Taking into account scientific calculations for the size and expansion and age of the cosmos, what is your view of the spiritual significance of humans in the universe?

Imagine standing in a rowboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, looking through a

Paul Wallace is a Baptist minister with a doctorate in experimental nuclear physics from Duke University and post-doctoral work in gamma ray astronomy, along with a theology degree from Emory University. He teaches at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. Faith-science questions for consideration may be submitted to editor@nurturingfaith.net.

Paul Wallace is a Baptist minister with a doctorate in experimental nuclear physics from Duke University and post-doctoral work in gamma ray astronomy, along with a theology degree from Emory University. He teaches at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. Faith-science questions for consideration may be submitted to editor@nurturingfaith.net.

telescope at the horizon. No matter how good your telescope is, you can see no further than a few miles.

This is because the earth is spherical and the ocean curves down and away from you in every direction. The horizon is the limit of what you can see. But because you know about the shape of the planet, you’re also aware there’s a whole lot more you can’t see.

Three miles in every direction: that’s all you’ll ever get. The geometry of the problem is non-negotiable.

That’s what it’s like for us on the earth, only our cosmic horizon is much further away — about 40 billion light years away in every direction. (A light year is the distance light travels in a year, about 6 trillion miles. It is not a measure of time.)

Within that distance there are approximately 100 billion galaxies, each containing billions of stars and planets. But just as the great majority of the Pacific Ocean lies outside the three-mile limit as seen from the rowboat, most of the cosmos is permanently out of reach of not only our best present technology, but also of any technology whatsoever.

To say that the earth is a drop in the ocean of space is so frantically understated as to be laughable. We would need to compare
a single drop of water to 1,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000 Pacific Oceans to begin to get a decent comparison. And this is only the space within our horizon.

It is cozy compared to what lies beyond: untold light years’ worth of galaxies and stars and planets that in principle we cannot ever see or know about. And who knows what kind of life is out there, both inside and outside our view?

A similarly dizzying picture can be drawn with respect to time. Imagine compressing all of cosmic history into a single year, so that the Big Bang happened on Jan. 1 at 12 a.m. and right now is the ringing-out of the year on midnight Dec. 31.

The year contains 31.5 million seconds, and recorded human history — since the invention of writing by the Sumerians 5,300 years ago — spans only 12 of them. We are newcomers, to say the least!

We are one of millions of related species, billions if we consider the whole history of life. We share lineage not only with chimpanzees and gorillas, but also with whales and okapis and lichen and oak trees. All life is related (and, don’t forget, there may be a lot more life than we can imagine out among the stars).

How then are we significant? How then are we special?

Let’s consider three possible responses. First, we could admit that humans are not special at all. Physical insignificance and spiritual insignificance go together in this view.

Since we are unimaginably tiny and brand new compared to the cosmos, and since we occupy no special location in the universe, and since there are all these other species to which we are genetically related, and since our ancestors were not human, then we must be mere organisms pretty much like all the others and that’s all there is to it. In this view all life is basically the same, and all of it is physically and spiritually insignificant.

This view is obviously contrary to Christianity, for it has the effect of removing the word “spirit” from our language altogether. All life is devalued here, and if life is not spiritually significant, nothing is. So this is not an option.

Second, we could say that none of these facts of science matter, that there is no relationship between the physical and the spiritual. We can be the most significant of creatures in God’s eyes even if we are incomprehensibly tiny, newly arrived, surrounded by intimately related species and possibly by a whole cosmos full of extraterrestrial life.

Our unique spiritual souls and the life to come are all that really matter, not this present world. From a truly spiritual point of view it would make no difference if the cosmos were very much smaller and younger, if we were not related to other life, and if there were no possibility of there being intelligent creatures out there among the galaxies. The details of the cosmos simply do not matter.

This view is also unsatisfying. Christianity, more than almost any other major religion, insists that the physical and the spiritual are not opposed but are instead deeply related. God created all things and called them very good.

We believe that the divine nature is somehow revealed in the cosmos; therefore the material and physical worlds cannot be separated. This principle finds its ultimate expression in the incarnation of God in the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth. At the very least we, as followers of that same Jesus, cannot simply disregard facts about the material cosmos. These facts have something important to tell us. But what?

The Old Testament book of Job offers a clue to a third way of looking at this question. In that story Job is a wise and righteous man and a generous advocate of the poor and needy. He is a prominent man who sits atop the social pyramid. In his world this means that it is not only his fellow man but also God who favors him; his material and social status is a sign of his righteousness before God. There is no question about it: Job is significant.

As the story unfolds, Job loses his family, his health and his wealth. But, importantly for us, he loses something else: his significance. He finds himself on the outside, no longer important to anyone. He no longer holds a position of wealth and power. He longs for the significance he once had, and wonders why it was taken from him. Is it possible that he is really, truly insignificant — even in God’s eyes?

After many chapters of arguing about this with his friends, Job hears God speaking. But God does not explain Job’s loss of significance. There is no apology or theory about why bad things happen to good people. Instead, God points Job toward creation.

Job is taken on a tour of the cosmos. First he gets an eyeful of the earth and the sea and the stars. He is then shown an array of strange animals, creatures that occupy the outer fringes of his consciousness and of his human world, thriving in places where he could never survive.

These beasts have no connection with Job’s world of commerce and religion and justice. They do not value what Job values. God shows Job that the mountain goat, the wild ass, the ostrich, the wild ox, the vulture and many others form communities of their own, communities from which Job’s own world looks small and peripheral.

During the tour God points out repeatedly how these animals are divinely cared for. The eye of God is on all of creation, not just the tiny piece of it that concerns Job. God is not preoccupied with humans; instead, God’s providence balances the needs of all creatures, meeting each one at its own level.

God knows every part of creation and is fully present to all things. There is not a star or stone or fish or bird that God does not sustain. The love of God is sufficient for the whole cosmos, including the deer, the lion and the eagle.

It is also sufficient for Job. In the end Job is satisfied with God’s answer. He is set free to no longer worry about his own significance, because he has experienced the love of God. So it goes for us. In the face of such cosmic love we are not only free to forget about our own importance, but also are set free to love one another, all creatures and, indeed, all things. NFJ

By Paul Wallace