Photo: The Ancient of Days, William Blake (1794)
~ Psalm 148/John 20:31-35 ~
Psalm 148 is a psalm of praise. ‘Praise’ is used thirteen times in this psalm. The Psalmist calls on everything to give God praise: Men and women, young and old, fire and storms, mountains and trees, and all kinds of animals, even sea monsters. He calls on sun and moon and stars to praise because God has created them and established them and fixed their courses. God is the Creator of the universe. Therefore, praise God!
We say that so easily, yet what does it really mean to say God is the Creator of the universe? When we consider the universe we live in what does it say to us about God. According to our Christian tradition there are three sources of revelation about God: 1) Scripture, 2) Tradition (or the Church), and 3) creation. With this perspective, Scripture is authoritative and reveals much about God and God’s relation to the creation, to us. But does Scripture tell us everything about God? No, that would be impossible. Words cannot explain everything; words are limiting. For instance, no matter how many words I might use to describe Linda it is impossible to say all that she is. And so it is with God. God is bigger than the words of Scripture, as incredibly important as they are. And of course relying on the traditions of the Church for revelation is highly suspect. The Church is a human institution after all and is subject to all kinds of fallacious human foibles.
Some would say that all we need to know about God is in Scripture. We should just be satisfied with that. But Scripture itself says that the creation is a revelation about God. And so I think we can look at, explore, and discover the universe to learn something about the God who made us. That’s not to say that it is the only source of revelation but it is one of the sources of revelation and that’s what I would like to explore with you today. And the question I raise is this: Is our God big enough? When we consider the wonders of creation is our view of God big enough to fill the immense dimensions of the universe, or do we find ways to limit God, to make God small enough for our puny brains, or our puny faith to handle? Or do we dare let our minds search out the infinite universe and discover that God is more than we could ever imagine or think?
To consider the nature of the universe we have to also consider the role of science. Admittedly, faith and science have never had an easy relationship. Indeed it has often been outright hostile. Throughout history the Church has been suspect of the work of science. Out of some contrived effort to defend God, the Church has found itself taking some pretty silly positions on the findings of science. Of course, the most famous one is when Galileo conclusively proved that the earth is not the center of the universe. If you’ll remember, the ancient Greek Ptolemy asserted that the sun revolves around the earth? But Galileo upset everything about that ‘God-given’ accepted way of looking at the universe. Because Galileo challenged the notion that man is the center and sole reason for the creation, the Church condemned him and made him recant, which sadly he eventually did.
According to the Medieval Church, everything in the universe was created for man (and I use the masculine intentionally). The universe was created in six days with the earth at the center. Around it the spheres spun in harmony. All this for the benefit of God’s creation – Man, the pinnacle of God’s achievement, made in God’s image, given dominion over all the creatures. Every last detail of the whole order of nature was made carefully by God for the use of God’s favorite creation, Man—plants for his health, animals for his food, wine for hisjoy, women for his helpers, and everything else for his edification and education. The world abounded with symbols deliberately made by God to remind and assist Man in his journey to his true homeland in heaven. Thus the robin’s breast is red to remind us of Christ’s passion. Rocks are hard to remind us of the toughness of Peter. Pelicans cut their own breasts to feed their young with their blood so that we would be reminded of God’s suffering love for us.
Then there were the Nineteenth-century clerics attempt to explain away scientific discoveries. As all good Christians knew the earth had to be only 6000 years old according to a literalistic reading of Scripture. In light of the furor over Darwin’s Origin of the Species, they asserted that God put the fossilized bones of long-extinct creatures in the rocks at creation. God did this in order to test the faith of Christians who might be tempted to accept the tenets of godless evolution. Interestingly enough these same types of arguments are bandied about today by young-earth creationists bent on defending God from the heretics.
But then many scientists are just as arrogant. They believe they have dispensed with the notion of God. As one scientist asserted, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” I remember a course I took in college, “The History and Philosophy of Science,” in which the professor proceeded to show that with every significant scientific discovery through the ages one more domain of God was explained away. In the end there was no need for a God to explain how and why we exist. Stephen Hawking openly believed that his science had displaced God entirely—there is not even a need to have a God to explain the origin of the universe. As he put it in A Brief History of Time,
…So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place then for a creator?
I remember a PBS Nova program that asserted, “The universe has no edge and no center.” So we go from the notion that man is the center of a finite universe created by God for our own edification to the notion that the universe is infinite with no center point and we don’t mean a thing.
