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The divine embrace: discovering the reality of God’s dove

30 November, 1999

In this book Christina Rees argues that the only way we can know God is through our own experience; by embarking on a personal journey of discovery and gradually learning to recognise how God is at work in our world and lives.

172 pp, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006. To purchase this book online, go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk



  1.   In the beginning
  2.   Partners in the dance
  3.   Who am I?
  4.   How then shall we live?
  5.   The smile within
  6.   When it all goes wrong
  7.   Love in action
  8.   When God calls
  9.   Being there
  10.  A mutual delight
  11.  The valley of shadows
  12.  The divine embrace



For many, especially in the face of suffering, doubt, alienation and lonliness, the kinds of hardships that occur for everyone at some time in their lives, the concept of God’s unconditional love can be troublesome . We may want to believe it, but struggle to do so. Christina Rees in her book reminds us that we may start off on all kinds of spiritual searches through Scripture and theology but until we analyse and personalise our own journey, and see  how God is at work in our lives, we will find it difficult to accept that we are personally beloved by God.

Christina argues  from her own journey that the only way we can know God is through our own experience; by opening ourselves to others, listening to their stories, embarking on a personal journey of discovery and gradually learning to recognise our place in the world.  Through that recognition we can begin to see the world, each other and ourselves the way God sees us.

The book is beautifully written and  eminently compassionate.  It has some great reflections on her own experiences and the most recent revelations from the worlds of science, poetry and scripture.


Once when I woke up early one morning in May, on our little small holding in Hertfordshire, I saw nature as if for the first time. It was warm and the sun had risen, but there was still a soft mist nestling in the curves of the valley and surrounding the trees with a light haze. Drops of dew glistened on the leaves of the bushes, and everything seemed fresh and new. I listened to the birds singing, and watched a rabbit nibbling grass in a corner of the garden. I caught sight of a squirrel performing aerial gymnastics in between the willow and the walnut trees. The air was filled with the scent of apple blossom and lilac.

Still rather sleepy, I moved as if on auto-pilot. I got dressed, went downstairs, had my usual love-in with the dogs, wiped off dog saliva, let dogs out, let cats in, fed them all, put out maize for the chickens, and made myself a fresh pot of coffee. This morning it was so warm that I left the kitchen door open, thereby risking chicken-in-the-kitchen invasion, and forgot to turn on the radio.

Completely without warning, I found myself singing the words of the old hymn, ‘Morning has broken’, which seemed to have been written for that day:’. . . blackbird has spoken like the first bird. . .’ I was acutely conscious of being alive, of being part of an amazingly varied and extraordinarily beautiful creation. I stood outside, bathed in the soft sunlight, and thanked God for creating such beauty, for letting me experience it, and for giving me life.

You see, I believe in a loving God. More than that, I believe in a God who is love, about whom nothing better, nothing higher, nothing truer can be said than ‘God is love’. I believe this God created all existence in a cosmic explosion of overflowing love. The overabundance of God’s love created a space that held within it the possibility of relationship with others. I believe that space is our universe, and that we humans have within us a special capacity for relating to God, similar to, and yet different from, for instance, how we might love dogs, cats or chickens.

I also believe that part of God’s overpowering urge to create was the element of longing. Perhaps it is valid to say that we have always existed in God’s mind, dreamed up by God before we ever existed in space and time. The universe may have taken billions of years to produce life on earth, but all that time God kept the dream of us alive. We exist because God longed for the possibility of including others in the Godhead of love. I don’t mean to imply that there was anything lacking in God’s Being, but there was a wild dream of the possibility of loving more, of including others in that love, a possibility worth the risk of creation. Above, beyond and yet somehow including the greenness of my garden and the enthusiasm of my dogs, my reality is based on my faith in and my experience of God’s love: I am loved, therefore I am.

I had what might be described as an alternative childhood. For most of my formative years I lived with my family on a small wooden sail boat, the Tappan Zee, travelling up and down the East Coast of America and in the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas. My father, John Muller Jr, who had been a talent scout for Oxford University Press, and my mother, Carol Benton Muller, who had been a teacher, left their jobs, sold our house, gave away our lovely cocker spaniel named Telemachus, and started an entirely new lifestyle with their three young children.

