Special yet small

September 22, 2008 | 23 comments

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.


  1. SuburbanCorrespondent

    Great stuff to think on as I go about my day today!

  2. Kevin

    C.S. Lewis had some very nice thoughts about the theological status of any extraterrestrial intelligences we might find. You might want to look into that.

  3. frival

    This is a beautiful reflection, Jennifer. It’s something I try very hard to get through to the people who are in our RCIA process: no matter how much we know and how much we learn we’ll never fully understand God – but that’s okay because that’s exactly as it should be. As much as we learn and grow, there’s always more to learn and grow and it is precisely that reciprocity, that perfect symmetry, that is a sign of such beauty.

    I think it’s an interesting contrast that only in God what we don’t know only gives us more consolation whereas in the world what we don’t know causes consternation. Maybe it’s just me.

  4. Julie

    I saw Louie Giglio a year or so ago give a talk that mentioned this. He said that if the heavens declared the glory of God, they were probably just about the right size.

  5. Tara Sz.

    Adding to that, I heard a really neat theory once about the afterlife during a Catholic retreat. It has been suggested that after death, we will have the opportunity to explore everything at any time in any dimension. We will be able to shrink ourselves and explore mitochondria, or become ginormous and skip across galaxies. We will be able to go back and witness all the amazing stories we’ve heard; I personally can’t wait to witness the Annunciation and the Assumption. The Universe is infinite because God is infinite, and we will have an infinity to explore it all. Cause we all know heaven isn’t just sitting on a cloud playing a harp. Pretty cool theory, huh? God is awesome.

  6. Jaime

    You have a wonderful way of flowing your words together with something so complex as this. This was a beautiful entry that I will share with my husband.

    I love your site.


  7. Susan Thompson

    I marvel at these things, too.

    One theory that physicists have come up with is that there is not just one universe, but multiple universes; an infinite number of universes, with new universes being formed all the time.

    I have no idea if this theory is true or not, but I do know that if it is true, it’s not too much for God to keep track of. That’s what it means to be infinite and omniscient.

  8. j. christian

    It is a profound mistake to imagine that Christianity ever intended to dissipate the bewilderment and even the terror, the sense of our own nothingness, which come upon us as we think about the nature of things. It comes to intensify them. Without such sensations there is no religion. Many a man, brought up in the glib profession of some shallow form of Christianity, who comes through reading Astronomy to realise for the first time how majestically indifferent most reality is to man, and who perhaps abandons his religion on that account, may at that moment be having his first genuinely religious experience.

    — C.S. Lewis, Miracles

  9. Aubrey

    What a neat, thoughtful post. Thank you!

  10. The Koala Bear Writer

    I love your second-last paragraph–it’s beautiful. You’re right that we too often focus on God’s human qualities, trying to make Him like us. Yet the universe reminds us that He’s so much bigger than we are. So much bigger!

  11. Jeff Miller

    We are not the only sentient life in the universe, we must not forget the Angels – but excellent reflection.

  12. Hip Mom's Guide

    That’s a beautiful post. I love when a passage of scripture really hits me, especially if it’s one I’ve heard before. Sometimes hearing it anew allows it to take on a new significance that I’ve missed before.

  13. Domenico Bettinelli

    I’ve heard the objection about why would God create so much “extra” universe just for us, especially when the limitations of the speed of light prevent us from ever reaching it.

    I have to laugh. Of course, it doesn’t cost God any more to create a universe of billions of stars than it would to create just this one planet.

    God does not expend any effort to create. He just wills it and it is. So why not make more and more and more?

  14. Anonymous

    Also consider two things; that while we are tiny compared to some things, we are huge compared to others. We aren’t quite in the exact middle of the scale of the universe but we aren’t at the edges. And that in order for us to exist at all the universe has to be this big. If it were smaller it would blow apart before having time to create the second generation stars that we need to be the sun for us. If it were bigger it would have collapsed into a black hole before becoming big enough for us. Look up a physicist named Wheeler for more discussion of this. AMDG
    Jane M

  15. Anonymous

    The archbishop visited our church this past weekend and talked about this very topic (guess the Old Testament reading lends itself to that). He talked about the extravagance of God. When Christ fed the multitudes with fish and loaves, there were baskets of leftovers. When he made wine at Cana, he made more than 100 gallons. When St. Peter cast his net, the weight of fish nearly capsized the boat. God is love – an creates out of love and generosity

  16. Michelle

    I always like to think that God created the rest of the universe to inspire us to be everything He gave us the potential to be. We are specks in the universe and ultimately we’ll never fully understand God. But we can explore the world and universe around us and unlock some of that potential that God gave us that we would never find otherwise.

  17. Chloe

    What a wonderful post!

    You might want to check out the book/DVD The Elegant Universe.


    I think it’s available on Netflix as well.

    Have a blessed Tuesday!

  18. Christine

    Thank you for your insights. Please keep writing. All good stuff and the comments also. Great conversations going on here!

  19. Memphis Aggie

    Our gains in science lead to greater humility, sounds like God to me. Nice post.

  20. Dean

    Since becoming Catholic I have come to view God more as an artist who delights in his creative play. While we may not be the center of the universe, we are allowed to share in God’s delight over its beauty and vastness. Then when we contrast the vast universe with the baby in Mary’s womb, we have enough wonder to last more than a life time.

  21. Becky

    My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon them, they all stand up together. Isaiah 48:13

    As enormous as we perceive the universe to be, it is only as big as God’s right hand, from thumb to pinkie. That changes the scale even more dramatically.


  22. Chelsea

    I love your trains of thought! I feel like we think a lot alike and it's fun to see someone I don't even know so consumed by the attempt to understand God. I stumbled across this while on a Google rampage and I'm glad I found this.

    I've always thought that the only explanation for the universe and it's absolute hugeness is God's unlimited passion for creating. The seeds we sow reflect what's in our hearts and it is so clear that the beauty God produces flows from his own majesty. How incredible!

    Thank you for posting your thoughts. I am so excited I found this. Your clear writing style makes your complex thoughts so compact and easy to understand.

    Search "Astronomy Picture of the Day" on Google if you're as mesmerized by the universe as I am. Who said science couldn't lead us to worship the Lord?!

    God bless,

  23. Amy

    Bill Bryson's book A Short History of Nearly Everything is a really fun but substantial laymen's look at these issues – astronomy, physics, etc… He doesn't write it from a religious perspective, but when I gave a copy to my father I inscribed it "Everything's a miracle," because it's just so obvious.


  1. Asking God for a sign | Conversion Diary - [...] Special yet small [...]

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