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How Great is Our God?

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O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.   —Psalm 34:3

The idea of magnifying God always seemed a little odd to me. We don’t typically talk of magnifying except in the sense of making something appear larger or nearer. How can God be made to appear bigger than he is? Is he not infinite? Or how can he be made to appear nearer? Is he not everywhere present? What can it mean to magnify the all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present God?

Then I recall the language of lovers. Lovers extol what they love. Ask a lover about something he loves—it need not be a person but a hobby or vocation—and prepare to hear his love magnified as if it were the only thing in the universe. For in a sense it is; it fills his own universe. Those who love God cannot help praising him. Everything that happens in their lives will be found to connect in some way to the God they love.

They will speak of the glory of Your kingdom
and will declare Your might,
informing all people of Your mighty acts
and of the glorious splendor of Your kingdom. (Psalm 145:11-12)

But there is more.

We live in a world that belittles God. Our culture for the most part considers God as unimportant and regards people of faith—especially those whose faith impels them to public action—as dangerous lunatics. God is okay as long as he is the private delusion of a few fanatics. He is tolerable as long as he doesn’t matter in any meaningful way to the life and business of the world. Let God have his little corner in religion. Let him make his rules and have his “kingdom,” but let’s not have any nonsense about absolute truth or a universal moral law. Looking at God through the lens of our culture is like peering into the wrong end of a telescope. God seems small and distant, parochial and insignificant. His acts aren’t mighty; they’re puny. He is weak and stupid, perhaps even evil.

Consider what Christians credit God with: he created everything that exists; made a way through the Red Sea so the Israelites passed through on dry ground; he sent fire from heaven to consume Elijah’s offering; he shut the mouths of lions; he raised Jesus from the dead. But these things are all in the past. What has he done lately? What do we credit him with today? He gave me a parking place near the door so I wouldn’t get rained on; he reduced the severity of the flu I had; he provided a grocery gift card anonymously when I really needed it. While these acts reflect a personal care seldom found in the old stories, they don’t seem to magnify God. They make him out to be a kind of doting nanny, more concerned with our comfort than with our character. Perhaps the culture is only reflecting back the smallness in the testimony about God that Christians have given. Sometimes in our zeal for his omnipotence, we Christians even credit him with evil—at least with what the world regards as evil.

God intends that his children be like him, that they exhibit his character. In doing so, they reflect his good character and bring credit to his name. This is why Jesus told his followers, “Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The world unacquainted with God knows him by the deeds of his sons and daughters. It is by our good works that we show the world how merciful and loving is our God, how forgiving and patient, how terrifying and awesome. If our deeds are evil, we discredit God. One does not have to look far to see how much discredit Christians have brought to God. In the world we are known for bigotry and intolerance, hatred, ignorance, and ineffectiveness. So let us turn back from condemnation and from evil deeds that discredit God, and let us do good: bring health and healing to those who are sick, bring life and hope to the discouraged and depressed, love and accept the outcasts, set people free from systems that confine them. Let us magnify the Lord and exalt his name together.

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Them

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Every group has its insider language, its set of assumptions about what insiders know and outsiders do not. For some groups the distinction between insider and outsider is so important that the groups incorporate secret rituals to ensure that outsiders don’t penetrate into the inside without first becoming insiders. Other groups require specialized knowledge, but they make no secret of it, and it is effectively available to all who take an interest in learning it. A few groups, however, actively recruit new members and claim a universal appeal. Such groups require a highly permeable perimeter where the distinction between insider and outsider, between us and them, is essentially fuzzy. The New Testament church is such a group.

In the New Testament, exclusive language occurs almost always in the context of describing heretics or apostates. These are not people who have never been welcomed into the Christian faith; they are people who were welcomed in but turned out to be pursuing their own agenda. They might be the Judaizers  of Paul’s letter to the Galatians or the proto-Gnostics of John’s letters. In nearly every case, though, they are former insiders who left or were forced out because their beliefs or teachings did not match those of the apostles.

