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Friday, March 28, 2014

Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot and the Infinite-Personal God

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena … Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
What interests me about Sagan’s monologue is that so much of it is undeniably true — and yet there’s one crucial point on which I would have to disagree. Sagan, as many others have done before and after him, looks at the sheer inconceivable size and scope of the universe and comes to the conclusion that it is simply too big, and we are simply too small by comparison, for us to believe that our lives have any higher purpose, or that there is a God who cares about us.

To which I say, wait, what?

Of course, many people wouldn’t go quite as far as to insist that there is no God, but they would say that the sheer scope of the universe proves the absurdity of believing in a personal deity. They would argue that the nature of God is so far beyond anything we can imagine that it is not possible to have any kind of understanding or communication with such a being — and there is no reason to believe that this being would care about us or have any interest in what we do or how we live.

But what is that argument actually saying? That the bigger you get, the more intelligent and powerful you get, the less you are capable of noticing or caring about things that are smaller, stupider or weaker than you? Certainly we human beings often find it so when considering ourselves in relation to ants or amoebae, but the analogy is flawed at best.

We humans are imperfect, limited, and finite; we can only keep a few ideas in our minds at once; we can only be in one place performing one action at any one time; and we are easily misled by appearances (such as the illusion that size = importance, or that the microcosm inside a single cell of our bodies is any less vast and awe-inspiring than the macrocosm of the universe in which we live).

Moreover, we didn’t actually create the ants and amoebae, nor are we aware of every single action they perform, every sensation they experience, every moment of their lives from birth to death. We don’t know them intimately; we can’t identify with them; we can’t even communicate with them in any meaningful way.

But according to the Bible, God is not merely infinite, He is omnipresent. He is separate from His creation — that is, material things do not make up His substance or His essence in any way — but at the same time He is present with it: He sees the sparrow fall, can number the hairs of every man and woman on earth, and knows all the stars by name. And less we be tempted to believe that His knowledge of these things is merely academic, not sufficient to enable him to really understand what it’s like to be human, the gospels record how the infinite-personal God Himself took human form, and for thirty-three years walked among us visibly experiencing the effects of hunger and thirst and fatigue, poverty and neglect, grief and loneliness, betrayal and humiliation — and even death.

So even though the Bible affirms that the scope of God’s knowledge and power are utterly beyond our grasp or comprehension, it also insists that we are not beyond His notice or care. Rather, because He is so much greater than we are, He is capable of more understanding, more compassion, more awareness of our needs as individuals, as families, as nations, and as part of the mass of humanity than we could ever be. Indeed, if not for God’s greatness we would have no concept of love or goodness or justice to begin with, because every positive emotion and good desire that we have as human beings — including the very kindness Carl Sagan advocates — were instilled in us by Him.

Of course, this is sometimes hard for us to understand when we see so much suffering and wrongness in the world — and the problem of evil is a very serious and complicated one, too serious to be dismissed in a few lines here. However, I would like to suggest one point for consideration: if the God of the Bible is real, then His infinite and all-knowing nature means that He is aware not only of every current event on earth, but how that event is connected to every other event which has taken place in the past and will take place in future, as well as all the consequences that would result if any event in that sequence were to change.

Therefore, with that concept in mind, it is at least theoretically possible that the situation in our world — messy and even disastrous as it may often appear — may actually be the best of all possible outcomes under the circumstances, or at least be leading toward such an outcome. That there may actually be a reason for events, including even the worst and most horrific events, to unfold as they do and have done; it is possible that had God arranged certain local matters to our personal human satisfaction, the ultimate ramifications for the planet and everyone on it could have been unspeakably worse. That if we could perceive the whole vast equation as God perceives it, and explore all the possible alternatives, we would soon be forced to acknowledge that there truly was no better way.

Which is not to say that the world is just how it ought to be, or that God is pleased with it. That too is a problem that the Bible acknowledges and addresses: not only through the doctrine of the Fall of Man, which explains how sin, sickness, death and disaster came into a formerly perfect world, but also through the incarnation and the crucifixion, which display the incredible lengths to which God was prepared to go to save and redeem His groaning creation.

So while I view the video about the relative size of stars with open-mouthed awe and a chill running up my spine at the unbelievable immensity of it all, and while I am also moved by Carl Sagan’s appeal for human beings to be good to each other because our world is so tiny and so alone, I can’t mistake either of these things as evidence that there is no God, or that God is too big to be bothered with the needs and struggles of puny human beings.

Rather, I believe that because God is so great — so vast and complex indeed that the size of the universe is just a tiny picture of His greatness — He is also infinitely capable of noticing and caring about you and me, far more than we humans are capable of noticing and caring for even the people we love best in the world.

Which means I can watch those videos about the immensity of the universe and the apparent insignificance of the Earth and humanity in the cosmic scheme of things, and then, with no sense of irony or self-contradiction, I can tuck my children into bed and sing to them:

Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so;
Little ones to Him belong,
They are weak, and He is strong.


Amen.

RJA

Republished by permission of the author

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