The Glory of God’s Otherness: Exploring Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star”
The dreadful beauty of God’s transcendence
I am the LORD, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the LORD, who does all these things.
— Isaiah 45:5-7
Some of you may recognize the name Arthur C. Clarke. He is one of the greats in the golden age of science fiction with his most notable masterpieces being 2001 A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End. He also wrote a plethora of other fascinating science fiction including several sequels to 2001, but I have found his short stories especially tantalizing. One of his short stories has remained with me ever since I read it: “The Star”.
Consisting of only a few pages, “The Star” manages to strike you with such profound dread, a fascinating thought experiment that leaves you with a paradigm-shifting reality. Although fascinated by the concept of God, Clarke was an atheist in thought and practice and was an outspoken critic of religion, so it is clear he is coming from a certain worldview when telling this story. However, I had a different response to its ideas when I read it. For even if this thought experiment chills to the bone, I believe it can also reveal a glorious aspect of God’s personality just by wrestling with its concepts. Moving forward through my analysis, I will undoubtedly be recounting the entire story, so spoiler alert! Yet I hope it will be for the best, inspiring you to not only read the story yourself, but to consider the depth of majesty of Our God.
The story begins as a recounting of events told by an astrophysicist, Mr. Chandler, who is a Jesuit – a devout man of God amongst an interstellar crew who hold primarily unreligious worldviews. They are a survey ship sent on a mission to explore and study the remnants of a star that went supernova so long ago, the Phoenix Nebula. What starts out as a routine mission that would bring Mankind further out into unexplored space than ever before ends up becoming a crushing revelation that shatters our Jesuit’s soul to its core. Staring at the Crucifix on his cabin wall, Chandler struggles with a profound crisis of faith, unable to reconcile what he has witnessed by His God’s hands.
For on a small distant planet (the “Pluto” of this now dead solar system as it circles the white dwarf of what was once a blazing star) they discover an extraterrestrial Vault. Chandler and the crew correctly surmise that there must have been an alien race that had once existed within this system and had chosen to bury within its confines something they wished to preserve as testimony. Once they enter the Vault, they discover a treasure trove of records. Everything from film to writing to pictorial instructions is found within, all showcasing the diversity, genius, and beauty of this once thriving alien race. The survey crew learn of how these people were able to discern the signs of their sun’s impending destruction, but these same people were not technologically advanced enough to leave the confines of their solar system. Instead, they option for a kind of immortality, a way of preserving their culture and history that it may never to be forgotten although they must meet their end.
Heavy of heart and full of sorrow for this proud race, the crew and the Jesuit mourn the loss of these great people. Noble and far exceeding Mankind in so many ways through their art, literature, and histories, it seems like a cruel fate that they should perish at their prime of life, completely trapped and unable to escape their treacherous sun. Chandler recounts that he, pitifully, has tried to counter the crew’s questioning of God’s mercy in light of such devastation, but is unable to give a convincing testimony of his Faith. Yet, as difficult as this is for him, this is not what has brought him at the brink of the pit. His Faith that he once so confidently maintained, even through the ridicule endured from his fellow crewmates and the rigors of space travel, is left powerless before the truth.
With the astronomical data collected by the crew and through the study of the rocks of the surviving planet, our Jesuit can accurately ascertain the exact time the light of this supernova was witnessed on our own planet. He calculates it exactly, the numbers staring back at him in brutal and merciless clarity. An ancient Earth mystery has been solved at last, as Chandler, inquiring of His God in lasting anguish, cries out in despair: “. . . oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?”
“Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?”
— Job 40:7-9
A terrible ending, one that makes you feel the horror of our Jesuit very acutely, and yet after I read it my heart cried, “Holy, holy, holy!” Unlike Chandler, my response would have been to fall on my face in worship in fear and reverence, and this is where I believe the thought experiment could give us an unique insight into God’s character. Obviously, this work is a fiction, and I am not trying to justify the idea from a theological point of view, as Clarke’s idea is not Biblical. However, if we consider the question it presents, namely: “How can God be God (i.e. supremely righteous, holy, good) if He destroys an entire civilization of peoples for the purpose of the coming Savior, His Beloved Son? As the Scriptures say, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only son…” - I believe we can discern the exact nature of God’s “Godness,” or what I am specifically defining as His “Otherness”. This also could be described as God’s “Holiness”, but it will become clear why I am using this specific term of “Otherness.”
As many of us should remember, the miracle of Jesus’ birth is not without its own gruesome events. It may be something our quaint and cozy Nativity scenes overlook, but the wise men who visited Jesus that night guided by that glorious astronomical event, had earlier been instructed by King Herod to bring back word of this child being heralded as “King of the Jews”. This was a subterfuge on King Herod’s part, as he was jealous and paranoid, and desired to ascertain the threat this child would bring to his seat of power. When both the wise men and Jesus’ family fled, after being warned in their dreams of Herod’s intentions, Herod became enraged and ordered that all male children in Bethlehem and all in that region who were two years old or under to be slaughtered.
