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The Enormity of the Universe | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight

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Should the vast size of the universe concern us? Could indeed we fail to notice it? We have researchers trying to give us some estimate of its distance in terms of light years and billions of years in the making. Pascal, in a famous passage, said that the infinite spaces of the heavens frightened him. Why did they not exhilarate him? Space is not so overwhelming if we have reasons to think that it had a creator.

Yet, one of the reasons why people do not want the universe to be created, even if it is created, is because of what it implies. It suggests that a reason can be given for its existence, size and all. Further, this reason may just have something to do with ourselves. That is, we may not be just an afterthought in the whole system, as if we were utterly insignificant. A quick way out of the implications of personal responsibility, then, is simply to deny any meaning at all either to the universe or to ourselves within it. That leaves us supposedly "free" but, at the same time, meaningless, except for any possible meaning we might give ourselves, a meaning that is not particularly consoling. Actually, this denial of an intelligent origin of things usually does not leave us free either. Rather it leaves us stuck in a determined universe that is doing what it must do. We are as a result anything but free.

I often find philosophic principles in unexpected places. Linus and Charlie Brown are standing on a knoll; the darkest of nights surrounds them. While gazing into the mysterious night sky, Charlie says to Linus, "Have you ever considered the enormity of the universe, Linus?" The question is definitely a new one for Linus, who clearly has not thought of it.

In the next scene, with his arms wide as if taking it all in, Charlie continues, "Nobody knows what lies out there beyond the stars." This very observation suggests that we do wonder about what is "beyond the stars." The third scene has no words. In awe, both Charlie and Linus continue to stand and stare at the dark night. Finally, Linus, obviously reflecting on the enormity question, says to Charlie, "I don't even know what's in the next block."

Both the enormity of the universe and what is going on in the next block can be, perhaps ought to be, of concern to us. Our minds, Aristotle said, are capable of knowing all things. We just do not have time in this life to get around to them all, but we would like to if we could. That very curious fact may be one of the reasons why we wonder about the given insufficiency of this life to cover all that is. Why do we have such a power to know, which evidently comes first to be fully aware of itself in our early twenties? It is a power that requires more for its flourishing than we can possibly have time for in one lifetime. It seems like a natural invitation to frustration. There are not a few who take it as such.

I have often asked the question of myself, "Why is it all right to be a human being?" You may wonder what Schall is mumbling about when you see him walking across campus! But a turtle does not ask himself, "Why is it all right to be a turtle?"--or at least I have never met one that did. But a human being who does not ask himself such a question of himself, by implication, is failing to be a human being. We are peculiar kinds of beings. We not only are, but want to know what we are, why we are. For us, it is not enough just to exist.

Yves Simon makes a very insightful remark in this regard. The only way that we can be the kind of being we are, the one that does not even know what is going on in the next block, is for us not to be anything else but ourselves, but what we are. This means, logically, that I want what is not myself to be precisely "not myself." The enormity of the universe is not, somehow, opposed to the obvious particularity in the universe. Indeed, the power of intellect seems to suggest that, in the end, I am really not deprived of what is not myself. If I set myself to it, I can know what is not myself. Indeed, this endeavor to know what is not myself seems to be what I am supposed to do.

Well, this is heavy stuff. But in the enormity of the universe I do not want anyone to forget Linus' earnest realization that he didn't even know what is going on in the next block. It is amazing what we do not know about what is going on next door. We do not in fact want anyone to know everything about ourselves or we them unless we love them.

What is the conclusion to all this reflection on everything and every thing? In his Lost in the Cosmos, a title not wholly related to the enormity of the universe, Walker Percy asked the following pertinent question: "Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been living with yourself all your life?" As I say, the universe is enormous and we are in it, as what is going on in the next block. It may of course be mere babbling to think of these things, or it may finally be a sign that you have begun to wonder about what is, including about yourself and what goes on in the next block.

Originally published in The Hoya, Georgetown University, November 30, 2007.

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007).

Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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