October 23, 2017

God Of The Hubble Universe

hubgas.jpgOne 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 can see 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 prescientific 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 Michaelangelo.

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 ingenius 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 palid.

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. Don’t miss this site if you’re a space fan…

    http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/archivepix.html

  2. Your latest entry has absolutely blown me away. You have so eloquently put into words my feelings exactly! Amazing! In fact I was printing out hubble pictures last night to take to work to ‘meditate’ on. My current favorite is the Cassiopeia A shot put on APOD the other day (it is breathtakin on my lcd monitor), but I also have a soft spot for the globular clusters as I can make those out in my backyard with my measley 4.5″ reflector. As Douglass Adams would say…Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is….and how small we are. I also love the beehive cluster because in my light polluted backyard there are no stars up there, but look through some binocs or the telescope and the beehive explodes into view. Man I need a bigger scope!
    Anyway, sorry to get off topic thanks for the awesome entry. I will be subscribing to your blog.

  3. The choice we make to live with God takes us so far into the unknown… truly it is further in and deeper up. I am amazed at a God who creates sunsets to share with me, who creates a beautiful woman that I may fall in love, who makes coffee and pipe tobacco that I might enjoy, and enjoy Him. This is God, the Amen. He will not be confined to our box of theology, nor will He be absent from our wrestlings with philosophy. He is, and too often we limit that statement: He is good… He is great… He is God… all these are true, but inadequate. He is. This is truth and this truth makes Him infinite… and in the limitlessness of God I am safe. Not always sure of where I am, never quite believing that it is real… but I am safe. God calls the stars out by name, and He chooses to know me.
    I can’t even truly begin to capture all the thoughts this post has stirred from my soul… I think I will go and watch the stars for a wile, and just get lost in God… in Yahweh. “Your Glory puts me in awe… and I am amazed!”

  4. Kent Runge says:

    I have a six-inch Dobsonian that opens my eyes to the depth of creation, at least until the mosquitos remind me of the fall. I like where you’re at, it’s a great place for conversation.

  5. Mmm… good stuff. An note that desperately needs to be sounded. I would like to see a follow-up post on what role theology/understanding DOES play. For the gospel of Jesus is not a contentless gospel; it does seem to be important to God that we believe right things. The emphasis on those right things instead of the person of Christ has gotten us far from where we should be, no doubt. But what exactly does it look like to know Christ and “think rightly about God” (Tozer) without falling into theological idolatry?

    Write more!

  6. Brian Pendell says:

    My biggest problem with this line of thinking is that I’ve heard the same thing from Pagans who sneer at me for believing that God’s revelation is contained in our little book. They encourage me to put aside my dogma and to simply accept that all roads are a path to God, because God is bigger than our “knowledge”.

    Of course God is bigger than our preconceptions. But God is knowable, because His Spirit reveals Him to us. The Bible is one of the chief instruments of that revelation.

    The wonder is not that God is so beyond us; the wonder is that a God that is so beyond us is willing to make such efforts to make himself intelligible to us that we can have these petty little arguments and actually be fairly close to the truth.

    So I think it’s a mistake to get too wrapped up in the idea that God is bigger than our knowledge — this is true, but followed too far it can lead to the denial of ANY doctrine or ANY knowledge as having validity.

    I don’t believe you are anywhere near this point — I suspect your background inclines you to the opposite error. But the error does exist.

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  7. Big Fat John says:

    While I still believe Theology (fundamentals)get us through adversity in this life, simply because fallen human beings need constant reminding of God’s goodness during tumultuos times, I hope I will continue to absorb theological knowledge through the filter of a perspective akin to that expressed in this essay.

