If you watched Dennis Miller’s HBO talk show in the 1990s, you will certainly remember his infamous “rants” and you might remember one titled “Dysfunction” in which he described confronting dashed hopes in the following way, “It’s tough waking up from a deep REM delirium starring you as the focal point of the universe to an Eraserhead reality in which you’re the condiment guy at Der Wienerschnitzel.”
It strikes me that humankind is waking up to its own Der Wienerschnitzel reality in which we’re less like kings and more like pawns. The scientific revelations of the last 500 years have dealt humanity one heck of a reality check. We had such high hopes for ourselves in the beginning, thinking everything revolved around us. As we now know, we’re not even at the center of our own solar system. Our sun, which is the center of our solar system, is just one of 200-400 billion stars in the Milky Way galax,y and it’s possible there’s a galaxy out there for every star in the Milky Way (according to a recent German supercomputer simulation). Essentially, we’re barely a “blip” on the galactic radar screen. If that’s not humbling enough, even the emergence of human life was a cosmic “last call.” Consider the late Dr. Carl Sagan’s “Cosmic Calendar” in which the history of the universe is condensed to a one year time period with the big bang occurring on January 1st. When did humans make their appearance on the cosmic calendar? In the final seconds of New Year’s Eve, right about the time the rest of the crowd was getting ready to break into Auld Lang Syne.
While its hardly an Eraserhead horror, the reality of our human position in the cosmic scheme of things might seem somewhat deflating, especially to folks who are used to feeling big and important. We aren’t at the center. We aren’t the biggest or the most powerful. We aren’t the oldest. We’re probably not even the most intelligent. I don’t know about you, but with each new scientific revelation, I’m feeling more and more like the condiment guy at the galactic Der Weinerschnitzel. But does our late emergence on the cosmic scene or our diminutive size mean we are insignificant?
Though we are small, science is revealing some pretty astonishing things about human existence that might make us feel a tad better about our lowly position among the stars. American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson describes the spectacular way in which humankind is connected to the universe and to all life on Earth (and elsewhere). According to astrophysicists, the atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that form the human body, can be traced to the bellies of stars where light elements cooked into heavy elements under extreme temperatures and pressures. When those stars became unstable, they burst…spreading those life enabling elements throughout the universe, making life possible. So the universe is not just some vast, distant thing, separate and “out there” away from us. The universe is also inside us…and what’s inside us is also inside every living thing. In this way, we are all connected, simply by being alive…a fact that I find hardly insignificant.
That the cosmos are far more expansive than previously imagined, that the processes of creation are more complex, that human existence is relatively new and small by comparison, only adds to the great mystery of God’s creation. We are embedded in the mystery, intimately connected to it thanks to God. That the universe is indescribably vast needn’t produce anxiety or fear or disappointment…but rather, awe and wonder. In learning and exploring the universe and our relationship with it, we move closer to God, not farther away. The vastness of the universe doesn’t diminish our significance because in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “The truth of who we are, is that we are because we belong.” We belong to the earth, to each other, to all life, to the stars, to the universe and most importantly, to God from whom we are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) and whose works are stunningly sublime.
Creator God…Mother and Father of all that is and all that was…Sacred One in whom we “live and move and have our being”…thank you for blessing us with an awe-inspiring universe, vast and grand, full of mystery, beyond both our understanding and our imagination. Help us to see the reality of our existence as both humbling and spectacular. Let the complexity of the universe, of which we understand only a small part, serve as an invitation to explore and know you in ways we might never have conceived. May we experience the wonder of creation in ways that remind us that while we are small in size, we are not insignificant. As random and unimportant as our existence sometimes feels, the stardust from which we are formed, born in the bellies of celestial giants, reminds us that our significance lies not in our size but in our connection to each other, to all life, and to you. Simply by being and belonging, we are as bright as the stars from which we were born, as mysterious as dark matter and black holes, as complex as a process in which bacteria evolves into intelligent life, as beautiful as the nebullas, as unique as our own thumbprints, and as grand as anything that exists in all of creation. Amen.