by Richard Clutterbuck
Early posts to this blog pointed out that language which initially seems to point inward to the life of the Church (social holiness, the priesthood of all believers) also says something important about the outward mission of the Christian community. Following this, I’m thinking about the way in which our experience of the created world helps shape our language about, and understanding of, God, and how, in turn, that understanding can shape our response to the needs of creation.
In his presidential address, Roger Walton reminded us that holiness starts with and comes from God; it is God’s holiness rather than ours that should shape our understanding. Vice-president Rachel Lampard used the phrase ‘oceans of justice’ and It’s that word, ‘ocean’ – as a metaphor for the Christian God – that I focus on here. The metaphors we use to talk about God matter and are significant pointers to the way we engage with the world from which they come.
On a recent visit to the churches in Oceania, my friend Bishop Winston Halapua asked me why I thought John Wesley had a written a hymn beginning with the line, ‘O God, thou bottomless abyss’. Halapua has written about moana[i] – a Polynesian word for the ocean – as a way of understanding how God, the world and humanity are connected. He points out that for islanders the ocean isn’t so much the barrier that separates us as the thing that connects us to each other.
Wesley’s hymn, ‘O God, thou bottomless abyss’, appeared as 42 in the Methodist Hymn Book and in an altered form (‘O God, thy being who can sound?’) as 54 in Hymns and Psalms. It is absent altogether from Singing the Faith. The hymn – a by-product of Wesley’s unsuccessful missionary service in America – is a translation from the German O Gott, du Tiefe sonder Grund by Ernst Lange, and was first published in Charlestown, Georgia, in 1737 as part of Wesley’s Collection of Psalms and Hymns. It was introduced to Wesley by the Moravians he encountered on his rough crossing of the Atlantic – the pietist Christians who sang and prayed with confidence while the rest of the ship’s company was in panic – so he may have picked up a (for him) new way of understanding God through the experience of a safely-completed ocean voyage. Here’s how it begins in the MHB:
O God, thou bottomless abyss,
Thee to perfection who can know?
O height immense, what words suffice
Thy countless attributes to show?
Unfathomable depths thou art
I plunge me in thy mercy’s sea
Void of true wisdom is my heart
With love embrace and cover me[ii]
The hymn goes on to use the metaphor of the ocean to explore the immensity, power and unknowability of God, as well as God’s benevolent provision and all-encompassing love. It’s an interesting contrast to the way the sea is depicted in the Bible. The people of Israel were landlubbers, the sea was a threatening, chaotic force always in danger of overwhelming the order of creation. Noah’s flood, Jonah in the fish’s belly and so on. But we can view the ocean in a more positive light. Sometimes the ‘big picture’ message of the Bible needs different language.
Two brief conclusions: First, our language about God needs to reflect the transcendent immensity of one who is ‘wholly other’. The recent first volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology[iii] is a helpful corrective to the fashionable, but often naïve, social trinitarianism of much contemporary theology. Sonderegger reminds us that the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is first and foremost one, and she goes on to explore the traditional perfections of this one God who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. It is not merely because of our human limitations that we cannot fully plumb God’s depths; it is the very nature of God to be beyond understanding. ‘Deep ocean’ or ‘bottomless abyss’ – turns out to be an apt metaphor for the Christian God.
But the places where we find our metaphors need our attention, too. If the ocean points to the nature of God, then our understanding of God should point to the way we treat the ocean. It is in the oceans that the effects of climate change are most felt, with devastating consequences for fish stocks, the health of coral reefs, the sea levels around coastal communities and patterns of extreme weather. This calls for an urgent and radical Christian response. Solomon Island theologian Cliff Bird[iv] talks about ‘oceanising John Wesley’ and draws out ecological principles from Wesley’s approach to creation.
In conclusion, if the oceans, as a facet of God’s good creation, point us to the unfathomable depths of God’s being, so dwelling on God’s depths should lead us to treat those same oceans with justice, love and respect.
[i] Winston Halapua, Waves of God’s Embrace: Sacred Perspectives from the Oceans, Canterbury Press, 2008.
[ii] There is a brief account of the different versions of this hymn in Companion to Hymns and Psalms, edited by Richard Watson and Kenneth Trickett, Methodist Publishing, 1988, p. 65
[iii] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1, The Doctrine of God, Fortress Press, 2015.
[iv] Cliff Bird, ‘”Oceanising” John Wesley? Towards an Ecological-Ethical Reading of John Wesley for Contemporary Oceanic Methodists’. Unpublished conference paper.