June 3, 2010
The Universe: Modern-Era God?
This word “universe” is now in ordinary speech in a way it wasn’t just a few years ago. It turns up in this way: “The universe didn’t want me to have that house.” Or, “Apparently the universe wants me to go to Maui instead of Arizona.” It is used in relationship talk as in, “The universe will send you the right partner when you’re ready.” It’s used in job conversations, too: “Dan was fired because the universe didn’t want him in that position. It wasn’t right for him.”
We now talk about The Universe as if it is an all-powerful being, capable of running our lives. We have elevated it to more than mere matter, energy, planetary configurations, black holes, the Milky Way, and vast space. It is now… get ready… God.
Perhaps many people have become more comfortable in this day of church-and-state correctness to use a term that doesn’t exclude, turn off, or aggravate anyone. I believe “the universe” is this term. Who can be offended by it?
To answer my own question, someone like my mother. Raised by a Southern woman who was proud to have a PTL Club bumper sticker on her Pontiac, she would be offended or at least annoyed if I said, “Mom, the universe must not want you to have perfect vision anymore.” Or, “The universe obviously doesn’t want you to run on the treadmill, otherwise your foot wouldn’t hurt when you do it.” She would be certain I’d gone off the deep end.
Just the same, in this bubble we call California, I hear phrases such as these as a matter of course. Wondering whether it was primarily “new thought” communities using the term, I got my answer just yesterday when reading about retirement in an ordinary New York Times bestseller. I saw “The Universe” has its hands in that field too, right there in the practical, no-nonsense advice pages of what to do with your money.
So has God become The Universe? Or did The Universe become God, which now is reverting back to itself? I don’t have this answer, but I do have a sense of what the term implies.
If The Universe is an active participant in our lives, our worldview includes the idea that conscious and unconscious forces play a role in ultimate order. One assumes circumstances play out for a reason. From this perspective, giving some responsibility to the all-powerful Universe for the way things turn out is a relief. It’s not entirely our fault when plans go awry and we make messes. Even catastrophes might have a higher purpose.
Last week an environmental group spokesperson said perhaps the oil devastation in the Gulf of Mexico is yet another sign from The Universe that we must develop alternative energy. Many people agree. However, to see it conveyed on national news indicates people believe things happen for a reason. The notion has slipped into the national psyche without the “God” terminology that seems to separate people.
People want to believe that the worst of circumstances are not just random and their suffering isn’t for nothing. We look for signs showing whether some good might result from the terrible situations we humans can find ourselves in. This is one of the roles belief in God plays in the lives of humans. But to discuss God in mixed company is awkward. Unless you are in a fairly homogenous community, religion is best not broached if one wants to keep the peace. Perhaps this is why “The Universe” term was birthed.
Beyond explaining the unknowable, The Universe might have further practical use. If we adopt the idea that all things happen for the best and highest good of all, we foster faith that The Universe does not conspire against us, but actually causes and prohibits things from happening in order to keep us on our right path.
For example, I remember stories just after the attacks on September 11th. People said they were meant to be on one of the airplanes or in their office but something odd prevented them from actually getting there. “The Universe stopped me from being there because it wasn’t my time to go.” It is given the same meaning as, “God wasn’t ready for me yet.”
Maybe when we use “The Universe” to talk about our lives, we get to have a little faith in a Higher Power without the added discomfort around revealing religious beliefs. I don’t have the answers to this, but I do find humanity’s dance with religion and faith an interesting one to consider.