December 17, 2017

Sundays with Michael Spencer: July 26, 2015

Carina Nebula Details: Great Clouds

Carina Nebula Details: Great Clouds

Note from CM: You will find a link to the HubbleSite in our Links list as well as in this post. I encourage you to go there often and “consider the heavens.”

 • • •

One of my life-long loves is astronomy. I’ve owned some very nice telescopes, and I’ve spent many a clear, cold winter night out on someone’s farm, looking at the glories of the heavens. Since I was a child of the golden age of the space program, my interest in astronomy and NASA made me a big fan of the Hubble Space Telescope. My students are quite used to me refering to my favorite Hubble photographs, and getting a bit glassy-eyed about the vast universe that Hubble brings into view through its photos. The beauty of the Hubble photos continues to be a delight for me, and I can never get enough of those that show dozens of galaxies filling a photo the size of a postcard. It’s quite astonishing.

When I look at Hubble’s pictures, I get some idea — a very paltry one — of the vastness and greatness of the universe. The miniscule fact of all earthly concerns fills my mind. I realize that I am far less than dust. There is really no calculation as to how small I am, and how insignificant I am, in such a vast and majestic universe as we glimpse through Hubble’s mirror. What we cansee is awe-inspiring, but it is less than a sliver — less than a grain of dust — of what we cannot see.

Hubble has always been a deeply theological hobby for me, because the men who wrote lines about “the heavens declare the glory of God,” had no idea what they were actually saying. Hubble deepens and further exalts the greatness of God. It magnifies the miracle of the incarnation. It inspires worship at the being that would call such a universe into existence and sustain it by the word of His power.

Contemplating the universe revealed in the Hubble photos, those of us who believe in the personal God revealed in Jesus must be, if we are at all cognizant of what we are seeing, brought to a kind of worshipful silence and humility. The God who created this universe, and who holds it in the palm of his hand like I hold a drop of water in my own, has presented himself to me in the person of Jesus. He has brought the mind that conceived the mysteries of this universe to express itself in the words and teachings of Jesus. He has brought the power that sustains such a universe into our world in those tiny demonstrations of power we call “miracles.”

I will admit that meditating on the Hubble photos plays havoc with my understanding of theology. The Bible was written in a pre-scientific culture. Despite the valiant attempts of my Creationist friends to rescue the Bible as a book of literal science, I increasingly see that the Bible delivers its story to us in the language of people who simply could not have fathomed what Hubble is showing us. The greatness of God was measured in stars that were mysterious powers in the firmament and the power demonstrated in weather and earthquake. Hubble shows us a God who spins galaxies into existence with the ease and delight of a child throwing sand into the air; a God who continually paints his universe with the tapestries of nebulae that surpass any Michelangelo.

I realize that the heart of reality, however, is not the depth and beauties of space. The heart of reality is the God revealed in Jesus. The story of the Prodigal Son takes me deeper into God’s universe than any telescope or space probe. The cross and resurrection show me more of the essence of reality than can be seen in the information gathered by any ingenious human instrument.

The imagery of Hubble has also affected my theology in another way. More and more, my books of theology seem comically inadequate. The theological debates that populate the blogosphere — debates that feature an endless string of experts so confident in their ideas about God that all variation from their opinions is a rejection of God’s own truth — can easily take on the character of children viciously arguing about matters of which they can know only the vaguest crumbs of reality. My outlines of “systematic” theology and my certainties on how God views every issue seem remarkably pallid.

Jet in the Carina Nebula

Jet in the Carina Nebula

In fact, the very notion that theologians, in all their various expertise, have reduced the God of the Hubble photographs down to their personal collection of words, is laughable to me anymore. Is God — this God? the God of this majestic universe — sorting out eternal fellowship with or exclusion from Himself based on whether I agree with the language of some denomination’s description of something called justification or some other doctrine we deem essential? Do my words and conceptions determine the extent to which I am taken in by the grace of such a God? Is Jesus really all about the message of “You better get it right?”

