Life, the Universe, and Everything

“Goodness is stronger than evil

Love is stronger than hate

Light is stronger than darkness

Life is stronger than death

Victory is ours through Him who loves us”

-Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Such were the words that sent me on something of a soul-searching journey this last month. Stumbling onto this prayer through a choral arrangement by James Whitbourn, I gravitated towards the wisdom in the archbishop’s aged voice – and began to question whether I really believed what he was saying was true.

Every day, it feels like some old evil hatred is sprouting up where it once was buried. Charismatic authoritarian leaders have raised themselves up across the world on a tide of militant nationalism, racism, and xenophobia – a theme all too familiar to even a casual student of history. Protestors have risen up in opposition, but their means and methods seem to grow ever-more extreme as the struggle drags on. While I firmly believe that the powerful have a duty to protect and care for the weak, the alien, and the stranger rather than imprison them, I struggle with the actions and attitudes of some movements seeking to bring about that change. Compromises in methodology have turned many from the path of non-violence, deepening the rifts in our already terribly divided world. That doesn’t mean their views are wrong. Quite the opposite. It simply means that we’re all human, and in a time of growing extremes, extremism is a human response. Yet it’s one that strengthens evil and hatred rather than goodness and love.

What about light? Darkness – both moral and intellectual – seems to have muddied the waters of truth. We refuse to listen to reason, ignore facts when they’re inconvenient, and shrink our ethical focus so far that we only see is ourselves and our own desires. We refuse to acknowledge the humanity of those we see as inferior: immigrants, outsiders, criminals, anyone who thinks, looks, or lives differently than we do. Like the Krikkit of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we regard the unseen beyond our sight with fear and apprehension. While the world around us expands ever faster, our horizons are contracting just as quickly. As the many varied stars beyond our personal orbits fade from view, we face a sky blank and devoid of anything other. Such (it is theorized) will be the fate of our planet many billions of years from now, as cosmic inflation accelerates past the speed of light. Shall we accept it now?

And life. Precious, fragile life. Life that’s stolen all too quickly by an unforeseen disease, a slight misstep, a sudden fall, or a moment’s distraction. Life that’s losing its great and wild diversity every year as habitats disappear under the eternal more, more, more creep of human ambition. Life than may be swallowed up in oblivion (humanity included) if something does not change, and change soon. How can that life be stronger than death when, so as far as we can see, the immense universe beyond our atmosphere is sterile, bleak, and utterly silent?

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality;

It is a profound source of spirituality.”

-Carl Sagan

I think the only thing the human mind can really comprehend about the universe is its incomprehensibility. Anyone who’s ever seen the size of our solar system contextualized is struck by the profound smallness of our planet. Those who’ve gone even further to see how positively minuscule the mind-numbingly massive sun is in the context of our galaxy feels crushed by the sheer scale of existence. And by the time we take one step further back, to see the Milky Way dwarfed by the howling voids of intergalactic space, then further still to see millions of galaxies stretched out in filaments like great cosmic cobwebs light-eons in length, we realize the truth. For all our species’ intellectual and emotional powers, we can never grasp the wholeness of creation.

And even that brilliant sea of stars is not the final answer. For in those great nuclear furnaces are the same atoms of hydrogen and helium that drift through the atmosphere of our tiny world in trace amounts. Those atoms, once thought the smallest indivisible elements of nature, are really quite divisible, as the nuclear generators, hydrogen bombs, and particle colliders of humanity have proved and exploited. The story doesn’t even end with protons, neutrons, and electrons; for inside those seemingly fundamental particles are quarks and bosons, and further down, perhaps some single theoretical element unites all matter in our universe. I’m particularly fond of string theory. Whether or not it’s true (or whether it can even be proved), there’s something compelling in the idea that at the heart of all existent things is the same narrow strand of vibrating energy, uniting plant and animal, living and dead, stars and sea urchins.

