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Have you ever had an experience where something disturbed you, unsettled you, more than it should have? A conversation, a book or movie, that unnerved you, got under your skin in a way that felt disproportionate? It made you wonder what fears or issues of yours were being unknowingly agitated?

Nearly 30 years ago, I read James Gustafson’s Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective — his two volume magnum opus. Today, many may not recall Gustafson. I’d contend that he could easily be the preeminent American Christian ethicist of the second half of the twentieth century. The leading student of H. Richard Niebuhr. Teaching at Yale, Chicago, and Emory. His own students included Stanley Hauerwas, Lisa Cahill, Douglas Ottati, and more.

What I’m going to say about Gustafson’s tomes might be wildly inaccurate. This isn’t about Gustafson but rather about my reaction to him. As I recall — and again, I could be way off base — Gustafson seemed to be almost a deist. His God was distant, impersonal, an anonymous force more than a relational being. This is how Gustafson accounted for the immensity of time and space, the intricacies of nature — topics about which he was extremely well-informed and curious. God was more like a glacial power, imperceptibly pressing down, grindingly, gradually achieving God’s ways.

I recall once saying of Gustafson, “He’s subscribed to Nature (the journal) too long!” That Gustafson was broadly Reformed — not in the Dutch Reformed sense, of course — might have made him more appealing to me. Instead I once commented, “He’s what happens when Reformed people go to seed.”

My response to Gustafson seemed inordinately hostile. Now, 30 years later, I wonder if it wasn’t a premonition of a sort — much more about me than him. I can now admit that Gustafson riled me because somehow deep inside, I had this nagging fear he might be right.

*****


Recently, Einstein Rings were in the news. I learned that Einstein Rings are what happens as light is bent by the gravitational force of large bodies — stars, but especially galaxies and black holes. The Hubble space telescope just spotted an Einstein Ring caused by two galaxies, about 3.4 billion light years away, bending the light from an even more distant object.

In western Iowa, along the Missouri River, stand the Loess Hills. They are mounds of fine silt, the consistency of flour. A chain of steep hills made up of material like powdered sugar. They were formed when winds swept across mud flats to the west, picking up the fine silt and dropping it across the river. Most of the silt has been deposited since the last ice age, about 25,000 years ago. But if you know what to look for, you can find 15 inch bands of volcanic material blown in from the Yellowstone area about 600,000 years ago. It staggers me to think of layer upon layer of nearly negligible powder eventually forming massive hills.

Last month, I visited a natural history museum. I can never keep my eons and eras straight — Jurassic, Cambrian, Paleozoic et al. The museum is located in a pretty conservative and “religious” area. I wondered how the abundant, nearby young-earthers feel about the museum with its displays of fossils, ancient seas, and shifting continents.

A young earth may seem to fit with a biblical account, but I wonder if it also doesn’t relieve a kind of anxiety. It helps reduce the incomprehensible immensity of time and space. It eases our sense of insignificance, our fragile puniness. Six thousand years we can comprehend — especially if we’ve been around for all but five days of it! But who can really digest what 4 billion years means?

Here I have some sympathies with young earthers — not from a scientific or biblical perspective, but as an existential crisis.

Many Reformed colleagues find the universe — its size, its age — bolsters and enlivens their faith. Of course, I too react with awe. But for me, the Loess Hills and Einstein Rings, the Paleozoic Era and all the rest, make faith in a god, let alone a personal, relational, loving God more difficult. It would be easy for me to slip into one of those gone to seed Reformed people — those with a heavy emphasis on the First Person of the Trinity, omni this and omni that, my unfortunate caricature of James Gustafson. A god who makes hills from winds blowing for millennia carrying the finest powder, who bends light that has traveled millions of years simply to get here, such a god seems too vast, too inscrutable, too much for me.

*****

My solution? Jesus, of course. As every kid during a children’s sermon knows, when you don’t know the answer, just blurt out “Jesus!”

By Jesus, I’m not really saying that Jesus is the unique and unsurpassable revelation of God, the eternal Word made flesh for us and our salvation — although I agree with all that. I’m not quite saying that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are our best glimpses of God, but I believe that too. My concern for now is less our theology about Jesus, and instead the theology of Jesus.

What I’m saying here is that I want to believe in the sort of God that I deduce Jesus believed in. From what I see, Jesus believed in a God who is active and present, aware and caring, involved and loving. This God keeps track of sparrows and values sex workers. In Jesus, I see someone who not only believed in God, but also had a lively, loving connection with this God, a deep trust and awareness of God. And I believe in this sort of God because Jesus did.