I am convinced that every person who met Jesus was utterly, deeply, life-alteringly convinced that God loved him/her with the love of a Father for his very own child. “This is beloved child; with you I am well-pleased.” I do not know what those first persons who met Jesus thought about many other things, but I have no doubt that every person who encountered Jesus realized that God’s love for him/her was unshakable and unending. Lepers. Adultresses. Fishermen. Tax collectors. Teenagers. Grandmothers. Rabbis. Demon oppressed. Gentiles. Women. Samaritans. Everyone. They all walked away knowing that God loved them in and through Jesus, and that all they needed to do was receive this love, and not reject it. (Amazingly, there were those who not only walked away, but insisted on killing Jesus and his God of relentless love.)

This is what the God who made the universe, the galaxies and my life wants me to know. It is the love of God taking hold of me in the Word, Jesus. It is his teaching. It is his example. It is his stories. It is his exorcisms. It is his miracles. It is his suffering. It is his cross and resurrection. It is his call to his disciples to live in through, with and by this Love of God. The God of the Hubble photos wants me to know this, and to live generously serving Him and die fearlessly trusting in Him because of Jesus.

My friends will notice I am debating theology less these days. The team sport of theological jousting is less interesting that those Hubble pictures…and the one who created all that is in them. I am caring about Jesus more as life grows longer. I look at my shelves of books, and I listen to the endless debates over this theology or that theologian or another interpretation of a scripture. I am told, constantly, that all depends on embracing someone’s theology.

I cannot believe it. I do not believe the God who created and became incarnation leaves it up to me to think the right thoughts; to be a proper and correct theologian. I believe this God came to earth in Jesus, loved me, and gave Himself that I might know him and freely receive his salvation. The Bible is the story of this God, introducing himself to us human language and culture through the story of Israel, but always setting the stage for the time that He, himself, would come to this little blue planet and show us that the Word has been made flesh, and how those who receive Him are now and forever, the children of God.

Forgive my absence from the latest debate. I am looking at my Hubble pictures, and thinking of God.

Comments

  1. Stephen says:

    weaver’s fingers flying on the loom
    patterns shift too fast to be discerned
    all these years of thinking
    ended up like this
    in front of all this beauty
    Understanding nothing

    -Bruce Cockburn, Understanding Nothing

    I hope that everyone at least once in their life has the experience of being overwhelmed by the sheer reality of the universe; all your ideas and concepts pushed aside; standing naked in front of all that is; understanding nothing. At that point true humility begins.

    • Robert F says:

      Once Only

      almost at the equator
      almost at the equinox
      exactly at midnight
      from a ship
      the full

      moon

      in the center of the sky.

      –Gary Snyder

    • flatrocker says:

      “That rug really tied the room together”
      The Dude

    • Great song, great thought. No words say what silence holds onto.

    • StuartB says:

      That sentiment is something I often hear from people who take LSD or drop acid. As if it rewires their brain, for the better, and they are immediately humbled and left changed forever.

      In some ways, it sounds like a christian conversion experience, especially from charismatics. Which leaves those of us who grew up in the faith from a young age, and never had that experience, feeling left out and second class.

      And I’m done chasing it.

  2. Robert F says:

    RAMAPO

    I stand
    atop an outcropping of rock,
    on which someone has etched
    God is where you are,
    suspended above
    green treetops that
    stretch out in rolling hills
    and mountains to the horizon,
    clear blue sky
    in my face,
    alone above everyone
    and everything
    for as far as I can see,
    with nothing, really, to say.

  3. Michael got it. So did Julian of Norwich, but with something smaller than the universe:

    And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

    In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially “oned” to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.

  4. Amazingly, there were those who not only walked away, but insisted on killing Jesus and his God of relentless love.

    Because God and Jesus did conform to their expectations. And of course, it was impossible for expectations to have been wrong, because correct theology. And a slight personality flaw called Pride.

  5. The oh-so-accurate picture of theologians as eight year old boys arguing with their “vast personal knowledge” the mystery of marriage is priceless in the picture it paints.

    And, as an aside, of COURSE God’s artist work surpasses Michelangelo, since HE created the mind, vision, and talent of that fine artist.

    • StuartB says:

      Reminds me of Bill Gothard, lol.

      Imagine God creating an artist so talented that even He is amazed and humbled and delighted by what that artist creates. I think we see a little bit of that in the Bible. I think it still happens today.

      When your children go on to do greater and better things that even if you have done…how can you not be delighted?

