Anglican Church of Canada
September 20, 2020 Second Season of Creation
What is it we love about nature? No doubt it’s a bit different for each of us, but who doesn’t love a good sunset, going down over the water at Margaretville in a blaze of reddish glory? Who doesn’t love the Valley in spring, when the fields and woodlots are vibrant with life? Or a summer afternoon by the side of the lake, far from civilization? We love what is kindly and gracious and glorious about the natural world, the things that make us feel at home in this world, held by a good purpose of the Creator who has made all things well.
But there is another side as well: when the waves of the bay are not gentle, but whipped up by a storm, crashing violently on the rocks and pulling back with a sickening suck of cold green water: then we are suddenly reminded of how small and vulnerable we are against the vastness of the ocean, and we say a prayer for those caught on the water. When the sun goes down at the lake, the dark woods can begin to feel uncanny, and the cry of the loon or the call of coyotes touches our hearts with a shiver for wildness that will always be strange to us. A starry sky is a lovely backdrop – but when we begin to learn of the incomprehensible vastness of space, the immensities of emptiness, the huge furnaces of energy that could snuff out not only our lives but our entire planet . . . well, then we have to turn away in terror from these mind-numbing dimensions that dwarf us into insignificance.
Sometimes we experience the natural world as benign, as home – and sometimes we encounter it as hostile and frightening. The interesting thing, even then it has a fascination for us. Even when it makes us small and vulnerable and afraid, when it threatens to crush us, we have to admire its wild beauty. Feeling ourselves in the presence of something bigger than ourselves and out of our control.
Philosophers of religion have remarked that our experience of the holy, our encounter with the divine, in all religions and cultures, tends to have two sides. When we feel ourselves close to God, there is much that delights and moves us; we respond with love and admiration to the goodness and beauty we find in our faith. But there is also another side: the encounter with the divine can be terrifying, because it makes us aware of our own smallness. This is called the mysterium tremendum, the mystery that makes us tremble, and it is common to just about all human religious experience.
This is the way the book of Job speaks of nature. The passage we just heard is the beginning of the longest poem on nature in the entire Bible. But there are no gentle breezes or babbling brooks here: this is a view of creation as infinitely strange and marvelous, far beyond our comprehension or control. Again and again, with force and not a little sarcasm, God is reminding Job how little we really understand about the workings of this world.
The strangest thing about this passage is what it is doing in the book of Job. Job is a sustained meditation on the question of human suffering. For the first 37 chapters, page after page, Job agonizes over his terrible bereavement, ruin, and illness; he rejects the well-meant but unhelpful wisdom of his friends; he demands an answer from God as to the meaning of his sufferings. When the answer finally comes, it is no answer at all – God does not address Job’s questions at all, but points towards the strangeness and glory of creation. People have puzzled over these chapters for centuries. But perhaps this is part of the point: the foundations of the earth, the raging sea, the transformations of the dawn, the storehouses of the snow, the lion or the wild ox, they care nothing for Job’s sufferings. This indifference to our human concerns is what makes them so strange and terrifying, and yet so inutterably beautiful.
Here’s the thing: I think this mysterium tremendum, this shudder of terror at the incomprehensibility and strangeness of the holy, is an essential ingredient in our spiritual life. It is essential because it keeps us honest, honest about who God is, and honest about who we are. And I fear it is one we are in danger of losing.
This is what the Old Testament calls “the fear of the Lord”. Now when we hear that phrase, we tend to think the worst. It conjures up some of the unhealthy ways our tradition has sometimes talked about God: as a tyrant, a vindictive judge we ought to be terrified of, a dark father whose love was always conditional, always a hair’s breadth away from anger. Let us be clear: that is not God, that is the Satanic product of an abusive theology, and we must stand against that.
But that’s not what the Old Testament means by “the fear of the Lord”. Sure, there are a few passages where God appears as an angry and capricious tyrant – the Old Testament is a big library gathered over many centuries, and there are some more primitive stories in there. But on the whole, the Old Testament understands God’s essential nature as love, as faithful loving-kindness. When we are exhorted to fear the Lord, it is not the kind of fear that is distrustful, as though God’s love were unreliable and he could break out in a rage at any point.
The fear of the Lord is really about awe, about the mysterium tremendum that speaks through these verses of Job. It is about awe, about an awareness of the majesty and incomprehensibility of God which, like staring into the depths of the galaxies, reminds us of our utter vulnerability and smallness. We can and should love God, but we must not make God into our teddy-bear. Any real God worth the name is not our pet, but a wild grizzly – wild, but good, as C. S. Lewis said of Aslan the lion. We can trust God – but we must never take God for granted.
The problem is, I think as a culture we are in danger of losing altogether the ability to experience awe: awe towards God, awe towards nature, awe towards reality. We have come to assume that we understand everything, and that through our cleverness we can control everything. We have eaten the apple of knowledge, and we have in effect made ourselves God. We suppress the knowledge that we are limited and vulnerable and mortal. And so we come to assume that everything in this world, everything in nature, reality itself, is there just to serve our needs and interests. And that, of course, is the attitude that is killing our planet, and killing our spiritual nature.
It seems to me that we could use a good talking to from our Creator, that we could do with girding up our loins like a man and taking some hard truths on the chin. Yes, we are precious and infinitely valuable, because we are loved by God. But we are not the centre of everything, the only thing that matters – it is God that is the centre, the ground and meaning of all reality, and we find our true place in that reality as one part of God’s creation.
That is a lesson nature can teach us, a gift that comes with the encounter with wild things: the gift of awe. When we encounter the thrill of nature’s wildness and strangeness, let us hold firm and let the bracing truth blow over us: that the world is bigger and stranger than our imaginings, that it is not all about us. And that is okay, because even in the strangeness we find a beauty that takes our breath away, a goodness in creation that makes the morning stars sing for joy.