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God, the universe and all that: Part 2

From the Sola Panel

In the second instalment of a five-part series, I contemplate the extent of our significance in the universe. (Read Part 1.)

We’ve been looking at Psalm 8, and we’ve discovered that stargazing helps us to see how insignificant we really are.

Just think about the size of space for a moment. Imagine you could get into the fastest jet on earth (last time I checked, this was the SR-71 Blackbird). Its official speed record is almost 2,500 miles per hour. Now imagine you could speed it up 100 times to 250,000 miles per hour. Then imagine that you could take it on a trip to space. It would take you an hour to get to the moon—that’s pretty reasonable! It would take you eight days to get to Mars, the closest planet to Earth. It would take you four months to get to the planet Saturn (remember, we’re travelling 100 times faster than the fastest jet ever built). It would take you a year and a half to get to the planet Pluto at the edge of our solar system. To get to the closest star to the sun, Proxima Centauri, it would take you 12,000 years. To get to the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy, it would take you 80 million years. To the next closest galaxy, Andromeda, it would take you seven billion years. To get to the edge of the visible universe, it would take you 40 million million years. And they think that the size of the non-visible universe is vastly huger than this: that would take you a million million million million, etc. years.

I’ll quote another modern ‘poet’—this time, the late Douglas Adams, writing The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy:

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.1

The ancient biblical poet was ignorant about billions of parsecs or millisecond pulsars. He just knew that space was big, wonderful, majestic and beyond us. That’s the universe we live in.

So the Bible has a question for you: who are you?

what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

(Ps 8:4)

What is man? Who am I in comparison to this world? Who are you? You are one of seven billion tiny organisms, living on an infinitesimally small pinprick of a dust ball, who are giving birth, breathing, eating, maybe reproducing and dying.

But that’s the Bible’s question: what is it to be human? What is your existence—your family, your career, your study, your relationships, your life—compared to this immense universe with its big bang, its nebulas and its millisecond pulsars?

But did you notice something? That’s not quite the way the song puts it, isn’t it. It’s not just the universe that’s big; this biblical song makes an even more profound point. It’s a point about God himself: God is big. See verse 1:

O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.

We’re not just talking here about how small we are compared to the universe; this is a song about our relationship to the majesty of the Lord—the God who created that universe.

Now it’s important to realize that this ‘God’ spoken about in the Bible has nothing to do with superstition and magical religion. The Bible’s view of God is the opposite of superstition. In fact, it’s the biblical view of God that enabled the early Christians to throw astrology away and promote astronomy instead. Astrology is the belief that the stars have something to do with our lives. Astrology happens when people look out at the stars, see how distant and high they are, and decide that somehow, in some magical way, these stars have a direct influence on their own personal lives.

But just listen for a moment to Augustine, a Christian theologian who was writing in about 425 AD—a man whose influence over western thought has been profound and continues to this day. This is what Augustine says about astronomy and astrology, and their relative value:

Astronomy … makes possible systematic predictions about the future, which are not speculative and conjectural but firm and certain; but we should not try to extract something of relevance to our own actions and experiences, like the maniacs who cast horoscopes, but confine our interest to the stars themselves.2

Augustine rejected astrology because he believed in the God of the Bible—the God we meet here in this very song—a God whose glory is above the heavens. See verse 3: this is the God who made the heavens, and set the moon and stars in place. This is the God who is majestic and great, and above and beyond those stars themselves. He is a God of order who set those heavenly bodies where they should be. But he’s done it for his glory, not for magical speculation about how your week is going to pan out.

So the question of verse 4 is a question about our place before this God:

what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Why on earth would this God, who created the stars, be interested in you and me? There are more stars in the visible universe than grains of sand in all the beaches on the earth. According to an Australian estimate in 2003, there are 70 sextillion stars. This is 7 x 1022. Who are we in all of this? I can’t resist quoting Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy again:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.3

Even then, he’s talking about one galaxy amongst quadrillions. And that’s just the visible universe.

There is a God who made it all. So what on earth would he have to do with us? Who are you? What is man?

To be continued …

1 Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Del Ray, 2005 (1979), p. 65.

2 Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, II.113.

3 Adams, p. 3.

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