      • Very interesting thought Stuart. Is God touched (affected hence changed) by us? Do we add joy to the source of all joy? Can He, the author of humility, feel humility in light of a human action? My thought for some time now has been an emphatic yes. What would be the point otherwise? Jesus said, “no longer do I call you servants but friends.” I think that is a great revelation about our relationship to God and as such a giant revelation about God’s personhood as it relates to us people. It means there is a level of symbiosis. It means we have something to share. It doesn’t make him a tiny person like us begins the process of elevation on our part; the lifelong process. The springs of virtue that are God turn out to spring forth in part from us. Who and what we are is of significance.

        • StuartB says:

          The idea that I’m staunchly opposed to is that there is nothing we can do that rivals or exheeds anything God does or did. That just doesn’t fly with the Bible and the world we live in and the nature of God’s character.

          It’s a theological Jesus Juke, etc. And utterly false, but often spoken with the best intentions.

      • Rick Ro. says:

        Today in my adult Sunday school class, I asked this question: “What things seem to amaze Jesus?”

        One thing for sure: Faith of others. Here is Jesus, in response to the Roman centurion’s faith:
        ” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him…” (Luke 7:9)

        So yes…I think even God and Jesus are amazed and surprised by us, and in a good way.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Imagine God creating an artist so talented that even He is amazed and humbled and delighted by what that artist creates.

        In the Ainulindale, that was how Middle-Earth was created.

  6. Rick Ro. says:

    There’s so much that’s good in this. A very well-written and crafted piece, where each paragraph leads to the next in an argument that become clear and insightful: God is bigger than all our theologies that put him in a box.

    Loved this:
    “In fact, the very notion that theologians, in all their various expertise, have reduced the God of the Hubble photographs down to their personal collection of words, is laughable to me anymore. Is God — this God? the God of this majestic universe — sorting out eternal fellowship with or exclusion from Himself based on whether I agree with the language of some denomination’s description of something called justification or some other doctrine we deem essential? Do my words and conceptions determine the extent to which I am taken in by the grace of such a God? Is Jesus really all about the message of ‘You better get it right?'”

    • David Cornwell says:

      And the idea that one set of Christians with an individual collection of words that are superior to the “others” will resort to force of arms to achieve agreement proves only that our vision of God is so very limited and very small indeed. And when our actions and invitations reflect such a God, then our vision has failed.

      • Rick Ro. says:

        Today in my adult Sunday school class I asked the question, “What should we make of good fruit from non-believers and bad fruit from believers?” (referencing Luke 6:43-45) It was an interesting discussion. But clearly bad fruit from believers comes from not being fully attached to the Jesus vine.

        • Rick Ro. says:

          “…bad fruit from believers comes from not being fully attached to the Jesus vine.”

          Which means being attached to something OTHER than the Jesus vine, such as a theology, a leader, religiosity, the Law.

          • StuartB says:

            Alternatively…you don’t need to be attached to Jesus at all for good fruit. And you can be fully attached to Jesus and get bad fruit.

            Do we really believe Paul is saying that *only* by being attached to Jesus/the Holy Spirit do we ever get love, joy, peace…etc? Because…I can think of a lot of things that prove him wrong. IF that’s what he meant.

          • Actually, my thought regarding the idea of good fruit being produced by non-believers is that perhaps they’re attached to Jesus without even knowing it. That could be why Jesus-shaped concepts appear in secular movies and music. Food for thought that may or may not be right or truth…

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            A few years ago here at IMonk (on a thread about Jesus Junk merchandising), someone related a private revelation that Christainese “creative arts” had dropped the ball so bad God was now removing his mantle from them (“Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uparshin”) and bestowing it upon secular movies, music, and other creative arts. Since the Christianese “artists” didn’t say what God wanted said, now the “secular” ones would.

        • StuartB says:

          Would the inverse also be true?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Is God — this God? the God of this majestic universe — sorting out eternal fellowship with or exclusion from Himself based on whether I agree with the language of some denomination’s description of something called justification or some other doctrine we deem essential?

      After too much time in-country at Wartburg Watch, I can’t help think of the Young, Restless, and Really Truly Reformed Calvinjugend when I read that. After all, didn’t Calvin have God All Figured Out in his Institutes? TULIP, TULIP, TULIP?

