The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 1)
Space, Size, and Significance
(Part 1 in a 4 part series)
Psalms 19 tells us that the heavens declare the glory and handiwork of God. Christians have always taken this to mean that the beauty, design, complexity, hospitality, and vastness of the universe serve as a testimony to the One who created it. Indeed, who can deny the emotional charge experienced under a crisp, star filled night sky? And it has always been so, whether of the ancients, who possessed nothing but speculation over the nature of the heavens, or of we privileged moderns, whose knowledge of what lies behind and beyond those twinkling lights only adds to the wonder.
But far from evoking awe toward the creator, some skeptics see the vast scope of the creation as justification for their skepticism. There are various ways the objection is presented, but it generally runs something like this: "Why should God care about us small, insignificant creatures that live on a common place, orbiting an average star, in the outer reaches of an insignificant galaxy, tucked away in a remote corner of the universe?"
To frame this as a formal argument, they might say the following:
a) If there were a God who really cared about humans, He would have placed us in prime real-estate.
b) We are nowhere special.
c) Therefore, there is no God who particularly cares about us (or we are at least not the pinnacle of creation).
Of course, this argument could be adjusted in various ways, like saying there are trillions of habitable locations and so maybe we are just one of millions of randomly evolved species. But all these arguments still depend on a certain idea about the hospitality and architecture of the cosmos. The actual facts turn out to paint an entirely different portrait.
Before I get to the science (beginning in part 2), let me just address the wrong-headed philosophical idea that may underlie this objection.
There is a sense in which the smallness of man, the infinity of space, and the vast number of stars is supposed to diminish the importance of humanity. But this would seem to suggest that size equals value. Shaquille O'Neil may be more impressive to watch than Gary Coleman, but they are equal in their intrinsic value. Indeed, it is the intrinsic value of humanity compared to, say, the size of a galaxy that is at issue.
We demonstrate our understanding of this value distinction in that we find a one-ounce diamond to be more precious than a mountain of gravel. And we do not shed tears when stars go supernova like we do when humans die. For that matter, think for a moment about what you'd rather spend eternity with: a Red Giant star or a real-life human; or, a million galaxies or a million other self-conscious, personal beings?
We are not just quantitatively different from the furnishings of the universe, we are qualitatively different. And on top of that, if God has created us for His special purposes, and especially stamped His image upon us as the Bible teaches, then we are infinitely more valuable than all the inanimate mass and energy in space.
The objection then may turn to the idea that there are millions of other life forms in the universe, thus drowning our significance in a sea of equally (or more than equally) "special" beings. What place, then, for a God to concern Himself so intimately with us mere earthlings, as the Bible teaches?
Well, this would be a compelling question if it were something more than mere speculation. And saying that it is "probably" true presumes the whole materialistic project that life can get started on its own (which I've addressed elsewhere) much less evolve to a self-conscious entity. When and if SETI or NASA gives us some clear confirmation of intelligent neighbors, then it would be meaningful to seek a theological response in light of it. Even then, it is not as though no response can be given. In a cosmos ruled by an omnipresent and omniscient God, there is room for even the remotest atom to be the object of His meticulous attention.
But if we earthlings are the only game in town, then, as the late Carl Sagan said, the universe seems like an awful waste of space. The problem with this objection is that it is a misuse of the word "waste" and an unwarranted constraint on God's creative license.
Remember the image of the billionaire who lights his cigars with 100 dollar bills? In a certain sense, God's unlimited power permits Him to operate with this kind of extravagance. He is free to create as much or a little as He pleases, and if He chooses to create galaxies or whole universes for nothing other than His own pleasure, or for the heavenly host, then that is His prerogative. The difference is that the billionaire can rightly be said to be wasting his resources simply because there are others who could benefit from the incinerated money. You can only waste what can be put to use, or better use, elsewhere. But can the same be said of God and His creation?
The whole idea behind the objection is that the waste of the universe is because there is no one else to make use of it. The complaint arises because of the abundance, not because it is failing to meet a need found elsewhere. You can't waste something if no other possible consumer of it exists. Now, if God had created one crowded universe and also one that was virtually empty, then perhaps that would qualify as a "waste."
The "waste" complaint would seem to conversely imply that if God were more economical, then He would have created nothing more than a single star and planet. Heck, maybe all the extra water and land on earth is a waste too. But then I'm sure the objection would become, "that seems like an awful waste of His power." The implication is that God must create exactly what is needed to provide for the beings He has made, or that whatever He has made must necessarily be filled with beings like, or other than, us in order to qualify as "use." Presumably, God should "use" it all or have some designated purpose for every cubic light-year of it. This seems presumptuous both to assert how God is required to create and to assume that God does not indeed have some use for the entire creation.
Aside from how the universe may serve some heavenly purpose or future purpose for ourselves, there are benefits that have always been enjoyed as a result of it, and with time we are even more fully appreciating them. The local stars have always been a delight to us, and as the Bible says, have helped us to mark the times and seasons. In modern times we have been exploring the depths of space, learning much about our own local domain and the very laws of physics as a result. In fact, we would never know of the vast reaches of space in order to call it a "waste" if we had not already probed it with our instruments.
How very dull and constraining it would be if we inquisitive humans did not have this grand showcase and laboratory at our disposal. What a beautiful, awesome, and educational thing that God has offered to us. I defy even the most scientifically illiterate person to look upon a deep space image of a galaxy or nebula and maintain his emotional neutrality. And even an agnostic like Sagan otherwise believed that "Life is but a momentary glimpse of the wonder of this astonishing universe."
The universe is indeed serving its purpose, and we are just the right kind of heavenly-minded creatures able to both understand it and appreciate it. That is true of each of us even though we are but one in 6 billion, and would remain true even if the universe did happen to be peppered with other beings just like ourselves.
You may continue the series here:
The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 2) - Location, Location, Location
The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 3) - It's in the Stars
The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 4) - Habitat for Humanity