Violence, nebulae and God

Re-post from 2014

I thoroughly enjoyed watching a National Geographic science documentary the other day. It’s called Journey to the Edge of the Universe. If you want to watch it, it’s here. As I watched, I quickly realized the narrator was dancing along the precipice of despair before the apparent heartlessness of vast cosmic violence. It seemed apt, facing the void, to involve a Sazerac to make the viewing experience more pleasant.

What struck me most in this visually dazzling documentary was the absolutely astonishing size, complexity, beauty, dynamism, violence and tireless evolution of the universe. The serenity of the night sky is indeed deceptive! The feeling I took away from this 90 minute cosmic tour de force could be best captured by one word: sublime. The meaning of sublime is buried in its Latin roots: sub “up to” + limen “threshold.” What is sublime is that which lifts us up to the threshold of something greater than what we presently know. For me, almost more than anything else, Hubble’s telescopic views of creation lift me up to the threshold of God’s spoken Word in Genesis 1:3, the same Word we met face to face in John 1:14. These images, when you pray with them, become cosmic icons that open within me a capacious sense of wonder, awe and holy fear. The words of my Jewish physics professor in college come to mind. He blurted out in the middle of his science lecture, speaking to sleepy college students:

How can you all be bored, when all around you is a world that didn’t have to exist at all, but does? Something rather than nothing! That’s enough to get me stuck on ‘wow’ for a thousand years!

After the documentary was over, I was alone. So I went outside and prayed in our backyard and wrote down a few brief thoughts. I will share them here:

Those ancient cycles of a star’s birth, violent death and rebirth seem to be the main plot of the cosmic story. I could not help but see in that story the opening of an intelligible space, a narrative framework for the economy of God’s redemptive incarnation within our cosmos — in the form of His own birth, violent death and rebirth. Somehow, it seems, the paschal mystery has been written into creation from its very foundations.

I recall as I sit here a Scripture professor I had during my graduate studies in theology. He shared a really remarkable insight that seems relevant to this point I’m making. He argued that the Israelite understanding of God was strikingly singular among ancient pagan theologies. Why? They made the unconditional claim that the God of Israel, unlike the no-god idols of their pagan neighbors, is absolutely uncontrollable by man. We don’t carve images of Him, only He can carve His own image: us. Israel’s God could not be manipulated, but was bound only to Himself. “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe” (Deuteronomy 10:17). So it was, our prof said, only appropriate that He would first reveal Himself to Abram as a nomad in a wilderness, in deserts, in wastelands, precisely because He Himself is unequivocally wild and unchained. Free.

In addition, by virtue of being without origin, God is unique among the near eastern gods, all of whom have a “theogony,” a story of origins. Genesis is unique in that it begins with the story of the world’s beginning, but with no story of a divine beginning. Israel’s beginning-less God is also without limit, totally unique and incomparably holy. These characteristics, my professor said, set a certain ambiance for the encounter of creatures with their Creator. To enter into His immediate presence was to risk terror, awe, holy fear and, ultimately, annihilation (cf Exodus 33:20). That said, the God of Israel showed Himself passionately desirous to embark on an “exodus” out of His terrifying transcendence in order to stoop down in compassion and join Himself in covenant love to His lowly and fragile creatures. St. Maximus the Confessor expressed this so eloquently:

…the Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supra-essential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquished His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things…

The New Testament brings this story to its unimaginable apogee as the Most High God seems to mute, attenuate His irrepressibly volcanic core by means of what St. Paul calls His kenosis, “self-emptying” (Philippians 2:7). In Jesus we see revealed the self-emptying, self-effacing humility of Israel’s God who renders Himself vulnerable to human access (cf John 19:34; Hebrews 12:18-24). Israel’s horizonless nomadic desert God, whose limitless and explosive glory once erupted into countless stars, nebulae and black holes descéndit de cælis, “came down from heaven” into a tiny womb. Jesus of Nazareth, God tenting among us. Stripped of His Almighty glory, dreaming of us in a Crib and on a Cross, He entered our universe to allure us into the safe abode of His infinitely tender love and re-create the creation in a final act of rebirth.

Later that same evening, near sunset, I went fishing at the lake nearby with my daughter. As we fished in the murky waters, increasingly blackened by the setting of the sun, I asked her what she liked most about fishing. “It’s fun,” she said, “and it’s scary-exciting to wait for something to take the lure when I can’t make it come. Just waiting in suspense. And I like that you know and you don’t know what’s under that water. That’s freaky cool.”

A new definition of faith: “The scary-exciting wait for a freaky-cool God whom I cannot force to come to me, whom I know and don’t know. I know He is coming, but I don’t know when or how.”

That’s the real thrill of faith that makes all other mysteries pale…

16 comments on “Violence, nebulae and God

  1. […] What struck me most was the astonishing size, complexity, …read more […]

    • Ed Schrtoeder says:

      Great piece, Tom. I especially enjoyed the concluding remarks, quoting your daughter as the two of you fished on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

      Have enjoyed all your piece since signing on earlier in the week.

      Ed Schroeder
      Tallahassee, FL

  2. Brian Butler says:


    I have been enjoying every line of every single blog you write! You have a sublime gift. Thank you for, through your words, sharing mystery and wonder with us over the God that comes to us in the things that we know… And surprises us with his explosively just and simultaneously tender and merciful love. I hope you write books one day…


    • Thank you, Brian — to hear that my words help furnish a home for God in others’ hearts is what keeps me writing. Thank you for your own boundless energy and labor in making God’s amazing love known, especially to the young; and especially to my children. -Tom

  3. WoopieCushion says:

    I need to go to the chapel and ask forgiveness and then I need a Sazerac!