When we first sailed out of a New York harbour and into our new life, my sister Robin was seven, my brother Joel was four, and I was five. My parents had to keep us strapped up in puffy orange life jackets so that if we fell overboard we would float. I was partial at the time to a pair of very cool shades, and a set of brightly coloured, plastic, snap-together alphabet letters, which I carried everywhere with me, just in case. I never knew when I might feel a word coming on.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting up on the deck of the boat at night, just before going down below to our bunks. Away from towns and cities, with only a few smoky oil lanterns, we could see the stars as if they were hanging from the rigging. My mother would point out the constellations and teach us their names – the seven sisters of the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, the big and little dippers, and my favourite, Orion and his belt. I think he was my favourite because he was the easiest to recognise. I can remember countless nights of staring into the sky, hypnotised by the stars and planets and lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat.

During the times when we were sailing out of sight of land it was possible to see 360 degrees around us of uninterrupted sea and sky. I don’t know how old I was when I started to imagine that the sky was a huge blue bowl, empty except for clouds and wind, turned upside down on top of the ocean, another huge bowl, filled to the brim, and sometimes sloshing over. I would picture our boat as a tiny dot, sailing across an eternity of sea under an infinity of sky.

As we would sit and take turns at the tiller or coil ropes and polish brass, I would ask my mother, the resident theologian, ‘How did God make the sky and the ocean?’ and she would answer, ‘He just did. Because he’s God.’ And then I would ask, ‘How did God begin?’ and my mother would say, ‘He never began. He’s always existed.’ ‘But what existed before God?’ ‘There was no before God.’

We would go on like this for hours, wrestling with the ontology of the Divine as well as the meatier issues of why sharks and mosquitoes bite, and why birds can fly but humans can’t. (I’ve always had a little bone to pick with God about the fact that we didn’t get the wings.) My mother was endlessly patient with us, and these discussions became part of our everyday discourse. We said grace before every meal, and had a time of family prayers every night, with each of us adding something. We would finish with the Lord’s prayer and then sing a few hymns, each of us getting to choose our favourites.

The God I worshipped then was primarily God the Creator and Sustainer. I knew who kept my brother from being eaten by the alligators when he fell overboard, I knew who was responsible for protecting us during the hurricanes, and I was sure who I had to thank when accidents were averted and storms failed to reach us. I was aware of Jesus, whom I saw as a kindly, but rather quiet, older brother, and I was a bit hazy about the Holy Spirit, whom I think I imagined as second cousin to a whirlwind.

My understanding of the universe and God may have progressed significantly since those childhood chats with my mother, but the how and the what at the heart of the universe is still a mystery, even though thanks to the Hubble space telescope we now know so much more. We have learned that the universe is even more vast than we had thought, containing at least 50 billion more galaxies than had previously been estimated. What is more, an analysis of some of Hubble’s more recent information suggests that the universe is around 9 billion years old, half as old as other calculations had determined.

The Bible suggests that God came first and started the whole thing off. In the beginning, there was nothing but God. The writer of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, takes the existence of God for granted, and begins with God’s act of creation, an act that unfolds over six days. After each day God is pleased and sees that what he has created is good. On the fifth day, after God has created sea creatures and winged fowl, God blesses what he has made and says to all the fish and birds, ‘be fruitful and multiply’. The Creator God not only acts, but reacts, and his first reactions are those of delight at the work of his hands: ‘And God saw that it was good.’ Creation, delight and blessing; the first gifts of God to the world he has made.

How the world was made is a question that has obsessed people throughout history. Most religions and cultures have their own explanations of how, and why, the world began, some more colourful and fanciful to our eyes than others. Scientists now quibble over the exact date, give or take a few billion years, of the Big Bang, the explosion at the beginning of time that is thought to have started off life as we know it. Nobody knows exactly what happened, when it happened, how it happened, or why it happened, but there is a general consensus that it did happen.

What astronomers and other scientists have discovered is important, because it affects our understanding of aspects of what we believe. Over the years science has influenced what we believe, and at some points, science has recognised the mystery of God in the structure and design of reality. Einstein stated that ‘Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame.’ John Polkinghorne, the scientist and priest, would rather say that ‘Religion without science is confined; it fails to be completely open to reality. Science without religion is incomplete; it fails to attain the deepest possible understanding.’ (1)

Christianity has, alas, been guilty of failing to be completely open to reality. Remember Galileo. Galileo was an Italian astronomer and physicist who reasoned that the planets must move around the sun. He wrote a book explaining his theory and found himself hauled before the Inquisition, accused of heresy. At the time, the Church believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe and to say otherwise was not a life- or career-enhancing move. Galileo was found guilty and banned from writing and teaching. He saved his skin by recanting (but under his breath he still believed) and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Happily, he was still fairly well respected, and so he was allowed to live under house arrest until he died.

