Sizing Up Significance

“I suck!” This is the conclusion which Bill Nye came to during his 2010 speech to the American Humanist Association in his acceptance of their annual Humanist of the Year Award. How did he arrive at this conclusion? He owed it to his relative size in the universe, as he said, “I’m insignificant. … I am just another speck of sand. And the earth really in the cosmic scheme of things is another speck. And the sun an unremarkable star. … And the galaxy is a speck. I’m a speck on a speck orbiting a speck among other specks among still other specks in the middle of specklessness.” What we must be clear about at this point is that science did not make the Science Guy reach this conclusion. Science is capable of measuring your size, but it has no standard upon which to measure your significance.

There have been centuries of astronomers who preceded Bill Nye who clearly understood the vastness of the universe, and did not reach his same conclusion. Recognizing this tremendous difference in size between humans and the universe, Johannes Kepler countered the idea that these “infinite magnitudes” in any way would diminish the importance of man in the eyes of God. In his 1598 letter to a friend, he wrote, “one must not infer from bigness to special importance”, and further indicated that if size mattered then, “the crocodile or the elephant would be closer to God’s heart than man, because these animals surpass the human being in size.”

While there are those who underestimate their significance, there are others who reside on the opposite end of that spectrum. Charles Dickens set his sights on some members of the wealthy elite in his short story “A Christmas Carol” in which those in society who had an exaggerated sense of significance were embodied in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. During an interchange at the home of Bob Crachit, the ghost of Christmas Present challenges Scrooge: “It may be that, in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.”

What Kepler and Dickens both understood was that the value and significance of human beings it determined by someone beyond themselves. It is the God of the universe who speaks out of the cosmos and elevates us to some level of importance. The psalmist, King David, was very cognizant of the miniscule size of humans compared to the universe, and was amazed that God would take notice of such small creatures when he says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:3-4) David understood that his significance was not rooted in his size or political power, but in the value placed on him by the Creator.

A scene from the Terrence Malick film, A Hidden Life

It was this understanding that enabled a lowly Austrian farmer to resist the machinations of the Nazi regime. The recent movie A Hidden Life depicts the story of Franz Jägerstätter who was conscripted into the German army, but refused to swear loyalty to Hitler. Consequently, he was sent to prison and his family was reviled by their community. Various authority figures before and during his imprisonment tried to dissuade Jägerstätter from his action by telling him that nobody was aware of what he was doing, and that it would never make any difference. All he had to do was sign their little paper (he did not have to believe it in his heart), and he could go free. But Jägerstätter was not taken in by the deception of insignificance knowing where true freedom lay. It is important to do right by the One who determines your significance, not by those who view you as insignificant. The title of this film is based upon a quote from closing lines of George Eliot’s novel, “Middlemarch” which lauds the importance of doing what is right despite any earthly perception of significance:

“…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The apostle Paul helps us strike a balance on this matter when he wrote, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Romans 12:3) Yes, do think highly of yourself because the God who threw the stars into the heavens paid the ultimate price for your life – you must be significant. But, you certainly are not more significant than the One who made you, and you are no more significant than any other person He has made.

And by the way, Bill Nye, I have it on good authority, you do not suck.

3 thoughts on “Sizing Up Significance

  1. Tord O. Kongsvold January 15, 2020 — 11:13 am

    Very well said! I love the way you respect science and humanism as part of a greater creation.

    Like

  2. Carl,

    This is a wonderfully-articulate article. I watched a Louie Giglio video that presents the vastness of the universe as an artifact of an infinity-powerful God. Despite Louie’s attempt, one felt a little like “Horton Hears a Who” at the end. Imago Dei balances out that reality. Nicely-done!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kristen Christianssen February 23, 2020 — 6:32 pm

    I appreciate how you use Scripture to form your beliefs and to compare and contrast to science and the arts. And I also appreciate that although you don’t agree with a number of of Bill Nye’s scientific positions, you affirm him and his significance as our fellow human being.

    Like

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