How Big Is Your God? by Paul Coutinho, SJ

howbigisyourgod.jpgHow Big Is Your God? walks a fine line between new age psychobabble and useful exploration of spirituality.  Written by a Jesuit priest who raised in India, it is a mix of Eastern Religious experiences, Ignatian spirituality, and psychology.  Coutinho also brings an interest in Christian mysticism to the mix.

As a rather orthodox Protestant Christian I have to say I found the exercise somewhat problematic.  I certainly wouldn’t give this book to a new Christian or someone not grounded in the faith.  But it does offer some useful and thought provoking ways of thinking about faith and a relationship with God.

Coutinho is very much in the “religion often gets in the way of a relationship with God” camp.  Most of the first half of the book is about how ritual and tradition can’t be a substitute for a deep seeking after God.  He outlines various approaches to religion that can become calcified and prevent us from being open to an experience with the divine; to a real encounter with God.  Is is worth acknowledging that God is bigger than our attempts to conceptualize Him.

Even if you don’t agree with his approach or his answers it is useful to think about your faith in this way.  We all bring our cultural and personal baggage to our faith.  How we were raised, the liturgy and symbolism of our particular denomination and church, etc.  It is useful to think about how these factors impact and even warp our understanding and relationship with God.

Coutinho also usefully explores ideas like love, freedom, and suffering through the lens of faith and the divine.  He brings a stoical but compassionate tone to these subjects.  He gently outlines how modern notions of freedom and happiness lead us away from a relationship with God.

If there is a weakness to his approach it is that all of this can seem a little ephemeral at times.  It is one thing to think about these mystical, spiritual, and psychological subjects it is quite another to connect them to your daily life.  Coutinho’s short chapters and anecdotal style often leave you in the clouds without a more practical grounding.

The fact that the book is made up of nearly fifty very small chapters (the book is only 150 pages) adds to this.  It ends up being a collection of mini-essays and thus lacks the coherence that a more structured book might bring.

The other aspect that could be worrying, depending on your perspective, is the lack of clear orthodoxy.  Coutinho is clearly devoted to his church and his faith, but at times it is unclear that he expects this from others.  Taken too far this mystical approach to God leaves you with a vague spirituality that allows each person to create their own faith.  As long as you are seeking to experience the divine – however defined or constructed – you are on the right spiritual path.  Obviously, Christians who believe doctrine and theology matter will be concerned about this danger.

If you are interested in different approaches to faith and spirituality, however, I am sure you would find How Big Is Your God? interesting.  The book certainly offers a challenge to think about your approach to God and to not be tied down by an over-dependence on tradition or liturgical practices or faulty assumptions about faith.  But those struggling to live out their faith in daily life may be frustrated with the lack of more practical applications and those concerned about orthodoxy may be troubled by its almost new age perspective.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your fair views on Fr. Paul’s teachings. He gave a winter retreat and my parish the weekend and was very popular. I went home the first night and was very troubled by what he was saying. It is my opinion that this is New Age teaching. I felt he watered down the Sacraments and like you, would be a very misleading to a new or seaking Christian. Lets pray for him.

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