Yet those scientists have a point. What if the nature of the universe is that it has no edge and no center? What if it could be proved that Man is not the sole reason for the creation of the universe? Would that shake you? Would your faith in God be destroyed? Would you feel the need to deny the scientists’ assertions and defend your version of God? Do people of faith need to be at war with science?
Well, in a word – No! Instead, I believe we should revel in the amazing discoveries of science that show that we live in an incredible universe. Because we do believe in God the Creator we should relish the joy of discovery the scientists provide us. True, they can’t prove God doesn’t exist any more than people of faith can prove God does exist. But we do believe God exists. So I say we should embrace the discoveries of science even though they are quite mind-boggling. For every new discovery of science the more amazing our understanding of God becomes.
My sermon title today is a shameless rip off of one of my favorite books, A Big Enough God, by Sara Maitland with the subtitle: A Feminist’s Search for a Joyful Theology. I love that. Sara finds all these scientific explorations quite fascinating. Indeed, she is one of the few theologians who actually seems to understand Stephen Hawking’s ideas. Sara doesn’t feel the need to defend God or try to prove God’s existence in light of these astronomical discoveries. She embraces them. Having proclaimed by faith with the rest of the church “God, the Creator” she does “not need to be able to explain God, only to look at the works of that mighty power, accepting all their complexity and ingenuity, and be impressed, enchanted, awed.” So, an infinite universe? Why not? God, in some way that cannot be explained, is More than that infinite universe. Don’t be afraid, she says, but embrace it. Explore it with delight and wonder and awe. God is big enough to handle it. By faith, so can we!
In 2002 I had the opportunity to be the temporary supply pastor for several months at Bonny Doon Presbyterian Church in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Every Sunday morning Linda and I drove from the city to this funky mountain community of former hippies and Silicon Valley techies. Besides getting to know a wonderful congregation I also discovered Bonny Doon wines. One of the members of that church was Bob Nielsen. We struck up a friendship pretty quickly as we found we both enjoyed exploring the philosophical aspects of life. Being somewhat of a cynic, Bob had always been a “questioner.” Bob had always enjoyed exploring the universe with his mind, never afraid to delve into the unknown. We had lots of good discussions about everything.
But Bob was also dying. He had already spent several years battling prostate cancer. At the time I met him the cancer was metastasizing into his lymph nodes, his bones, and into his brain. He had undergone aggressive cancer treatments but they weren’t working anymore. He come to the conclusion that due to the discomfort from the treatments, the loss of appetite and dissipating energy, the treatments were just not worth it anymore. He was conceding the game; the cancer wins. So, it turned out, my friendship with Bob was one of helping him come to terms with the end of his life.
So, we talked about the meaning of life. It would be fair to say that much of Bob’s faith had been somewhat cerebral, based on an intellectual assessment of God and the universe. But in these later days of his life he found himself questioning that intellectual approach to faith. He found himself experiencing feelings and emotions he’d never felt before. And his feelings were asking him, “Where do I fit, personally, in this vast intellectual universe I live in?” Having always been skeptical of faith based on emotions, he now found himself envying others whose feeling-oriented faith seemed so sure and immediate. Others say, “I feel so close to God” and he asked, “why haven’t I had those feelings.” So his mind and his feelings were quite at odds with each other. The question remained: “In this vast, immense universe, where do I fit?”
As I sat with Bob in his last days, I suggested that the tromping through the universe his mind had taken him was a wonderful gift because he was able to delight in the expansive, infinity that is God. But I also assured him that by faith he could rest secure in the arms of an imminent God.
This is where, I believe, our Gospel text comes in. The transcendent God of the infinite universe became a human being and lived with us, and loved us, and asks us to love each other too. The transcendent God is also an immnent God, who is present with us in a most intimate way. The God who is bigger than we could ever imagine is also closer than we could ever imagine. That is a statement of belief. I can’t prove it but that is my experience.
And so it is for all of us. We might not be able to prove our security in God by intellect or by emotions, by our minds or our hearts. But it is true. In some way beyond the boundary of knowledge and sense, God is big enough to be close enough to carry us through whatever valley of death we encounter. The God of the infinite universe is there loving us to the end. The big-enough God is small enough to love Bob, and you and me in the midst of this vast incredible universe in which we live. Believe it! Amen.