But even if that’s not true, the complex elements that fuel life were forged in supernovae billions of years ago, as the weight of stars collapsed with enough force to crush the simple elements into carbon, oxygen, and calcium, launching them into the void in an explosion more powerful than all the nuclear bombs of humanity’s making.

We were born in the hearts of dying suns, forged in swirling maelstroms of light and heat and cosmic chaos. Most of us tend to forget that fact. Some of us don’t.

We may know the numbers. We may devise all manner of clever metaphors and analogies to give some small semblance of understanding to our existence. But for all of that, we are no more than ants trapped inside a quantum computer, trying to understand its workings.

“Let there be goblin hordes, let there be terrible environmental threats,

Let there be giant mutated slugs if you really must, but let there also be Hope.

It may be a grim, thin hope, an Arthurian sword at sunset,

But let us know that we do not live in vain.”

-Terry Pratchet

So what does all this mean? In a cosmos as grand and (so far as we know) dead as ours, is life just a fluke? Chemist run amuck, giving accidental birth to a population of 7 billion intelligent animals called humans? Were we a mistake? Was life a mistake?

I say no.

It’s taken me most of my adult life to reach that answer. For the first two years of college, I attended a local university in Oregon, learning to learn in a highly skeptical, secular environment with no interest in the tenets of traditional religion. I then finished my degree, renewed my love for storytelling, and learned the long, deep history of the faith I grew up in at a small Christian College in LA. Since then, I’ve subsisted in a superposition of those two extremes: some days embracing wholeheartedly the hope of Jesus Christ as the revealed redeeming son of God – and other days wondering if this world isn’t just some elaborate joke.

During this period, nihilistic and materialistic impulses grew in the gaps between those two beliefs, and often threaten to overtake the small sense of joy or purpose I’d found. Anyone who’s read The Gräzland Tales can probably see some of that struggle spilling out onto the page. I vividly remember long walks around my neighborhood as I was writing the second draft of the novel, agonizing over what the last note of the story would be. Would the farmer accept the idea of an immaterial hope on faith, or would he reject any idea of spiritual truth in the face of the church’s betrayal? And even when I chose to keep the bittersweet ending of the original draft (with “a grim, thin hope” as Mr. Pratchett so eloquently put it), I continued to ask the same question of myself.

Then I heard those words of Desmond Tutu. At the same time, I found my imagination captured anew by a potent combination of astronomy, physics, philosophy, and mythology. One late August afternoon, alone in my apartment, these ideas suddenly collided in a single brilliant moment. Like simple atoms in the heart of a star, they shattered, reformed, and exploded outward in new forms of complexity and power – the elements of life from the dead stuff of the universe.  I had, for lack of a better term, a scientific-spiritual breakthrough, a religious-rational experience. The false dichotomies and binaries I’d built in my mind collapsed, revealing themselves as two sides of the same coin. Past and future, religion and science, faith and reason – only two parts of the same substance, two halves of a whole as stark and beautiful as a January sunrise. Janus turned to face himself.

The universe, as we see it, is not as we see it. The “real” stuff of our physical existence is no more than energy masquerading as matter. Remember e=mc2? Work out the math, and mass – matter – is just energy: an almost unthinkable amount of energy. Our reality is but a reflection of a reflection of the chaos of creation’s birth. Time and space are little more than mathematical illusions; no more “real” than the world inside a funhouse mirror, warped and stretched to comedic proportions. What’s truly mind-blowing is that before the beginning, it didn’t exist at all. When the cosmos exploded into being, it did not expand into space – it was space. What was outside of it was nothing. The “real” world, as it were, is a void so complete that not even time and space exist within it. Such an emptiness is impossible for the human mind, living in time and made of matter, to truly understand.

And yet, religion and myth speak of this primordial chaos so often in their creation narratives that it’s almost a cliché. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” (Genesis 1:1-3 kjv).

In Hesiod’s Theogony, Chaos was the first thing to exist, and from it came the primordial Titans of Greek Myth, Gaia and Ouranos. The Cosmic genealogies of the Maori speak of a series of developing voids which eventually gave rise to space itself, from which came the ancient gods Rangi and Papa – existing in creation rather than being the creators.