Even today, there are those who believe that Earth was made by God in six 24-hour periods, just as Genesis describes it. There are also those whose reading of the Bible leads them to believe that the six days of creation took place less than ten thousand years ago. These people claim that fossils in the rocks are not the ossified remains of ancient creatures now extinct, but rather that God created fossils as fossils and put them in the rock.

We may raise our eyebrows at those who think like this, we may even call them unkind names; but there is one thing that most Christians do tend to agree on: all there is to life, even all that can be detected or surmised about outer space, everything there is was made, one way or another, by God. And if new worlds are discovered spinning in farthest outer space, these, too, have been made by God. We may bicker about the how of it, but I think Christians are in general agreement that God created us and all there is.

A few years ago an article in the Sunday Times Magazine, stated:

Hubble may help us to look not only backwards but forwards, to deduce whether humanity really does have a future out there among the stars, whether one day we may indeed boldly go where no one has gone before. In the meantime, it proved that God still has the best special effects. (2)

For some people, though, it is hard enough to believe that there is a God, much less to sort out the details of how God might have created the universe and be relating to creation at present. An unknown writer in the fourteenth century, who believed in God, nevertheless thought that God was ultimately unknowable in an intellectual sense. He had only one suggestion of how God might be known. ‘Of God himself no man can think. He may well be loved, but not thought. By love he may be grasped and held; by thought never.’ The writer describes our lack of knowledge and understanding as a great, dark ‘cloud of unknowing’, and urges anyone who wants to know God to ‘smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love. Come what may, do not give up.’ (3)

According to this man, the only way to understand God is to love him, and to persevere with this loving no matter what. But what about those who cannot say that they believe in, or love, God? Are we really any closer to the answers to questions like ‘How can I know God exists?’ and ‘How can I know God loves me?’ Is it possible that creation reveals truth about God, if only we could understand it?

The oft-controversial former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, in non-controversial mode describes an ‘intuition of faith’ that comes before any rational awareness. ‘This great intuition is more difficult to talk about sensibly: it is an experience of presence, of meaning, but words alone cannot convey any sense of it.’ He adds that some people find themselves ‘invaded by meaning’ in ways that lead to belief. ‘Mysteries of recognition sometimes draw from us an exultant cry of faith.’ (4)   Has the capacity for faith and the ability to know God been built into our beings?   This is important, because I believe that God has created us with the capacity for faith, and I also believe that God has revealed himself in creation. God may be shrouded in mystery, but God is not deliberately coy. The wonder that we are here at all should take us quite a way down the road of faith.

I expect, though, that it requires an element of faith even to talk about God, and for those who do not yet know God, there may be the sense of a strange restlessness or a fierce curiosity. It’s probably best described as the mental, spiritual and emotional equivalent of being physically hungry, that strange but intense hunger when you don’t quite know what it is that you want to eat. C.S.Lewis famously described a ‘God-shaped hole’ in each of us, which would remain empty until we knew God. But if the only real way to know God is to love him, and the only way to love God is to know him, where do we begin?

The simple answer is, we don’t. We don’t, but God does, or perhaps I should say did. Remember, ‘In the beginning, God…’   Not us. We do not bear on our shoulders or in our souls the weight of being the ones who started it all. Life isn’t something that we’ve done to ourselves. We didn’t dream up the world around us, as some people have clearly regretted. To put it rather delicately, as did Alfonso the Wise way back in the thirteenth century, ‘Had I been present at creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe.’   Those may be sentiments shared by many, but they don’t change the fact that we weren’t there. Life, the universe and everything is God’s party, and he’s invited us.

Our greatest mission in life, should we choose to accept it, is to respond to God’s ongoing, never-ending invitation, which is extended to everyone. There aren’t different types of invitations for different people. There aren’t different parties. God is offering the same to everyone. If you’re reading this, you’ve already accepted God’s first gift, which is the gift of life. There’s a lot more on offer, but let’s first take a closer look at the God who has created this world that we inhabit.

