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.
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.
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.