Big God, Little God

I previously blogged about Sabio Lantz’s diagram depicting a spectrum from a little to a big God. He meant by this a spectrum from a God with few specific attributes to a God with many, but I approached it in terms of which has the more exalted or majestic view of God and suggested that perhaps the spectrum ought to run in the opposite direction.

I had hoped to follow up on this, and then today I saw two posts in my feed reader and was struck by the contrast between them.

On the one hand, Sabio posted on “Arguing for a Tiny God,” clarifying the meaning of his earlier post, and emphasizing that making the case for a first cause does not constitute an argument for a specific tradition’s complete view of God.

On the other hand, Allan Bevere wrote a post with the title “Our God is Too Small,” contrasting the view of miracles and the supernatural prevalent in more traditional societies with the post-Enlightenment demystified view that has come to dominate the “West” or better the Northern hemisphere.

My reaction to Allan’s post was similar to my original reaction to Sabio’s earlier one. What makes a God who allegedly works wonders – whether casting out demons or supernaturally numbering the yards of football passes – a “bigger” God than one who made a world without demons and in which we are expected to learn, discover, and progress to a point where we begin to comprehend a universe far more majestic and more enormous than any Biblical author could have imagined? Is someone who micromanages superior to a leader who delegates? Is a tinkerer greater than an engineer who gets things working smoothly from the start? Is a three-tiered universe and its first cause greater than what we have to envisage in the universe we glimpse through the Hubble Telescope?

The language of “our God” (still) being “too small” has featured in several famous books. But what does it really mean?

What sort of God seems “bigger” or “smaller” to you, and why?


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  • Sabio Lantz

    @ James,
    Thanks again for the huuuuuuuuuuuge link ! 😉

    Allan Bevere’s post is incoherent to me, as are many sermons: full of images, emotions but inconsistent logic.  Or maybe I was missing something.
    Bevere laments that American Methodist Churches are shrinking and seems to imply that if we start praying for Jesus to raise dead people or at least expect God to do amazing things beyond just comforting our souls, then American Methodists will again be collecting more tithes. 

    He laments the “Enlightenment” and accuses it of “creating a God that is simply not very interesting”.  Instead, careful testing and questioning (the child of “Enlightenment”) has not created a small god but merely exposed that a miracle god does not exist.

    I thought Bevere would try and dance around the word “supernatural” to help people of America, feel comfortable praying for miracles so they could be as pentacostal-ish as their African brothers and sisters.  But his sermon never ties that together.

    But you seem to agree with me that Bevere is furthering a God that neither of us believe in and perhaps both of us feel is harmful.  Am I mistaken?  You like God as a deist-mystical god (an “Engineer”) and not a theist-miraculous god (a “Tinkerer”), correct.  Your concluding lines seems to say, we need to leave the OT notion of God behind, right?

    Worse of all, Bevere made fun of the flavor “vanilla” — who does he think he is?  God made vanilla. 😉

    Again, focusing on “big” and “small” will distract people for the real issue– instead, they will just pick up on “big” and we know how biased people are about that, right?

  • Allan Bevere

    Hi James, I responded to Sabio on my blog. Where I disagree with you is that a miracle God does not exist. I was simply attempting to say in stark fashion, let God be God.

    And, yes, I do think the God of the Enlightenment is boring. I think it is OK to pray for a miracle, but I reject the extreme view that God always must do what we pray for. I knew some Pentecostals years ago who believed that God must do whatever we pray for. That view is an attempt to tie God down as well. And it’s silly.

    And as far as vanilla goes. I too like vanilla and know that God made it, but vanilla will never ever come close to being chocolate. :-)

  • Allan Bevere

    Oops… just realized that the comment was Sabio’s, not James’. It would be a miracle if I could read slowly enough to get it right.