The God of risk
As I stray into some of the more complex and mysterious areas about the nature of the Creator of our universe, I would like to register my gratitude to John Polkinghorne, whom I have already mentioned. He has been my main guide in my quest to understand the kind of God revealed from the facts of the universe. I owe John another debt, as well.

From time to time throughout my life I have been seized by the unlovely sensations of claustrophobia. I can go for years without an attack, and I never know when it will strike. When I was a child, it happened occasionally when I was riding in the back of a two-door car, and once, unforgettably, as I was climbing up inside the Statue of Liberty. Mercifully, it vanished for ages, and I thought it had gone for good, but it suddenly reappeared when I was on a plane, flying home after my father’s funeral.

A few days after that, I was on a train, travelling home from London. Without warning, the train stopped, and there we sat, with no indication of what had gone wrong or when we would be under way again. I could feel the rising dread, and I quickly grabbed John’s book, Science and Creation, which I just happened to be reading, from my handbag. I buried myself in it, and read it, slowly and carefully. I didn’t let myself move on from one sentence to the next until I was fairly certain that I had understood what he had written. I found the book so fascinating and so demanding that I was able to concentrate against my panic. In time, the train began to move, and for the rest of the journey I continued to absorb, albeit more happily, some of the most exciting and challenging thinking I’d ever read about the interplay between science and theology.

To kick off, Polkinghorne considers that for God to be the type of God defined by Christianity, God must be ‘free’. God is not locked in some cosmic wrestling match with another comparable being, such as an antigod. God’s will is not ultimately threatened by another equal but opposing force, such as the existence of antigod magic. Yet, ‘the God who is eternally free is not an imperious dictator exercising an arbitrary will. He is internally constrained by the consistency of his own nature.’ (5)  But consistency doesn’t mean mechanistic predictability. The old image of God as a ‘divine Clockmaker’ who wound up the universe at the beginning of time, only to sit back and watch it unwind, doesn’t work any more. Now we perceive God more as a God of risk, who created a world that is ‘at once more open to innovation in its process and more dangerously precarious in its possible outcome’. (6)

Perhaps it is only this type of world which can accommodate the existence of love. If love is freely given, and if it is to remain true to its nature, then there has to be built into our universe the element of risk, the risk that we might not love in return. If this is so, then a better image for God might be the ‘divine Juggler’, a God who still interacts with his creation, but whose Being leaves the possibility for chance. As anyone who has ever played Monopoly will know, chance can bring joy or disaster. The reality is that ours is a world in which cancer and other horrible diseases can occur, but God is not the one who gives us disease, although ‘he is responsible for allowing the world to be such that it can happen’. (7)

The important thing is that the risk isn’t all one-sided. It’s not as if we, the creation, do all the suffering and pick up the tab for God’s great idea of the necessity of free will. God also suffers and also takes part in the risk. The act of creating the type of world we live in would have involved a kenosis of God, which means an emptying out of God and ‘an acceptance of the self-limitation inherent in the giving of creative love’. (8)   It was a risk for God to become involved with an act of creation and required vulnerability, a quality not usually associated with the Divine! The almighty, conquering, triumphant king is a view of God at odds with the view of a risk-taking vulnerable lover, driven only by the longing and desire to love and be loved. If we put our faith in this God, we put our faith in God’s continuing commitment to us and his never-ending love for us.

Perhaps this is the only way that love can work. Perhaps if it were more of a sure thing, with less chance of it all going wrong, we would be back to the Clockmaker, or, at the very least, to a Puppetmaster. As it is, I think that our risk-taking God has called us to accept, with him, the long and sometimes painful process that the work of love requires.

This thought of God, gradually working with and through creation towards the ultimate triumph of love, involves a theological concept called teleology. Teleology is to do with the bringing about of the telos, the perfect fulfilment of all of creation. This telos can be said to occur when the whole world has been brought back into a loving relationship with God.

It is not a case of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by, where people get rewarded for their good works, but, basically, everything else in the world stays the same. Rather, the telos is the hope of a wholly renewed existence for all of creation, made possible by Jesus Christ, who will ‘reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven’ (Colossians 1:20).   This ultimate fulfilment is supposed to come about because God wills that it should be so, and God, being God, has the patience to wait for it.

Meanwhile, we walk a risky, uncertain path, looking forward to ultimate union with a God who loved us so much that he would only accept our freely given response. Union with this God will not result in our eventual annihilation or anonymity, but in intimate, dynamic, complete fulfilment. Our present existence on earth, which to allow for love has also to allow for suffering, is part of a greater whole which only God can fully envisage, but one in which we can know ourselves to be actively involved. Looked at this way, life takes on a somewhat different perspective!

