The Beauty of the Infinite

The Beauty of the Infinite

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

June 6, 2004

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, 25-27

“And hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit which has been given us.”
Romans 5:5

I spent last week in the canyons of Northern New Mexico. It is a magnificent country of red and yellow rock faces and canyons of green and pink. It is a traditional holy place, so much so that the Saudis built a mosque there not to be left out, and I stayed at a hotel owned by Muslims where no alcohol or pork is served. It is also the venue of a well-known Benedictine monastery named Christ in the Desert. The beauty of that landscape is striking and I could feel the spirit of silence and deep peace that must be what people down the years have identified as the presence of God or the gods. I was also privileged to spend some of that time with Michel Serres a French philosopher, who is also one of the 40 “immortals,” as the members of the French Academy are called. So I was inspired by nature and by human interaction during a time that was rich and satisfying. Some important parts of the following meditation were discovered in conversation with Michel Serres.

In the desert it is easier to imagine losing control of life than in the midst of ordered society, and some of the reflection at the conference I attended touched on the way human action, chiefly in the form of science and technology, is changing what used to be called “nature,” and paradoxically taking it away from our control even as it comes under our control. Now we do not know what precisely the word “nature” means. Believe me! Biological technology especially, and nanotechnology in particular, is changing human nature as it leads us to wards artificial living entities that replicate themselves without our intervention, the so-called “gray goo.” We are already in the advanced stages of the of dying of the world we think we still know and can count on. Consider only the change in the contours of marriage, aided by the accelerating separation of human reproduction from normal human sex. I could give many more examples of the thesis that we are losing a world we think we know and entering a world we can barely imagine, but I must move on.

I shall come back to this experience of the “loss of world” and its imaginative realization in the desert, but first I must remark that today is Trinity Sunday, and as such is the end of that part of the liturgical calendar that celebrates the great works of our salvation, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. We have now been through the moments when God becomes human, when the human God conquers death, and when God comes to dwell with us as Spirit and Truth. Now on one climactic Sunday we are asked to see this unfolded knowledge of God integrated and whole. I could try to explain how three persons can be one nature, but I shall not. Rather I shall try to convey this mysterious divine unity by means of the category of beauty, and so have chosen as my sermon title the name of an important new book by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite.

To begin our meditation we must distinguish between the two major categories of aesthetics, the beautiful the sublime. When you stand on a promontory in the desert it is relatively easy to feel the mysterious force of the sublime. One feels the little boxes in which one orders and contains one’s experience, that is, the card file that contains one’s world, break open and break up, and with them one’s own sense of control within an organized and bounded space. Perhaps the best image of this loss of control or loss of world (because world refers to that domain of life that one can control by action and by thought) is the sea. We even use as an idiom the phrase, “to be all at sea,” meaning to be in a disordered and
uncontrolled state.  The usual word for such an experience is the “sublime.” The sublime describes the state in which we seem to be going beyond our normal consciousness, breaking the moulds that constrain us. I imagine this experience must be like the effect of hallucinogenic drugs but since I have never taken them the closest analogue I can offer is the migraine headache effect, which blurs the sight, sometimes quite comically, as words for instance appear literally to fall off the ends of the page, or dissolve before one’s eyes, as it were. The cognitive effect of the sublime is like that, and it is often taken for the experience of God. Stand on a cliff in the desert and let the world of structures and boxes blow away on the torrid wind. Many people think that God is like the sublime, and that to experience God one must go to the edge of the world and then over the edge; but the opposite is the truth, we must go to the center of the world, because God is not sublime, God is beautiful.

