Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
In case you haven’t heard, there’s a total eclipse coming to the United States on August 21, 2017. Since the last total eclipse to cross the continental United States was in 1979, almost four decades ago, this astronomical event can be seen as a big deal. It has also generated quite a bit of debate, especially centered on the question of what, if any, method is the safest for viewing.
God, like nature, is also powerful, awful, sublime.Astronomers and optometrists alike have cautioned overeager gazers from looking directly at the sun without appropriate protective eyewear. They have duly reminded prospective viewers that looking directly at the sun is always dangerous and the temptation to do so will be significantly increased given the appeal of watching the eclipse. Some, no doubt, will ignore these warning, while others may decide to give up watching the daytime skies entirely. There’s been a rush to buy the approved glasses, which has apparently led to some scammers taking advantage of would-be purchasers.
The strange mixture of excitement, awe, and nagging fear that has accompanied the hype represents a particularly stark illustration of the broader ambivalence with which people in general, and Christians in particular, regard the natural world. For Christians, our gut reaction is to thank God for the beautiful world he has created. My Facebook feed is never short of Instagram photos by my believing friends of rainbows and sunsets and storm clouds and meadows. In one sense, this is as it should be. Yet these photos, while elegant, too often appear stylized, streamlined, safe. And no one who has meditated thoroughly on God’s creation (or, for that matter, the Bible’s descriptions of his creation) can be wholly comfortable with this kind of Instagram Nature. From storms to earthquakes to (you guessed it) eclipses, we can never quite look at the cosmos free from fear. And this too is as it should be.
Part of our problem is semantic. Our current English usage has left the word beauty to carry more of a burden than it should be saddled with. Starting in the eighteenth century, especially with Edmund Burke, philosophers began to distinguish between the beautiful and the sublime. Roger Scruton helpfully parses out the appropriate distinction: “When we are attracted to the harmony, order, and serenity of nature, so as to feel at home in it and confirmed by it, then we speak of its beauty; when, however, as on some wind-blown mountain crag, we experience the vastness, the power, the threatening majesty of the natural world, and feel our own littleness in the face of it, then we should speak of the sublime” (61).
Under these distinctions, Christians do beautiful well in our appreciation of nature, but we’re not so good at sublime. Indeed, one seldom even encounters Burke’s usage of the term. Yet on some level, we all recognize its truth. We’ve all seen a storm approaching or a vista almost too grand for us to bear. But because Americans don’t really like to think about uncomfortable things, we may push such thoughts to the back of our consciousness.
But the eclipse won’t let us do that, partly because of its inescapability—a large swath of the country will experience some form of it—and partly because it seems somehow both beautiful and sublime. One the one hand, it’s just the sun and the moon, the most familiar celestial objects around. We see them every day anyway. Because of their distance, they don’t occupy huge spaces in our field of vision. They’re beautiful, in the classic and safe sense.
Yet the danger to our eyesight serves as a disquieting reminder that the very sun which nourishes us, whose light gives us life and whose rays refract into rainbows, is an inconceivably hot and powerful mass of tempestuous, destructive force. If looking at just a sliver of the sun from millions of miles away can cause irreparable damage to our eyes, how much more terrible must it be in even closer proximity? And then, to see that force of combustion plunged into death-like shadow? Annie Dillard has poignantly described her own terror in a famous essay she wrote about her viewing of the 1979 eclipse, an event that caused her and her companions to scream. “I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky,” she asserts. “You see the wide world swaddled in darkness.”
How we view God is often deeply intertwined with how we view his creation, and so reflecting on the sublimity of the solar system draws us closer to reflection on aspects of God we may like to forget. The Bible never forgets these aspects, however. He is the God whose face no one can see (Exodus 33:20; John 1:18), and his speech is thunder on the mountainside (Exodus 19). Psalm 97:2–5 reminds us,
Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
Fire goes before him
and burns up his adversaries all around.
His lightnings light up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.
Think that’s just the “Old Testament” God? What about the sword-spitting Jesus of Revelation 1?
Perhaps no other book meditates so thoroughly on the awful, sublime nature of God than Job. Throughout most of the book, God is characterized largely by his absence. The reader sees his interactions with Satan in the first two chapters, but Job doesn’t, and for much of the text, he’s on his own with his not-so-helpful friends. In chapter 32, however, the book takes an odd turn. A young man named Elihu appears, castigating Job for impiety and the friends for their ineffectual arguments. Once the long-winded Elihu finally gets going with his message, he spends a lot of space discussing God’s providence and his grandeur.
So far so good. But when his speech ends and God finally arrives in chapter 38, Elihu disappears again from the narrative. This has led some commentators to suggest the passage was a late addition and others to consider Elihu vindicated because he doesn’t get reprimanded by God, the way Job and his friends do in the final chapter. But I think these readings both miss the vital significance of Elihu in the narrative, and in our understanding of how we often interact with God.
In the chapter and a half prior to God’s arrival, Elihu’s language shifts into recurrent storm imagery. Of course, on a literary level, this simply foreshadows God’s final speech. But it could also mean something more. If we take the position that the book of Job represents a poetic version of an actual series of dialogues that occurred in the ancient Near East, then the sudden profusion of tempest language may take on greater significance. Elihu starts speaking about storms because he can see in the distance the very storm through which God will be manifesting himself. After all, Job 38:1 states, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind.” The definite article suggests a whirlwind the reader is already familiar with, but the last references to any storms are Elihu’s own words.
In chapter 42, however, when Job’s innocence is vindicated and the friends must ask forgiveness, the impetuous Elihu is conspicuously absent. Why? The implication may well be that he fled the scene before God arrived; unlike Job’s actual friends, he’s not around to receive either praise or blame. I cringe at this because I can see myself in Elihu. Like so many Christians today, he can talk the talk about God’s greatness, God’s sublimity, but faced with the prospect of really encountering that God, his awe turns to fear, and he turns tail and leaves.
In 1955, the renowned science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke published a short story titled The Star. The story is narrated by a Jesuit scientist on an interstellar expedition whose faith is sorely tested when his ship encounters the ruins of an ancient civilization. The entire race had perished when their sun went nova; when his team runs their calculations, he realizes that this was the star whose shining in its explosive demise brought the wise men to Jesus’s nativity. It ends with the narrator’s lament, “Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?”
The Star is fiction, written by an author with no interest in proving Christian doctrine; there’s no reason to believe that the Star of Bethlehem, if it even was a supernova, decimated any populated worlds. Yet Clarke’s critique still stings a little, because it returns us to that difficult tension. The universe is incomprehensibly immense, and most of its fundamental forces are carved out of acts of cosmic destruction. Maybe God didn’t destroy aliens to commemorate his incarnation, but God is sovereign over a realm in which creation and destruction often go hand in hand.
Of course, God doesn’t ask us to understand all his processes. The answer Job got came in a whirlwind that scared Elihu right out of town—and even then, we have no evidence that the Lord ever told Job about the events from chapters 1 and 2. Yet he and his friends, somehow, are satisfied.
I grew up not far from arguably the safest place in the country, and now I live in a state where almost every rain seems apocalyptic. So I entirely understand the wish to focus on the beauty of nature—and of its creator. But like it or not, God, like nature, is also powerful, awful, sublime. And (weather permitting) I’ll be out there with many others, my protective glasses on, ready for my glimpse of the eclipse, ready to give praise to its maker and (hopefully) to fear him without being afraid of him.
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