This “earth-mother,” “sky-father” model appears in both of these traditions, along with dozens of other cultural origin stories. These tales – originating from very different parts of the ancient world – bear the same marks: chaos reigns, the earth and sky are created, and then separated. In Abrahamic tradition, it’s the creative power of God that divides and concentrates earth and sky, land and sea, and the myriad types of life. In most polytheistic religion that features this pattern, it is the children of the earth and sky who force them apart – the gods of storm, sky, fertility, agriculture, and war, representing, in metaphor, the many elements of the ever-growing complexity of creation.

The cosmogony of the natural sciences speaks of the same pattern, though it uses far less poetic terms. At the creation of our solar systems, earth and heaven were, quite literally, one: all part of a rapidly spinning cloud of stardust slowly collapsing towards the center of mass. Then the sun flashed to life, growing large enough to fuse hydrogen and generate energy. The earth formed soon thereafter, as a clump of cosmic dust some eight light-minutes from the newborn star took shape under the pressure of its own gravity and the force of its own spin. Earth and sky were now separated – and it was good, for, without that sundering, life would never have existed. As the earth cooled and the first microbes began to appear in the ancient waters, separation continued and complexity grew. Land and sea, plant and animal, fish and reptile and mammal and man were separated from one another and began to grow along their own paths – yet all those paths began in a single point of light and heat and pressure in the time before time.

“Omnia mutantur, nihil interit.”

(Everything changes, nothing perishes)

-Ovid

So what does this all have to do with the prayer of an Archbishop who lived in 20th Century South Africa, long after all of this creative work was finished and set on its way? Quite a lot.

Is life stronger than death? Yes: it rose out of darkness and chaos and fire, growing and thriving and making beautiful the world we know today. By rights, it should’ve been annihilated completely in any one of the mass extinctions that mark our planet’s history like rings on a tree. Even if not, the vast, unforgiving universe beyond our thin shell of nitrogen and oxygen should’ve wiped it out long ago and restored the Earth to its original state – and yet, in the words of Rusty the Dalek, “Life endures. Life Prevails. Resistance is Futile.”

Is light stronger than darkness? Yes: for all the infinite lightlessness in our nighttime sky, the pinprick lanterns of the stars – stars which may have been dead for many billions of years by the time we see their light – shine through the infinite abyss to draw wonder from our hearts. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5 niv).

Is love stronger than hate? Yes. It is more difficult to cultivate in the human heart than hate, but where love abides, there is unity; and only united can humanity hope to endure beyond the fate of all living things. The age of the tribe, the city, and the nation-state have come and gone. It is time to start living as a species – or die as one. “Extinction is the Rule,” said Carl Sagan, “Survival is the Exception.”

Is goodness stronger than evil? Yes, for the same reason that love is stronger than hate. Greed calls us to hoard wealth out of fear for our own lives: lives that are, on a cosmic scale, naught but a scratch on the record or the flapping of a gnat’s wing. Nationalism, racism, and sexism draw the focus inward so far that we forget what our ancestors always knew: that we all come from one place, and all return to it in time. The false dichotomy of self and other is annihilated in moments of shared grief as we acknowledge (against our will) that to be human is to be mortal. Death gives context and meaning to life in the same way that looking to the heavens does: it’s too big for us to understand, much less tame.

And in that smallness and humility is salvation.

So value Life. Seek the Light. Love well everyone you meet, and fight hate not with hate, but with Goodness that burns like the sun. Work for the benefit of all – friend and enemy, stranger and alien, black, white, gay, straight, trans, queer, deaf, blind, weak, and all who are oppressed and alone. For those are all divisions that we’ve created ourselves. We need only look up at the stars to know that we are all one.

And if that is so, then they are divisions we can destroy.

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One thought on “Life, the Universe, and Everything

  1. Trevor, this is wonderful! Thank you for putting down the thoughts of all of us to eloquently!! Your summary paragraph is beautiful! Love you grandson

    Like

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