This is a deep and terrible loss, and one we could ask a similar question as to its purpose within the story of Jesus Christ. This event did happen for a reason, if we view it through the context of Israel’s history through the Old Testament and the prophecies of Jeremiah. However, what I want to focus on is the idea of God’s working any kind of destruction, either directly from His hands or otherwise, whether the reason is explained to us or not. For certainly God has brought destruction in other circumstances, whether to the entire world during the Flood, to Egypt and its peoples during the Ten Plagues and the Exodus of the Israelites, or to the countries and cities of the Canaanites when God’s people entered the Promised Land, as God commanded and the Israelites enacted the complete destruction of all the peoples, even their livestock. The stories from these Old Testament books become difficult reads for us as we try to rationalize in our hearts God’s devastating hand of wrath. Can this God truly be good?
What I believe our hearts are truly wrestling with isn’t God’s goodness and holiness, but our own lack in understanding which follows logically from the limits of our very humanity. The questions of God’s goodness and holiness in of themselves signify our finite and fallen nature and our inability to grasp the fullness of all things. Yet this is not some philosophical shorthand where we say, “Well, God is God, therefore you, a mere human being, cannot question or understand Him.” While this is true to a degree, I believe there is more nuance here than that statement allows. God made us as rational beings, and so I do not believe He would want us to be intellectually lazy in our understanding of His nature. God answered Job from out of the whirlwind, after all, when He did not have to. There is a precious truth here as we are forced to the very limits of our own nature to encounter this entirely unique and magnificent Being.
“To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?”
— Isaiah 40:18
So, what do I mean by God’s “Otherness”? I mean that He is utterly and perfectly set apart from all things. There isn’t a being, law, form of reality, or form of knowledge higher than Himself. There isn’t anything more that can be learned, gained, or understood that hasn’t already been completed and made perfect within God Himself. As it says in Isaiah:
“Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD,
or what man shows him his counsel?
Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?”
This could seem like I am simply saying that “God is God,” and you would not be wrong, but examine the statement in the fullness of its meaning as we read through these verses. In each of the questions listed above, it starts with “Who?” Who does He consult? Who teaches Him justice and knowledge? Who shows Him the way of understanding? The answer is, inevitably and obviously, no one. God’s “Godness” is the completeness of His eternal separateness, a Being who is a class unto Himself. He is transcendent. Every standard of right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, holy or unholy finds its meaning and measurement within Him. There is nothing that exists outside of Him. “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” And within this infinite separateness and transcendence He is Perfect, lacking in nothing. He is entirely subsistent on Himself, having come from nowhere and no one, as the Lord declares in Revelations: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” He is the complete and everlasting Other, always and forever.
Therefore, we cannot question God’s goodness and holiness, not because there is an unjustified limitation set upon us that if we were just able to overcome, we would discover great and marvelous mysteries, obtaining secret knowledge, perhaps even exposing “the Man behind the Curtain.” Here lies the assumption that if we were able to just explore enough, learn enough, and perceive enough - building bigger and better machines and philosophical constructs that delve ever deeper into reality - we ourselves, apart from God, could achieve absolute knowing and equality with God. Whereupon once we witness such painful devastations, like an alien civilization’s complete annihilation by an instrument of destruction that becomes the light that heralds the coming of the Christ child, we can question Him, “Why have you done this thing?” For now, we would have the superior understanding of what is morally good and morally just and condemn Him for His actions. This is what could never be. We cannot question God’s goodness and holiness because there is no dimension of knowledge or reality that exists outside of or beyond Him. We could travel to the ends of the universe itself and explore the depths of the inexplicable sea of existence and still we would not achieve equality with Him. Even with an infinite amount of time given for us to evolve and grow in this endeavor, we would never achieve it. This is a realm in which God alone exists and it is forever beyond our reach. He is set apart from us completely and utterly.
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’”
— Romans 11:33-34
Now there is another dimension to God’s “Otherness” which I believe is critical in our understanding of His nature. Chandler makes a remarkably interesting statement just before the climax of the story:
“I know the answers my colleagues will give when they get back to Earth. They will say that the Universe has no purpose and no plan, that since a hundred suns explode every year in our Galaxy, at this very moment some race is dying in the depths of space. Whether that race has done good or evil during its lifetime will make no difference in the end; there is no divine justice, for there is no God.
Yet, of course, what we have seen proves nothing of the sort. Anyone who argues thus is being swayed by emotion, not logic. God has no need to justify His actions to man. He who built the Universe can destroy it when He chooses. It is arrogance – it is perilously near blasphemy- for us to say what He may or may not do.”
— The Nine Billion Names of God: “The Star” page 240.
