BACK in 1952, J. B. Phillips wrote Your God is Too Small. In the book, he took pot-shots at some of the shrunken images of God popular in post-war Britain: God as policeman, old man in the sky, remote manager. Johannes Hartl revisits a similar terrain, investigating today’s culturally captive pictures of God.
Hartl is founder of the Augsburg House of Prayer in Germany, and a leading figure in Roman Catholic Charismatic circles. Between the 1950s and today, he notes, there has been a seismic shift in our culture and expressions of faith. Today, we are obsessed with self-esteem and discovering our true selves. The result is a me-centred faith, in which theology is reduced to anthropology, morality to tolerance, and spirituality to narcissism.
In his preface, Hartl recalls a wild sea storm that he experienced on the Athos Peninsula of Greece. It threw all his plans into confusion. His description is powerful and evocative, vividly translated from the German. The sea, Hartl says, is fierce and dangerous, and mocks human illusions of control and security. Hence Hartl’s image of the person of faith: an island-dweller, living close to an unruly sea.
This image alone is worth the price of the book. The coronavirus pandemic has been a potent reminder to many that there are forces in nature beyond our control, indifferent to human pretentions. Hartl’s evocation of an untamed sea was written before current events, but turns out to be an apt metaphor for our times.
Most of the book highlights ways in which today’s spirituality thrives on illusions of control and security, and how we avoid themes that make us uncomfortable: judgement, death, holiness, sin. The author invites the reader to embrace a more unpredictable faith, one rooted in awe and astonishment.
Hartl’s case is stirring and lyrical. But his call to rediscover the otherness of the biblical God raises huge questions that he only partly explores. He looks at the Book of Job, noting how everything human-centred in it falls away: comfort, health, dogmatic theologies. All that remains is raw encounter with the untamed God.
Yes. But how do you trust a God who is quite so infuriatingly untamed, one who hides, goes silent, ignores your questions, and thinks that a nature documentary is an adequate response to years of pain? How do you pray to that sort of God? As Teresa of Ávila ruefully reflected, “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few.”
The Revd Mike Starkey is Head of Church Growth for Manchester diocese and author of the Faith Pictures course.
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