Jesus Christ and the Meaningful Universe

Texts: Exodus 43:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36. You can read them here


NGC 7293 seen through several visible filters by Hubble Space Telescope

Do you ever look up into the night sky? Have you ever stood still, far from city lights, in the solid darkness of the bush and seen the Milky Way laid out before you in its blinding splendour?

How does it make you feel? Does it move you with its beauty? Or do you find yourself feeling a kind of vertigo when you think of its mind-shattering size? The nearest star system, Alpha Centauri is 4.3 lightyears away? That’s 4.068 x 1013 kilometres away. The only thing that matches the staggering size of the universe is its staggering age of 13.8  billion years (probably.) And life itself is old – perhaps 4.5 billion years. These figures can’t be grasped like you’d grasp the size of a room or the height of a ceiling. They can only be named, specified, pointed to. They completely exceed imaginative grasp – or at least mine anyway.

The universe is beautiful, and so old it can hardly be expressed. But it is also a hard place.

As Bono from U2 put it: The stars are beautiful but cold.

Individuals, cultures, species, entire planets rise and fall against this backdrop of eternity, and the endless turning goes on until the final heat death of the universe. The universe is going from we know not where, to we know not where, for reasons we opaque to science. To put it another way, essentially all that we can know with certainty is that something is happening, but we don’t know much about what, and we don’t know anything about why.

This grand, operatic sweep of time and space can make us feel very small. The idea of human life mattering feels ridiculous: the suggestion that individual human lives might somehow be of interest to the universe feels hubristic, perhaps even somehow insulting and insolent.

The “conditions of belief”[1] in our culture mean that the impersonal and uncaring nature of the universe are imaginatively obvious. And the corollary to this is that humanity is so infinitesimal in the universal scheme of things that we don’t matter – that, even if there was some hypothetical intelligence behind it all, she would be much more interested in things like solar systems and galactic clusters than our petty doings.

<transitivity>

I imagine it is unproblematic to say that the child is more important than the tree?
Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

The idea that big things are necessarily more important than small things is also nonsensical. If the idea were true, it would scale. In logic, this is called the principle of transitivity: if very big things are a lot more important than small things, then bigger things must always be more important than smaller things. Legs, for instance, would be more important than heads.  But they aren’t: If a tree falls on a child, we are considerably more worried about the child than the tree – even though the tree is many times bigger and older than the child.

As C.S. Lewis notes[2], here we have left the realm of mere quantities, and entered the realm of qualities. The universe is not merely very large, like an infinitely extended parking lot, but sublime. And the sublime is close to a sort of fear: the vertigo with which we began.

We are a culture that does not have a lot of room for awe. If you ask someone how they are and they say “awesome”, they do not mean that they are terrifying. There was a children’s film a few years ago called The Lego Movie, and it involved a very upbeat song with the entitled “everything is awesome.” They didn’t mean that the universe as a whole is so huge and terrifying that it inspires in me a permanent feeling of existential dread. It meant, roughly, “hurrah for us!”

But what little capacity for awe we have, when we manage to look up from our devices for a moment, is largely focused on the night sky, and on the impenetrable mystery of life and death. They are profoundly unsettling, which perhaps is why we have done our best, as a culture, to fill the skies with as much light as possible, and move birth and death outside day to day life so that many adults have never seen a dead body, nor witnessed the birth of a child. We don’t like them: they make us feel small and very vulnerable in the face of the immeasurable universe.

We aren’t the first people to have noticed this. King David[3] wrote, long before Jesus was born:

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 8:4-8

For as long as people have been looking at the night sky and thinking about what it all means, some people have thought there is no meaning in the world, it’s all just chance. And others have thought that there is meaning. One is not an old-fashioned idea being replaced by the other. They have both always been available to thinking, philosophically minded people.[4]

So, we have these two different stories. On the one hand, our human story, with its joy and suffering, our attempts to take responsibility for life, our grief at the death of people who we love.

And, on the other side, the story of the vast sweep of the universe, with immeasurable width and breadth and its astonishing depths of time which doesn’t care about us at all.

