Over on the Patheos Evangelical channel I came across this post from early April titled The Vastness of the Universe and Man’s Seeming Insignificance. As the title implies, it’s a response to that feeling we get when we consider that we live on one small planet circling one ordinary star out of a billion trillion stars. If we are very lucky we can live to be a hundred years old – the universe is 13.8 billion years old. How could we not feel tiny and insignificant?
Evangelical writer Chris Van Allsburg (who is not the children’s books author of the same name) finds a satisfactory response in a hierarchy that places humans at the top of the scheme.
A hierarchy of being sees differences in quality and ranks those beings accordingly. Attributing quality to beings in the universe therefore places man at the apex of sensible beings (things detected by the senses) and makes irrelevant the quantitative insignificance of man understood as having little value simply due to the vastness of space.
My initial reaction is to wonder how anyone could possibly think that one 200,000 year old species in a 13.8 billion year old universe is “the apex of sensible beings.” The odds against that are literally astronomical. But I know the answer to that question: it’s what his religious tradition and his mythology teaches.
So be it. I’m not here to debunk his religion. I’m here to offer a modern Pagan alternative.
We are part of the vastness
It’s natural to look up at the night sky and feel insignificant in the face of the vastness of the universe. But when we contemplate what we’re seeing, another emotion arises: amazement.
Physics, astronomy, and biology all teach us the same thing: whatever this vastness is, we’re a part of it. The universe (or at least, the current incarnation of it) began with the Big Bang. Everything that is in the material world came out of that event and that process. We don’t know how life began, but we know that once it did begin the process of evolution generated this amazing diversity of life on Earth. Every living thing on this planet is our relative, to one degree or another.
Are we related to the life that almost certainly exists on other planets? Perhaps not in the way we’re related to chimps and rabbits and bananas, but whatever process created that non-terrestrial life came out of the same Big Bang as the process that created us, so at least indirectly we are.
Yes, the universe is vast. But we’re a part of that vastness – how could we possibly be insignificant?
We need not be at the top to be significant
Van Allsburg says “just because man is small, it doesn’t follow that he’s insignificant.” And in that, he and I agree. But he finds significance by claiming to be “on the apex of the hierarchy of contingent beings.”
I see no evidence that such a hierarchy exists, and if it does I see no evidence we’re at the top.
I often criticize people who talk about “the Universe” as though it’s a sentient superbeing – a kinder and gentler version of the Christian God. It is not. But whatever the universe is, we’re a part of it, and we can make it kinder and gentler… or whatever we choose, for good or for ill.
Every species has an impact on its environment. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park changed the ecosystem in ways no one expected. We have changed the climate of the Earth through burning fossil fuels. And over the past year we’ve been reminded that a microscopic virus – which some argue isn’t even alive – can change the whole world.
“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” “For want of a nail, a kingdom was lost.” Our figures of speech remind us that every link, every component, and every individual matters.
Our significance is not because we’re at “the apex of the hierarchy.” Our significance is because nothing is insignificant.
There is freedom in the vastness
The universe is vast. There is no hierarchy. Van Allsburg thinks this means insignificance.
I think it means freedom.
How should you live your life? I don’t know – how do you want to live it? You’re part of this vast universe – the opportunities are endless. Dream big, and then go do it.
Or dream small. It’s your choice.
It helps to have some guidance, so you don’t have to figure out everything from zero – the wisdom of our ancestors is a good place to start. Virtues such as reciprocity and hospitality aren’t divine dictates (except when they are – hospitality is very important to some deities) so much as they’re our collective experiential wisdom of what makes for a good society and what doesn’t.
But ultimately, you get to decide.
And also, you have to decide. Otherwise someone will choose for you. There are many people who will be happy to tell you exactly how to live your life. Most of them don’t have your best interests at heart.
And what if your choice is blocked, either by governments or by socio-economic systems or by those who are more powerful than you? Then perhaps you would be best served by following the Morrigan and working to reclaim your sovereignty.
Some say that in the absence of a creator God, the vastness of the universe means that life is meaningless. To me, that reflects a tremendous lack of imagination. The vastness of the universe means that we are free to find our own meaning, or to create it.
We are not special – but we can do special things
I see this over and over again – the desire to be special by virtue of birth. We dream about being a long lost princess and having someone come and take us away from this commoner life. Some Pagans claim to be a “natural born witch” or a “hereditary Druid.” Christians claim that humans alone are made in the image of their God.
Other less innocent people claim their race makes them superior, or their gender means they’re allowed to do things people of other genders can’t, or that their sexual orientation is “natural” and others aren’t.
Whether innocent or malevolent, the desire to be special by virtue of birth is ultimately a form of laziness. You aren’t special because of who you are.
And also, you aren’t special because of what you believe.
But you can be special because of what you do.
Go outside at night and look up. Contemplate the vastness of the universe. Remember that you’re a part of it all. Remember that there is freedom and opportunity in the vastness.
Live virtuously. Live heroically. And most importantly, live in such a way that when you leave this world for whatever comes next, people remember you with respect, with honor, and with love.