Mystery and Wonder
None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those
who love Him” –
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
- 1 Corinthians 2:8-10
Recently, I’ve been reading the Early Church Fathers’ sermons and essays on Genesis and creation. It probably goes without saying, but they understood things vastly differently than we do. What does need to be said, though, is that they likely understood things far better than we do. God works in mysterious ways. I know that, but how easily I forget.
As I have been reading Genesis, I have also been listening to lectures in philosophy, the most recent of which was on Francis Bacon (d. 1626), the English philosopher, statesman, and (some claim) original author of the scientific method. His lifetime in England coincided with the life of Galileo (d. 1642) in Italy, together heralding the dawn of the age of reason and real knowledge. Bacon believed that all knowledge could be attained by taking apart the natural world to discover how things work. In Bacon’s view, the primary purpose of understanding how a thing works, for example, a seed from a piece of fruit, was then to be able to control that thing, thus dominating the natural order.
That idea should resonate with us because we live in a generation that puts great store in the power of science to produce the state of affairs we want, or equally, to help us avoid the state of affairs we do not want. The effect of Bacon and those who followed him was to refocus our ideas and imaginations to the natural world, in which we could attain real, defensible knowledge. As time passed, knowledge beyond the natural world, that is, knowledge of the spiritual world and divine truth, was pushed further and further to the edges of thought and education, until a claim of revealed knowledge is now openly mocked. I doubt that Francis Bacon envisioned such an outcome in searching to understand the natural world because he was a devout Anglican his entire life.
The horizon of human thought must be limited indeed if we can imagine nothing beyond the physical world. Such a view demands high expectations for happiness and meaning right now since this is all we have. If the highest possible good is whatever makes one happy in the moment, then human beings not only do not rise to heights of great striving; we are reduced to the appetites and desires of animals. That is, of course, the inevitable conclusion of evolutionary thought, that we are at best superior animals, subjects of the wants and needs of the moment.
Juxtaposed over the philosophy lectures are the writings on Genesis and creation from centuries past. As I said, God works in mysterious ways. The one thing on which all the Early Church writers agreed was that we cannot know or understand anything about creation beyond what was recorded in Genesis. If God spoke, what would speaking be, if there were no space for sound waves to resonate? Could there be laws of nature that precede nature itself? The obvious answer is no. St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) wrote, “What does it mean that first there is a heaven, and then earth, first the roof and then foundation? God is not subject to natural necessity; He is not subject to the laws of art. The will of God is the creator and artificer of nature and of art and of everything existing.”
In light of Genesis 1:9, ‘when God gathered the waters together in one place,’ a common question in antiquity was how that could be, since water flows downward. In response, St. Basil of Caeserea (d. 379) observed, “how [water] had any power previous to that, before the motion was engendered in it from this command, you yourself neither know nor have you heard it from anyone who knew. Reflect that the voice of God makes nature, and the command given at that time to creation provided the course of action for the creatures.”
St. Basil’s point is that, really, what do we know about water at all prior to God establishing it, placing it in His order, and giving it the laws by which it would act, that is, the properties of water. When we say we know all about water, for example, we do not know how to create it out of nothing, nor do we set in place the properties of water, whether steam, snow, streams, lakes, or oceans, all of which are subject to the laws of gravity, over which we also have no control or influence. Because we know what a thing is and how a thing works does not mean we know why it exists or how it came into being, current metaphysical speculations notwithstanding. All our knowledge about the natural world is dependent upon God’s creating activity.
Why is this important? Because all that we think we know is drawn from a creation that we did not bring into existence, but which we did render broken and flawed in our rebellion against God in pursuit of knowledge. Although that statement also applies to Francis Bacon, my reference is Genesis 3. This pride of knowledge is our downfall in every generation all the way into today.
The world in which we live is wondrous, indeed. Creation hold mysteries science has not yet begun to discover. Even so, with every new discovery, the limitations of our knowledge need to remain at the forefront of our thought. We do not know how God created in the beginning, nor do we understand how He set in place the laws of nature that are the bases of our understanding of the natural world. The speculative theories of the greatest minds of our time are no more certain than the imaginations of awe among ancient men and women standing under the stars and wondering. Indeed, the minds of today may hold less knowledge than our illiterate ancestors in caves because, with our vaunted knowledge of the natural world, we have lost the reverence and wonder of the beauty and glory of existence – whether yours or mine, whether the miniscule parts of a cell or the far reaches of the universe. Simply that we exist is utterly amazing.
Having said all that, I return to where I started. God works in mysterious ways. My soul is weary of death. The loss of my friend and mentor last fall was devastating, and it was followed by the death last month of Jim Turley, a long-time friend, member of the ministry Board, and retired UM pastor whom I loved and respected so very much. Sunday, we received a call that our cousin had died, the oldest among our very small extended family. Tuesday, another Board member, Nancy Pinkerton, a woman with a huge heart of love and boundless energy, died very unexpectedly. This morning, my cousin called to let me know yet another member of our extended family had died overnight. Really, I thought that ought to do it for the week. So, my father called to tell me that a lifetime friend has had a major stroke and is not expected to live.
All of which is to say… there is more to life than meets the eye, and it is tragic if we do not know that. This idea that all of life is lived here in the physical plane cheats us of reaching for that which is beyond, for the One Who is beyond, above, and behind all that exists. If we cannot account for creation, how can we begin to measure what waits for us? To live each day as if we need to wring from it the greatest happiness and satisfaction attainable is to guarantee we will never attain much of either. For it is in the reaching for what is beyond, in seeking to touch what is yet unseen, and to know the One Who is finally unknowable that we rise above the moment and begin truly to live life fully, stretching for more than we thought we were.
As Paul wrote, “The rulers of this age crucified the Lord of glory.” Contemporary disparagement of Jesus Christ and of Christian faith is neither new nor original. So, do not be afraid of doubters and mockers. Do not even be afraid of death, for it comes for everyone sooner or later.
The Spirit gives us glimpses of eternity, tiny snapshots of what God has in store for us, but we do not know fully. We do not need to know fully. We need only to know that Christ is there and that He has a place prepared for us. Because He has a place for us, today, let us be fully alive in His love and as we are, let us love one another out of the abundance of His love. This is the knowledge that grants entry into the mystery of our God and the wonder of our existence.
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau
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