  8. Brian –

    That error does indeed exist. But the types that gather here are much less inclined to fall into the error you refer to than into its opposite. Hence, iMonk’s article. We often get so busy fighting the opposite side’s error (diluting revelation to the point where it’s everwhere and means nothing) that we miss the truth that is the foundation for their error (revelation *is* everwhere and means *something*). In polemics (especially theological Reformed polemics) its all too easy to draw sharp divisions for the sake of fighting error, to insist on the “either/or” when in that instance a “both/and” might be more fitting. If someone is espousing the pantheistic paganism you describe, by all means hit them with the specific (and salvific) revelations of Christ in the Scriptures. But as I said, the problems here (in modern Reformed/evangelical polemical circles) are more that we get so wrapped up in defining and fighting over the abstract ideas, that we miss the other revelations of God’s glory. We need a reminder that God is Artist as much as He is Mind.

    For myself, my theology (and my attitudes toward it) has greatly improved since I took up the pipe. As Gandalf said, “Smoke blown out clears the mind of shadows within.” 😉

  9. Rasselas says:

    I-monks “Hubble soup for the Soul” thanks man!

    btw – use this for the next “blogosphere theological” wranglings 🙂

    Do-It-Yourself Impressive Theological Constructs
    http://steve.poling.info/theofun.html

  10. Brian Pendell says:

    So what exactly are you smoking in that pipe to improve your theology ? 🙂

    Tongue-in-cheek,

    Brian P.

    — who, being an asthmatic, doesn’t see how coughing one’s lungs onto the sidewalk would improve one’s theology, but to each their own :).

  11. “Dear God. Dear trees, dear stars, dear people, dear sky, dear everything.

    Dear God.”
    –inadequately quoted from “The Color Purple”, by Alice Walker

  12. Brian,

    Only the finest pipe tobaccoes blended in this hemisphere, courtesy of a great artisan, J.M. Boswell. 🙂

    http://www.boswellpipes.com/

    My condolences on your asthma. And I would never say that pipesmoking is for everyone. But just for the record, there is a *world* of difference between cigarettes (which I would never touch) and pipes…

    http://pipes.priss.org/enjoy.php

    http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9704/foley.html

  13. Here is a Poem By J.S. Bach about somking and it relation to theology. Enjoy!
    http://waeshael.home.att.net/edifying.htm

  14. >They encourage me to put aside my dogma and to simply accept that all roads are a path to God, because God is bigger than our “knowledge”.

    How does my belief in the incarnation- which makes up the last half of the post- qualify me in any way for candidacy in a parade for “all roads lead to God?”

  15. Thanks CS. I’ve now posted that poem to my blog. May your pipes never go sour. 😉

  16. Brian Pendell says:

    “How does my belief in the incarnation- which makes up the last half of the post- qualify me in any way for candidacy in a parade for “all roads lead to God?”

    It does not. Nor did I say it did.
    In fact, I did not say you were anywhere NEAR that point. Let me reiterate the last paragraph in that comment:

    “I don’t believe you are anywhere near this point — I suspect your background inclines you to the opposite error. But the error does exist. ”

    You’re reading an accusation into my words that I never made.

    I still have an allergic reaction, nonetheless, because of the potential error I identified. I’m sure you’re much more susceptible to the opposite error, and this may be a sign of spiritual growth for you that you’re thinking this way. But it still sometimes gives me the willies, all the same.

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

  17. I wasn’t saying you made an accusation, I just was a bit perplexed at how the subject was derived from the post. I appreciate that you noted I’m not at that point. I was simply aware that I went to considerable lengths to derail that possible conclusion.

    No harm, no foul, no problem.

  18. iMonk, let’s return to the original subject re the Hubble Universe.

    I have always had an interest in astronomy, and many-many years ago I was at some sort of Church camp in Palomar, California. Since we were nearby, there was a semi-official side trip to Palomar Observatory. The 200-inch telescope (which pushed the envelope in 1940s engineering), 200-inch & early Hubble pics throughout the visitor center — it was like your meditation on the current Hubble pics.

    (If you haven’t been to the “Extrasolar Visions” or “SolStation” websites, they are some of the best astronomy websurfing I’ve come across. Especially check SolStation’s maps zooming out farther and farther through the universe, from nearby stars to local fluff to local bubbles to spiral arm to galaxy to local group to Virgo Supercluster to macro-scale structure in strings of galactic clusters.)