Our hope, that life has some sort of purpose, some sort of vertical dimension, is up against our fear that we live in a cold, hard, meaningless universe.

It seems a philosophically unanswerable question. Partisans on either side bring their best arguments, only to be countered by the other side. Currently elite culture is moving from methodological atheism to the real thing, so it feels like the impersonal, meaningless universe has the upper hand. However, intellectual fashions come and go. Marxism seemed like it was taking over the world until five minutes ago, then it seemed about as relevant as Ptolemaic astronomy. And now people are talking about Marx again. In the absence of some complete solution, what are we to do?

But let’s turn the question on its head. What if the universe, or, even better, the reason behind the universe, the ground of all being, expressed an opinion? Rather than sitting in unimaginable, isolated splendour, what if the Form of the Good moved beyond the contemplation of its own completeness and spoke?

What would that mean for us?

And, closer to the texts for today, what would it be like? How would it feel to experience it?

One thing is clear, it would bump us pretty thoroughly out of our safe philosophical armchairs, out of the crowd watching the intellectual gladiators with suitable interest. It would put us down on the field ourselves.

People significantly better than me at cricket.

When I was a child I was excessively clumsy, and as a result my cricketing career was largely spent on the far outfield, and at the absolute bottom of the batting order. But sometimes, the ball would suddenly come plummeting down at me out of the clear blue summer sky, and I was no longer safely spectating, but doing my best to catch the ball, lest it smack me in the face. It was unsettling, but it was a lot more meaningful than just standing there with nothing to do.

I think this experience of the profoundly unsettling feeling of when the “completely other” suddenly wants a chat is what the passages we read today are meant to convey. 

When Moses came down from the mountain his face was “shining.” A one level, that sounds like a nice thing. When we talk about people having shining faces, we mean they are looking very happy. They are “beaming”, which, come to think of it, is similar. But what if we substituted “glowing”? As though they were radioactive? You can see the Israelites were unsettled by it – hence the veil.  If, like Moses, you go up the mountain to talk to God, you are not left unaffected. Moses asked to see God’s glory, and God told him that he could see God’s back. If he saw God’s face, he would surely die.[5]

Moses on the Mountain, Chagall

 Likewise with the Gospel reading for today, the disciples were “terrified” as they entered the cloud. Surely they had seen clouds before? And, related question: what did it mean for the disciples to “see [Jesus’] glory”?

“Glory” is a way of speaking about the presence of God. Moses asked to see God’s glory – to be in God’s presence. When the disciples see Jesus’ glory, it means to understand him as being wrapped up in the same glory as God. To be God’s revelation means to share God’s “glory.” And the point at which they were terrified was when the cloud descended. As good Jews, they knew what happens when the cloud comes down on the mountain when you’re in God’s presence.

On the one hand, the immeasurable, dangerous, fascinating glory of God. On the other hand, our human story. Moses the lawgiver, Elijah the prophet – they are there, and at least part of the point of that is to say that the glory of Jesus is from the God of Abraham and Isaac. It is the God who is involved in our lives, in our petty, trivial human story, who is the same one who is the immeasurable power behind the universe.

Today we are going to take communion together – break the bread and drink the wine, just as Jesus commanded us to do. We are going to return to the table where Jesus is the host. The place where the divine glory touches earth. The place where the impersonal power behind the universe puts a towel around his waist and waits on us. The place where we receive the unutterably Good News of Jesus Christ into ourselves in the most literal way possible. The place from where we are sent out to collaborate with God’s redemptive mission in the world.

The vast universe is not meaningless: because of Jesus, we know that it is in fact, and however much evidence appears to the contrary, our home.


Sermon preached at Glen Iris Road UCA on Transfiguration Sunday, 3/3/2019


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachussetts: The Belknap Press of Hardvard University Press, 2007), passim.

[2] C.S. Lewis Miracles ch.7

[3] Or whoever. Don’t be such a boring pedant.

[4] Though atheism as a mass movement is a new phenomenon – read Charles Taylor A Secular Age for everything you could possibly want to hear about this.

[5] Exodus 32:17-23

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