Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Is your God too small?
While growing up many decades ago, I don’t know if my God was too small, but certainly my church community was.
We were a very small denomination that broke away from the regular Methodist denomination back in the mid-1800s. I later learned that the issues then were social justice concerns such as abolition, ordination for women, and various lifestyle practices such as the use of alcohol and tobacco. Our group was opposed to slavery at that time but also opposed to the prohibition of women’s ordination. So I grew up with ordained women preachers in some churches, but also with a tightening of the prohibited lifestyle practices including not only alcohol and tobacco, but also dancing, movies, even playing cards. As we looked around, we didn’t see those same prohibitions being followed by other Christian groups, hence their lack of faithfulness would be punished in the next life. Our group was small and so also, we believed, would be the occupants of heaven. Yes, it was all very small.
As I grew older, went to college and then graduate school, my world became much bigger. The book, “Your God is Too Small,” published in 1952 by J.B. Phillips, an Anglican parish priest, got my attention and helped me see a bigger community as well as a much bigger concept of God. I got to know these so-called “regular Methodists” -- even marrying one -- spent time in Europe getting to know members of the “Evangelische Kirke” (the way the Lutheran church is known in Germany), and my world began to grow. I met so many devout and spiritual persons that I just couldn’t exclude from God’s grace.
As the Second Vatican Council opened up my understanding of the Catholic community my view expanded again. In the 1960s I recall attending an ecumenical service and standing next to a nun in full habit, singing together that famous Martin Luther hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” My world got bigger again, as did my understanding of God and the community of the faithful.
In graduate school my Old Testament professor put us in touch with a Jewish family who invited us to join them for the Seder meal at Passover. I realized that this was the meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples and became personally connected to the reality that Jesus and all his disciples were Jewish. I wondered, are they also a part of my larger understanding of the community of the faithful?
Meanwhile, undergraduate and doctoral study focused on mathematics and the sciences where my world again began to grow. We now know, thanks to the Hubble telescope, that there are over 100 billion galaxies like our own Milky Way galaxy. And yet, it was less than 100 years ago, in 1923, that Edwin Hubble’s research established that there were in fact galaxies other than our own. The appropriately named Hubble telescope has opened up our understanding to an enormously bigger universe than we could ever have imagined. Wow! Our God is not small and neither is God’s creation.
Now as I engage in the world of interfaith, my concepts and understanding keep getting bigger as does my understanding of God’s mercy. The breadth of God’s mercy is not a new concept in our religious history as we observe in our scriptures. The Jewish Scripture tells of Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. God addresses him saying, "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness." (Exodus 34:6) The Psalms frequently acknowledge mercy and compassion, as in Psalm 145:8-9: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”
Likewise, in the Christian Scriptures God’s mercy and compassion are central, and when Jesus is approached it is often with the plea to have mercy. The Beatitudes affirm in Matthew 5:7, "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." The parable of the Prodigal Son exhibits both God's mercy and models the need for human mercy. Christian liturgy often includes the Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy.”
In Islam, mercy and compassion are frequently affirmed and “Most Merciful” is one of the names of God. Each chapter of the Quran (except one) begins with “In the Name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy,” and the phrase “God is most forgiving and merciful” appears frequently in the chapter texts. In fact, the term mercy or merciful appears over 500 times in the Quran. One of the five pillars of Islam is showing mercy by giving alms to the poor.
As I have learned more about the various religions and their teachings, I have found my understanding of God keeps getting bigger as well as my understanding of God’s mercy. As I reflect on my earlier limited understanding of God and God’s mercy while growing up, I also recall a hymn that we sang that should have given me a hint of that which I would later learn. The text, written in 1862 by Frederick William Faber, has been set to nearly 20 tunes and appeared in over 800 hymnals. The hymn titled “There is a Wideness to God’s Mercy” includes the following verses:
There’s a wideness to God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in heaven.
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgement given.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of the mind,
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
We would gladly trust God’s Word;
And our lives reflect thanksgiving
For the goodness of our Lord.
As the prophet Micah taught, we should seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. Walking humbly includes being open to a God who is bigger than our minds can measure, and whose mercy is wider than the sea.