November 28, 2014

iMonk Classic: God of the Hubble Universe

Star-Forming Region LH 95 in the Large Magellanic Cloud

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
from June 2005

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 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.

Spring on Neptune

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.

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.

30 Doradus in Ultraviolet, Visible, and Red Light

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. Joseph (the original) says:

    amen…

  2. “My friends will notice I am debating theology less these days. The team sport of theological jousting is less interesting that those Hubble pictures”

    Amen.. Anybody know of a good telescope to get? i’m looking to buy one this summer.

  3. Ian Rolf says:

    Meh. I don’t see why we need to spend so much money just to get more pretty pictures of stars. We can see them just fine from the earth. The sight sky gives us all the information we need to know that there is a God who created the universe out of nothing, that we are unworthy of his love, and that we need to be washed in the blood of Lord Jesus lest our sins accuse us.

    • Ian this is just a plain silly comment. Who can measure what we’ve learned from Hubble and other such efforts.

      Come on, you’re better than that.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        “Earth-and-some-lights-in-the-sky” Punyverse.

        To paraphrase an old Christian Monist snark, where does God set up the projector to back-project all the Universe beyond that 6015-light-year distant movie screen?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        A bit of my own story, the “Lamentations of HUG”:

        Through high school hell and junior college, one of my passions was Astronomy. Linked with the Sense-a-Wunda of space-opera SF, I fully understand the passion on Carl Sagan’s face on Cosmos, at the helm of his “Spaceship of the Imagination”.

        Then, while church-checking sometime during the Eighties, I ended up in a church singles group on some sort of retreat in the area of Palomar Mountain. Including a tour of Palomar Observatory. The famous 200-inch reflector telescope, an engineering masterpiece built around WW2. And the astronomical photos and knowledge that came from and through that 200-inch mirror. And when I opened up with my passion for astronomy, the reaction from the GUBAs with me is best paraphrased in some of the comments on this thread.

        Specifically, Ian:

        Meh. I don’t see why we need to spend so much money just to get more pretty pictures of stars. We can see them just fine from the earth. The sight sky gives us all the information we need to know that there is a God who created the universe out of nothing, that we are unworthy of his love, and that we need to be washed in the blood of Lord Jesus lest our sins accuse us.

        And Steve Martin:

        I like to look at all those pretty pictures, too. But where God has revealed Himself to sinners for salvation is in the Word and Sacraments.

        (Except this being an Evangelical group, there were no Sacraments, only Scripture(TM).)

        And the old standby: “It’s All Gonna Burn.”

        I never had the same passion for astronomy after that. Another thing on the ever-growing list that you have to NEVER EVER speak of around Christians, another part of your deepest being that you have to hide from God lest He destroy it.

        • Oh, HUG. What a heartbreaker. And you never got your passion for astronomy back?

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Only partially. It’s still there, and when I write I try to keep any astronomy accurate, but the level of passion isn’t entirely there.

            It’s like the last time I visited the Grand Canyon, four-five years ago. Walking the Rim at Grand Canyon Village, looking across to the North Rim in the distance, all I could think about was the Creation Wars knock-down-drag-out over the Canyon’s origin and timescale. All the Ideology, all the fighting, had poisoned the experience for me.

        • Danielle says:

          I am sorry to read this. The same thing happened to me, with environmental science. For a while, the only thing exceeding my interest in ornithology and marine biology was paleontology. I claimed some of my old passion back, but only long after I’d chosen the liberal arts and gone another direction. Of course, I was a kid and young teenager when I was into the science, so perhaps I wouldn’t have been good at it. But you never know.

          Funny how easily one buys into the entirely counter-intuitive idea that what God created isn’t valuable, and that God plans to crumple it all up and throw it in the trash.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Paleontology.

            May as well paint a target on yourself for the Creation Wars.

    • Ian, what a sad way to look at the universe…..I feel sorry for you if you really beleive this.

      • Ian Rolf says:

        When will scientists ever learn to stop playing God? I’m tired of them using my government tax money to support astrology, or prove that our DNA came from Mars. That’s why so few scientists are saved–they don’t have any humility. They think with there head. Anyway what comes up, must come down.

        “The heavens declare His handiwork.” They ought to investigate some of the scientific proof that the Bible is true, like the missing day from Joshua, or the giant cross in outer space. (Google “cross in space”–it’s a constellation or something. I’m not talking about that church which is trying to put a cross-shaped sattleite in earth orbit as a sign for all mankind.)

        And if there was no Noah’s Flood, then how come there’s evidence of flooding on Mars? But no, instead they talk about pyramids and the sphinx and I don’t know what all.

