Our Place In the Universe

The documentary series Cosmos
The upcoming movie The Martian
The raging debate about the likelihood of life on other planets
New Horizons images of Pluto

Our culture is thinking about big things. Really big things. This week, I heard a NASA official in his sixties say, “My generation was the lunar generation. We watched humans walk on the moon. This generation is the Mars generation.”  

When we think of things this big, of a universe this expansive — when we place ourselves on the intergalactic scale — I think we have a tendency to adopt one of two outlooks.  

The first is to despair of our smallness. We are tiny. In terms of our size, our impact on the universe, and even our longevity in it, we are mere specks. Mars is 140 million miles away. NASA’s probe Voyager 1 took 36 years just to escape our little solar system. And if there is life on other planets, it exists at a distance of trillions of miles. The universe is a really big place. All of humanity from the dawn of homo sapiens to this Friday’s commute, is a weightless trace in the ocean of firmament. And when our species ends, the universe will not remember it. That doesn’t give us much to look forward to. 

Our second temptation is to insist on the opposite: we are gaining a foothold in the arena of universal sovereignty. With our science and our machines, our prophecy of super-intelligence and our dint of will, we are overcoming our smallness. We have planted a flag on the moon. We have photographed the backside of Pluto. We have seen beyond our galaxy. We will put a human on Mars. We have overcome distances so vast and environments so threatening as to have been considered impossible only decades ago. Our scientific enlightenment is accelerating so much, in fact, that we seem to be arriving at the Olympian council of our own progress. We are capable of things that thousands of years of humankind would have considered divine.  

As our culture goes forward with dreams of interstellar travel and scientific progress, let me recommend a third way to think about our place in the universe — one that does not make us gods nor make us meaningless. One that arises from the wisdom of ancient ways to inform the knowledge of the new. 

We are small, but not insignificant. We are powerless against the limitless universe, but precious because of imputed worth.  

The Christian understanding of the cosmos is one that embraces these two balancing truths. Whether the mistaken cosmology is that of Moses (That blue in the sky isn’t water, bro) or Galileo (That thing about the tides? Should have stuck with the stars) or NASA (You don’t think they’re right about everything, do you?), Christianity holds it with a open hand and bowed head. We acknowledge both our smallness — we are indeed tiny specks in the universe — and our worth — we are made in the image of ultimate Good.  

Christians must be comfortable with both the progress and limitations of science. People of faith must live in a world that can be understood by science, and support a science that cannot understand God. We must seek a vision for our place in the universe that neither usurps nor despairs.  

It’s fun to think about astronauts and progress and Matt Damon on Mars. But even as science itself grows stronger in our cultural pantheon, let’s not limit our narrative to the cognitive orbits of how small we are or how big we can become. Let’s imagine an even bigger story — bigger, even, than the universe itself — in which humankind is both small and significant. Both powerless and priceless.