This is the fourth part of our blog series connected to our fall book club.
(The title is a nostalgic shout-out to Michael W. Smith, for all those who did not come of age in the nineties and missed the reference.)
The bedtime chapter book I am currently reading to my children is The Princess and Curdie by the Scottish minister George MacDonald. In the first chapter, MacDonald describes the mountains as looking up at “the great sun their grandfather, up there in the sky; and their little cold aunt, the moon.” The gems and ore hidden in the mountains have been “waiting for millions of ages – ever since the earth flew off from the sun, a great blot of fire, and began to cool.” Evidently, back in 1883, authors of Christian children’s literature could get away with more scientific content than some Christians are comfortable with today.
What is it about topics such as the formation and size of the universe that can produce such discomfort in Christians? I think it may be something more than the simple explanation that the Big Bang and subsequent events as described by scientists are in conflict with some Christians’ concept of the timeline and method of creation. Specifically, I think pondering our place in the universe as humans often pushes us toward our broken human propensities to fall into either pride (“God owes me something because of my intrinsic worth”) or wretchedness (“God could not possibly love me because of my intrinsic worthlessness”). Neither place is where God’s grace calls us to stand.
In Chapter 7 of Origins, we turned our attention to the sheer vastness of the universe in the dimensions of both time and space. Scientists tell us the universe is both mind-blowingly ancient and mind-blowingly huge. When the time periods we are contemplating are measured in billions of years and the distances we are contemplating are measured in millions of light years, many of us find we have entered territory that goes beyond the capabilities of our imaginations. When my children and I were studying the solar system, we did the “1000 yard model” activity to help visualize the vast distances between the planets and their size relative to one another. In this activity, Earth is represented by a peppercorn placed 26 yards from a soccer ball Sun. Pluto, represented by a pin head, is set down 993 yards (over half a mile) from the peppercorn Earth. It does a great job of impressing upon a person how small the earth is relative to the rest of the solar system. But my mind locks up like an old computer when I’m trying to picture how small the solar system is relative to the rest of the Milky Way, or how insignificant the Milky Way is in the immensity of the entire galaxy-sprinkled universe.
What is our place in all this hugeness of time and space? It seems to me Christians tend to take two different approaches. Those who lean more toward wretchedness than pride may approach the greatness of the universe with an attitude similar to the scientist Carl Sagan, which verges on despair. All the suspicions we may have harbored about our intrinsic worthlessness seem to be confirmed by science. How could we matter to God as we float through the cosmic dark on our lonely blue dot? We may echo the Psalmist’s words, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psalm 4:8), but it is not with a tone of awe and thanksgiving, so much as a tone of incredulity that such a big God really would care. It is uncomfortable that God is so big.
The second approach veers toward unwarranted hubris. It is one that views humanity as the centerpiece and raison d’être of the universe. There are those who point to all the fine tuning evidence highlighted in this chapter as proof that the universe exists to support life, and since humanity is the highest and best form of life, the universe exists for us. It is uncomfortable when anything challenges the human-centeredness of our view. Our human history is a mere blip on the timeline of the universe, and our precious earth is a mere speck on the map of the cosmos. It is uncomfortable that humans are so small.
One of the discussion questions at the end of the chapter asked, “What is the basis of our significance as humans?” A good answer to this question is a potential antidote to our discomfort when faced with the facts of a vast and ancient cosmos.
- When people contemplate their place in the universe, the post suggested there are two potential sources of discomfort; challenged pride or a confirmed sense of worthlessness. Does this observation resonate with you, or would you attribute the discomfort people sometimes feel to something different?
- On what do you base your significance as a human?
- What Scriptures or experiences have encouraged you to view your place in the universe with appropriate humility, yet also with appropriate significance?
- Were there any parts of the chapter that you felt were especially helpful in bringing balance to a skewed view of the place of humanity in the universe?
- Do you think it is possible to value humanity’s place in the universe too much?