  • Sabio Lantz

    @ Allan Bevere
    “Let God be God” is almost void of meaning — anyone, with any religious position, could say it and have the same vague meaning.  It is sermon material but not really communicating anything substantial.  It is a mere theological banner waved to stir the troops.   Instead, I think being specific would help:

    Your comment here and on your blog are still confusing.  Do you think:

    (a) Believers should pray to God to stop protect them from tornadoes, tsunamis, disease and nuclear bombs?  Or should they build weather systems, study medicine and develop surveillance satellites?  Perhaps your position is the bland watery version that say, “Pray that God teaches our scientist to do that for us.”

    (b) You bemoan, jealously, the lack of growth of American Christian churches because they don’t pray for have God raise from the dead like the blossoming African superstitious churches do.  Do you believe that a god still does all the things reported in the Old Testament?  Do you think corpses rose and filled the streets after Jesus supposedly came back to life?

    Please give us the concrete examples of what people could hope your God to do — they don’t have to expect it, but what can they hope for?  Can they hope that they don’t suffer just the same as hell-bound pagan nonbelievers? (Weslian’s believe nonbelievers burn, don’t they?)

    I like vanilla better than chocolate ice cream. :-)   I also like real relationships better than imaginary ones.

  • James F. McGrath

    ‘Tis the lot of the progressive Christian to be caught between these two views, and to say that it is possible to appreciate both chocolate and vanilla.

    Perhaps the symbol for my faith should be one of those classic black-and-white cookies…

  • Sabio Lantz

    Ooops, I should have known that it was a mistake to play with symbols.  We need people to discuss what we should be petitioning gods and spirits to do.
    Oreo cookies and Ice Cream won’t get us there!  :-(

  • Allan Bevere


    Yes, I believe God can raise the dead if God so chooses. If I reject that, I reject the central claim of Christianity. Does that mean I expect God to raise the dead today. Generally I assume that the dead stay dead, but I would never rule out what God might choose to do. I do not believe God creates wars and uses disasters to punish sinners. That’s a different matter than God acting for the good. Now whether or not God chooses to heal someone who is ill is another matter. I do not assume the miraculous occurs on a regular basis, but God can and does do the unexplainable if God so chooses.

    Second, yes, God’s actions throughout history are consistent, though the coming of God in Jesus Christ is now the lens through which we view the OT.

    Third, I believe God answers prayer. Prayer is not simply an exercise meant to make us feel better. And I think it is entirely appropriate to pray for someone’s healing, though God will choose what God will do.
    The problem here is that, as James suggests, it is not a choice between chocolate or vanilla, or between that God must always act within what we understand as the “natural order” or in some way that is unexplainable. I proceed on the assumption that God works mostly within the former. Why would God not act primarily within the order God has created? Yet, I do not want to say it must always be that way. Years ago when I was in Cuba, at the end of a worship service I was asked to pray for a woman who had had a high fever for over a month. Doctors performed every test they could and found nothing. She had been given medication to no avail. I anointed her with oil and prayed for her. Two days later she came to the house where I was staying. Her fever was gone (and it stayed that way). Now, was that a miracle or psychological? I cannot prove it was a miracle, but neither can you prove it was psychologically oriented. All I am saying is that we need to allow God to act in such ways, knowing that the reason we refer to it as miraculous is mainly because it is not the norm.

    Now, I’m going to go have a dish of chocolate AND vanilla ice cream… with some cookies.