Down to earth
Butt let’s just look at our own amazing planet! I get excited when I see the jackdaws grooming my Anglo-Nubian goats in the spring, taking as their payment small tufts of the goats’ soft fluffy winter coat to line their nests. I get excited when these same goats stretch over the fence dividing them and their horse neighbours, so that they in turn can groom the horses! I like watching the fat green woodpecker that comes to hunt for grubs in our lawn. I could quite happily watch the ‘nature’ I know for hours on end. I’ve already spent what probably amounts to several years just staring at the sea, and I must say I feel the better for it!

My aunt, Eudoxia Woodward, has spent the last 25 years studying the mathematical designs of nature, in particular the geometry of plants and flowers. As a painter, she has enjoyed exploring (and painting) phenomena such as the Fibonacci series, a naturally occurring sequence that can be seen in sunflower seed heads and on pine cones and pineapples.

In his many television series, David Attenborough has opened up the amazing reality of our natural world to millions of people who would otherwise have never been able to see it. Before him, Jacques Cousteau introduced a whole generation of viewers to the wonder of life in the oceans.

Our explorations continue, but there is still so much we don’t know about the meaning of life. If only we could be genuinely satisfied that the answer was 42, as helpfully suggested in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy! It seems that the more we learn, the more we discover that there is more to learn! And so it goes. Discovery leading to new information, leading to new knowledge, leading to new discovery, ad infinitum.

For instance, astronomers are now saying that because of the time available for light to travel since the Big Bang, we can set the present boundaries of our universe at a distance of about 15 billion light years. As time carries on we can expect to be able to see even further into the universe, and who knows how much bigger we shall discover it to be.

With such a vast universe, is it statistically likely that life exists somewhere else other than on planet Earth? If so, in what form, and how could we ever find out? How can we explain the incredibly delicate balance of the building blocks of our universe, such as the force of gravity or the velocity of light? If either of these had been slightly different, life would not and could not have developed as it did.

The Earth is tilted at an angle of 23 degrees to its orbit, which produces our seasons. If the Earth were not tilted just so, vapours from the oceans would have moved both north and south, resulting in inhabitable continents of ice. Evidently, if the moon were only 50,000 miles away from Earth, instead of 200,000, the tides would be so huge that all the continents would be under water.

If the oceans had been a few feet deeper, carbon dioxide and oxygen would have been absorbed, and no life would exist. If the Earth’s crust had been a few feet thicker, there would also be no oxygen – and no life. If ice were more dense than water in its liquid state then the world would be totally barren, because ice is not a good conductor of heat, and it would never melt. (9)    If. . . if. . . the mind boggles! How did our universe get it right? How is it possible that we exist in the way we do, with air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat?

The fact that we exist at all, the fact that you and I live on a whirling bit of stone and fire we call planet Earth, and don’t fall off or get dizzy, seems to me entirely improbable and completely amazing. I confess with a wild sort of glee, that there is so much I don’t understand, that all of life seems like a mystery and a miracle. To be sure, some of the things that we humans have invented are very clever, but they pale into insignificance compared to the world around us. Designing a huge ship made of steel and concrete that can float on the surface of the ocean is exceedingly clever. But think about the ocean itself. Now that’s really clever!

In this chapter I’ve offered a few thoughts about life, the universe, our own incredible planet, and the Creator who made it all possible. Now let’s look more closely into the nature of the One who is magnificent and mysterious, and yet able to be known through the giving and receiving of love.

References: In the Beginning
1. John Polkinghorne, Science and Creation (SPCK, 1988), p. 97.
2. Peter Millar, ‘The Time Machine’ in The Sunday Times Magazine, 24 March 1996.
3. The Dart of Longing Love: Daily Readings from The Cloud of Unknowing and The Epistle of Privy Counsel, rendered into modern English with an introduction by Robert Llewelyn (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1983), p. 14.
4. Bishop Richard Holloway, quoted in the Church Times, 27 December 1996, p. 3.
5. Polkinghorne, Science and Creation, p. 51.
6. ibid. pp. 49-50.
7. ibid. p. 63.
8. ibid. p. 62.
9. Facts from Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Scripture Press,1990).

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