      Or Ken Ham’s YEC Uber Alles.
      Or Hal Lindsay’s End Times Rapture Checklist.
      Or Penetrate/Colonize/Conquer/Plant Wilson and Slavery.
      Or Complementarianism (Male Supremacy — WOMAN, SUBMIT!) even claiming the same boot-on-face relationship between Father & Son in the Trinity.

  7. Christiane says:

    “I saw Eternity the other night,
    Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
    All calm, as it was bright;
    And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
    Driv’n by the spheres
    Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
    And all her train were hurl’d. . . . ”

    Henry Vaughan, Welsh metaphysical poet (1621-1695),
    an excerpt from his poem ‘The World’

    for shear beauty of vision, Vaughan remains a personal favorite
    . . . if nothing more than for his phrase alone:
    “a great ring of pure and endless light”
    so strangely evocative of the great nebulae that give birth to stars as photographed by Hubble

  8. Ronald Avra says:

    As Michael noted, “It magnifies the miracle of the incarnation.” I hope and expect in some measure to experience the person of Jesus of Nazereth, but he will be forever beyond my understanding.

    • “It magnifies the miracle of the incarnation.” It’s interesting that, for many other Christians, this reaction (which I share!) to the spatial and aesthetic dimensions of the cosmos does NOT extend to the temporal dimensions laid bare by modern science.

      On the one hand, there’s often the “Jesus juke” that HUG brought up the other day: any mention of the vastness of the cosmos must immediately be followed by mention of God’s greatness or else one is dropping the ball. On the other hand, put the word “years” after the word “billion” and you’ll have a fight on your hands.

      How big is God? How big and wide His vast domain? A: Billions of light-years x thousands of actual years. It’s a box neither big nor small, but oddly thin. Whatever the dimensions of the boxes we all build, like you said, this Jesus of Nazareth will forever be beyond our understanding, yet we hope to experience Him in some deeper way.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        How big is God? How big and wide His vast domain?

        Sagans and Sagans.

        And the most important thing is no matter how big or wide or great, the Incarnation means God remains on a one-to-one human scale. There’s no need to put God in a box (or Punyverse) small enough to be understandable, He remains so regardless.

  9. That Other Jean says:

    The Word of God
    Catherine Faber, 1994

    There are those who name the stars, who watch the sky by night,
    Seeking out the darkest place, to better see the light.
    Long ago, when torture broke the remnant of his will,
    Galileo recanted, but the Earth is moving still.
    High above the mountaintops, where only distance bars,
    The truth has left its footprints in the dust between the stars.
    We may watch and study or may shudder and deny,
    Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the sky.

    • Christiane says:

      beautiful! thank you

    • Fantastic poem — not sure about how much Galileo actually suffered at the hands of the Inquisition beyond house arrest — but a great poem all the same.

      • That Other Jean says:

        If I remember a long-ago history course, Galileo was only shown instruments of torture and threatened. He was frightened enough that he recanted his belief that the earth moved around the sun. Doesn’t affect how much I like the poem, though. The bit I quoted is only an excerpt; the whole poem is seriously worth reading, and I think it has been set to music.

        • Thanks, Jean. That’s what I gather about Galileo too — it would have worked on me, that’s for sure! And it certainly doesn’t affect the poem for me either — it’s really good stuff there.

          In any case, I’ll look up the full poem — sort of reminds me of the Robinson poem I posted below.

          Thanks again!

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          If I remember a long-ago history course, Galileo was only shown instruments of torture and threatened.

          That was part of normal judicial proceedings at the time. Show the defendant the instruments of torture, describe their use (on him) in great detail, then let him think it over for 24 hours and see if he cracks.

  10. StuartB says:

    I am convinced that every person who met Jesus was utterly, deeply, life-alteringly convinced that God loved him/her with the love of a Father for his very own child. “This is beloved child; with you I am well-pleased.”

    This right here is a fundamental idea that I lack and have never had. And I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of a church that preaches it strongly enough for it to sink in to me. It’s all head knowledge, there is no deep felt heart knowledge or sense of this.

    And maybe that’s one of the big scandals of fundamentalism/evangelicalism, and one of the still core tenets of the mainline. When you stop at Law, you will never have love. Love will never be the fulfillment of the Law. And when you are dotting I’s, crossing T’s, and tithing your mint and parsley, what love can you conjure up for those you disagree with and formally expel and will not fellowship with?

