Big Universe. Little God.

By February 22, 2016Archive


“Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics…from the very start of its labors, it faces the incomprehensible One.” – Herman Bavinck

“Lord, High and Holy, Meek and Lowly, Thou hast brought me to the Valley of Vision where I live in the depths but see Thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory. Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high…” – Anonymous

I used to love staring at the silent night sky. Out on the roof of my parents’ storage garage at the tip of Baja, Mexico (where there is far less light pollution), I would lie for hours just gazing, wondering, waiting for shooting stars and contemplating my existence (I was an odd kid). I wanted to be an astronomer because I thought they just looked at pictures of space all day and that sounded cool. The thought of infinity boggled my little mind and strangely, staring at the immensity of the sky didn’t just make me feel small. It made me feel significant. I could contemplate the stars.

But something happened. I noticed it while taking out the trash the other night and glancing up at Orion (it’s a constellation, the one with the belt): I hardly ever look up anymore. Maybe it’s simply the demands of being a husband, father, and pastor that pull my eyes down like gravity. Maybe I feel more “connected” and “significant” when I gaze at the little glowing screen that I keep in my pocket than I do when pondering the stars. Maybe I just grew up. I’m sure those things play a part, but if I’m honest it feels like something more. The dumb silence of the night sky feels like a nagging threat, like one giant, sneering, stumbling block to my faith that I’d do better to avoid. Let me explain.

Finding out approximately how “big” the universe (universes?) is and how long it’s been expanding certainly increased my sense of wonder…at first. Maybe it’s because I’m a lousy scientist, but at some point things just started to feel silly. A quasar group (a collection of black holes) structure that is 1,600 times larger than the distance between the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, or four billion light years across? Sure. Like a six year old with a piggy bank being handed ten billion dollars, I didn’t even know what to do with it and eventually lost interest altogether. You can only wonder at the sheer size of something for so long. And when I eventually became a Christian, I was told that I was supposed to marvel at how the moon and the stars were “the work of God’s fingers.” But let’s be honest, the Psalmist had no idea what He was talking about. The world of the Bible honestly began to feel outdated and small. Comparing God’s grandeur to mountains and oceans? Not so impressive anymore. Puny humans the “pinnacle” of God’s creation? Really? The creator of VY Canis Majoris gets angry at human anger? Seems petty. And all the grace and forgiveness stuff? Sounds like wishful thinking, a Feuerbachian attempt to supersize and personalize our ideals and aspirations and call them “God.”

I learned about biblical cosmology and the awkward shift from a geocentric universe to a heliocentric solar system in school, but I’m not sure we appreciate the effect that this new cosmology must have on the human mind. In fact, until recently I never thought about the fact that my parents didn’t even grow up with actual pictures of the earth! Though people knew, it must have been much easier to forget that we were commuting, shopping, war-making, and lovemaking on a tiny little sphere suspended in nothingness. A particle of dust. A pale blue dot.

In a weird way, as the universe has gotten bigger, it has somehow grown more suffocating. There is a sense of claustrophobia in all the splendor. Stars are no longer pinpricks in the tapestry of the heavens letting in light from the glorious beyond; they’re just (really) big suns. It’s only perspective. And here on our little sphere there are no strange lands left to be explored, no virgin oceans to be brazenly crossed. There are no sea monsters, just blue whales. And we humans (and whales) better figure out how to get along, because there’s only so much space. We’re all basically bad roommates in a tiny apartment with no option of moving out. With all of this in mind, staring at the night sky no longer makes me feel small, it leaves me with a sense of loss: a bitter longing to be little again.

But what is size, anyway? Human beings can only think or operate in terms of time and space, and we are severely limited in our actual ability to move around in either of them (especially the former). We ourselves (the human race as a whole in fact) operate in such a tiny length of time and occupy such a tiny amount of space that our imaginations just can’t quite be stretched to comprehend numbers like 100 billion or 3 sextillion or whatever. We can talk about huge numbers and talk about the speed of light and relativity, but that’s about it (at this point anyways). As creatures, we are inherently bound. But if there is a God, a Creator, “He” cannot bound by time and space in the same way we are. You could say they were His idea. For people like me, that is impossible to even begin to imagine, but it is fun to try anyway. Theologian John Frame has said that God is omniperspectival (now there’s a fun word) and so perhaps He can see from a perspective too high to reach for us in which billions of years in time and billions of light years in space is irrelevant, or at least quite small. A fisherman named Peter, perhaps attempting to convey the idea, said that a thousand years is like a day to God (2 Peter 3:8). Now, full disclosure: the Bible says nowhere that God is outside of time, but the idea has been very helpful to some giants like Augustine and C.S. Lewis. And maybe “outside of” time or “outside of” space is the wrong terminology, but perhaps that is because we are wading outside of the limits of language. Maybe it is right to say that God operates in a different kind of time or space. Who knows, but here’s why it is important to try.

Theologians and philosophers like to use the terms “transcendent” and “immanent.” God’s transcendence refers to His existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe. God’s immanence, on the other hand, refers to His existing or operating within the material universe. Intellectual heavyweights over the years such as Augustine (4th-5th century), John Calvin (16th), Herman Bavinck (mostly 19th), and Karl Barth (20th) have emphasized that God is transcendent, or “wholly other” in Barth’s terms. Perhaps you can see the immediate problem. How can God be both transcendent and immanent? How can He be both utterly apart from creaturely reality and yet accessible within it? (Notice, we need to use spatial terms like “apart from” to speak of transcendence because we spatiotemporal beings have no other way of speaking…more on this later.) In the past, one has typically been emphasized over the other: in 19th century liberal theology, God became this utterly incomprehensible thing that “cannot” reveal Himself or say anything at all, while in modern evangelical parlance, “God can do whatever God wants so stop asking questions and just read the Bible literally you smartypants liberals.” What to do? Even if God were a physical being and not a spiritual one, even if he dwelt physically just beyond the edge of the material universe, a living soul on earth could never hope to reach Him.