    When I mentioned to one of the others (I think he was the assistant pastor in charge of the retreat) about the wonder of the universe as seen in these pics, he put me down with a Christianese comment about the Greatness of the LORD and how worthless all this was — probably a variant on “It’s All Gonna Burn”. (Whether he meant it as a putdown or not, that’s how it was received.)

    Since this, I do not mention my interest in astronomy or the wonders of the universe to other Christians; the only exceptions are if they first show the same interest (like you have with this essay).

    I don’t like having to choose between God and the Hubble Universe, between theology and observable reality — alleged Prophecy Fulfillments, Left Behind Fever, Six-Day-Zap Creationism — yet again and again I find myself forced to.

    Didn’t Paul say “Faith is the substance of things hoped for” or “Faith is denial of observable reality”?

  19. Michael, you wrote: “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.”

    What is this? Are you saying the writers brought their own understanding to the text they were writing? Why, you’re nothing but a POSTMODERNIST!!! BWAAAA-HAHAHAHA – erk – OK, I’m done.

    Jay 😉

  20. “Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face…”

  21. Maryellen says:

    Like so many of the other commenters I found this piece beautiful and well worth several reads.
    I once had a Bible teacher, who in my opinion was a little bit wacko, but he made some interesting points about science and creation.
    Now understand that he believed in a literal 6 day creation and in the young earth theory.
    He said that any premise can be proved mathematically and scientifically, including his.
    That modern science originated from people who wanted to disprove the Bible and thereby free themselves from the moral restrictions. He said that when science contradicts the word of God, then it is Science that we must rethink…which he gave as the meaning to “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”
    He believed that the Earth didn’t move, and that it was indeed the center of the universe. If the universe is truly infinite, than any point could be the center.
    One thing that stands out in my mind is, if the first 2 chapters of Genesis are wrong, then why did Jesus have to die that bloody death on the cross?
    And as far as the idea that all roads lead to God, giving credance to all world religions and nonreligions. Why would God put so many retraints on one group, and none on another. Why would he demand physical torture from one people group, deprevation of all pleasure from another. God revealed that which we were to know about Him in His Holy Scriptures. It took him 1500 years, 40 scribes from all walks of lives, and His own death, resurrection, and revelation to complete. Deuteronomy 29:29 declares “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of the Law.” There are some mysteries in the universe that we are just supposed to see and wonder at. Things like the Hubble just declare the glory of the LORD, and we are to be awed!
    Like you said, we are less signifigant than dust in the vastness of His creation, which makes the incarnation all the more signifigant. That he should care about us, about me (Psalm 8)

  22. Anthony Footit says:

    If you remember the old PBS series, “Cosmos,” or read any of Carl Sagan’s books, perhaps you’ll remember the absolute reverence and awe he had for the Universe. I disagree with his ‘faith in science’ message, but he was clearly a very spiritual man. It is truly staggering, how vast and wonderous creation is. I’m going to start applying that emotion to my faith.

  23. “The team sport of theological jousting is less interesting that those Hubble pictures…and the one who created all that is in them.”

    Amen!

  24. What bugs me is that so many Christians are content with a 6000-year, Earth-and-some-lights-in-the-sky “punyverse” instead of the grand universe shown by the Hubble.

    And will browbeat anyone who tries to bring the grand universe into their punyverse.

  25. Very cool, thoughtful, majestic article, Michael.

    Recently, I was able to show my children the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn through a small refractor telescope I inherited from my father. It’s so fun to see the reaction of people who see that stuff for the first time.

    Just a note on pipes: my dad never smoked cigarettes– just a pipe (and occasional cigars)– and it killed him just the same.

    -Jim Bob

  26. I am a recent convert from Christianity to Islam born here i.e. not of middle eastern descent.No doubt that the Hubble will cause previous concepts and facts to be rewritten. Ignoring the current political battle against Islam by the government and media. Read about the “Miracles of the Quran”(google it). Brace yourself. Then realize that No Man, let alone one that could not read or write, at that time period could even remotely come close to having that knowledge. Go here and scroll down: http://www.answering-christianity.com/sci_quran.htm