What’s Wrong with the Universe

I’m liking Bill Nye more and more. In May 2015, he teamed up with comedienne Amy Schumer to lampoon the increasing tendency for the “universe” to be portrayed as “a force sending cosmic guidance to white women in their twenties”. In the skit, women sit around discussing the way the “universe” is telling them what they should do, or “giving” them their deepest longings (apologies for the swearing).

Bill Nye voices just how frustrated this makes the scientistic atheist community. But Nye and his friends may be surprised to find that Christians share their frustration. Moreover, I think theology can help make sense of this phenomenon, in a way that scientistic atheism cannot.

Nye can explain why this is ridiculous. He gives two reasons: the universe’s immensity, and its impersonality. That is, firstly, as if two gigantic galaxies, millions of light years away, are discussing which vitamins somebody here on earth should take! And secondly, galaxies don’t talk anyway – they, along with the rest of the universe, are nothing more than a “chaotic collection of matter”.

To both of these points, Christians would wholeheartedly agree.[1] However, what Nye is unable to explain is why these women feel they need the universe’s permission, or validation. Theology can help there.

From a theological perspective, these women are craving deity. Deities are both transcendent and immanent: they know more and can do more than us, but they also care about us. In Christianity, the Triune Creator is both immensely transcendent, and intimately immanent, and even plants within us this innate need to consult Him. The “downside” of the Christian God, though, has always been all His pesky standards: as revealed in the Bible, He comes with expectations of justice, selflessness, compassion, love.

This is where the “universe” idea becomes so handy. It fulfils this inherent need God has planted in us, but is also transcendent: after all, the universe is really big and powerful. Nye is right that it’s not immanent, that it doesn’t care – but the idea that it does care can be easily hijacked from many Eastern religions, as has probably happened here. What makes the universe so much handier than God, though, is that it has never clearly defined its standards, which leaves them delightfully ambiguous.

universe seen from hubble

Part of the genius of the skit, is that it highlights this very point. Each of the conversations involve the person doing something that we’d commonly identify as wrong: texting while driving; adultery and hoping a marriage will fail. More than that, all the conversations are tied to self-indulgent privilege: in the most powerful example, the universe wants to save somebody from the inconvenience of watching people die in a natural disaster, instead of their favourite TV show.

The problem is, because atheists deny the existence of a transcendent deity, providing us with moral standards, the morality underlying this skit is subjective. We think it’s wrong that the woman is sleeping with her boss, but she doesn’t. Who’s really to say who’s right here? The skit identifies the universe idea with subjective morality, but atheism is just as subjective, and thus offers no solution.

Now, Nye might point out that sometimes people have also used the Christian God to validate their own desires, which is true. But the Christian scriptures don’t endorse that, and have a specific corrective for it. They reveal what’s really going on here, is idolatry: taking something (even as big as God, or the universe), and squeezing it down to be a justification for whatever you want. The Bible condemns that far more vehemently than this skit does. Nye and Schumer identify the surface problem here, but miss this deeper underlying problem, and thus cannot offer an acceptable solution.

God offers these women – and all of us – both the transcendent knowledge and power, but also the immanent care, that we intuitively seek. But He also leads us to make the best choices: not only for ourselves, but also for our bosses’ wife, and people caught in a hurricane. In contrast, the universe is an idol that cannot satisfy, because it’s just a delusion to justify our own narrow appetites.

And that makes total sense.

Matt Gray

[1]    If I was going to quibble, I might question the validity of seeing the universe purely as some kind of unrelational machine. When applied more locally, to this planet, I’d argue that the devaluing the relational element of creation has contributed to a lot of the environmental issues we find in our world today.

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3 responses to “What’s Wrong with the Universe

  1. Pingback: We hope the universe isn’t too offended… | Manna·

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