Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Psalm 90 and the 'Ascent into Insignificance'!

I wonder if you have ever had the chance to look through a decent telescope into the night sky:   looking up into the universe it seems to unfold forever.  Or maybe you have seen the amazing images of galaxies and solar systems and black holes and so on shared by NASA on its website.

There is a beauty and a mystery that can weigh in on us making us feel so small and insignificant as we stare into the unknown reaches of space. So where do we fit into such a big universe?  What place do you and I have? What purpose?  We who long for our fifteen minutes of fame?

These questions were explored on last week’s episode ofQ&A.  Early on in the program the physicist Brian Cox was asked by an audience member John McCallum, ‘So, how important do you think the human species is in the grand scheme of the universe?’

In his answer Cox spoke about our “ascent into insignificance” - an intellectual ascent into insignificance - which has occurred since what is commonly referred to as the Copernican Revolution.  Copernicus is credited with moving us to a heliocentric understanding of the cosmos.  The earth is not the centre of the solar system, as we now know the sun is – yet our sun is not the centre of the universe either. 

However, our ability as human beings to stare into the vast distances and wonders of the universe and the shift of the earth from centre of all things should not shake our faith and in many ways is nothing new.  These scientific discoveries are not to be feared by people of faith.  In many ways they affirm what we as people of faith already knew and have already questioned for millenum.

Psalm 90 brings to mind this strange paradox of human existence as it contrasts the enormity and mystery of God with our ever so small lives.

The Psalmists is in awe that God is so big, beyond comprehension: for God 1000 years are like a day. Our growing awareness of the universe and its infinite enormity and mystery can be paralleled with the awareness of God that people have always struggled with.

Not that God is the universe as the rapper 360 suggested on Q&A.  This ancient view of the universe as God is known as pantheism but God is not the universe, even though I would argue that God is present in the whole universe, even its far reaches.

So it is, our understanding of the universe reminds us of our insignificance in the same way that our glimpse of the divine humbles us: knowledge and revelation are truly an ascent into insignificance.

But here there is the paradox.  Despite the seeming insignificance of this small rock and our lives compared to the mystery of God and the immensity of the universe we still seem to matter.

Whenever we enter the text of the scriptures I believe that one of the things we are doing is setting out on a journey of discovery to explore this strange paradox of human existence: in the face of the mystery of life in this universe before its creator human beings matter.

In both Psalm 8 and Psalm 144 we find the same question asked, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”  Psalm 90 no less explore this theme contrasting the immensity and mystery of God with the assumption that this immense and mysterious God will respond to the prayers of the Psalmist to “prosper the work of our hands.” 

The significance of our human being is given to us in our self awareness and our ability to know and to relate to our creator.  The scene for this reality was set in the book of Genesis at the time of creation.  This awareness and relationship with God and each other are a reflection of our being made in the image of God, the maker of all things.

Somewhat ironically Brian Cox in his own way echoes the revelation of the scriptures.  On Q&A he spoke how rare civilization is and he said our value as human beings is found in the idea that a species has risen on this planet that has been able to measure its place in the universe.  It is our self awareness that makes us significant in the immensity of the universe: we seem to have a place.

Towards the end of the Q&A episode a question was asked about the purpose of human life.  Is there a point of life? Does human life have a purpose? 

This question moved the conversation from science and into the realms of philosophy and theology.  To ask about the end meaning of things is to enter into the classical discussion of what is known as teleology.

The initial reaction to this question by Brian Cox was no, there is no point to human existence.  To which followed a comment, ‘if life has no purpose we can do anything we want’.

For Cox and other panel member this was an illogical leap and Cox went on to strongly disagree suggesting that being human was about being good. Being good, he said, is something in itself: good has its own purpose.  After this a few of the other panel members had begun to speak about making people’s lives better or making the world a better place.

Unfortunately the episode finished at this point truncating this marvellous discussion but it would have been at this point that Jesus teaching in Matthew’s gospel that we read today may have had something to say.

A lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Purpose and place in life: love God in all of God’s mystery and transcendence and love others!  This is what it means to live with the paradox of our smallness before God: to love!

The experience of the Psalmist in Psalm 90 identified the failure of humanity to live this way and the consequences of this – suffering in the life of the community and I would say the world at large.  Yet the Psalmist continues to have hope and appeal to God in the face of human behaviour that fails to live loving God and others.

“Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.”   

“Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands!”

There is a deep longing for a better tomorrow! 

“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

Loving God and so loving all that God has made, especially one another, is the expression of our hopes and longing.

We human beings live on this small seemingly insignificant rock in an obscure corner of the universe.  7 billion human beings seems rather a small number compared to the scale of the universe not that many people but often for us it appears to be too many: too many to get on with loving one another and loving God and loving all that God has made.

Is there purpose in life? Does your life have meaning?  Whilst you may still feel small and insignificant in contrast to scale of all things and of God the answer is yes.  Our perceived anonymity and smallness does not preclude our significance. 

We who are aware of the immensity of the creation and the mystery of God are blessed and so we join in the prayer of the Psalmist and continue our paradoxical journey with a God so unknowable it is inconceivable but who in grace has shared in our very life by becoming one of us. So we too pray in faith and hope:

“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

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