        And why can’t they turn the Hubble Periscope around and use it to search for Jesus? I mean, if they can figure out what direction he ascended to from the Mount of Olives, then he couldn’t be more than a couple thousand light-years away. (But does that mean his light would take that much longer to reach the earth? I’m confused.)

  4. “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.”

    Ah, Michael….he could always cut right to the most important things. Love it.

  5. To each his own.

    I like to look at all those pretty pictures, too. But where God has revealed Himself to sinners for salvation is in the Word and Sacraments.

    I find it fun to try and steer people in that direction. Every once in a while someone will actually see Him there, in the places where He wants us to find Him.

    • God also reveals himself in nature. There is a natural, inherent desire or will to seek God and a natural, inherent understanding of the idea of God, but our will and our reason always look in the wrong places, and build up false ideas of God, based in Law (including nature (science, psychology, economics, etc.)). Hence, Romans 3:11.

      With revelation in Christ, we see God’s true nature in the Gospel. But the Law is also good, and Christians can look at God’s Law and the the good and beauty of it with even greater appreciation than they could before knowing the Gospel.

      Also, like any kind of argument or discussion, debates about theology shouldn’t be too serious and only motivated by love. God doesn’t need us to defend either the reality of nature or the Gospel, they’ll do their work regardless of whether anybody accepts them correctly. But viewing them correctly is a great source of joy and comfort, so it is good to discuss theology and increase proper understanding.

    • Steve, does it have to be either/or? Can’t the heavens declare the glory of God? And can’t we, with a telescope, get a clue from them how to do it?

  6. For Michael it was the vastness and glories of space; for me it’s seeds and cells. I’m preparing to start some tomatoes and peppers from seed this weekend, and when I look at those tiny, flat seeds approximately the size of a pin head and think about the fact that it’s going to produce a plant up to six feet tall and covered with vegetables that will produce more seeds just like it — wow. And cells are so complex that they’re just like tiny universes in themselves. Infinity in the universe is hard enough to imagine; try imagining infinity becoming smaller and smaller. Our God is awesomely creative and inventive.

    Thanks for posting this essay, CM — it’s given me a much-needed lift this morning!

    • That Other Jean says:

      This reminded me of something MadPriest wrote last week over at Of Course I Could Be Wrong about his thoughts on evolution:

      “God did not create anything except (maybe) the first seed. The rest he grew. God is a gardener not an inventor or a mechanic. God does not buy his vegetables, all wrapped up, identical and faultless, from the shop. Where would be the fun or sense of achievement in that? God grows his own.”

      Why do we keep trying to confine the majesty of an infinite God in a box small enough that we think we understand it?

      • Because if we can fit God neatly into a box, we can understand Him. If we can understand Him, we can control Him, or at least pick and choose the parts we like and leave the rest alone. Or have those parts leave us alone.

  7. David Cornwell says:

    “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…. The Bible is the story of this God, introducing himself to us human language and culture….”

    What a wonderful way to say it.

    The night skies have been so clear in the last couple of weeks. I take the dog out late, sometimes very late, and just stand looking at the heavens in awe of its wonder. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Amen.

    I’ve been taking walks in the along this road where I live. Believe me this isn’t a scenic road. But… there is always something I have not noticed before, the beauty of a stone, a tulip growing along the road, unattended and alone, a vulture spreading its wings in a tall barren tree, taking in the morning sun, or the crows calling out to each other. Forever changing and forever beautiful and it reminds me of God’s new Creation that will be awakened at the appearing of our Lord. Theology can never hope to explain any of it. And I’m glad.

  8. Anonymous says:

    As awesome as the Hubble photographs have been, the next generation will be even more impressive.
    http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/

  9. I needed this article after yesterdays misogynist God.Whether it is stars,seeds, or the cells in our bodies it is more than my mind can comprehend. “What is man that Thou are mindful of him?” “Be still and know that I AM God.” Michael Spencer certainly had a way with words!

  10. Beautiful…..and reminds me that the more I know, the more I know how very much I DON’T know!

    Who AM I that He should be mindful of me??

    Objectively I rank in God’s Universe about where a dust mite does in my world, and yet He calls me his Beloved.

    THAT is the sweet mystery of life.

  11. In the words of the Cowardly Lion, “Ain’t it da truth, AIN’T it da truth”. Sometimes you just get bone tired of arguing. The muss, the fuss and the bluster; the storm passing by but God is not in it. He is in the still small voice.

  12. Professor Failure says:

    “The heart of reality is the God revealed in Jesus.”

    Yet, God chose to reveal himself in a body. Made of the ashes of dead stars.

    God loves his stars too.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      No, a body “made of Star Stuff.” (H/T Carl Sagan for coining the term.)

