“You’re gonna need a bigger boat!” Actor Roy Scheider’s ad-libbed advice in the 1975 film Jaws came when its human protagonists first saw the size of the shark they were up against.
I waited till the end of the summer of its release before seeing the movie; I didn’t want to be afraid to go to the beach! That August I watched it in a crowded Philadelphia theater with two friends, both Roman Catholic priests. When a severed head popped into view through a gash in the underwater hull of a boat, one of my friends let out a scream that sent waves of screams and shouts in the rows in front of us and behind us. One of those behind us popped the head of my other friend with his finger, saying, “Don’t do that, man!” I caused a similar stir when I greeted fellow seminarians watching it in a New Haven theater a few weeks later: they leapt in their seats.
Perversely, perhaps, I thought of this as I finished reading Julian of Norwich’s mystical writings. Her God is so much bigger than most, with a love that preexisted all that is loved and flows to all eternity. No wonder she approaches her visions with “reverent fear,” what we might call “awe.”
“You’re gonna need a bigger God!”
My big “ah-hah,” my own revelation as I finished contemplating Julian’s Revelations is that we cannot know God. The whole of the Bible and church tradition is but a glimpse or glimmer or even a shadow of divinity. Using pronouns and metaphors or equating God with Jesus limits our ability to recognize our profound ignorance.
“Duh,” you might say, “But of course!” I might have said exactly that had I not felt our unknowing so deeply.
Paradoxically, that’s what the Bible is all about: our infinitesimal, limited view of God.
Jacob wrestling with the mysterious Stranger. Sarah laughing at her Guest’s promise of a child. The Voice from the burning bush, refusing to be named, declaring “I will be what I will be.”
On Mt. Sinai, Yahweh holding a hand over Moses’s eyes while passing by, with Moses glimpsing only the afterglow. Elijah hearing simply “the sound of a gentle stillness” or “a still, small voice.”
The Dove at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus proclaiming an invisible Reign of God through homely, puzzling parables and countercultural beatitudes and teachings. The enigmatic Cross. Jesus’ Easter message to Mary, “Do not hold on to me.” Seeing in a mirror dimly.
How, then, can we know, in the words of 1 John, that “God is love”?
It really is a matter of faith to affirm cosmic or divine benevolence. Yet life and love, pleasure and joy, wisdom and compassion have come to be, surely clues to the yearning of the universe or of divinity. Small wonder that Julian concludes that our part is “thanking, trusting, rejoicing,” three dimensions of a contemplative life.
Earlier that week I had read an article about the science of all this that pointed out:
If a number called alpha, which governs the strength of electromagnetism, were infinitesimally larger or smaller, stars could not have formed, leaving a lifeless void. … Other values, like the mass of the Higgs [boson], or the strength of the force that binds together the cores of atoms, appear to be just as finely tuned. Bump the dials just barely, and nothing like our universe could exist.
If that doesn’t give rise to reverent fear, doesn’t send you to your knees or to a house of worship, I’m not sure what will.
My June sermon for New York’s Fort Washington Collegiate Church is now available at this link: “When God’s Will and Human Will Coincide.”
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