Interestingly enough, it seems as if it is easier for us to accept a sovereign God who is Lord over the chaotic, random happenstances of the Universe than it is to accept a sovereign and loving God who is so intimate with our lives and our suffering as to be the one controlling and ordaining them. Chandler was willing to embrace God’s sovereignty within this destruction when the events could be viewed from a cosmic perspective - God playing dice with the universe - where the events could be seen far from him, not affecting him personally. Yet once the events reached the very core of his Faith and relationship with His Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, God’s sovereignty became a bitter and intolerable reality to his soul. He could not stand under it.
Yet I believe we should have a different response to this truth because it is critical that God be both sovereign and merciful as this is what makes His “Otherness” truly glorious in its majesty. God is not a remote and indifferent God who is unaffected by the goings on of His creation, with all their joys and all their sorrows. He is a Creator God, an Artist, who like a potter with his clay is working intimately with His medium, getting His hands dirty and working closely with us through our suffering.
Consider the story of Lazarus, to give an example of how God’s “Otherness” shines in its glory. Many of us know the miracle of Lazarus, of Mary and Martha and their brother who fell extremely ill. What is notable, however, is how Jesus reacts throughout the story leading up to the glorious moment of resurrection. When the sisters sent word to Jesus about their brother, Jesus responds, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Here we have an authoritative statement as a manifestation of God’s “Otherness” that showcases God’s sovereign purposes. Then it says, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Do you see what it says there? Jesus loved them and because of that love He remains where He is for two days. Lazarus is suffering, sick, and dying, but it was for love of them that Jesus did not go to them right away.
Inevitably, Lazarus does die, and that is when Jesus tells his disciples that it is time to go to them. When he arrives, both Martha and Mary are weeping in despair, saying to Him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” There are many who are with them as well mourning with the family, and it says that “when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” And when they bring him to Lazarus’ tomb, the Scriptures say that “Jesus wept.” So, we have both God’s sovereignty and God’s mercy as Jesus weeps with them. He already knew what was to happen, and even more than this that God had specifically ordained it to happen for His glory, and yet Jesus still embraces the humanity of the moment, the brokenness and the frailty, by grieving with them.
Of course, we know what happens afterwards, showing that the reason Jesus delayed was to have Lazarus lay in the tomb for four days to allow for decomposition to take its full effect. Jesus waited until the lowest possible point, where there could not even be an inkling of hope in turning back the effects of suffering and death, to showcase that even here and even now God is God. “Lazarus, come out.” and a man lives, walking out of his tomb. God’s glorious “Otherness” made fully manifest.
With this in mind, let us carry out Clarke’s thought experiment further. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would not have forgotten or forsaken that alien race, but would both weep with them in their death and redeem them through His power, just as He did with Lazarus. Their dying light heralded the coming of the Savior of the world after all. There is pain, death, and loss in this story, but there is also beauty, glory, and new life. As Jesus told the Sadducees when they questioned Him about the nature of resurrection, “He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”
How precious it is to know that God is Lord over our lives, which includes all affliction, knowing that He loves us and walks with us, working all things for our good, then an indifferent God who can neither say nor do anything about the Evil that exists. If our good and loving God weren’t the one allowing the evil and inflicting the calamity, that would make all the evil essentially meaningless because that would make God powerless against what is happening. A powerless God is no God, and therefore our suffering would be in vain. God must be Lord over all, which includes all our suffering on this Earth, otherwise He is Lord over none of it and our Enemy and Death have the upper hand. A God who is sovereign over Evil is the God who is worthy to redeem all things.
Still, you may ask, why has God ordained Evil to enter the picture at all? And how does He Himself remain Holy and separate from the Evil that He Himself is ordaining? To answer these questions would take much longer to delve, and they are worthy of considering, but ultimately – for the sake of the discussion here – God is righteous. He commits no sin and compels no one to sin. He is Lord over all that has happened, is happening, and will happen in the world – which includes every single heinous, wretched, despicable, evil act known to Man – but is Himself blameless and holy. It feels paradoxical, something our minds cannot fully comprehend. We have reached the borderlands of God’s Otherness. We cannot perceive beyond it. The only right response is to say with Job:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”
I could have easily called this “The Glory of Mankind’s Frailty.” There is glory in our limitations. They are to our benefit. For our limitations are revealed to us continually all the days of our lives, through sickness, through death, through trauma, and through failure. Sometimes we take them for granted until some catastrophe breaks into our lives, and we experience fear, anxiety, sorrow, loneliness, a lack of control, and the upheaval of everything we thought we knew. There is a kind of glory in this life’s anguished exercise because when we come to the ends of ourselves, that is when we can see Him who is our God, who is both powerful and merciful, completely in control and who loves us so very, very dearly. There is absolute freedom in that revelation. I am limited, but He is not. I can fail, but He cannot. How beautiful and what peace it is to be the child of this strange, otherworldly God who can command the fate of the stars and the hearts of men but came to us in the flesh so that He could live among us.