Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Greatness in Smallness

A quotation appropriate for this final day of the Octave of Christmas1:

But, we think, in an age when we know how infinitely different things are, how unimportant the earth is in the vast universe and consequently how unimportant that little speck of dust, man, is in comparison with the dimensions of the cosmos—in an age like this it seems an absurd idea that this supreme being should concern himself with man, his pitiful little world, his cares, his sins and his non-sins. But although we may think that in this way we are speaking truly appropriately about God, in reality we are in fact thinking of him in a very petty and only too human way, as if his retention of a general view involved making a choice. We thereby imagine him as a consciousness like ours, which has limits, must somewhere or other call a halt, and can never embrace the whole.

In contrast to such limited notions the aphorism with which Hölderlin prefaced his "Hyperion" will serve to recall the Christian image of the true greatness of God: "Non coerceri maximo, contineri tamen a minimo, divinum est" ("Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to let oneself be encompassed by the smallest—that is divine"). The boundless spirit who bears in himself the totality of Being reaches beyond the "greatest", so that to him it is small, and he reaches into the smallest, because to him nothing is too small. Precisely this overstepping of the greatest and teaching down into the smallest is the true nature of absolute spirit. At the same time we see here a reversal in value of maximum and minimum, greatest and smallest, that is typical of the Christian understanding of reality. To him who as spirit bears up and encompasses the universe, a spirit, a man's heart with it ability to love, is greater than all the milky ways of the universe. Quantitative criteria become irrelevant; other scales become visible, reckoned by which the infinitely small is the truly embracing and truly great.

The Immortal became mortal, the Almighty became powerless, the Boundless bounded himself.


1. Of course the twelve days of Christmas don't end until the 6th.

Joseph Ratzinger, trans. J.R. Foster, Introduction to Christianity (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 101-2.

1 comment:

Chris Charette said...

This is a great quote. For some time I've been thinking about this concept and it is quite fascinating. To imagine the God of the particulars rather than only the God of the macroscopic. I'd say that people's reaction of awe in the face of Hubble imagery (pictures of big things in outer space) is an anthropomorphization of God. Really we should be throwing away size (and number) in our conception of God. Unfortunately it is comforting to our minds to grasp at some kind of idol. Ratzinger, what a mind!