerly, responsibly, even without any explicit reference to religion” (45). If there is no God, as the New Atheists believe, then I would like to know how they would explain a person like Mother Teresa. How does a person who lived in our modern world, who clearly witnessed all of its flaws and evils, live a life of service to others unless God is real and worked in her life? How would any of us be in this room, fulfilling requirements for a degree that won’t get us jobs after graduation?

On a final note, I want to return to Rahner one more time. He said that “the Christian of the future with either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has ‘experienced’ something, of he[she] will cease to be anything at all” (44). In a world that cries out for data and proofs, how can we stand? There is no measurement, no scale, for the love of God at work in the human heart. I know that my personal experiences of a living God are what have brought me to this point. I would guess that many of you can relate. We have entered into this unfathomable mystery, not to solve some puzzle or crack a case, but to be people who bear witness to the love of God in this world. No longer will we settle for letting God be too small.



  1. Johnson does a great job articulating this issue of how many people of faith, specifically Christians, have made God too small, limited the divine to a specific image or characteristic. But reviving the understanding of mystery, or all-encompassing life source and spirit that can be experienced and dwelt in while never fully understood is vitally important for the place of faith and people of faith in our world today. The New Atheists are so set in rational, scientific thinking that the idea of mystery seems impossible to them. In the “Four Horseman” video on youtube (see video resources) the topic of mystery is discussed. All four pretty much agree that in science there are things not yet discovered or understood, but they do not believe there is anything that would be impossible to understand or discover. While Dawkins can express sentiments such as being in awe of how science works and the order of the natural world, but an all-encompassing mystery is beyond those who rigidly adhere to fact and data, and for this I think they not only miss the existence of God as God truly is, but also miss out on an important part of living a full human life which is in relation with the divine. The New Atheists are quick to call people of faith arrogant, but they are unwilling to admit that there could be a greater mystery incapable of ever being fully understood. I think for people of faith to admit this, and to let go of projected images which limit God’s fullness or try and create something nice and easy which they can understand and control is a great act of humility, not understood by atheists.

  2. This post makes me think about the overall attitude of the New Atheists, as Jen pointed out. Their faith in science is strong because they believe that nothing is impossible to know or find out; they simply have not found it yet. However, Elizabeth Johnson expresses a faith in which God is incomprehensible. If we found “the answer” to God, as the New Atheists incessantly ask us for, we would not believe it. It would not be enough. This divide in understanding makes it difficult for me to see how we can truly come into dialogue with New Atheists. Could they ever accept this incomprehensibility? Their faith in scientific method and the capability to know is in direct contrast with the unfathomable mystery of the Divine.

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