“I’ll have what he’s having.” That’s what we say at a restaurant when we see a plate of delicious looking food being served to a nearby table. “I’ll have what he’s having,” is what I say when I see the sort of God that Jesus trusted in. Jesus’ understanding of God is the kind of God I want. Jesus seemed to believe in a God on the move, a God among us. I’d say that most of Jesus’ famous “the Kingdom of God is like…” sayings are tips and training for detecting this God among us, God’s ways and traits.

And it isn’t that the God in whom Jesus believed is a total pushover, some namby-pamby in contrast to others’ stern and vengeful god. Thankfully, the God whom Jesus trusts is gracious and merciful — probably more than we can accept. Still, the God that Jesus believed in seems to have a few sharp corners and puzzling angularities. Jesus’ experience with God also seems to suggest that God can be frustratingly silent and disappointingly non-interventionist at times. In other words, I don’t think the God that Jesus believed in is a sort of designer-god, one that we might select on a divine dating site.

As for the millennia it takes to make huge hills from powder carried by wind, or quasars that can bend billion-year-old light? I can accept all that without anxiety when I trust that the God who is participating in it is the same God that Jesus trusted and loved and proclaimed.

*****

I apologize to James Gustafson — but not enough to go back and reread him. From what I hear, he was a kind and decent man who spent much of his retirement volunteering at a food pantry. He died earlier this year at the age of 95.

Left to my own devices, I could easily become crushed beneath an incomprehensible god, a god of billions and billions of years, galaxies, and grains of sand. And I don’t think that I would love such a god. But Jesus seems to connect with a different sort of God. And he lived in a way that trusted that this is what God is really like. I’ll have what he’s having.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

11 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Oh Steve! I’ll have what you’re having.

  • mstair says:

    …to carry the analogy a little further…

    Could it be that too many of us faith-diners today are spending too much time in the menu looking for “the correct thing” to order and then in very loud table conversation providing the rationale for doing so…

    ‘I’ll have what He’s having,” is concise, direct and … quieter…

  • Ria says:

    Your own, personal, Jesus
    Someone to hear your prayers
    Someone who cares.
    Johnny Cash

    • Tom says:

      Actually originally by Depeche Mode (not one of my favorite bands). Johnny does have a way of picking out the good ones though.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Thanks, your thoughts reminded me of what Diana Butler Bass said in the Introduction to her book Grounded Instead of the God of the omnis, “we might think of God as inter, the spiritual thread between space and time; intra, within space and time, and infra, that which holds space and time. This God in not above or beyond, but integral to the whole of creation, entwined with the sacred ecology of the universe.” I’ll have that God, which I believe was also the God Jesus believed in (or was).

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    The immensity of time and space is a fact that we in the Reformed tradition have been reluctant to address partly because it seems to call into question the biblical cosmology. Any close reading of Scripture shows us that believers felt that they were living closer to the moment of creation and in that sense closer to God. What are we to make of a creation story that continues for billions of years and how can God be personally involved? I am not sure how to answer these questions. I do see that the church is losing its sacramental world view, finding it more and more difficult to imagine how God through the Spirit is present in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and in the workings of the natural world. Many move towards a soft deism, perhaps unawares; others towards a spiritualism-praying for God’s help in finding a parking spot. It seems that we have work to do as theologians, creating a biblical foundation for experiencing a personal God in the immensity of space and time.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for this! I wonder if part of our problem as Reformed believers is how much we elevate cognitive knowledge? The God described (accurately) by Gustafson cannot be known cognitively, but can be known experientially. The Prophet (Isaiah) repeatedly reports God’s claim that he created the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, and that is why we can trust his power to accomplish his word and to save. Does this connect the incomprehensible God of Gustafson to the personal God of Jesus? Many, perhaps most astronomers now consider that the universe is infinite. Even those who consider it to be finite describe the distances between stars and galaxies in terms that are incomprehensible. What good does it do us to realize that? If the universe is incomprehensible, how much more incomprehensible the Creator of it? And how fantastic to be loved by Him?

  • I think it helps to regard the Scriptures as in invitation to ponder how we continue the story of God’s interaction with us and God’s invitation to participate in the great enterprise of life with God. Not to know and understand, but to be known and loved, and thus not be intimidated by the vastness of the mystery. To me, Jesus sums up our part in the two great commandments, to love God and others. Then the understanding we need comes, and gives us life and hope. Thank you for a good piece about the mystery, Steve.

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    Lovely. Thanks for this, Steve.

  • Agnes Fisher says:

    I understand the struggle when confronted with the immensity of the universe. But I have a problem with the phrase “the God Jesus believed in”. Wasn’t, he God incarnate? Didn’t he refer to himself as ‘ I am”? How can he believe in a God he is (trinity).

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Beautiful, Steve. This reminds me of the final line in George Herbert’s “Love” (III): “So I did sit, and eat.”

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