Well, the good news is that God comes to us. The shocking answer to the riddle of God’s transcendence and immanence is not some strange balance of the two where both are muted, but a God so transcendent that He can become immanent, a God so lofty that He can stoop to any location. God is powerful beyond measure, so powerful in fact that He can become weak. It is precisely in His weakness that we see His strength. To put it in another way, God is so big that He can “become little.” He is not too proud to do so. To emphasize, it is just in weakness and littleness that God is found. And this is vastly more intellectually satisfying than we might realize at first.

Have you ever had the guilty thought while reading, the Psalms for example, that the Bible seems a bit too…human? (I wonder if the disciples ever thought that way about Jesus.) Well, it’s on purpose. Again, God is not too proud to become little, even crass! Remember learning about anthropomorphisms in middle school? The opposite of a metaphor, an anthropomorphism is when you ascribe human qualities to something not human. Most of us know that the Bible sometimes does that with God, having Him be a “Him” with a mouth, eyes, ears, and the like, but Herman Bavinck makes a striking point: “Scripture does not just contain a few scattered anthropomorphisms but is anthropmorphic through and through” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 99). He says that is it actually “in order to convey the knowledge of Him to His creatures, God has to come down to the level of His creatures and accommodate Himself to their powers of comprehension” (110, italics mine). In essence, we only know God by way of analogybut we really do know Him. John Calvin, who is way easier and more fun to read than you might think, put it in unforgettable terms:

For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of Him to our slight capacity. To do this He must descend far beneath His loftiness” (Institutes 1.13.1).

Basically, all of God’s communication to us is akin to how I speak to my one-year-old son: in a “lisp” or “prattle” or “babble.” All of it. In fact, this analogical, anthropological “babbling” extends beyond the content of the Bible into the form itself. The Bible is broken up into the Old and New Testaments, Testament literally meaning Covenant, and the covenant itself is an accommodation to human weakness, says Calvin, God “humbling himself” to “enter into a common treaty” with His people, specifically an ancient near eastern vassal-treaty (quoted in J. Todd Billings’ Union with Christ, p. 73). So creatures are by nature bound, but a covenant is the binding of God. The creator in His utter freedom binds Himself in love to His creature. Selah.

God condescending to human weakness to make Himself known in common human languages in the Bible, the word of God, is staggering. But that is to say nothing of God revealing Himself ultimately in the Word of God, Jesus Christ. In the end, the only stumbling block bigger than the universe is the little Nazarene in the manger. Yes, it was foolishness to the Greeks, those stoics and gnostics who insisted that the divine logos, the Word, cannot become flesh. Flesh is icky and bad, they said, God can’t be going around getting His hands dirty like that. Yes, it was offensive to the Jews. God is not a man, after all. And yes, don’t be surprised if it is both foolish and offensive to your college professor today. But don’t you kind of love that God isn’t an elitist? He has no need to impress anyone. So we shouldn’t either.

We need not be embarrassed then at the “ancientness” and “humanness” of the Bible in light of new scientific discoveries. Try as we might, we cannot make God outdated. He is wholly other, hidden, yes, but He has hidden Himself in a place that can be found, though in the last place pompous human wisdom would ever think to look. To show the utter silliness (and real danger) of human pride, God in the highest has made Himself known in the lowliest, the “littlest” One of all, and in the ugliest, most wretched, most utterly un-noteworthy place in all the immeasurable universe: Golgotha. Calvary. The cross. In fact, the bigger and stranger we find the universe to be, the stranger and more glorious the cross. The God who breathes out supernovas is a Jew with wounds and a sense of humor. His condescension is His glory. This is why God forbid Israel rather forcefully from making an image of Him, regardless of how golden, glorious, and beautiful. He knew that if we looked at anything on earth or in the heavens and guessed at what He was like, we would get Him all wrong and backwards, as indeed we did and do. God reveals Himself. And the big God reveals Himself in little ways: in weakness, through a morsel of bread and a sip of wine, through ink and parchment, through a lame sermon, and through forgiveness, generosity, visiting the sick, and other seemingly inconsequential acts of sacrificial love. What kind of god would be found in such places? Only the real One: certainly not one that we would invent. The glory of God is hidden; He is there, but He is there. And He is not silent.

I’ll give the bewildering but brilliant theologian Karl Barth, who finally sparked this long ruminating blog, the final word:

“And now… ‘God in the highest’ becomes comprehensible. By being the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost in His work in Jesus Christ, God is in the highest. He whose nature and essence consist, whose existence is proved, in His descending to the depths, He the Merciful, who gives Himself up for His creature to the utter depths of the existence of His creature—He is God in the highest. Not in spite of this, not in remarkable paradoxical opposition, but the highness of God consists in His thus descending. This is His exalted nature, this His free love. Anyone who wants to look up to some other height has not understood the utter otherness in God, he would still be in the tracks of the heathen, who look for God in an endlessness. But He is utterly other than we think our gods. It is He who calls Abraham and led that wretched nation through the desert, who never swerves through the centuries-long disloyalty and disobedience of this nation, who causes Himself to be born in the stable at Bethlehem as a little child and who dies on Golgotha. He is the glorious Lord, He is divine.”


Dane Olney

Author Dane Olney

Dane Olney is joyfully married to his high school sweetheart Brittany and they have a son named Levi. He is the Discipleship Pastor of VCC and is pursuing an MDiv in Christian Ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary.

More posts by Dane Olney

Leave a Reply