Our culture tells two stories about where we come from and who we are in the universe. Both are likely very familiar to you.
The first goes something like this: At the beginning of time*, God created the universe and everything in it. The earth is his favorite planet in the whole universe, and more or less the focus of the Whole Shebang (i.e. existence). Earth is his favorite because it’s where he made human beings – who, as it turns out, are his favorite creatures in the whole universe. People were the very last thing (and the very best thing) that he had made, and he loved them so much that he wanted to live with them, in person, forever.
The second story is sort of a response, and it goes: Nope, there is no God, and the universe doesn’t need humans. Fourteen billion years** ago, the universe emerged at random from an incomprehensibly compressed point of spacetime called a singularity. The earth is merely one of many statistically inevitable life-sustaining planets in the universe. And human beings evolved by chance through a random, messy, and purposeless process just like everything else, and we’ve only been around for a hundred thousand years. And, while that’s much longer than the first story’s estimate, humanity’s whole existence only amounts to the last hour and a half of December 31st on Cosmic Calendar, popularized by Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
While these stories are diametrically opposed, they do agree on a couple things:
- One story is right. The other is wrong. And there is no grey area.
- We must choose between them.
Our existence (and any meaning contained therein) boils down to one of two oversimplified choices: we are either an essential part of a divinely crafted universe, or an insignificant aspect of an inevitable but ultimately accidental universe.
For a person who desires to follow Jesus and take the claims of science seriously, this is, in the words of Michael Scott, “a classic difficult decision.”
Neuroscientist and writer, David Eagleman, describes this conflict on a cultural-historical level:
After Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter in his homemade telescope in 1610, religious critics decried his new sun-centered theory as a dethronement of man. They didn’t suspect that this was only the first dethronement of several. One hundred years later, the study of sedimentary layers by Scottish farmer James Hutton toppled the Church’s estimate of the age of the Earth—making it eight hundred thousand times older. Not long afterward, Charles Darwin relegated humans to just another branch in the swarming animal kingdom. At the beginning of the 1900s, quantum mechanics irreparably altered our notion of the fabric of reality. In 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson deciphered the structure of DNA, replacing the mysterious ghost of life with something that we can write down in sequences of four letters and store in a computer.
And over the past century neuroscience has shown that the conscious mind is not the one driving the boat. A mere four hundred years after our fall from the center of the universe, we have experienced the fall from the center of ourselves.” (David Eagleman, Incognito, p 193)
Historical reductionism and generalized church-vs-progress rhetoric aside, Eagleman depicts a very real tension that Western Christianity is faced with today. As humans have come to understand more and more about our world, the supposedly biblical narrative of an anthropocentric universe, specially designed for us, has come to seem less and less tenable.
The sun stopped orbiting the earth, and humanity became displaced in space. The timeline of the universe stretched and expanded, and humans were relegated to an afterthought. Divine creation became common descent and our distinction from the rest of earth’s creatures was reduced to so much time and luck, and we watched our significance diminish further.
We closed our eyes for a moment, and when we opened them, everything had changed. Looking up from the floor, we realized that our throne had been usurped by some young punk with a telescope and test tube. So much of what we thought we knew had changed and continues to change all the time.
No wonder we feel so defensive and disoriented. We were so sure of our place in the universe, yet someone seems to have tampered with our compass and sabotaged our maps.
So you’re saying this was all a random accident?
That I don’t matter?
That the bible is a bunch of ancient nonsense and my faith is foolish and irrelevant?
You’re telling me that the first story – about God making us and loving us and wanting to live with us – just isn’t true?
Let me stop you right there and assure you that I’m not saying any of those things – except, actually, the last one. Sort of. Let me explain.
Yes, God made us and loves us and deeply desires to dwell with us, but I’m suggesting that the biblical story – the true biblical story – is not the anthropocentric narrative that’s infiltrated and contaminated it. We were never the center of the story: God was, God is, and God will be. And the bible will attest to that!
The true and authoritative narrative of scripture tells the story of a God so big, so magnificent, so beautiful, so gracious and so just that he made the whole universe and sustains it with his love and power. And within that creative love and powerful mystery, life arose on one tiny, pale blue dot in the cosmos. And by the will of his perfect desire, he made human beings to appear on earth, to know him and love him even as he fully knows and loves us – even as we wrestle with him for power and demand to be placed in the center. To be placed on the throne, where only he belongs.
Yes, the bible is anthropocentric – but it was written by humans, on earth. And even still, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, scripture always points away from ourselves and back to God. Jesus pointed not to himself, but sought to glorify his Father.
When I read authors or thinkers like David Eagleman, or hear about the detection of gravitational waves a billion lightyears away, or ponder the possibility of life – even conscious, intelligent life – elsewhere in the universe, I don’t feel afraid or distressed, but I’m in awe. I find myself moved to something like worship: my vision of God grows as my vision of myself diminishes. And I’m moved all the more that a God so big could love a person so small.
After all, allowing ourselves to be recalibrated to God’s center, God’s compass, God’s plumb line, God’s time, God’s pace God’s story – that’s what the human story has always been about.
* The beginning of time is typically calculated to be between six and ten thousand years ago by many who adhere to the first story.
** Technically, 13.8 billion years.
P.S. If you want to hear a rendering of the ancient creation-to-redemption narrative integrated with the discoveries of modern science, you’d do well to spend twelve minutes watching The Big Story (produced by BioLogos) below: