Our Place in the Universe

When I was a kid, there were nine planets. Guess how many there are now. Eight isn’t a bad guess, now that poor Pluto has been demoted to the status of dwarf planet. But it’s way more than eight. As of November 8, 2018, there are at least 3,845 planets. There are the eight in our solar system, plus 3,837 confirmed exoplanets, or planets in orbit around other stars.[1] That’s a staggering figure, especially considering that the first exoplanet was discovered in 1992. Our known universe is getting bigger every day.

This naturally raises the possibility of life on those other planets, maybe even intelligent life. An important part of the search for exoplanets is finding planets in the so-called habitable zone of their host stars, where liquid water can exist along with other favorable conditions for life. In fact, there’s a whole field of astronomy called astrobiology that studies the possibility and necessary conditions for life on other worlds—including places in our solar system that might harbor life. These fields are continuing to ask “Are we alone?” and their discoveries make it likelier every day that we’ll find the answer is “No.”

Now, in this climate, where our known universe is getting bigger every day, we Christians make some bold, exclusive claims. We believe that God of all the universe has uniquely spoken to us through the Scriptures. We believe, moreover, that this very God has come to dwell among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—as one of us—to reveal God’s will and God’s word in the language of a single human life. We believe God has given us the Holy Spirit to inspire us and guide us, and has charged us with a mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

This means, among other things, that we claim to have a special relationship with the God who created our world and the entire universe—a claim that some might find silly at best and dangerous at worst. When we consider things like the immense size and age of the universe; the discovery of stars and planets potentially very much like our own; and the possibility of life on other worlds, it changes our perspective. Our universe is getting bigger every day; we are getting smaller in our own eyes. How can we still claim to have a special relationship with God when we are, to all appearances, completely ordinary and unremarkable?

Consider the following quotation, from Thomas Paine:

 “From whence then could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent upon his protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to die in our world, because, they say, one man and one woman had eaten an apple….

But such is the strange construction of the Christian system of faith, that every evidence the heavens afford to man, either directly contradicts or renders it absurd.”

—Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, 1793.

I came across this quote in the book Religions and Extraterrestrial Life, by David Weintraub. The quote captures one of the chief difficulties Weintraub identifies in Christianity’s ability to respond to the discovery of extraterrestrial life: the unique relationship Christianity claims between God and humankind in light of the possible non-uniqueness of humanity’s intelligence, morality, or spiritual sensibility.

This is a version of an idea known as the Copernican Principle, which essentially says that we aren’t special. Earth is not unique. We aren’t privileged observers of the universe. If we lived somewhere else or at some other time, the laws that govern what we experience and observe would still be the same. We are ordinary, nothing special. It’s called the Copernican Principle after Nicolaus Copernicus, who is famously associated with the heliocentric model of the cosmos—the idea that Earth revolves around the Sun and not vice-versa. In other words, we aren’t the center of the universe. And we shouldn’t look at the universe with the assumption that we occupy a special place.

For most of human history, and for most of religious history, we thought everything revolved around us, with the earth at the center of it all. And our religions and philosophies grew up under this understanding. So the quote from Thomas Paine, and similar quotes from many others, make sense in that light. The narrative they spin is that these new findings move us beyond religion, or at least the Christian religion, because the Christian religion depends upon a special relationship between God and a subset of humankind.

How then can we hold onto a claim of a special relationship with God if this Copernican Principle is true—if, indeed, we are nothing special?

Though it seems like these scientific findings are brand-new insights and realizations, questions very much like these have been asked before.

“There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Despite Qohelet’s geocentric perspective, he’s right. There is really is nothing new under the sun. God’s people have been displaced from the center before. God’s people don’t need science to tell us that we are, really, nothing special. God’s people have wrestled with these questions before. Consider the words of Psalm 8:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?”

