In chaos and nothingness
Notes and commentary on hymn
In chaos and nothingness
Being a scientist by training, I have long believed that we have needed a hymn
that positively accepts modern science
(cosmology, geophysics, evolutionary biology, etc.)
as a gift of our omniscient God,
and that revels in his creative glories revealed
by the writers of Genesis 1-2,
the Psalmists (19:1-6; 50:1-6), the author of Job and St. Paul.
In this, we simply follow the early Church Fathers,
who recognised the non-literal, allegorical wonders of the creation stories.
This hymn is an attempt to do just that, and setting alongside these wonders
the unimaginable mystery of a triune God.
It tries to use terms of scientific language that are
both poetic in sound and widely familiar,
while avoiding those that are plain geeky.
So I included "DNA" but excluded "amino acid".
I included "tectonic plates" but avoided "deep mantle convection"
(or the latter's alternative, more recent "shallow melt lithospheric extension" hypothesis).
I included "dark energy" because the straightforward language of the term
(which actually has a deep scientific meaning)
invites anyone to engage their imagination,
but avoided (say) "Lambda-CDM cosmological constant".
With gratitude to Pete Enns,
whose book Inspiration and Incarnation
showed me how to read scripture faithfully to its original contexts.
With grateful acknowledgement to my Durham University colleague
and former Diocesan bishop
for excellent suggestions for improvements on my earlier draft. Thank you, both.
- "chaos": to resonate with the mathematical theory
(albeit the word has three different interpretations:
the everyday, the theological and the mathematical).
- "unnameable Name": In the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) the four-letter
name of God, YHWH, is so highly revered that it is never spoken.
Early in the hymn, this immediately introduces the ideas
of such tensions and paradox and our lack of knowledge.
But see also 4:4.
- "dark energy". The universe is expanding.
The rate of expansion (acceleration)
is actually increasing, against the laws of gravitation
(which would reduce the acceleration).
This is attributed to a hypothetical "dark energy".
- "hovering, racing". A deliberate conjunction of opposites
as we try to know the unknowable.
- "shaping the birth". In Genesis, the Spirit of God (Hebrew feminine "ruach")
is indicated as brooding over the waters.
- "galaxy...earth". "galaxy clusters" reflects the modern astronomical view of the entire universe;
"sun and the moon and the earth" reflects the Genesis viewpoint;
the two are here placed beside each other, augmenting each other, a little like in Psalm 8:3-4.
- John 1:1-5; Col 1:16.
- "unfurled". This verb has an association with wind, which here alludes
to the work of the Spirit.
- "origin...species". An allusion to, and positive affirmation of,
Darwin's exegesis of biological science and its resonance with our exegesis of faith.
- Ps 104:5; various places in Job
- "played your dice". A famous question of Albert Einstein, linking science and faith.
- "played your dice... you planned... chance": the inherent paradox and dichotomy is intentional. "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord" (Prov. 16:33)
- "mortal span": a phrase subconsciously borrowed from Timothy Dudley-Smith's hymn "Come now with awe".
- "where is wisdom...?" Job 28:12.
Also the Christian interpretation recognises parallels between Old Testament "wisdom"
and the New Testament revelation of the Spirit.
So this whole verse is specifically trinitarian.
- "yet heavens are voicing": Ps 19:1-4.
- "crowned": Col 1:18b.
- "invisible... visible": Col 1:15.
- "breathed order": reflecting original creation from chaos;
also, by implication, restoring the chaotic results of the Fall
(otherwise not explicitly mentioned in this text).
- "breathed life": in the Upper Room, Jesus breathed on his disciples "receive the Holy Spirit",
the same Spirit who had hovered over creation.
- "Name above every name": Phil 2:4.
Also the "name" theme brings us full circle to the hymn's opening.
- a Trinitarian doxology
- "Transcendent and immanent": Linguistically resonates with hymn's opening
"chaos and nothingness".
One view of contemporary hymn-writing tries to avoid such theologically technical language,
instead presenting simple statements.
But this hymn is about facing the unknown and unknowable mysteries of God,
which, by their very nature, require some effort of thought.
- The opening line's "unnameable Name" of the one God (singular)
is now more deeply revealed as a three-person Triune Godhead.