Sights and Insights
Devotion for July 20, 2021
Those who ignore instruction despise themselves,
but those who heed admonition gain understanding.
The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom,
and humility goes before honor. – Proverbs 15:32-33 (NRSV)
Have you ever stood at the edge of a canyon and felt as if you were being sucked in by the enormity of it? Or surrounded by the bowl of the stars and been astounded at the luminous intensity of those scattered grains? When I was a teenager, my family spent over a week in the Pacific Northwest, and for several days we hoped for a glimpse of Mt. Rainier, but saw only clouds. There was one brief moment when the clouds parted and we glimpsed the mountain in its grandeur. In less than a minute the clouds returned, not to part again; yet in that brief moment the magnificence of the mountain shown through.
These moments are what the concept of the “sublime” attempts to describe. Prior to the 19th century, it was a concept largely confined to encountering a work of art – painting, literature, sculpture – that caused this sensation of vastness. Beginning in the 19th century, mountains began to be seen as sources of this sublime encounter. Since then other aspects of the environment have been included as places of experiencing the sublime. Oceans, forests, even skyscrapers have been included. The sublime is different from the beautiful. Experiencing the beauty of something is a purely positive experience. The sublime, though, carries a more mixed response. It contains awe but also a sort of nausea and repulsion, because in encountering that vastness we recognize how small and insignificant we are. Mountains and seas are utterly indifferent to whether we exist or not, and there is something disconcerting about recognizing that reality.
There are purely secular ways of speaking of the sublime, but there is also frequently a metaphysical or religious aspect to it. An experience of the sublime is often an aspect of an encounter with the divine. To encounter God is both majestic and horrifying, because it reveals to us how small and insignificant we are within the grand scheme of the cosmos and eternity. There is a reason that in the biblical texts angels nearly always begin their messages with “Do not fear.” In the face of the sublime of the divine, it is impossible not to sense that our existence is of no consequence. It is an incredible gift of faith to think that within the sublime depths of God we do in fact matter.
The fear of the Lord is a concept with many aspects to its meaning, but an important one is the sense that God is sublime. God is more than simply an easy sense of beauty; rather, to encounter God is to have one’s sense of ourselves challenged. We too often see ourselves and our concerns as the center of everything. Human pursuits and debates are all that is important. The fear of the Lord produces humility in us as we encounter God’s sublime reality and realize we are not the center of everything; we are well to the periphery. That God takes notice of us at all is incredible. From this comes a humility to listen and learn and recognize the importance of God’s ways.