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Big God, Little God

We believe in a big God. An infinite, all-powerful, all-present God who created the universe with a Word. He stands outside creation and his glory and power far surpass anything within that creation.

We believe in a personal God. A God who resides here among us, is intimately involved in the daily happenings of our life, and watches over those who trust in his care.

We can blow our mind trying to wrap it around both concepts at once. Our understanding of God only takes us so far and our limits in understanding mean we must, for the moment, be content to walk by faith and not by sight. And theological jargon -- words like omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent -- do not really add anything to our understanding of a personal God who dwells among us. On the other hand, singing "We have a friend in Jesus" only detracts from the incomprehensible infinity that characterizes the almighty God.

Thankfully, we find in scripture that both concepts -- God as transcendent and God as immanent -- are utterly true at the same time.

We see this often in the Bible, beginning in the opening two chapters of Genesis, which describe the creation of earth and the heavens. The two chapters have differing outlooks on the nature of that creation, so much so scholars sometimes have described the two creation stories as deriving from two different sources, with two conflicting perspectives. These two stories, according to the scholars, were combined by an editor who may or may not have grasped the extent of the distinctions.

There is, however, another view of the two creation stories. Instead of being arbitrarily and clumsily combined by a marginally competent editor, the two chapters are purposefully and artistically linked to reveal God as both beyond and within creation at the same time. This God speaks reality into existence and creates light before actually creating the source of the light. The beauty of chapter one is vividly seen in the structure of the creation event, which begins as "unformed and unfilled." Then in days one through three God forms the sky, waters, and earth, and in days four through six He fills the sky, waters, and earth, culminating in the creation of mankind. Modern discussions of evolution and creation only detract from the literary artistry of the chapter and miss the point of God's transcendence over creation entirely.

Chapter two, rather than being a conflicting tradition of creation, presents a conflicting view of God that intends for the reader to grapple with the Lord's immanence in the lives of man (Adam) and woman (Eve). The Lord gets in creation, literally digging his hands in the dirt and shaping a new creature into which he breathes life-giving breath. The conflict here is not that one picture of God is true and the other false, but that both of these descriptions of who God is can be accurate portrayals.

God is beyond us, infinitely beyond us. He is wholly other. At the same time, the Lord is here with us, and like us, He has hands that get dirty and a mouth that breathes. We can relate to him while at the same time we must bow to him as infinitely more worthy.

We should not fall into the trap of thinking it is easy to reconcile these two portraits of God. The power of human reason -- we believe -- allows us to comprehend how an infinite God can limit his power to work inside creation. He's just a big God who dares to become little on our behalf.

Or so we think.

That kind of thinking only shows we have not really come to grips with the idea of infinity. Even as a mathematical term, infinity in human minds is practically the same thing as a really big version of finite reality.

No, infinity must be just that. Infinite. Infinity times infinity, as we learn in the commercial for car insurance, is simple bigger than ordinary infinity. Except it isn't. Infinity is beyond us. Unreachable. Try to imagine infinite space. We can't picture the universe with edges, but we can't grasp what an infinite universe means.

So with God, we can't really see him, not without significant anthropomorphism. Any concept of God in our mind must be anthropomorphic. We can only imagine God in human terms, because that is all we have. And that is exactly what God give us, an anthropomorphic picture of himself. One that is entirely true. He has hands. He gets them dirty. He breathes. He walks in the cool of the garden. He talks with Adam. He asks where Adam and Eve are hiding.

And at the same time, God is this wholly other creator, all powerful, and beyond our ability to conceive of what He is.

This is where both traditional as well as emerging theologies miss the mark. They hold to one side of God's reality and deny the existential truth of the other side. The solution, according to the opening two chapters of Genesis, is to believe God is infinite and personal, transcendent and immanent, beyond and with our reach at the same time.