    I posted this on the FB group, and it’s worth posting again. You can see all of the 20th and 21st century laid out in this sermon. Every argument, every split, every deviation. You can see the grace, and you can see the law. You can see the love…and you can see the hate.

    http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5070/

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Part of that 1922 sermon down the link that stood out to me:

      In such an hour, delicate and dangerous, when feelings are bound to run high, I plead this morning the cause of magnanimity and liberality and tolerance of spirit. I would, if I could reach their ears, say to the Fundamentalists about the liberals what Gamaliel said to the Jews, “Refrain from these men and let them alone; for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will be everthrown; but if it is of God ye will not be able to overthrow them; lest haply ye be found even to be fighting against God.”

  11. StuartB says:

    I cannot believe it.

    Amen.

    Amen.

    I miss Michael. I wish I had been myself now while he was still around.

  12. Not precisely where Michael was in his own journey, to be sure, but Edwin Arlington Robinson hits a few of the same notes in his “Credo”:

    I cannot find my way: there is no star
    In all the shrouded heavens anywhere;
    And there is not a whisper in the air
    Of any living voice but one so far
    That I can hear it only as a bar
    Of lost, imperial music, played when fair
    And angel fingers wove, and unaware,
    Dead leaves to garlands where no roses are.

    No, there is not a glimmer, nor a call,
    For one that welcomes, welcomes when he fears,
    The black and awful chaos of the night;
    For through it all–above, beyond it all–
    I know the far sent message of the years,
    I feel the coming glory of the light.

    • Robert F says:

      On the basis of this post, one must suppose that Michael’s answer to the question, “What do I need to know or do to be saved?”, would be a Zen-like one: “Nothing special.” I’m very much in sympathy with that answer. It’s an answer that tells us to close the theology books, to put away the personal intellectual schemata for redemption, and to start paying attention to the world around us, whether in its manifestation as the galaxy upstairs, or the spouse sitting next to us, or the annoying neighbor next-door or you name it. The world is the thing, your life is the thing. All that “correct” theology will send you down dead ends chasing phantoms, and prevent you from seeing the miracle of life, the mystery of existence, right in front of you. Yes, Michael, yes.

      • David Cornwell says:

        “tells us to close the theology books, to put away the personal intellectual schemata for redemption, and to start paying attention to the world around us,”

        Yes.

    • Damaris says:

      “I feel the coming glory of the light.” Wow! I love that line — the whole poem, in fact. It’s quite different from Robinson’s most commonly anthologized pieces. Thanks, Trevis — and everyone else who has posted poetry.

  13. Dana Ames says:

    The Spacious Firmament on high,
    With all the blue Ethereal Sky,
    And spangled Heav’ns, a Shining Frame,
    Their great Original proclaim.
    Th’ unwearied Sun, from day to day,
    Does his Creator’s Pow’r display,
    And publishes to every Land
    The Work of an Almighty Hand.

    Soon as the Evening Shades prevail,
    The Moon takes up the wondrous Tale,
    And nightly to the list’ning Earth
    Repeats the Story of her Birth;
    Whilst all the Stars that round her burn,
    And all the Planets, in their turn,
    Confirm the Tidings as they rowl,
    And spread the Truth from Pole to Pole.

    What though, in solemn Silence, all
    Move round the dark terrestrial Ball?
    What tho’ nor real Voice nor Sound
    Amid their radiant Orbs be found?
    In Reason’s Ear they all rejoice,
    And utter forth a glorious Voice,
    For ever singing, as they shine,
    The Hand that made us is Divine.

    -Joseph Addison, 1672-1719

    Joanne Hogg, member of the great band Iona, wrote a lovely tune for this on her first single project, “Looking into Light” (now “Celtic Hymns – Looking into Light).

    Dana

  14. I’ll try this again; it’s been stuck in moderation since this morning: Julian of Norwich, comparing all of creation to a hazelnut.

    This may be the medieval equivalent of a Hubble Space Telescope. It works for me.

    And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

    In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially “oned” to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.

  15. Mike, wanna free one of those up from moderation? Thanks.

  16. Robert F says:

    A storm is coming,
    galaxies flying apart–
    time to go to bed.