I have often wondered why I feel more palpable fear while standing safely on the roof of a building than I do while looking out the window of a plane. In rational terms, I can easily comprehend that floating in what amounts to a closed metal tube a few thousand feet above ground is more dangerous than standing on a grounded building a few hundred feet up.
But our fears can rarely be explained in objective or rational terms. It is not the objective distance, but rather our ability to grasp the distance, that makes the difference for us. At a few thousand feet, the ground becomes geometric abstraction. We cannot comprehend the distance well enough to be afraid of it.
In those terms, awe and fear are related. Perhaps they are even joined together in our sensibility of the sublime. And I believe such a sensibility has profound implications for our ability to worship God.
This summer, I drove from Georgia to California and back with my wife, our five kids, and our close friend Rusty Hein. In the same trip, I saw the Grand Canyon, the Pacific Ocean, and the legs of the Milky Way. All three elicited similar involuntary responses, but I must admit that standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon inspired more awe than the rest. And of the three sights, the Grand Canyon is the smallest, objectively speaking.
I think one of the best descriptions of the failure of infinity to be actually big in our perception is from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
The car shot forward straight into the circle of light, and suddenly Arthur had a fairly clear idea of what infinity looked like.
It wasn’t infinity in fact. Infinity itself looks flat and uninteresting. Looking up into the night sky is looking into infinity—distance is incomprehensible and therefore meaningless. The chamber into which the aircar emerged was anything but infinite, it was just very very big, so that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself.
The Grand Canyon is large enough to make me understand how small I am in this vast universe. But it is also just small enough to be graspable to me even in my finiteness. The Grand Canyon is a glorious condescension to my limitations. It is training wheels for the infinite.
I know the Milky Way is a middling-sized cluster of celestial objects floating in a really really really big expanse populated by similar clusterings, but I also know I’m not big enough even to understand its vastness. Without a concrete comprehension of our relationship to a sublime object—how we fit into its space and how it fits into ours—its intrinsic majesty is not always enough to stir our hearts to authentic worship.
Since our worship can only ever be as large as our comprehension of the sublime, God is not satisfied with leaving us small or with leaving Himself incomprehensibly large. He wants us to become ever larger so that we can fear, adore, comprehend, and appreciate more of his vastness—most of which is currently dumb and invisible to us. And in order to make us larger, he first made himself small. At the moment of the virgin conception, infinity resided in a single human cell.
In the incarnation, God himself became touchable. The infinite became so that we could literally wrap our arms around it and pat it on the back. We must not consider that the infinite became less than itself by condescending to flesh.
And that thought terrifies me.
I have more to say on this topic, but until next time …