Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Universe is a Human Interest Story

One of the basic cultural assumptions which Christianity necessarily challenges is the assumption that the most-true perspective on the universe is an impersonal one. Atoms and accidents, collisions and coincidences, are the fundamental stuff of reality, while intentions, inventions, meanings and relationships are just happy (or more precisely in such a universe, completely neutral) byproducts.

So, for example, when we talk about the fall of Nazi Germany, we might say that Hitler “got what he deserved,” but we in no way think this is really what the story is about. Rather, what’s really true about such a historical event is troop dispositions, economic pressures, and political strategies, mixed together with a healthy dose of chance. Any meaning we choose to find in those events is an arbitrary insertion by an unnatural interloper.

However, in the Christian worldview, what we regard as “impersonal forces” are not the real story, but rather the letters and punctuation marks with which its told. The universe is deeply personal, not in some confused pantheistic way, but because it has all been made by the Person of God. Thus science, history, and every other pursuit of the mind are not acts of discovery, but rather of communication – with someone on the other end of the line.

One might point, for example, to the Old Testament prophets and the Hitlers of their day. To them, the most-true thing about the story is that people got what they deserved, or that they didn’t and it was because a Person decided to be merciful to them. The facts and figures are evidence of this perspective, but they are only useful and intelligible as components of the story.

Now, since this is a foreign way of thinking for many of us, both Christian and non-Christian, it is often assumed that this approach to the world leads to some sort of mysticism, in which anything goes and we might arrange the facts however we like. This concern, however, has far more to say about our limited imaginations that the way things actually work. It is only misguided to find meaning in the world if there’s none there to begin with. I don’t look for messages in alphabet soup, but to therefor decry those who look for them in Dostoyevsky is to assume what I’m setting out to prove.

The fact is that it is the personal nature of the universe that should drive us toward doing scholarship rigorously and carefully. It gives us hope that things will indeed make sense, because we as rational creatures are dealing with the work of a rational Creator (I do sometimes wonder how the materialist isn’t just peering closely at his aforementioned alphabet soup and furiously jotting things down on his notepad, but that’s another discussion). What’s more, it doesn’t just mean knowledge can be rightly understood, but it must. By their nature, ethical norms cannot exist outside of relationship. I cannot misinterpret meaninglessness, but I am doing something wrong when I misrepresent what my wife asks me to do. I am morally obliged by the act of communication to try to understand what the other person is trying to say, whether it’s a friend speaking English or God speaking math.

Granted, misunderstandings are easy. I’m no proponent for blaming poverty on faithlessness or hurricanes on Ellen Degeneres (if you don’t know, don’t ask). We must be careful in the way we read the story of the world – God’s character demands it. But this care is necessary precisely because it is a personal story we’re talking about. I don’t see why I ought to interpret facts correctly if they’re just the most recent observations of a truly random process. If we suddenly decide it’s appropriate to find meaning in today’s lottery numbers, I’m sure to make them mean something I like, just you try to stop me.

To get back to the point: our problem is that we have confused the genre of creation. The universe is not some dry statistical analysis; it is a human interest story. It should be appreciated, admired, interpreted. Biology should be told like some Mesopotamian epic. Physics should make us shake our heads at the twisting plots and chuckle at the ironies. Sociology might be a tragedy or a comedy, but it’s certainly at least one of the two. We as Christians ought to approach the world in terms of drama; only then can we approach it with God as its Lord.

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