The question, “Where is God?” appears several times in the Bible, perhaps most famously in the book of Job, but it occurs frequently in the psalms as well. Psalm 115 offers a lyrical meditation on the question:
Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.
Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Our God is in the heavens;
he does whatever he pleases….
The heavens are the Lord’s heavens,
but the Earth he has given to human beings.
God is in Heaven; God inhabits the sky. It is an ancient and universal answer, so ancient and universal that we do not know when or where human beings first articulated it. And it may well be the first answer that most people know in their own lives – learned in Sunday school or taught by parents or heard on the wind. Simple, right?
The psalmist’s words, “Our God is in the heavens,” actually unveil far more complex spiritual possibilities. Unlike the ground and water, sky is beyond our comprehension. Where does it begin or end? How large is it? It is both visible, as the location of Heavenly orbs and clouds and colored light, and invisible, as atmosphere and wind. It is a vast cosmos and big skies; it is sunlight warming our face or wind blowing our hair. The sky is multilayered: it consists of a five-layer atmosphere and then outer space. The atmosphere is the world’s protective covering, keeping the planet safe from the icy terrors of the deeper heavens. The sky touches the Earth, yet its outer edges are infinitely far from us. It is where we always are, what we always breathe, yet at the same time it is a place we can never go without oxygen and special suits and flying machines. We breathe the sky in; we make wishes on stars whose names we do not know. The sky is the most intimate inner space and the most incomprehensible outer reaches of the universe. It is something we see; it is something that remains an invisible presence in our lives.
What does it really mean to say that God is in the heavens?
Every other year or so, my family goes on retreat to a place called Ring Lake Ranch outside of Dubois, Wyoming, in the Wind River Range, a couple of hours east of Yellowstone. On our first visit some years ago, the director warned us to bring flashlights and be careful after dark, for city dwellers were unused to night without electric lights. I was not entirely sure what he meant. But when the sun completely set, it seemed like a thick wool blanket had been pulled over my head. All light disappeared. I had forgotten my flashlight, and I feared I would not make it back to my cabin. Trying not to panic, I sat on the lodge stairs and wondered what to do.
In a few minutes, my eyes adjusted to the night’s lesser lights. The moon was bright, but it was not the only source of light. The sky was nearly pulsating with millions of stars, more stars than I had ever seen, some still, some in familiar patters, some shooting past others toward destinations unknown. I trembled. The cold, perhaps? A sudden shock at the power of the night sky? Without a moment’s reflection the words of an old hymn sounded in my mind: “Consider all the worlds thy hands have made.”
Consider. Indeed, the word, “consider,” which comes from the French and literally means to “observe the stars,” now serves as a call to reflect upon or study intensely. Consider the sky. That night in Wyoming I understood that the sky was much more than I knew. It was compelling and frightening. I considered not only my strange insignificance, but I considered God, the one who is Light and made the lights. It was easy to see why thousands of generations of humankind believed God – or the gods – lived in the stars or dwelt in distant realms as a sky deity. In our time, the night sky has become less familiar, as city lights compete with Heavenly ones to brighten the dark. But beyond the city, the night sky still dazzles, as it has since before our existence, and will for billions of years to come. The Milky Way, the Northern Lights, constellations north and south, millions of distant planets and moons and suns and comets, all dancing in the dark to some primal pattern that physicists seek and pets extol.
We can also consider the day sky with its clouds and colors. Clouds, of course, are water vapor, part of the great water cycle of rivers and seas and rains. Atmospheric conditions create different sorts of clouds. When water vapor gathers in particular patterns and at particular levels above the Earth, these clouds form various kinds of storms from gentle rains to thunderstorms and violent cyclones. Clouds are one way that we “see” the atmosphere, the way in which otherwise invisible currents create these massive puffy pockets of water. Perhaps nearly everyone across the globe, young and old, shares the experience of looking up and seeing shapes in the clouds. Like the stars in the night sky, they are what we see when we gaze up, the first thing we notice above.
During the day, we also see light. The sun is the primary source of daylight, the closest fiery star that warms the world and sends light that we might see. Unlike the dazzling night stars, it is easy to take the day’s star for granted; it is a necessary yet oddly ignored fact of life. Yet light, as a spectrum of radiant energy, is the source of our vision. Without the wavelengths of light that strike our retinas and initiate nerve impulses, we would not see at all. Thus, light both enables the mechanism of human seeing and is something we see. This energy, whose primary source is the sun, interacts with our eyes and makes visible all that we perceive. We see because the light in the sky, and we see the light of the sky. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good,” (Genesis 1:3-4). That God “sees” light is a spiritually compelling image. No wonder ancient creeds refer to God as Light from Light.
Thus the sky, both night and day, makes itself known by what we see. But the skies hold things that are mysteriously unseen as well: dark matter and wind. Indeed Genesis also speaks of the dark, which exists when light is separated from it, also created by God. The far reaches of space contain what physicists call “dark matter,” unknown subatomic particles that cannot be seen and whose existence is inferred from mathematical models of the universe. Dark matter emits no light, yet its invisible presence accounts for gravitational effects on bodies that are visible in the universe. Scientists believe that 84 percent of the entire universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy combined, things that can only be seen by their effects. In the lower reaches of the sky, wind functions in a similar way. It cannot be seen, but we can see what it does. We measure wind by its impact, not by seeing the actual wind. Dark matter in outer space, wind in the layers of atmosphere – powerful yet invisible to us, these forces are part of human experience with the sky.
The sky is not static. The firmament is not fixed. Instead a dynamic sphere of activity surrounds us. Sometimes we pay attention to it and sometimes not. To say that God is in the sky is not to imply that God lives at a certain address above the Earth. Instead it is an invitation to consider God’s presence that both reaches to the stars and wafts through our lives as a spiritual breeze.