Monday, January 31, 2011

Gigantically Insignificant

In a conversation I recently overheard at the local Starbucks, two high-schoolers were deploring the seeming inability of the Christian worldview - fundamentalism in particular - to accept the staggering insignificance of our position in the universe. They have a point. Here we stand on the head of a pin, waxing eloquent about eternity and epistemology and spiritual warfare with ourselves on the front lines. It sounds a bit cheeky.

Postmodernism is keen to point out this fact of our insignificance. This is valuable as a corrective to the sickeningly top-heavy attitude of Christian fundamentalism and American exceptionalism, but still not quite the whole truth. (Yes, postmoderns are interested in truth; I will explain this in another post.)

When I say this is valuable as a corrective, I mean that perhaps we could use to come down off our high horse of spiritual elitism. Perhaps we could admit that we have become a little over-zealous in using soap on everyone else's mouths and then upending the empty box to preach on. Perhaps we could use a reminder that while we serve a big God, we do not hold Him on a leash.

"Ours is an age of doctors, lawyers, and CEOs who must not appear weak. Americans think themselves capable of nearly anything, certainly of shaping the future. We are not particularly good at recognizing our nothingness in the face of the universe, though we know our world is a speck in a galaxy, our galaxy a speck in the cosmos."
- Rémy Rougeau, Introduction to Diary of a County Priest, Kindle Location 77

For Enlightenment man, man was everything; for Postmodern man, man is nothing. For the Christian, it is both-and, man is everything and nothing, we are gigantically insignificant. With Spinoza, we affirm that we can think meaningfully. With Derrida, we affirm that we can think wrongly. Man stands erect upon the two legs of faith and doubt. This humility (besides keeping us faithful to the example of Jesus) is the only way we will be able to talk to our contemporary culture about anything.

We are, after all, participants within this dilemma. The sky is not the sole property of postmodernism, and we find echoes of this bewilderment within our own tradition. The psalmist, observing the Milky Way in the pre-Edison darkness of the Judean countryside, wonders aloud: "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" It makes no sense, but it is this very reversal of man's insignificance that gives teeth to the scriptural narrative and makes it surprising. To the skeptic, it is in-credible; to the believer, it is incredible. It is breathtaking to discover that you are breathing.

Now for the correction to the corrective. The argument from size, in its purely materialistic form, turns out to be palpably thin.

"[Herbert Spencer] popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God; a somewhat formless image; what one might call an impressionist portrait. It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos, for man was always small compared to the nearest tree."
- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Kindle Location 820

Though presumably Herman Melville would have been quite content to accept the spiritual supremacy of the whale, this rebuttal remains quite compelling. The strength of the materialist argument is not integral but conditional, like Samson's hair. It relies entirely on keeping us staring goggle-eyed at incomprehensible statistics about the solar system. Once the spell is broken and we realize it cannot prove a consistent value differential between large and small as such, it dissolves - not negating the awesome scale of creation, but making room for a spiritual interpretation.

Rather than being proud to be nothing, we are humbled to be something. God did not come looking for us because we are something, we are something because God has come looking for us. One more statement from the psalmist, a marvel in compactness and pronoun dexterity: "It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves." God makes us - not only as a rainy day makes puddles, but also as a cup of tea makes a rainy day.

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