  13. I love this. I too really enjoy looking the pictures from distant stars and planets. The distances between them boggles my mind when I stop to think about it. But what really boggles the mind is the fact that the God who created all that vastness would come to this little planet and allow his creatures to torture and kill him. That is a love I will never be able to get my arms around and understand. I believe it! It’s just that there is no comprehending it.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      That’s called “Deep Space” and “Deep Time”, and it IS hard for a human mind to wrap itself around them without popping the circuit breakers.

      Of the three Abrahamic monotheisms, Christianity should be the best-equipped to handle Deep Space and Deep Time. Because no matter how deep the space, how deep the time, and the vastness of God needed to be Deeper than that Deep Space and Deep Time, God remains on a one-to-one human scale through the Incarnation.

      Yet most of the American Evangelical reaction to this Deep Space & Deep Time is to push back to an Earth-and-some-lights-in-the-sky, 6015-year-old, ending tomorrow-at-the-latest Punyverse, hiding in a box in the basement clutching your Fire Insurace Policy & Rapture Boarding Pass. And it doesn’t matter how many Thomas Kincade paintings you hang on the inside of the box, how many Bible-verse proof-texts you write on the inside of the walls, it’s still a box to hide in. Like the Dwarfs for the Dwarfs, hiding in the stable in the middle of Aslan’s Land.

      I have been an SF litfan for forty-plus years. The feel of classic lit-SF is described as “the Sense-a-Wunda”; “New Wave SF” lost that Sense-a-Wunda in the sea change of The Sixties (TM) and embraced the grinning nihilism and pessimism of the following Age. And Christianese culture has either done the same or never had the Sense-a-Wunda to begin with.

      • “The true function of Story is to awaken in us the sense of the only other Home we can ever truly know.”

        Due to an overworked brain, I can not remember who said that.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          I do remember something Chaplain Mike said months ago in one of the comment threads here.

          How the fallout of the Industrial Revolution had led to Sarumanic minds of wheels and metal, and viewing the Bible as an Engineering Textbook of Fact Fact Fact instead of the Old Stories of God and man, the sublime and the unspeakable.

          And in doing so, they abandoned the power of Myth and Story. Just like how the authors of Left Behind, turned the WEIRDEST book of the Bible with its wild trippy imagery into a “realistic” third-rate fanboy technothriller. (“Since none of us know the Future or The End, our speculations on it should at least be Cool.” — SciFi Catholic.)

  14. //the men who wrote lines about “the heavens declare the glory of God,” had no idea what they were actually saying. //

    This! It is always the case, and necessarily so even in God’s inspiring of his Scriptures.We see only through a dark glass.

  15. I get the impression Michael Spencer would have really enjoyed “The Tree of Life”.

  16. Highwayman says:

    I used to love walking my dog on clear nights and although I’m now sadly dogless, I never tire of looking at the stars (although I’m not particularly knowledgeable about them). The sheer scale of the universe puts all our personal and even global problems into perspective after a stressful day and the only proper reaction seems to be, “Thank you, God; you are amazing!”

    These thoughts formed themselves into a song some years ago, of which this is part:

    My vision’s so restricted, Lord, but when I lift my eyes
    beyond this sad and busy land
    and look above into your boundless skies,
    I start to comprehend how good my God must be,
    that He in whom all things consist should care about me.

    When I consider your heavens, they tell of your love for me;
    the work of your fingers: Magnificent harmony!
    You hold the stars in their courses, yet you came and died for me:
    So my soul starts to sing, ‘I love you, Oh Lord’.

  17. David Cornwell says:

    Amen.

  18. Teaching in a Christian High School, I love every chance I get to share with my students about the universe that God has created. Some people are fed faith through the holy spirit by other people’s actions and others by looking at the universe.

    I use this link to show my kiddos the coolness of God’s universe. http://htwins.net/scale2/

    The Ah Ha moment I had as a kid was asking one of my Christian friends why a supreme being would want to know me in such a large universe. Her response was that God loved me so much more than the universe that He sent Jesus to die for Me. Pretty powerful stuff for a teenager.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Again, the Mystery of the Incarnation handles Deep Space and Deep Time. No matter how big and old the universe is, no matter how much bigger God has to be, God remains on a one-to-one human scale through the Incarnation.

  19. I think the greatest challenge to my faith is the Universe. To believe that there is anyone who could create all of “that” and actually know I exist calls for a faith that is beyond me. I’ve seen Giglio, and my reaction is the opposite. It seems like a fantasy, a fairy tale, to believe a “God” loves us like he described. I think that is more wishful thinking…opium for the masses…than reality.

    I suggest Sagan was closer to reality than Giglio.