When I was in high school I was introduced to John Bertram Phillips’ book Your God is too Small. At the time it blew my mind because of the thesis that many of our concepts of God are limited, both in their use to us but also in getting a hold of a God. If God is your boyfriend, your personal bell hop, the guarantor of your politics, is white and male, then your God probably doesn’t describe the creator of the universe.
Years later that I think another book could be in order. One that describes what happens when God becomes too big. It was in grad school where I ran into authors whose God was so large that God could not be described, related to, known, talked about, conceptualized, or worshipped. Now such authors have a popular audience from Karen Armstrong to David Hart. But why would they go in that direction?
Partly to avoid critique. If God is beyond any of our concepts and descriptions when atheists and critics of religion go after popular concepts and descriptions of God, we can know that they are in fact going after idols, not the real transcendent God who is beyond the theologies which are being attacked. Sometimes this view is known as apophatic / negative theology or more commonly as a form of mysticism and it has a long history in the western religious traditions.
It appears to honor a God which is much larger than us but it does so at a price. It’s hard to say how we could make positive claims about God. And it’s hard to know how any religious believer and worshipping community could relate to such a God. That is, God has become so big that in a way God disappears from our sight and our daily lives. To protect the transcendence of God, God is reduced to the big unknown.
Dan Linford encapsulates the argument from Armstrong and Hart in this way
“First, we speak of God directly: we might say “God is good”, where the word ‘good’ means the same thing of God as it does when we talk about a virtuous human. Second, we learn that our initial way of speaking about God was naïve: we cannot mean the same thing when we talk about God’s goodness as we do when we speak of humanly goodness. We say: “God is not good”. Many “sophisticated” theologians insist that we should alternate between these two stages, until we are left in a silence pointing to God. In the end, we learn that we do not know what we are saying when we speak of God.”
Let me propose an alternative account which comes from the school of thought called “empirical theology”. While it’s a kind of “sophisticated theology” it starts with a different premise. It says that the God that we can know and talk about is derived from our experience. We take pieces of what we can know and then extrapolate outwards to cover what would be beyond that. But you cannot have an extrapolation which contradicts what we experience and know about our world. The rules that apply to the whole apply to the part as well.
Every discipline works this way. For example, if we know the rules of physics as we can test them, they should be operative even in those areas which are beyond our ability to test. If we go this route in religion then we can’t cut off our understanding of the good, of justice, of love, of creativity, from our understanding of God even if God is bigger then our experience of those things. There should be continuity with them so that when we talk about God, we can safely remain in the first stage; when we say God is good, we mean it in a way that is recognizable to us.
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples,and God himself will be with them” Revelation 21:3b To pull this off there is a cost. Religious doctrines and ideas, cannot contradict what we know and experience of the world. If you go there, a wholesale revision of God and of our respective traditions are in order. But as a progressive Christian I’m up for it.
God in empirical theology is an evaluative term which describes particular features of our experience, in particular those that involve the good in life, that which we must relate to if we are to be saved, transformed, reconciled to one another and our planet. Thus the word God points to those aspects of reality which provide for our well being. And the term indicates how we should respond accordingly. Now, folks may say God is just a word but of course all words are just words. They do their work well only when they connect us successfully to reality. That is how theology can be measured.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma