There’s a terrible lot of out there out there — SBU, p 137
I WRITE A regular column for Nurturing Faith. It’s an ask-the-scientist-a-question thing. In the current issue a reader asks: “Taking into account scientific calculations for the size and expansion and age of the cosmos, what is your view of the spiritual significance of humans in the universe?”
I read this: If we’re so small, how can we be significant?
Looking back over my answer I realize it’s an outline for a chapter that would’ve fit perfectly in Stars Beneath Us, a summary of the Chapter That Wasn’t. Here’s the idea, starting with Job, a major figure in the book:
Job, “the greatest man among the people of the east,” spends his whole life being significant. Then, all of a sudden, he’s not. For years he’s the Big Kahuna, the Stuff, the Wizard of Uz, respected by everyone, heralded by princes, beloved by widows and orphans, rich as hell and just as generous. Then POOF he’s outside the city walls, squatting on the ash heap, forgotten and despised. The only people who pay attention to Job — besides his hostile and insecure “friends” who think he’s getting what he deserves — are the poorest of the poor and the meanest of the mean, who make sport of him by spitting on him and calling him names.
Our hero has lost his family, his wealth, and his health, but one of the things he misses most is his significance. “I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy. They waited for me as for the rain, they opened their mouths as for the spring rain,” Job says about his former generosity to the powerless. “But now they mock me in song; they abhor me; they do not hesitate to spit at the sight of me.”
Job is a former judge and knows injustice when he sees it. A devout man, he calls on God to set things straight. After a lot of silence, God responds by taking Job on a hair-raising cosmic tour which seems designed to make his problems even worse: it underlines Job’s insignificance and marginalizes human civilization itself. The social universe Job once ruled is revealed to be but one of countless communities beloved by God: the deer, the wild ox, the ostrich, the vulture, the mountain goat, the wild ass, and other animals form societies not so different from Job’s. These animals seem mild and tame to us — they can be found in any zoo — but in Job’s day they occupied the remotest cosmic margins; they may as well have lived on the moon. The tour is undomesticated and shirks neither folly nor death.
The effect on Job is simple: he is downsized to an afterthought. Not only is he stuck at the bottom of human society; that society is now revealed to be one of many. It is lost in a near-infinity of worlds, and so is he.
But, amazingly, Job doesn’t care; in fact, the tour leaves him content. After it’s over he picks himself up off the ash heap, brushes himself off, and moves ahead with his life.
Why does this ego-reducing ride through the cosmos so satisfy him?
Maybe the answer is found in the phrase: beloved by God.
Job found himself and human society, like every other creature and community, the objects of a cosmic and divine love he had never known until that moment. What if you knew, at the still axis of your soul, that you are at home in the cosmos, that you are known and loved by a comprehensive, crazy-ass, I-would-go-to-my-grave-for-you love? If you knew this truly, would you spend even a single minute worrying about your significance?
No, you wouldn’t, any more than a five-year-old, loved by her family and making mudpies in her front yard, worries about her significance. The question of significance doesn’t even come up — can’t come up — because it resides in a dimension unreachable from her world of love.
I know: you’re not a five-year-old and it’s been a dark year in a hard world. It’s difficult to trust anything. I’m not saying it’s easy to believe in love. It’s ridiculous.
But what if our craving for significance — okay I’ll say it, MY craving for significance, which is persistent — is a mark of alienation? Here at age 48 I’m beginning to feel like I’m straining for something I already have but can’t see or embrace because I’m fixed on ideas that have nothing to do with love. Like Job, perhaps I need to jump the rails I’m stuck on, the ones that run between the towns called Significance and Insignificance, and enter the wilderness.
Out there, who knows? Along with the big wide world, maybe I’ll find love too. Or, more to the point, maybe love will find me. And if that happens I might forget, once and for all time, my own insignificance.