  4. Dismas Dancing says:

    “Freaky-cool” post. When our youngest son was still in high school, we lived in the High Desert of southern California. Away from the drowning lights of a big city, one could walk a few steps out the back door and get a breathtaking view of the cosmos impossible to see nearer “civilization”. For Christmas, he asked for, and received, a high-quality telescope with which he could, and did, spend hours observing the heavens one could view with that device. A literal sponge for knowledge and armed with an insatiable curiosity of all things scientific, he learned much and patiently taught his Dad much I might not have learned were it not for the bond we developed during my two-year tour in the desert.

    In his sophomore year, he was required to do a biology project. From a reluctant teacher he obtained permission to do a photo-documentary of the flora in the Mojave Desert surrounding us. For a couple of months we wandered the seemingly “dead” desert within a twenty-five mile radius circle around us. Because it had rained a good deal the prior year, a truly rare amount, the desert was radiantly alive. Throughout our sojourn, we were captivated by brilliant flowers from an indescribable–and frankly unbelievable–number of cacti, trees, bushes, “weeds”, and things we never expected to reveal themselves as “alive”, or even capable of life, in such a hostile environment.

    We accumulated nearly 10,000 photos, of which 200 were selected, made into slides, placed in a carousel, and presented as his completed science project. It drew the highest grade and endless “kudos” from his teacher for the quality and variety of the photos, and for the quality of the documentation he included in the presentation. Both my son and I were obviously proud, But the “real deal” was not the pride, it was the awesome sense of God’s presence in all of that, graced with the bonus of a father and his son reveling in each other while bathing in the eternal richness of God’s magnificent creation. That God has allowed mankind to develop machines with which to view and behold that creation in a way never before possible is indeed “freaky-cool”. Your daughter’s comments so remind me of my own son and his ability to capture in a few simple words the awesome God who gave us “permission” to see Him through the works of His Almighty Hand. I grieve for those who cannot or will not allow themselves the beauty of that privilege.

    Thanks, my friend. And to your prescient daughter. Bein’ a father is great, isn’t it?

    • Dismas Dancing says:

      As a quick postscript: Unfortunately, his entire presentation was destroyed along with our home during Hurricane Ivan in 2004. I occasionally think back on that project and the time my son and I were able to spend doing it together and wish that I could once again go through it and simply remember.

  5. Dismas Dancing says:

    Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa. In my post I said we took 10,000 photos. Not Quite! One too many zeroes. I would guess that most professionals get close to 10,000 in a career. I apologize for the misleading number. Peace!

    • Thank you for your script, your post-script and your re-script! I love your words, may I never tire of saying, and am grateful you share them here with our readers and me. I feel like I know you through your posts, and am thankful for that. God bless you and your beautiful family, DD! Pax!

      • Dismas Dancing says:

        I cannot tell you how much your gracious comments are appreciated. Sensing the bread and depth of your knowledge and the HOW of your enrichment of the prospective priests to whom you impart those gifts makes your generosity even more special. That said, you do me so much honor I have forced myself into extra recitations of Cardinal Merry Delvalle’s “Litany of Humility” (he offers with a smidgen of tongue-in-cheek). Otherwise, I might delve too deeply into the thought that I am something other than a wretched sinner allowed the privilege of sharing precious moments in life with those who might listen. I have much more to offer but will not include it here. I’ll forward it under separate cover to the address you provided in another reply.

        Thank you so much, again, for your gracious comments. God’s blessings my friend. Et Cum Spiritu Tuo!

  6. Jennifer says:

    For some incomprehensible reason I was, until quite recently, completely oblivious to the fact that images such as the one you posted at the top of this post, were images from the Hubble telescope (colour detail added to enhance our perception as the images captured are often beyond the visible range of the light spectrum – fascinating explanation of how it all works beginning here, in case anyone is interested:
    Somehow I just thought these images were all just the fantastical, computerized renderings of an incredibly imaginative artist.
    Imagine my shock when I realized that these are in fact pictures of our actual universe. And that the incredibly imaginative artist is the same one who weaves deoxyribonucleic acid into double helices inside each of our cells; who put electrons into orbit around every atom’s nucleus; who indwells our souls; who endowed us with intellect and will to perceive and comprehend and appreciate and seek out such beauty!
    Glory to God in the highest highest highest and beyond!

  7. nos... says:

    Why ,,, why ,,, why,,, GOD… ahhh the mystery of it all… reminds me of our friend Micheal whom I use to tell if I ever made it to heaven I had 10,000 questions for GOD… he said ,but it won’t matter then … when we would get talking to people he would inform them that upon arrival to heaven if they viewed a very very very long line lea d ing up to GOD that they should steer clear because it was me only up to question number two

    P.S. after this blog dr. Kneel I’m up to 10,001

    • Michael says:

      NOS, Only one question. “Why the armadillo?”. The beauty of creation will one day be revealed to us when we stand in the presence of our Creator. Thank you Tom for this blog!

  8. nos says:

    Micheal,,, I thought your question was why the dinosaurs… laughing out loud really hard … I love you my friend with much humility I know your enduring …P.B.W.Y.A.A. My brother…

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