Humility

May the Force be with all of us

In 1977 my father took my brother and me to see Star Wars, and what I saw transformed me. On that screen, which seemed so big to a little kid, I was swept away from my Earth-bound existence and became conscious for the first time of our universe.  This was the defining moment in my life and it occurred when I was six years old.

Now that I am an adult, I realize how short on science the movie was, but I will be forever grateful for the way it got me thinking about outer space in a significant way. Space was all I could think about for years after: the awe, the mystery, the unlimited possibilities. From that moment onward, a life dedicated to the study of space science was inevitable for me.

Almost four decades later, I’m a professional astrophysicist. I have Jodie Foster-in-Contact moments whenever I go to a remote observatory and watch the transcendent night sky. Every time, it transports me back to 1977 and reignites the sheer wonder and indescribable joy I felt at the sight of a sky filled with thousands of far-off suns. But the wonder is deeper and more complex than it was when I was six years old, because of what I know. I now know what powers each of those suns, I know how they formed, when they formed, that most have planets orbiting them, and, though the stars appear to extend infinitely in all directions, I know that I’m really only looking at the outskirts of the vast Milky Way galaxy. But most important of all, I now know that all of this was deliberately created.

My brother and I were brought up with little in the way of religious instruction or experiences. He and I found God after long journeys on separate paths. It was the intense love my brother felt for his children and his need to believe they would have eternal life that brought him to God. What led me to God was my love of all things space and everything I learned as a student about the creation of the universe and the way nature is so exquisitely fine-tuned for intelligent life.  Science continues to be the basis of my unshakable conviction that nothing as beautiful and orderly as our universe could be an accident.

Whenever I stand on the peak of Mount Locke wrapped in the awe of a perfect night sky, I am infused by a feeling of complete humility. But, I understand in those moments what a little girl couldn’t possibly have understood forty years ago, that I am feeling humility in the midst of God’s divine work as I view proof of Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

Insignificance

Whenever I teach introductory astronomy, I hand out a questionnaire to my students and ask them to describe their main challenge (if any) with astronomy in terms of their religious or philosophical worldviews. Some students are troubled by the apparent conflict between science and their religious beliefs, but the most common response by far is a feeling of insignificance in the face of their new awareness of the vast scale of the universe.

Their answers reflect an intense humility, but it is often different from what I feel. Their humility, combined with the sense of insignificance, seems to lead many of them to disturbing feelings of meaninglessness and hopelessness. I realized some time ago that people who do not believe in God feel the same degree of humility when they look at the night sky as I do, but they often turn the humility inward where it is translated into feelings of personal worthlessness. This feeling is not unique to the young and uninitiated in science. Physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg lamented in his book, Dreams of a Final Theory, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

I am fortunate to know that our vast universe is exactly the size it has to be to give rise to intelligent life.  Just about every scientist knows this, but the unfortunate non-believers are materialists for whom the vastness of the universe is also a constant reminder of the cold and deadly indifference of nature. Some non-believers, like the late astronomer Carl Sagan, hope for something after death, but largely accept the materialist view that this existence is all that there is. They retreat to gratitude for the moment, which is an intellectual evasion of their terrible truth.

Other scientifically informed people evade thoughts about the creation and fine tuning of the universe in a different manner, by pushing it beyond the bounds of investigation. They maintain that ours is one of an infinite number of universes—the multiverse—which we can never observe. They argue that we must have simply won the multiverse lottery and the jackpot was all of the conditions necessary for life. It seems to me that if people feel insignificant and hopeless in a vast universe, they aren’t going to feel any better being part of an even bigger multiverse. A darker road is taken by a few, like biologist William Provine, who simply accept their insignificance and acknowledge that a godless universe can have no meaning. It is an honest assessment for a materialist, but one that is filled with despair.

The deliberately more optimistic atheist will talk of his awe of the universe, but I know from experience that is only what he says in public to make his case. If he is capable of taking the next step in his reasoning, he can’t help but move to terrifying thoughts. He may feel wonder at the universe, but if he knows its history he can’t escape the understanding that nature doesn’t care about him. His awe, humility, and fear must all be based on the inescapable realization that ultimately the cosmos will bring about his destruction and the eventual annihilation of the entire human species. Nothing that he or anyone else does will ever have any meaning.  The atheist who looks at outer space as merely a pretty picture is deluding himself. If there is no loving God as Creator of the universe, what the atheist is really looking at in the heavens is the end of all hope or meaning.

There is no need for such a dim view of existence. Because I believe in a loving and purposeful God, when I look at outer space, I see something created with mankind in mind. I know that I am small in physical size, but huge in significance. My awe and humility expand my being through the knowledge that there is a divine power guided by God’s love for all of us. His love changes space into something more like Star Wars: a wonderful challenge that we can meet with joy because of our God-given spirit and intellect.

When I consider 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,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet

Psalm 8:1-6

4 thoughts on “Humility

  1. Amen. I wonder at atheists attempts to stave of nihilism. They’re often better people than they are metaphysicians. They know that there is real meaning and truth and beauty even though their worldview denies it.

  2. I don’t know, Rob. I can only answer for myself, as a former atheist. I simply did not think about it. When I was younger, I felt immortal, and I was also far too distracted by all of my personal goals and ambitions to care about the meaning of it all. It helped that it was fun growing up in Canada in the 70s and 80s — there was truth and beauty everywhere in the culture, plus a sense of hope for the future, and it was easy to take it all for granted.

  3. Along the way I finally realized when I’m looking outward to space, I’m really looking inward and upward.

    The vastness of space and the uncountable stars are the works of the the Almighty, and yet, He sent His son to die for all of humanity that they might live with Him forever. Our significance, my significance, is as vast as the cosmos, and yet we are just dust on a ball of dust.

    God loves paradoxes.

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