Special yet small

July 7, 2010 | Uncategorized | 15 comments

This post was originally published on September 22, 2008.


I’ve mentioned before that one of the big questions that gave me pause when I was first coming to belief was: “What about all this other stuff?” Meaning, if what goes on here in earth is of such dire importance to God, if mankind has such a huge role to play in all of creation, then what’s up with all these other stars and planets? It is estimated that there are billions of other galaxies, each of them containing billions of stars and planets. Right now there are thousands of trillions of storms raging on distant planets; there are grand mountain ranges, stunning deserts, breathtaking sunsets occurring all over the universe every day, none of which anyone will ever see. “If there’s a God who’s so focused on what goes on here on earth, why bother with all of that?” I would wonder.

Sometimes I would hear former believers say that one of the facts that chipped away at their belief in God was the sheer size of the universe. The Bible tells us that mankind is important — so important that God himself became man and was tortured to death for us — and yet look at how utterly miniscule we are by both chronological and spatial measures. The lifespan of all of humanity won’t even register as a blip on the timeline of the 15-billion-year-old universe, and we’re so small physically that we’re practically invisible compared to the universe around us. Though this line of thinking never bothered my husband (as he noted when he announced his ability to demolish any star on Jeopardy), it kind of made sense to me. If there’s a God who made us and who deems us to be rather important in the grand scheme of things, why are we so freaking small?

This is one of those issues that has made more and more sense the more I grow in my understand of God, and of our relationship to him.

Back when I first pondered this question, I hadn’t put a ton of thought into what, exactly, God is. I spent plenty of time investigating evidence for his existence, but hadn’t really pondered what and who he is. Even when I finally began to think more about what he’s like, I focused more on how I as a human could have a “personal relationship” with him, thinking mostly about his accessible, human qualities that we know from when he walked here on earth. But the more I read the works of the great Christian thinkers of history, however, the more I began to see that I needed to be careful not to make the mistake of thinking that I fully — or even partially — understood God. I began to gain a better understanding of the order of creation and our place in it: that we as humans are incredibly valuable since we are loved by God, created in his image; yet we fall so far short of his infinite goodness and glory that it’s not even funny. We are special; yet we are small.

Given this more clear understanding of God and our relationship to him, the structure of the universe began to make sense — perfect sense. From looking at the material world alone, we know that we are wonderfully unique, probably the only sentient life in the universe; yet we are also small — very, very small — and the wonders of the universe around us are infinite, far beyond anything that our limited intellects could ever grasp. And so it is with God.

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot for the past couple of weeks as I’ve gone through my days, and then I heard this during the readings at Mass this weekend:

As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts. (Is 55:9)

It’s a beautiful plan, when you think about it. The smarter and more clever we get, the more we can know about the universe above us. Yet the more we study and measure and chart the heavens, the more we realize how incredibly tiny we are, how very much there is that we will never, ever know. We get a glimpse of the reality that the sum total of human learning will never even scratch the surface of what there is to know.

When I first thought of this subject I thought that the Christian story would make most sense if the geocentric worldview had been true, if the only thing that existed in the whole universe were the earth and a sun and moon and some simple stars to revolve around it. But now I realize that the design of the universe, with its infinite intricacy, beauty and complexity, is in fact a perfect reflection of its Creator.

15 Comments

  1. Kristen @ St Monica's Bridge

    With God, what cannot happen? I ask. I remember a former co-worker telling me that he used to say to his son's that if they could believe all that science taught (men going to the moon, genetically cloned sheep etc) that it really isn't that big a leap to believe in God as Creator of the universe. We are special, but very small. I think of it when I ponder my existence even in the short span of mankind's existence on this Earth. If God made so many billions of people, why would He love me? Because he is God, He can do that.

  2. Dawn by Design

    there are grand mountain ranges, stunning deserts, breathtaking sunsets occurring all over the universe every day, none of which anyone will ever see.

    My husband and I went camping in Colorado several years ago. On the train ride up Pike's Peak, I had this exact same reflection! We saw mountain goats and beautiful pools of water just hanging out up there. They obviously didn't exist for OUR pleasure, they just existed. Quietly and with only tourists on a train to sometimes notice them.

    Thank you for this post, I especially enjoyed the 'stars suck' explanation you linked to.

  3. Ann

    Interesting insights!!

    This post really has me thinking…..

    My 4 year old is fascinated with Dinosuars….which has me thinking some of the same things about how old our world is, and evolution, and how Christianity fits in….but I do end up thinking all of the constructs we use to conceptualize "millions of years" and "carbon dating" are ways that HUMANS UNDERSTAND things and a FRAMEWORK for OUR BRAINS that God created. Some creatures don't even have memory…so interesting to think about!

    Also, when I think about BIG THINGS as you are discussing, I also think about atoms and molecules and how they seem like universes in themselves…I don't know how to relate the size of a let's say human skin cell to a human, versus our universe to the entire universie…etc etc. but it is totally incomprehensible to me.

    And then you got me thinking about this garden in CT I saw on "Moment of Luxury", I can't remember the name, but I just loved the gardener's description – the garden was developed in the 70's and the format is a structured geometrical English garden style, while allowing the growth within the structure to grow in a more "wild" setting – an idea which was very "avant guard" for the time when "kidney shaped" gardens were in vogue – anyway, in searching for this garden to share with you I found:

    http://www.cthistoricgardens.org/promisek.html

    The picture looked like the garden I saw on the show, and it turns out to be a Catholic educational site – so interesting! Anyway, I think gardens are interesting as a platform to think about our creator and creation.

