~Richard Beck / Experimental Theology
As a college professor interested in the psychology of religion I'm sort of an anthropologist of young adulthood spirituality. That is, I listen a great deal to how my students talk about faith, God, Christianity, and church. I'm particularly interested in listening to what moves them spiritually.
One of the things I've noticed in this regard--something, to be sure, not unique to this age group or generation--is the prominence of a focus on God's bigness. Worship that seems to move my college students, and many other Christians, tends to focus on God's transcendence and awesomeness. "Awesome" just might be the most common word my students, and many other Christians, use to describe God.
This focus on God's bigness is often used in worship to create an acute sense of our smallness in relation. Ecstatic worship is often triggered by a felt sense of God's transcendent power, size, and awesomeness. I leave such worship psychologically stunned and overwhelmed by God's bigness. My sense is that a lot of contemporary worship is explicitly aimed at trying to create this experience. And that makes sense. Worship means "to bow down." Thus, to worship God means to "bow down" before God's power and size.
And yet, I wonder about all this. Particularly from a missional perspective. Specifically, I struggle with how the felt sense of smallness I experience in worship is supposed to transition into Christian mission. I do see how an acute sense of our smallness works as a trigger for ecstatic worship, but find it hard to see how that sense of smallness helps Christians learn to eat with tax collectors and sinners.
Put bluntly, I'm wondering this: How does an experience of God's awesomeness help you learn that God is love?
Let me be clear. I think God is awesome. I think it's good, as a critique of human pride, to experience God's awesomeness. I'm just expressing a concern about how this sort of ecstatic worship transitions into missional living.
In light of all this, here's what I want to say to many Christians: Your God is too big.
Here's what I think. I think too much focus on God's awesomeness leaves us ill-equipped to see God's smallness in the world. Perhaps we'd be better able to transition from worship to mission if we started focusing on God's smallness rather than on God's bigness. Isn't it one of the purposes of worship to help us see aright? To see God more clearly? If so, perhaps we need to start worshiping God's smallness. Our God has gotten too big.
Let me try to illustrate what I'm talking about.
See the smallness of God in this famous section of Night, Elie Wiesel's memoir of the Holocaust:
I witnessed other hangings. I never saw a single one of the victims weep. For a long time those dried-up bodies had forgotten the bitter taste of tears.
Except once. The Oberkapo of the fifty-second cable unit was a Dutchman, a giant, well over six feet. Seven hundred prisoners worked under his orders, and they all loved him like a brother. No one had ever received a blow at his hands, nor an insult from his lips.
He had a young boy under him, a pipel, as they were called--a child with a refined and beautiful face, unheard of in this camp...the face of a sad angel...
One day, the electric power station at Buna was blown up. The Gestapo, summoned to the spot, suspected sabotage. They found a trail. It eventually led to the Dutch Oberkapo. And there, after a search, they found an important stock of arms.
The Oberkapo was arrested immediately. He was tortured for a period of weeks, but in vain. He would not give up a single name. He was transferred to Auschwitz. We never heard of him again.
But his little servant had been left behind in the camp in prison. Also put to torture, he too would not speak. Then the SS sentenced him to death, with two other prisoners who had been discovered with arms.
One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains--and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.
This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.
The three victims mounted together onto the stairs.
The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.
"Long live liberty!" cried the two adults.
But the child was silent.
"Where is God? Where is He?" someone behind me asked.
At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.
Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
"Bare your heads!" yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.
"Cover your heads!"
The the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive...
For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
"Where is God now?"
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
"Where is He? He is--He is hanging here on this gallows..."
This is a powerful story, with particular resonances for Christians, a people who worship a God who hangs dead on the gallows. And I wonder, when I read stories like Wiesel's, if contemporary Christian spirituality, a spirituality so focused on God's bigness, is able to train us to see God in the figure of that little boy.
How can we learn to see God's smallness?
Perhaps no one described God's smallness better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in one of his letters from prison:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
It is true that God is awesome. But, as Bonhoeffer observed, "God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross." God "is weak and powerless in the world." God helps us "not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering."
God is small.
God is that little boy hanging from the gallows.
God isn't powerful and mighty.
God is weakness and powerlessness.
So this, again, is what I'm wondering. Might a spirituality of God's bigness and awesomeness be hindering our ability to see the smallness and weakness of God? God as the child hanging on the gallows. God in the body of the demented mental patient. The craving addict. The senile old person in diapers. The starving child. The drooling retarded. The street walking prostitute. The homeless man on the park bench. The queer kid bullied on the playground.
Might our God be too big? Too big for us to see the smallness of God?
Where is God?
God is here--weak and hanging on the gallows.
See: Experimental Theology