A woman who worked in a fertility clinic was being interviewed on NPR radio. She talked about all the people she helped and how much they appreciated her work and manner.
She assisted one woman who was having unusual, serious problems. “I was putting a wish out to the universe” to help this patient, she said.
This form of “prayer” appears to have become more and more popular. The “universe” is contemporary culture’s favorite new god. It’s a god that requires no commitment, no faith, no love. You don’t have to join anything, go anywhere, participate in anything and most important, be responsible to anyone or anything.
Cold, Impersonal Entity
Never mind that the universe is a cold, impersonal entity that isn’t in the habit of hearing prayers or having anything to do with humans except provide us a tiny corner in which to live.
It’s not a person, no matter how much we want to personify it. It isn’t even in the category of animals and plants. In fact, it only exists in the sense that it is the name we give to the totality of planets and stars in which our planet moves around its star.
For me, the known universe is, indeed, awesome. Its size is too much for me to get my head around. In some ways, it’s the model of order and precision. In other ways, it’s fearsome in its apparent emptiness and violence. But it has no personality, no ability to read our emotions or empathize with us, no consciousness.
To my mind, scientists know little about its origin or its extent. And no scientist has ever suggested that it has a personality, that it “hears prayers” or that it is worthy of our entreaties.
The Universe Has Your Back?
Still, there seems to be some need to treat the universe as if it were a god. Comments on TV shows and social media I’ve heard recently include: “The universe has your back,” “Thanks to the universe,” and in a fictional TV narrative in which people considered long dead were found alive, a character says, “The universe just gave us a do-over.”
Evidently, people don’t believe in real prayer or establishing and nourishing a relationship with the real God, so they have latched on to “the universe” as a substitute.
For many in the western world these days, the God of Christians and Jews is entirely unacceptable, even contemptible. He/she is out-of-date, unreliable and an enigma. And who knows if he/she even exists.
The idea of treating inanimate objects as gods is nothing new, of course. The Hebrew Bible continually rails against such ideas, which were popular among neighboring countries. The neighbors worshipped the sun and moon, the extent of the “universe” in those days, and images like statues which they themselves made, often out of “precious” materials.
The prohibition against idolatry, in fact, is one the Ten Commandments. “You shall have no other gods before me,” the Book of Exodus places in the mouth of God. “You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above….”
The Christian Bible takes up that theme, though idolatry was beginning to fade about the time Jesus was born.
Work, Prestige and Power
Despite people’s fascination with “the universe,” I believe today’s most popular substitutes for God are still wealth, work, prestige and power. Anything that replaces love of God and neighbor is idolatry.
For people searching for the real God, the universe – though awesome in its vastness – is simply a creation of a God who is infinitely more powerful and awesome but who is also our loving parent.
When we recognize this, we can have the confidence of the author of Psalm 90 (in Catholic Bibles), where God says about those who know and love him: “Since he clings to me in love, I will free him; protect him for he knows my name. When he calls, I shall answer: ‘I am with you.’”