    Thanks for a very thought provocing post!!

  4. Morris five

    what a great and succinct post

  5. Anonymous

    The most interesting thing about the Catholic God vis-a-vis modern science as opposed to various Protestant views on God is that NO discovery, no science can possibly hurt the Catholic view, they can only add to our understanding of God and his creation.

  6. Anonymous

    I just want to clarify so I don't come across as an anti-protestant bigot.

    If you believe that the old testament is literal truth, the young-earth theory, then when science learns the geological age of the earth or the wonders of biology you either have to abandon your faith or you have to ignore progress and truth.

    On the other hand if you believe in just the truth of the texts, and that all of creation is the word of God when you learn of the age of the universe, or the size of the cosmos it just gives you one more 'devotion' to stand in awe of the Lord.

    It's nice when your world-view allows you to say the great thinkers helped touched on truth, great scientists such as darwin actually helped reveal the revelation that is tearoom rather than stick your head in the sand and claim his discover was a lie.

  7. Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin

    As we are to the universe, so the universe is to God.

    Creating the entire universe, just so He can make friends with us, is not a strain on God's resources. He could make as many new and unique universes as there are cubic Planck lengths in this one, and still not have His resources depleted.

    In like manner, observing and interacting with each and every one of us, each and every moment of our lives, is in no way something that consumes His time or stretches His attention. He has enough of both to attend to every quark and lepton, and calculate in real time their every interaction.

    Atheists seem to have such a cramped conception of God. E.g., Dr. Isaac Asimov once wrote that he knew the Bible was twaddle because there was no way God could have stopped the sun in the sky for Joshua without melting the earth's crust, let alone leaving delicate cave flowers that are millions of years old undamaged.

    Oh come ON! God can ignore the laws of conservation and thermodynamics! He can create and/or destroy the angular momentum of the earth and everything within 20 planetary diameters ex nihilo. Think carefully about the definition of "omnipotACent" before you scoff at the miracles in the Bible. My working definition for such people is "Omnipotent means that God can do whatever He wants, and He need not do so in a manner we are even able to understand."

  8. Mindyleigh

    Yes, this type of question recently came up in an online discussion about "what kind of God" would create entropy…and my first thought was how both atheists AND Christians are hell-bent on defining God according to how they think He should be.

    Upon reading this post, I appreciated its succinct and straightforward response to this type of question. It also caused me to ponder and appreciate anew the fact that God humbles Himself to utter smallness in allowing us to receive Him in the Eucharist, disguised as the simplest of foods.

  9. Sr Anne

    The Bible itself acknowledges that, yes, the universe is unbelievably immense and beautiful and we are such a little part of it, but the Scriptural conclusion is not "who do we think we are, arrogant specks "Oh, Lord…how wonderful is your name!… When I consider the heavens…the moon and the stars…what is man that you are mindful of him?"
    God's "mindfulness" of us is an even greater sign of love, inspiring us to grateful and humble love in return.

  10. Jennifer G.

    I feel so blessed to be a reader of your blog. I've been reading for about a year now and you somehow manage to "speak" to me in almost every post. Whether it be enlightening or you just make me laugh, I look forward to seeing a new post from you pop up in my Google Reader. I am so amazed at how God has chosen to reach me through your insights. You have an incredible way of articulating very deep thoughts which helps someone like me connect to God. Thank you!

  11. Ray Ingles

    I can't remember the exact quote, but Carl Sagan pointed out how rare your attitude is among theists… or at least, how noisily the opposite idea is expressed.

    Even today, the creationists are extremely vocal about the idea that the universe could be two million times older than 'the Bible says' it is.

  12. Mindyleigh

    The Big Bang Theory was originally proposed by a Catholic priest. Rejection of science is not asserted by the Catholic Church, but rather by the "noisy" group of creationists (evangelicals) you mention. Catholic theology does not place faith and science at odds with each other.

  13. Peter

    To all the nice catholics on this blog, from an evangelical reader. Don't brush us all with the creationist brush. I have been a believer since early childhood, and never even when I was young did I have any problem with science, the size of the universe, or evolution. I even obtained a degree in physics. Science is God speaking to us about the physical world. Revelation, in it's many forms, is about our spiritual life, and the deep reality of being that lies behind or "above" the physical word, in the same way that a particle creates an electrical field around it. This is why the universe is so large, because the "source" it comes out of is infinite. I think people say "infinite", but don't really ponder what that means. No matter how large the object, it is totally insignificant in relation to ultimate reality.

  14. Mindyleigh

    I'm sorry, Peter, for lumping all evangelicals together. I was just blogging last night about how dangerous this is…please forgive me.

  15. MamaOlive

    Not gonna touch the young earth/old earth debate today… Just wanted to say that we have Moody science video talking about small things and big things… They say that if you make a chart with a galaxy (the biggest thing we know of) on one end, and an atom (or was it an electron? anyway, the smallest thing we know of) on the other end, man would be right in the middle. Hope that makes sense, cause it's pretty cool.

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