I was explaining to a friend recently why Turner’s landscapes are among my favourite paintings. I love the savage beauty of nature, as he depicts it. Something about his wild impartial skies and wild, alien landscapes resonates with my soul.
Whenever we look at a piece of art, we only tangentially see the artist. What we really see is ourselves. When I look at a Turner, it may or may not be the artist’s worldview I connect with. I do not know enough about William Turner to be able to say for certain. I do know that I see a projection of myself, and something else completely alien.
Like any artwork, nature has a life of its own, independent of the creator and the viewer. As with any painting, when we contemplate nature, I believe we will primarily see ourselves – our fears and our despair, our hopes and our desires – reflected there. I do not believe that there is sufficient evidence from nature to conclude that there is a God.
Turner’s apparent perspective of nature is much like my own. The universe seems completely indifferent to my existence. I am, as the title of my blog suggests, a vapour in the wind: here one moment, gone the next, with not a trace to suggest that I was ever here. I find that strangely liberating. It means that my individual griefs, my pain and my struggles, as well as my dreams and joys and triumphs, are ultimately meaningless. I do my best because that is how to live life most fulfilled, but whether I succeed or fail is irrelevant from the point of view of eternity. Time and space will notice neither my arrival nor my departure. Stars will be born and stars will die unnoticed in distant galaxies. In comparison, what is my brief span? I am nothing.
But God is love. At least, that is what Jesus and his disciples claim. I do not see that in nature. In the universe I see only cold indifference. One cannot, I think, know God through nature any more than one could know a painter only through his art. The only legitimate proof that there was a God would have to come from said God. The existence of a being who is by definition beyond the bounds of human understanding could not be inferred purely through human logic and experience.
As long as we rely on the universe to provide us with our picture of God, we will always serve a God who in some way reflects the worst parts of ourselves: our capriciousness and pettiness, our arrogance and our despair.
That is why I love Jesus. When I look at Him, I see a God in love with us. If Jesus is the best possible picture of God we can have, and I believe He is, then we really ought to be astounded by God’s love. It is extravagant beyond comprehension for an infinite being to subject Himself to what must seem like the triviality of human life.
My sister-in-law is getting married next week, and I have been meditating a lot upon love recently. I think it is easy as one becomes older to equate love with obligation. Now I know that love is so much more than just a fleeting feeling, and am not suggesting for a single moment that God’s love is like that. But I also have to believe that if God is pure love, as the Bible suggests, then his love for us must transcend mere duty.
Try to remember the last time you were consumed by love. Not the last time you obeyed it, not the last time you fulfilled your obligations as a husband, wife, child or parent, but the last time your sense of self was obliterated in the purity of its fire. Try to recall the last time you were so captivated by love that time and space lost meaning, or when the pain of being apart from the one you loved was an intense physical pain in your gut.
That is how I imagine God loves us: with a fierce and devouring intensity. So much that He would bind himself to the agonising limitations of human experience to let us know that we are loved, that we do not have to face the universe’s frigid taciturnity alone. And so much that He refused to let us labour under the frightening misapprehension that this world could ever be enough. He had to show us there was more. I am certain He has a painful yearning to make us whole, to restore us to life in all its abundance (John 10:10), and not so much a twisted desire to save us from Himself.
Until you can read the parable of the lost sheep through the eyes of love – see that in the story He equates himself with the shepherd who left the other 99 sheep to look for the one lost one – until you can see the breath-taking lavishness of that gesture, you will never even begin to understand the cross. More and more I am convinced that the point of the law, the prophets, of our entire interaction with God, was never to make us morally good or acceptable to God, but to restore us to the illimitable life our Creator intended, to let us know that we already are more than acceptable to Him: we are loved un restrainedly. If you cannot comprehend the wild abandon of God’s love, you will tragically associate the most beautiful act in human history with an attempt to assuage God’s wrath rather than a profound expression of His incomprehensible love.
I doubt that is what Mr Turner had in mind when he loosed the gale onto his canvas and gave shape to the cowering ship amid the obscene and looming waves, but then again we only really see ourselves in art.