Our faith does not say that God mysteriously is sublime but rather that God is marvelously beautiful, that there is a “beauty of the infinite.” What does this mean? Beauty is the opposite of the sublime; beauty is the box that contains our
world, the dry land where we stand safe from the sea, the specific thing that
our eyes fall upon as we scan the desert from the cliff top. If you try to see
everything you see nothing and experience the vertigo of the sublime, if you try
to see one thing you see everything and experience the beauty of the infinite.
Trying to see all things together as the way to God is like the proverbial attempt to drink from the fire hydrant, and in many cases is a deliberate drowning of the self so one will not have to face God. Trying to see God in one thing at a time, on the other hand, is like sipping a fine wine, a deliberate calming of the self, paying attention to the little things, the nuance in the taste, the whiff of aromatic in the nose. William Blake wrote of seeing eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a flower.

 William Blake understood the God of the incarnation, the great God in the little things, and this brings us to a few formal words on the Holy Trinity, for the Trinitarian understanding of God rests entirely on the belief that God made his great mysterious self known in a single, specific man, and thus points us to the single, specific things of the world as the places where we see God, the flowers and the grain of sand, the child, and the beautiful man or woman, the cunning poem, the sound of the song and the song of the sound. Only specific things are beautiful, because God the infinite beauty did not give himself to us generally and diffused, “to whom it may concern,” but specifically, in Jesus Christ.

If we grasp the beauty of this Jesus, by means of the Holy Spirit that is poured into our hearts, we shall be able to see the beauty of the infinite or the infinite beauty in every single thing. If we see the beauty in Jesus we shall understand that God is disclosed in every little thing and far more clearly than in the overwhelming presence of all things together. In the categories I have set up for today, God is beautiful not sublime; God is the right word in the poem not the barrage of words in the press, the right note in the small song not the big noise of electric sound, the right color in the picture not the slash of violence across the canvas, the right elegance in the animal, the right gracefulness in man and woman. God revealed is always the absolutely appropriate and the absolutely specific.

Michel Serres and I in the desert agreed that as a worldwide culture we are experiencing a loss of the known world and the advent of a new world. I believe this to be more evidently the case that ever it was when Orwell wrote 1984 and Huxley, Brave New World. What they imagined is now coming to pass. Imagine my surprise when Serres, who is not obviously Christian, and I did not ask his faith or lack of it, announced that the thinker for such a time as this is St Paul, because of his grasp of the incarnation of God, and gave the keynote lecture to our conference on Paul’s categories of faith, hope and love. Speaking for myself, I have lived with St Paul all my life and have long been convinced that his is the message for our time, and all times. Nevertheless, when a man of Michel Serres’ stature and reputation as a philosopher of science, who started his career as a mathematician and whom the Hiroshima bomb turned to philosophy, says that Paul is the philosopher for such a time as this, I am encouraged to think better of my judgment about how I spent my life, and inspired again about how to spend the rest of it, as a writer and thinker in such a time as this, with a lifelong friendship with St Paul to draw on.

So let me end with the Pauline text at the top of our sermon. It is a Trinitarian text; God with whom we are now at peace because of Christ’s work, inspires our hope by coming to dwell in our hearts as the Holy Spirit. “…this hope is no mockery because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit given us,” he writes. In one short passage Paul speaks of God the Father, Christ the Son and God the Holy Spirit, interchangeably. The climax of the passage is the love of God poured into our hearts, to ground the hope Christ brings us and to seal the faith that introduces us to the venue where that hope and love are available. One God in three forms giving three gifts that in the end are one.

Paul is the thinker for this time of worldlessness, this time of diminishing control between worlds, because he knows God and can communicate God as the polymorphous presence of faith, hope and love, in the little and specific things, however uncertain and confusing the big picture may be. Remember how Paul ends 1 Corinthians 13: “Now abide faith, hope and love, these three, and the greatest of them all is love (1 Cor.13: 13). On this Trinity Sunday we might add, “Now these three abide, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and none is greater than the other because each defers absolutely to the other and together they make a seamless unity of deference, a dance of space making and self denial. That is why love is the greatest of all, because it is the unity of the divine person in one nature, (which stands to reason, because there cannot be love if there is only one)  that is why the hope we need as we slip out of the sublimity of the dying world and into the beauty of the new can only be sustained by the creator of all worlds, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, blessed Trinity.