“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” So wrote Immanuel Kant in one of the more accessible passages in his Critique of Practical Reason.
Psalm 19, of course, anticipated (and likely inspired) Kant’s quotation, as Kant was raised in a Pietist home that surely read, studied, and sang this psalm:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” gives over to “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple.”
Psalm 8 then deepens this awe as it wonders, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are humans that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
I thought of these famous quotations as I once again encountered—as one seems to do almost weekly—the contention that human beings are ludicrously conceited to think that we matter much when considered against the vastness of the known universe.
Whether it is an astronomer offering us the latest breathtaking vista of inconceivable intergalactic dimensions or even a comedian (George Carlin comes to mind) chiding us for thinking we are going to make much of a difference to a planet more than 4 billion years old, pundit after pundit asserts that our relatively small stature means relatively small status, that our short lifespan signifies only slight importance.
The Christian will counter that God made us in God’s own image, to perform God’s own work in the world: to cultivate the world God make as little lords working under the authority of the Lord himself. The Christian will counter further that God launched the entire plan of salvation, culminating in the suffering and death of the Lord himself, to rescue human beings and thus to rescue the planet under our dominion.
This small blue ball and our tiny selves upon it seems, therefore, to matter immensely where it matters most: in the heart of God.
Those are the right theological answers. To convey them to our questioning neighbours, furthermore, it seems to me a simple illustration can do the job.
Your beloved—let’s say it’s your father or your brother or your son—has decided to make a solo sailing voyage across the Pacific from New Zealand to Hawaii. He’s an experienced sailor with excellent equipment and off he goes one fine day out of Wellington.
A day into the trip, however, his SOS is picked up by a container ship well off his charted course. A search is mounted, and you manage to secure a spot on one of the helicopters sent out to look for him.
The search begins, and you strain your eyes as you approach the coordinates of the last transmission. The Pacific Ocean seems impossibly vast as you and the crew go back and forth on your assigned route to try to find his tiny boat.
Beneath you swim massive whales and whole schools of fish. Your helicopter might be flying over entire reefs teeming with aquatic life. The sea is so much larger than your lost loved one.
And then you spot a bit of orange over there and signal the pilot. The helicopter wheels over to look, and it turns out to be the missing boat: intact, your man waving back, and salvation at hand.
Does he seem insignificant against the huge expanse of the ocean and the teeming multitudes of other lives it contains?
Or does he seem inexpressibly precious as the lifeline is lowered down?
Meaning has nothing to do with magnitude. God loves the world, yes, and specially loves us—loves you.
God plays with nebulae, but he knows you by name. God toys with stars, but he listens to every word of every one of your prayers.
With Kant and with the Psalmist, I am awestruck at the majesty of God’s creation and the magnificence of God’s moral law.
With John Newton, I am amazed at God’s grace to the likes of little me and little you.
But with all this awe and amazement, I think I understand why we matter. It is because God communes with us and we with him. And love matters more than anything else. Never doubt that you matter.