“What is man that Thou are mindful of him?” Psalm 8:4
Does the night sky make you feel insignificant? Most people reading this have a very limited access to the night sky, our city lights washing out all but a relative few bright points. But when you had a chance to see the vastness of our galaxy, perhaps even seeing the slash of the Milky Way across the night sky, did you feel small? That would be understandable. But did you feel insignificant? That’s hazardous.
In his book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil de Grasse Tyson tells of a planetarium in New York that takes people on a journey from the surface of the earth to the edge of the cosmos. Within a month of the opening he received a letter from an Ivy League psychology professor who studied things that make people feel insignificant. He said that when he viewed the show he experienced a dramatic sense of smallness and insignificance. He wanted to administer a before-and-after questionnaire to assess the depths of depression people experienced from viewing the show. Dr. Tyson eventually proposes “the cosmic perspective” as a solution, and explicitly states that this perspective must not be religious.
Contrast that with the response of a man whose vocation early in life required him to be outside at night, so he literally spent untold hours looking up. He lived in a time undimmed by any city lights, and he actually considered this question of smallness and insignificance that plagued the professor. “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” In other words, with all of this “bigness” how can God even notice me in my smallness?
David’s answer, however, was far different from the professor’s. “Thou hast created man a little lower than the angels.” The night sky produced a feeling of religious awe in him that led to a sense of profound significance. His religious faith was integral to his feelings of self-worth and having a valued place in the universe.
Psalm 19 is another astronomical psalm and is a marvelous study in the healthy relationship between scientific knowledge and religious belief. David’s curiosity and observations led him to both wonderful insights about nature and deeper theological convictions.
That combination has interested me from a very early age when I had telescopes, microscopes, and chemistry sets. Discovery for me has always been tinged with religious awe. And my theological convictions have always led me to want to discover and know (the word science is from the Latin word for knowledge – that’s a good thing!). What concerns me today is the culturally binary attempt to dispense with the former while embracing only the latter.
Chesterton said that before you tear down a fence you need to find out why it was there in the first place. What are the spiritual, intellectual, and even social implications of getting rid of religion?
When we lose the capacity for religious awe, or even lose the willingness to respect the role of religion, we begin worshiping lower things. Without question religious participation is on the decline in our country. This is particularly true among young adults, which has actually always been the case. People tend to gravitate toward matters of faith as they grow older. That’s been true as long as I’ve been watching the statistics.
What’s changed however is a growing impression that religious convictions are not only obsolete or anti-intellectual, but downright dangerous. This phenomenon accelerated tremendously after the 9/11 attacks. Equating religious beliefs with fanaticism became vogue, and thus “militant atheism” was born.
I see this regularly. A student from a university I’m familiar with recently told me one of his professors stated one of his goals in the class was to expose the lunacy of religious belief. I don’t recall the details other than the class had nothing to do with religion at all. The supposition, however, is clear: religion is dangerous, we’ve outgrown it, and we need to rid ourselves of it. In the professor’s case he went so far as “I need to rid it from you.”
Shouldn’t the real distinction be between good and bad religion, instead of religion or no religion at all? We can easily point to screeching failures of both religious people and religious institutions, but do we really want to get rid of the whole idea? That would be akin to my saying I don’t like art because I don’t like Andy Warhol.
What do we lose if we frivolously dispense with the notion of a Creator and the religious structures that seek to teach us about Him and to connect us to Him? (the word religion literally means to reconnect – that’s a good thing!). Again, when we lose sight of the Highest we end up worshiping lesser things. Thus, for example, I fear too many of our young people are graduating from our great academic institutions with empty souls, meaningless degrees, mountains of debt, but a passion for recycling.
To return to my art analogy, to witness the beauty of such artistry everywhere around me calls deeply for me to believe in an Artist. Religion simply helps me to develop the rituals, rites, and rhythms that help me understand and serve the Artist. In that belief I find my truest significance.
My modest weekly suggestion for all ills, both personal and societal, is to emphasize the great necessity for grace. Whatever your religious impulses might be, grace, at the very least, should make you feel accepted by God and significant to Him. If we accept at our deepest levels the great fact of God’s love for us then not only will we feel significant, we will stop hating one another. Think of how much better our world, our nation, our communities would be if we simply stopped hating one another?
Therefore, if we lose religious awe, I truly believe we lose ourselves and the impetus for us to love one another.
I honestly see no prospect for a better anything apart from grace, and that begins with me. When I look into the night sky I may feel small, but I don’t feel insignificant. God created me a little lower than the angels. With that conviction I get a better sense of personal value and the value of all people. Far from being an impediment to any real social gain, my religion, founded upon grace, leads me to love and serve God and love and serve you, whoever you may be.
Do you feel insignificant? God knows and loves you. Now with that certainty go love and tell someone else. That, I’m sure, is God’s great aim for us all.
Dr. Terry Ellis
July 14, 2019