Throughout my life I’ve had more discussions with people about God than I dare count. Most conversations are with believers who accept him despite their lack of proof; others with skeptics who reject him, or throw up their hands in uncertainty, because they deem the evidence contrary or inconclusive.
When I’ve asked what would seal the deal, I’ve gotten two answers: “To have God reveal himself,” or “to see a bona fide miracle,” some marvel beyond material explanation.
I’ve always thought these responses odd. Folks who shun the existence of a immaterial God they’ve never seen have no problem readily accepting the existence of quantum fields, the mind, memes, free will, and the Big Bang, to name but a few of the things they, likewise, have never seen.
When I bring up phenomena like information, consciousness, creativity, physical laws, and life itself, as inexplicable in a non-intelligent world, they, like a character in one of my favorite films, shrug, “Oh, those are just products of nature.”
Just a Dog
Finding Neverland (2004), based on the life of Peter Pan author, James Barrie, follows Barrie’s friendship with Sylvia Davies and her four young boys.
During their initial meeting, the boys ask Barrie how he makes a living. With their brother Peter diverted elsewhere, Barrie glances at his dog and replies:
“Well, currently, I make my living entertaining princes and their courts with my trained bear, Porthos. If you command your brother, Peter, to join us, I am willing to give you just such a performance.”
“Very well” the boys reply, as Peter reluctantly redirects his attention.
“Now … I want you to pay particular attention to the teeth. Some unscrupulous trainers will show you a bear whose teeth have all been pulled, while other cowards will force the brute into a muzzle. Only the true master would attempt these tricks without either measure of safety.”
“This is absurd,” snaps Peter. “It’s just a dog.”
“Just a dog”? “Just”? Porthos, don’t listen to him. Porthos dreams of being a bear and you want to dash those dreams by saying he’s “just a dog”? What a horrible, candle-snuffing word. That’s like saying, “He can’t climb that mountain, he’s just a man.” Or, “That’s not a diamond, it’s just a rock.”
“Fine then. Turn him into a bear…if you can.”
“With those eyes, my bonny lad, I’m afraid you’d never see it.”
I’ve known people, like young Peter, who are afflicted with a special kind of glaucoma—one that impairs its victims from seeing beyond physical appearances. For them, “just” is a hammer—a dream-squashing utterance that reduces the extraordinary to the ordinary, the significant to the insignificant, the sacred to the profane: “She’s just a clerk.” “It’s just a clump of cells.” “It’s just a part of our evolutionary heritage.” “It’s just a myth.” It’s a word that was used against the most significant person to ever walk the earth.
Just a Carpenter
The sixth chapter of Mark’s gospel recounts the homecoming of a local celebrity. Immediately before his return, the rising star had done three things that multiplied his fame: He had exorcised a legion of demons from a possessed man, healed a woman of a twelve-year bout of hemorrhaging, and raised a young girl from the dead—all in the span of one day. Each was an extraordinary feat. Collectively, they were staggering.
From his command over spirits to his power over death, this man proved anything but ordinary. Yet in the face of those stunning accomplishments, the city fathers dismissed him with “He’s just a carpenter—Mary’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a kid. Who does he think he is?”
“Just” probably prefaced many remarks about Jesus during his life on earth.
Just a Child
A couple of years ago Tinseltown accomplished something truly special. It brought us a film that is biblically factual without reducing the story to a felt-board narrative. Set design, costuming, acting, and script came together to make The Nativity Story (2006) a raw and authentic telling of the first Christmas—an achievement that has escaped previous cinematic efforts.
What impressed me, or rather surprised me, in this beautifully shot and scored film was how common everything must have appeared to a first century observer. It made me wonder what I would have noticed on that, otherwise, uneventful morning: An indigent couple of no particular importance giving birth to a child of no apparent distinction, in the most impoverished of settings–a cattle stall in a cesspool settlement of Judea. Or would I have seen something more?
Although the climactic frames regress to the familiar greeting card idealization, the previous ninety minutes portray, what must have been, the unremarkableness of it all to a casual passerby. Outside of the informed circle of shepherds, magi, and undisclosed others, there would have been nothing special here. Only a newborn in a feeding trough. Surely nothing to arouse suspicion, much less awe and wonder.
Yet amid the gravel, dust, straw, and livestock was a narrative that began at the beginning when God told the Serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; she will crush your head, and you will strike her heel.” From there, the story went on about a God and a people through whom that promise would be fulfilled.
But on this particular day, the Promise slipped into human history unnoticed by eyes and ears that were scanning the horizon for a conquering king. I can imagine village folk approaching the curious crowd asking, “What’s going on there? Why all the fuss? The Messiah, you say? A Savior?”
Some, familiar with the narrative and piqued to know more, lingered. They examined the setting and asked further questions to see if the prophesies and circumstances lined up. While others, expecting a full-grown Homeric hero, shook their heads and walked away.
While neither was privy to Gabriel’s announcement, the visitation of the Spirit, or among the shepherds in the fields, they knew the story line: The Messiah would be from the line of Abraham, from the tribe of Judah, from the house of David, born of a virgin in Bethlehem within the timeframe predicted by Daniel. As the circumstances began falling into place, one group dropped to its knees in adoration, and the other turned away with a sneer: “Nonsense, it’s just a child!”
The former were like the hemorrhaging woman Jesus told, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” And the latter like those he said “in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.’”
So, when a modern day skeptic tells me they need a personal revelation from God to believe, I tell them that in all likelihood it would be insufficient. After all, it failed to convince those who experienced a revelation in that humble stall two thousand years ago. Indeed, in the generations hence, men have gazed upon the scene and, in the words of John Betjeman, wondered:
And is it true? And is it true?
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
For those, like Peter Davies, who could only see a docile dog, it’s just a baby; but for hearts ready for an unsafe Lord and Savior, Emmanuel has come.
“For I do not seek to understand that I may believe,
but I believe in order to understand.”
∼ St. Anselm of Canterbury
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Nativity” painted by Jacopo Tintoretto in the 1550s.