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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The invisible crown

All of our discoveries about life are merely penumbra

Issue: "News of the Year," Dec. 27, 2008

John Derbyshire, journalist, author, and math aficionado, is also the resident skeptic among contributors to National Review. The influential magazine of conservative commentary has a strong Catholic tradition and most of the writers today are believers of some stripe. Not Derbyshire, who once entertained a genial affection for his native Anglican faith, but has grown militantly materialist in the last few years. He accuses Christianity of being anti-science. Why? Most religions make supernatural claims, but Christianity establishes itself on a "historical" event that defies reality, namely the incarnation. We are asked to believe that a human female was impregnated by a non-human spirit and gave birth to a God-man. How ridiculous is that?

Derbyshire feels insulted. But the feeling is misplaced; God has always given humanity much greater honor than we tend to give ourselves.

First, by creation. We are made "a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor," according to one who should know. "If the universe is only all we have so far seen, we are its great marvel," writes the novelist Marilynn Robinson: man the namer, the contemplator, the recorder. Even greater than the rings of Saturn or the vast swirl of Andromeda, perhaps, is our capacity to marvel at them. The Creator has complimented us with the gift of thinking beyond ourselves. But without God to think about, we degenerate into man the consumer, the complainer, the victim, whining over slights and fighting over merchandise.

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Second, by incarnation. Jesus' spiritual being was made physical by the same Spirit who brooded over the waters before creation, in much the same way: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Luke 1:35). Though an unbelievable condescension (literally unbelievable for some, like Derbyshire), our Lord considered it no shame to knit Himself into the creation He designed and blessed. "Good is the flesh that the Word has become," writes hymnist Brian Wren-"Good is the body, for good and for God."

Third, by resurrection. As Christ's physical body snapped the bonds of death, His spiritual life blooms and multiplies. Follow the reasoning, says Paul: "If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you" (Romans 8:11). I am born into eternity as Jesus was born into time. That same Spirit-the brooder, the over-shadower-is now at work in me, leavening this flesh that, without Him, would be consumed by aches and pains and the minutiae of getting through each day.

Not scientific, but hardly anti-science. It's rather beyond science, in the realm of the unknowable. We know how life proceeds and how it ends, how growth occurs, how strength declines, how breath leaves the body and the body decays. But we don't know how life began and we don't know the force that holds all its tiny components together. For all our discoveries and advances over 6,000 years, something stubbornly stays hidden. They are penumbra; life itself eludes us.

Our world is distressed: Peace is no sooner shakily established in one place than war breaks out in another, refugees wander through hostile places seeking rest, orphans starve for food and love, the image of God is routinely hacked and neglected and exploited and debased.

But hovering over the face of the deep is the Animator, who once made and now invisibly remakes, everywhere, all the time. Who does us greater honor than we do ourselves. Resurrection is the pulse of a world always tottering on the edge of extinction. Things get worse as they get better; entropy is the rule but renewal is the game-changer. In the bleakness of winter is born the hope of eternal spring. What's really going on? We don't know-but then, we do.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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