The Vast and Vacuous

There’s a much shared (and incredibly large) image file showing how earth compares to surrounding planets, the sun and then how our sun is dwarfed by other stars. I remember years ago a principal at a school I used to work at “inspiring” a graduating class by telling the graduates how insignificant they are compared to lifeless and greatly distant gas giants. I assume his point was that there are things much bigger than us and that children need to remember that as they grow. This is true enough but as is taught in fables and fairy-tales from at least as far back as David and Goliath (one of the true myths), bigger isn’t always better.

I can’t find the exact image which I assume was once emailed about as a PowerPoint presentation to keep public servants occupied during working hours. I did find this YouTube video (below) which has replaced and (thankfully) largely stopped tedious things like this arriving in my inbox. The video makes much the same point that we are not the center of the universe and therefore one is to suppose; not important at all.

I’ve never understood how people who love to tell the religious this are never nihilists which seems to me to be the only logical conclusion to such a view. It’s also one of those straw men that is easy to spend far to much time swatting as humans in the Christian sense aren’t the center of the universe; they just have purpose in it. And given there is zero actual evidence of any intelligent life in the universe, it seems fair enough to assume (even without a religious worldview) that we are unique in the vast vacuum that surrounds us. And to anyone who would question my lack of belief in extra-terrestrials, I would answer that speculation based on the vastness of the universe is not evidence for other civilisations or even other lifeforms.

Anyway, on small reflection the usual conclusions drawn from the fact that the universe is incredibly, incredibly vast seem more than a little silly. Much like David, I’d prefer a sturdy stone to a boulder many times my weight, if my task is to smash an opponents face in. The vastness of space is irrelevant to our significance within it. Everything we know and need is on earth and much of what isn’t is useless, if not deadly to us. The vastness of space says nothing about the existence of God or the truth of many religions. The fact that it is there, proves nothing. Yet this simply and uncontroversial fact is often used as evidence for the premise that religion – usually Christianity, is irrelevant and untrue.

That a beehive is something I would pass by many days without noticing says nothing about the complexity within. The same goes for the many poor insects I crush under my foot without noticing from day to day. They are still varied and quite interesting when one stops to make closer observations. At the molecular level, I found the cells that make up my body to be very fascinating in biology class and as I am now recovering from another bout of the stomach flu, I can remind myself how debilitating if not deadly microscopic lifeforms can be.

A sermon by Bishop Robert Barron from earlier this year commented on ‘The Great Divorce’ by C.S. Lewis. The sermon seems to have formed the basis for this article and I’ll quote the relevant part here:

The first has to do with the paradox of the grandeur and nothingness of Hell. Lewis’s narrator tells us that the streets and residences of Hell stretch out so far that it requires centuries of travel to get from one end of the city to the other. This immensity is due to the fact that the citizens of that awful place just want to get as far away from one another as possible. Further, when the bus travels from Hell to Heaven, it seems to go far up into the air and to cover an enormous distance. However, when the narrator, in dialogue with a heavenly spirit, wonders where precisely Hell is in relation to the heavenly realm, the spirit bends down, pulls a single blade of grass and uses its tip to indicate a tiny, barely perceptible, fissure in the ground. “That’s where you came in,” he explains. All of Hell, which seemed so immense to the narrator, would fit into a practically microscopic space in Heaven.

Could the enormity of the Universe be  God be showing the ultimate irrelevance of size, when compared with the detail that can be found in a single microscopic cell? Is this a metaphor for heaven? I don’t know the answer to either but our expanded knowledge of the cosmos doesn’t seem to suggest anything about the reality of God. And if I had to infer anything from the size of the Universe, it wouldn’t be the negation of God.

I also really need to re-read that book.

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