Apart from these few, the New Testament church is very inclusive. Paul claims that the Christian faith encompasses every social and economic class and every ethnicity. “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” What characterizes a Christian is not circumstances of birth or station in life but rather virtues that Jesus himself embodied: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, forbearance, peace, and love. These are characteristics that are universally admired but not so universally practiced. (In fact, one of the great conundrums of life, effectively answered in Christ, is why people so much admire virtues they themselves do not practice, even to the point of pretending to themselves that they do practice them.*)

Every unbeliever is potentially a believer, and every believer is potentially a fraud. Since we do not know people’s hearts, we need to treat everyone alike with dignity and respect, just as God treats us. He keeps providing opportunities to trust him even to those who have never yet trusted him. We need to rid ourselves of the smug superiority so common among evangelical Christians; it is offensive to everyone. We are none of us so righteous we cannot fall nor so wicked we are past redemption. If we want to persuade anyone that Jesus Christ is worth living for, we must treat everyone with genuine love and kindness, not considering ourselves better but only as recipients of an undeserved pardon. On earth the kingdom of God includes everyone, even those who persecute it. Just ask Paul.

*For more information, see the works of C. S. Lewis, especially The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity.

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Thoughts on Science and Religion

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I’ve always had an interest in science. Even as a very young child, I can remember puzzling over day and night. How does the sun get back to the east to rise? What are the stars? I remember imagining that the night sky was really a huge inverted colander. The sun would make its way back to the east outside the colander, and we would see the sun’s light coming through the holes. My interest in science arose from what I took to be a universal desire to understand the world in which we live. I understood science to be a systematic inquiry into the world for the purpose of understanding it.

One of the things I’ve learned as a parent is that characteristics I thought were universal were merely personal. None of my children has the least interest in science. I do not know why. The desire to understand is so much a part of my very being that I cannot grasp being without it. One of my sons recently told me he hated science. I asked why.

“It’s boring,” he said.

Boring?! How can science be boring?

“It has nothing to do with life,” he continued.

My son is a bright fellow. He knows full well that the technology he enjoys so much comes directly from science. But, as he pointed out, he doesn’t need to know how a computer works—or an iPod or a smartphone—to use it. None of my children have much curiosity about how things work. It is enough for them to know that they do work. Perhaps most people think the same way. I do not know.

As for me, I am always curious about how things work. I also have tremendous faith in my own capacity to understand how things work.

I wrote a while ago about the difference between scientific thinking and magical thinking. When I wrote it, I was sure that most people can tell the difference between magic and science. Now I am not so sure. Without a curiosity about how things work, why should anyone seek evidence for or against their own thinking? What difference is there in the thinking of most people between belief in electricity, gravity, or the nuclear strong force and belief in fairies, gnomes, or sprites? For those with a purely instrumentalist view of knowledge, the question is not, “Is it true?” but, “Does it work?”

I have to admit, I am more interested in truth than in utility. Not that the truth and utility are necessarily opposed. But they are not the same thing. One can easily imagine investigating the utility of a concept without coming close to discovering its truth. It is also possible, I suppose, to investigate the truth of a concept without discovering its utility. Nevertheless, I believe that the significant advances that have been made in technology result from scientists earnestly seeking the truth about the universe we live in. Technology takes the discoveries of science and makes them useful, but there is no enterprise that takes the usefulness of things and makes them true. So science is preeminent.

Many people who unthinkingly use technology every day criticize science as if its objectives were fundamentally flawed. Among evangelical Christians, for example, it is common to disparage biological evolution as if biologists were motivated solely by a desire to discredit God. Certainly there are some scientists so motivated. However, the desire to discredit God is not fundamental to science; it is fundamental to rebellious man. Biologists are motivated by a desire to understand living things. Out of that desire, mixed with countless hours of observation, experimentation, testing of hypotheses, and all the other activities of science, a consensus has emerged among scientists that all life on earth is descended from the same source, that all living things are connected by heredity. This consensus is not wishful thinking. It is not dishonest or unscientific as some Christians have claimed. It is good science, supported by a wealth of evidence from disciplines as diverse as geology, genetics, paleontology, and biology.

Science is a human enterprise for understanding the world we live in. Understanding is always about truth; you cannot understand something without believing what you understand to be true. (You can, of course, believe something to be true without understanding it, but the reverse is not true.) It is not the only enterprise for understanding the world. Religion also makes truth-claims about the world and also provides a way of thinking about the world and understanding it. But religion concerns itself with spiritual reality, while science concerns itself with physical reality. There are some who deny spiritual reality, as if the capacity to understand were not itself a spiritual reality. Human ideals, philosophy, ethics, love, justice, faith—these all belong to the spiritual world. To deny that world is to deny what makes  us human.

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