Friday, 25 April 2008

Does Size Matter?

No time to blog, as usual, so here's the latest parish mag article...

At a recent children's service, we were singing My God is so Big (with actions). It's meant to be a comforting and encouraging little ditty; God is big enough to help us cope with anything. Recently, though, two perennial questions have come my way again: if God is so big, why should he bother with us, and if God is so big, how can we possibly claim to know him?

Each one has the same starting point, and it's a good one - the realisation that God is not big, or even BIG, but unimaginably, literally infinitely, beyond any image of size. And of course, size is only an image. God has no size any more than she has a gender (but I'm old-fashioned and will stick with "he" henceforth), a body, an age and so on. But bigness is a useful image when we realise that we are thinking about whatever it is which underlies all existence. In Mother Julian of Norwich's famous vision, she saw God holding a nut-like object in his hand, which, he said was "all that is". Since her time we have learnt that "all that is" is unimaginably greater than she could have guessed.

And if God is personal - the ultimate Mind, then he apprehends and understands the whole show. So why should we have the arrogance to suppose that he is bothered with us? There's a bit in one of the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy books which sums it up well. A scientist murders his nagging wife by making a machine which enables her to grasp her importance in the universe. Faced with such insignificance, she kills herself. We need, suggests Douglas Adams, the author, to believe we are more important than we are. But he, and our starting question, miss the point.

Given what we know about the immensity of creation, it seems reasonable nowadays to suppose that the existence of the human race may not be the only purpose of creation. There may well be other intelligent species, and the universe itself may well be something in which God delights as his own work of art. But that doesn't relegate us to insignificance. The reason is simply our ability to feel insignificant - to feel awe and wonder.

The universe just is. It's there, and that's that. If it has any significance, it's because someone sees it as significant, is able to wonder at it and to appreciate its beauty, danger, horror and joy. In being able to do that, for all our small size and limited abilities, we are closer to God than a nebula, for, like him, we can appreciate it. It doesn't seem to me all that far-fetched to suppose that God might value such creatures that share some of his own characteristics; what the Bible calls the "image of God", perhaps. And if huge size is not necessarily all that important in itself then neither is small size. God can value us for our ability to respond to creation - and to its creator.

Which takes us to the second question. If God can understand, and keep in existence the whole universe, how can we claim to know him? The obvious and simple answer is that we can't. There's a whole way of doing theology and mysticism based on this - all we can say of God is, "He's not really like that." (It's called apophatic theology if you want to know.)

But that doesn't mean we can't make some reasonable assumptions; he's creative, for a start. More than that, if it seems reasonable to assume that God might value creatures who share to some degree his own appreciation of creation, and have the capacity to enter into relationships, then it seems fair to suppose that he might reveal something of himself to them. And indeed relate to them.

We can't say that the God we apprehend and relate to is all that there is of God. That would be silly. But we can say that it reflects what we are able to understand of the truth of God. Of course, that understanding is always open to change, as we learn more, experience more and reflect more. But it remains based on what we believe God has revealed of himself, and is therefore something we can accept as true as far as it goes.

Christians, of course, believe that God has given us the best possible picture of himself. If you could distill the essence of the infinite creator Mind into a human being, what sort of person would he be? Answer: Jesus of Nazareth.

It is as we relate to the God revealed in Christ that we discover more about him, find limits to what we can reasonably say about him, and discover our own significance to be pretty high, because he cares about us.

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