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…