Thursday, August 15, 2013

Isaac Watts: God as "Boundless Unconceivables and Vast Eternity"

Thy Sovereign Voice bids ancient Night
Her spacious realms resign,
And lo! ten thousand globes of Light
In fields of azure shine.

Every Sunday of my childhood I must have sung at least one hymn by Isaac Watts, his text matched with some appealing musical setting: "Joy to the World," "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," "Come We that Love the Lord," and a score of others. In protestant hymnals to this day, texts by Watts are typically rivaled in number only by those of Charles Wesley and outnumbered only by the biblical Psalmist.

I felt welcome and comfort in Watts' hymns—though in the brash self-occupation of youth I would never have thought in that way. I barely knew the name of Isaac Watts. Still, from my childish response I can testify that Watts achieved his stated goal for these congregational hymns:
I have aimed at ease of numbers [rhymes] and smoothness of sound, and endeavour'd to make the sense plain and obvious. ("Preface" to Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707)
Mid-way in my childhood years an imaginative aunt gave me a children's book that stretched my awareness, first down and down into the infinitesimal realm of subatomic particles, and then up and up into the infinite realms of intergalactic space. I no longer remember the book's title, but I shall never forget its images that awakened in me a sense of wonder and awe, a deeply inward cosmic feeling that I later recognized as religious.

In those youthful years I would have been fascinated to learn that the Isaac Watts of our hymn book was passionate about astronomy. In 1725 he published The First Principles of Geography and Astronomy, a textbook of uncommon clarity and demanding scope. In a letter to a friend, a close associate of Isaac Newton, Watts spoke of the religious importance of his amateur interest:
Without commencing some acquaintance with these mathematical sciences, I could never arrive at so clear a conception of many things delivered in the scriptures; nor could I raise my ideas of God the Creator to so high a pitch.... Nor was there ever any thing that has contributed to enlarge my apprehensions of the immense power of God, the magnificence of his creation and his own transcendent grandeur, so much as that little portion of Astronomy which I have been able to attain.... When we muse on these things we may lose ourselves in holy wonder, and cry out with the Psalmist, Lord, what is man, that thou art mindful of him....
Now, more than six decades beyond childhood, I have discovered that Watts wrote hymn texts expressive of his cosmic sense of God's transcendent grandeur. He published them under the title Horae Lyricae (Lyric Hours) a few months before the publication of his collection of more standard Hymns and Spiritual Songs from which I sang as a boy. Watts characterizes the two collections as opposites:
As in that book [Horae Lyricae] I have endeavour'd to please and profit the politer part of mankind without offending the plainer sort of Christians, so in this [Hymns and Spiritual Songs] it has been my labour to promote the pious entertainment of souls truly serious, even of the meanest capacity, and at the same time (if possible) not to give disgust to persons of richer sense and nicer education.
The Horae Lyricae hymns are strong medicine against religious presumption. From the hymn "God's Infinity":

       Thine essence is a vast abyss
          Which angels cannot sound,
       An ocean of infinities
          Where all our thoughts are drowned....

       In vain our haughty reason swells,
          For nothing's found in Thee
       But boundless unconceivables,
          And vast eternity.

From "Worshipping with Fear":

       Created powers, how weak they be!
          How short our praises fall!
       So much akin to nothing we,
          And Thou eternal All.

Not many of these cosmic texts have appeared in hymnals. A notable exception is the final hymn of Horae Lyricae titled "God Exalted above All Praise":

       Eternal Power! whose high abode
       Becomes the grandeur of a God,
       Infinite length beyond the bounds
       Where stars revolve their little rounds!

       The lowest step beneath thy seat,
       Rises too high for Gabriel's feet;
       In vain the tall archangel tries
       To reach thine height, with wond'ring eyes.

       There while the first archangel sings,
       He hides his face behind his wings,
       And ranks of shining thrones around
       Fall worshiping, and spread the ground.

       Lord, what shall earth and ashes do?
       We would adore our Maker too:
       From sin and dust to Thee we cry,
       The Great, the Holy, and the High.

       Earth from afar has heard Thy fame,
       And worms have learnt to lisp Thy name;
       But, O! the glories of Thy mind
       Leave all our soaring thoughts behind.

       God is in heaven, and men below;
       Be short our tunes, our words be few;
       A solemn reverence checks our songs,
       And praise sits silent on our tongues.

We might expect such a cautionary hymn to prove unacceptable to both the "politer part" and the "plainer sort" of Christians. In fact, for much of the 18th century this hymn was found in all protestant hymnals. (This information thanks to It appeared in numerous hymnals through the 19th century, and in a handful during the early 20th. Since 1950, however, it has not appeared in any hymnal.

It was the decade of the 1950s that gave us the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. In 1972 we saw the first photo of our earth's globe suspended in space. For twenty-three years now the Hubble Telescope has been transmitting pictures from astounding abysses of space.  Yet so far as I am aware, precious few hymns expressing cosmic sensibility are replacing those by Watts that have now vanished from our hymnals.

I have to wonder: are these breathtaking disclosures of boundless unconceivables in our day simply lost on worshipping Christians, polite and plain? For me cosmic feeling remains at the heart of religious life, subduing religious presumption, transcending dogma and intolerance, yearning toward universality and mutuality. I think of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew:
I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Blessing as impartial as sunshine and rain! Jesus startles with this metaphor for God's mercy drawn from the order of nature. It suggests a God of disquieting universality, a God indwelling the cosmos. 

I am therefore especially grateful for this recent hymn written by the Rev. Michael Hudson of St. David's Episcopal Church in Cullowhee, North Carolina. His suggested tune is Flentge, found at #698 in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982.

       The burning love that fired the blood of stars
       and arced across creation to combust
       as wisdom, peace, and justice through the worlds
       still burns and circulates in each of us.

       The rushing wind that drove the cosmic tide
       and swooped to earth to animate our dust
       still drives the waves of cosmogenesis
       and moves and broods and breathes in each of us.

       The living water that refreshed the thirst
       of simple swimming cells and then was thrust
       up through the veins of every living thing
       still satisfies the deepest thirst in us.

       The union of created life and God
       eludes our understanding, but we trust
       that here and now and through the sweep of time
       we each exist in God. And God in us.

From Songs for the Cycle © 2004 by Michael Hudson. Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.


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