  • Mike Helbert

    How about neopolitan? You’ve left us strawberry lovers out in the cold.
    This has been interesting to follow. I found this at Allan’s blog and am caught by the discussion. And, if I am honest, I have to say that Sabio’s observations are pretty much right on. We Christ-followers are a divided lot. Not just, as Allan noted, by North/South and Big/Little, but also by all of the differences noted in Sabio’s diagrams. (I really liked them, by the way.)
    However, any of these descriptions really pale to the reality. I think this is where Allan was going with his “let God be God” statement. Our God is, in fact, all of the above. Now, I’m just a small fish in discussion of theology. I generally leave that to folks like Allan and James. But, I live in the realm of Christ-followers. We believe in a God who is unseen, yet present. A God who is transcendent, yet immanent. A God of contradictions. A God who has chosen not to reveal every aspect of the divine character to us. But, a God who did chose a man, Jesus son of Joseph, to give us a glimpse of that character. I don’t think, nor will I try, to convince Sabio or others that this God is worth following, let alone committing one’s life to. That’s not my place. What is my place, (my puny little brain thinks), is to follow Jesus’ example; feed the poor, clothe the naked, care for the orphans and widows. In this way, maybe, just maybe we can say with Jesus that those who have seen us have gotten a small glimpse of the Father.
    I’m sorry if this has completely missed the point of this thread. I was just moved to respond by the feelings and mind that my multi-valent God has given me.

  • Keika

    Is God not Greater than the sum of His parts, or rather, different than the sum of His parts?  Now there’s a discussion. Splitting a single atom will yield enough power to move a grain of sand, but it’s the chain reaction shared between atoms that will create a big bang.

    If the energy from splitting one atom can deflect the spin of a football to miss a goal post, then God indeed can help the Broncos.  But ultimately it’s the shared goals and dreams of the team that will create the big win.  It all depends on which side of the field you are playing on, when you think of God as big or small.

  • Sabio Lantz

    @ Allan Bevere
    You said, 

    I do not believe God creates wars and uses disasters to punish sinners.

    Do you believe Yahweh (your Israeli god) is reported to have done this in the Tanakh (Jewish scriptures)?

    You said,

    Now whether or not God chooses to heal someone who is ill is another matter. I do not assume the miraculous occurs on a regular basis, but God can and does do the unexplainable if God so chooses.

    Wow, that sounded like a lot of dancing.  Your African Christian brothers and sisters (who you write of in your Pastor’s Blog) would jump up and say, “YES! Hallelujah!!”  Your carefulness is ironic considering your post.

    You said,

    And I think it is entirely appropriate to pray for someone’s healing, though God will choose what God will do.

    And of course the classic reply: “Why do you think he never choose to heal an amputee?

    Your healing in Cuba story is a dime a dozen — I have heard Shinto, Hindus, Mormons, Muslims, Chiropractors, Homeopaths and many more give glowing testimonies for their amazing cures — they all go the same way.  But when tested by science, these are not reproducible.

    You want to say you believe in the “natural order” + god — but can’t tell me how that would look any different from just the “natural order” by itself.  The law of Parsimony makes your position — and those of all the rest who claim the untestable miraculous — to be very awkward at best.

    I love all ice creams, actually.  But none of them go well with nonsense.

    Have you had people in your church challenge you on this stuff.  Have some people left your church because of it?

  • Anonymous

    One question I have is twofold;
    Irregardless of what the diagram shows, individuals must be open to be educated “out of” their belief systems! Everyone justifies or gives warrant for their opinions about religious claims in defense of “society”.

    Agnosicism only questions religious claims, because they are based on authorities that are “suspect”, unless one wants to submit to a particular denominaton’s power/authority to and about one’s understanding, which leaves “wide open” the trust factor as to what the denomination’s power/authority will do with that submission!!!! As that does not leave room for individual choice about values, if they have political reasons to want submission to their authority/power. Such would claim a “virtue based ethic” to conform the individual to their own purposes!

    An atheist has a stance toward authority that resists accounts that are not based on reason or objective law, where law protects boundaries of the individual’s life. This is liberty. Objective law does not make “moral claims”, except about the value of the individual, which is a moral claim, itself. The individual has the right of self ownership in a free society, not so in religious societies.

    Therefore, a universal value in civil societies has been education. Individuals in our society have liberty of conscience regarding their associations. But are religious associations open to education, reason, and the Academy? Or are religious denominations more “in step” to the denomination’s “drum”?