—Psalm 8:3-4

Or the words of Deuteronomy 7:

“It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

—Deuteronomy 7:7-8

The writer of Psalm 8 knew, by observing the heavens, that it’s a strange and wondrous thing that God should be mindful of human beings. The writer of Deuteronomy felt deeply that Israel was neither more numerous or stronger than other peoples, had nothing in particular to commend them as God’s choice. The Psalmist knew humans were nothing special. Israel knew that as a people, it was nothing special. And that self-knowledge was hammered home in 587 BC when the kingdom of Judah was conquered, the royal line of King David was dethroned, the people were exiled, and God’s Temple was destroyed. God’s people knew then, if they didn’t know it before, that they weren’t the center of anything. They were looking at hard evidence that they were just like every other nation that had fallen to Babylon. Much of the historical books and the prophetic writings are processing that very catastrophe, articulating what it will means and what it says about the people’s special relationship with God.

And the Bible is full of God choosing and working through individual people who are entirely nothing special, ordinary, one among hundreds of thousands. Gideon was the least in his clan, and his clan was the weakest in his tribe, but God chose him to lead Israel against the Midianites in Judges (Judges 6:15). God chose Jacob over Esau when Jacob had done nothing, either intellectually or physically or morally, to deserve it. Moses asked “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:11) and God didn’t respond by listing Moses’ good qualities to prove that he was “somebody.” God said only “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). My favorite example is Mary. How many other young women could God have chosen to be the God-bearer? She was nothing special, no more or less than the other young Jewish women, who themselves were no more or less than the other young Samaritan or Egyptian or Parthian or Roman women. Yet God chose her; God worked through her; God was born through her. On page after page of the Bible, God works through thoroughly ordinary people.

These examples of individuals and the self-understanding of Israel as God’s chosen people point to the important biblical motif of election. One way to put it might be to say that God’s chosen people aren’t chosen because they are special. They are special because they are chosen.

This idea of election—Israel’s self-understanding as God’s chosen people—is an important undercurrent through the whole Bible. But as Deuteronomy shows us, it’s not because they were special. It’s because they were chosen by God.

And Israel’s election does not mean that God was only concerned with Israel. As we read in Exodus 19:

“Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”

—Exodus 19:5-6

All people belong to God, in other words, but Israel has been set apart.

So there’s an important distinction to notice. Election refers to a community that’s been specially singled out and set apart by God. And this doesn’t mean that God only cares about the chosen people. Rather, the chosen part signifies and expresses God’s relationship with the whole. Going back to Exodus 19:

“Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”

—Exodus 19:5-6

The whole earth belongs to God, but Israel is a priestly kingdom, a holy nation. And as a holy nation, they bear witness to God’s relationship with all people. The biblical idea of election does not mean God only cares about a chosen people, Israel. Instead, it means that God specially chooses Israel to signify God’s care, protection, love, and sovereignty over all people. And as we’ve seen, it doesn’t mean that Israel was specially deserving of God’s choice…their own self-understanding was precisely that they weren’t deserving, but they had received it nonetheless. God’s choice of Israel is a gift of grace.

Now, taking it back to the cosmos. I wonder if we can extend this idea of election to the place of humankind and the earth within the universe.

Just as Israel is the chosen people who signifies God’s relationship with all people, humans might be God’s chosen creatures that signify and express God’s loving relationship with all creatures. Indeed, the Creation story in Genesis 1 points in this direction by speaking of humans created in the image of God.

Previously, we’ve conceived of humanity’s special relationship with God in terms of our intelligence, or our spiritual sensitivity, or our capacity for morality. In those cases, there’s something about us that makes us special. But if we put it in terms of the idea of election in the Bible, we’ll see that we’re chosen by God, created in the image of God, because God has chosen us. We are the token portion, the Temple, the priestly creatures.

It’s not that God loves humans more, or that humans are more deserving of a relationship with God than other creatures. Rather, it’s that humans are chosen by God to signify and express God’s relationship with all creatures.

What is our place in the universe God has created if we really are nothing special?

The biblical motif of election points to the fact that God works through non-special people in the Bible, and non-special Israel, and non-special you and me, all the time. It’s not because of deserving, of being special, that God has a relationship with us. It’s because God chooses to, out of God’s love for us and for all creatures.

And even if there are other intelligent creatures out there, that does not diminish our special relationship with the God who created the universe, or our responsibility to love God and our fellow creatures.

[1] According to the NASA Exoplanet Archive, https://exoplanetarchive.ipac.caltech.edu/.

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