Archive for May, 2009

God’s Total Perspective Vortex

May 16, 2009

On my bookshelf, there is a large, impressive-looking book. It is bound in leather, the lettering on the front is in gold, and there is even a cloth bookmark attached to the spine. This book has played an important role in my spiritual formation. It is not, however, a Bible. It is this book:

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That’s right. Douglas Adams, author of the five novels in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy and everyone’s favorite “evangelical atheist” (his phrase) has helped to shape who I am as a Christian. If you’re not familiar with the Hitchhiker books, they begin with the destruction of Earth; it had to go to make way for an interstellar bypass. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Earth was actually a gigantic computer program constructed by mice (the most intelligent creatures on Earth–dolphins are second) to answer the ultimate question of “Life, The Universe, and Everything,” and that was only minutes away from formulating its answer before the aforementioned destruction. To be precise, though, Earth was actually made to resolve the problem of what the ultimate question really means. You see, an earlier supercomputer had already found the answer to the question, which was “42.” The computer, named Deep Thought, explained that this would be a perfectly satisfactory answer if only you really understood what the ultimate question is actually asking. 

At the end of the fourth book in the trilogy trilogy, God Final Message to His Creation is revealed: “We Apologize For The Inconvenience.” As you should have figured out by now, one of Adams’s chief goals in his novels was to lampoon the very idea of God and inspire disbelief and irreverence in him, replaced instead by a kind of faith in chance and improbability.

But as I already mentioned, Hitchhiker has played an important role in my spiritual development (Take that, authorial intent!), because while there is a truckload of things Adams gets wrong, there is one particular point that he nails:

“The universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettlingly big place, a fact which for the sake of a quiet life most people tend to ignore. 

Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do.

For instance, in one corner of the Eastern Galactic Arm lies the large forest planet Oglaroon, the entire “intelligent” population of which lives permanently in one fairly small and crowded nut tree. In which tree they are born, live, fall in love, carve tiny speculative articles in the bark on the meaning of life, the futility of death and the importance of birth control, fight a few extremely minor wars and eventually die strapped to the underside of some of the less accessible outer branches. 

In fact the only Oglaroons who ever leave their tree are those who are hurled out of for the heinous crime of wondering whether any of the other trees might be capable of supporting life at all, or indeed whether the other trees are anything other than illusions brought on by eating too many Oglanuts. 

Exotic though this behavior may seem, there is no life form in the galaxy which is not in some way guilty of the same thing, which is why the Total Perspective Vortex is as horrific as it is. For when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.” (Adams, chapter 10 of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, on page 194 of the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide.) 

Douglas Adams is exactly right. The universe’s unimaginable infinity, and my comparative tiny smallness, is a staggering, mind-boggling proposition, especially considering that most of my life is spent trying to convince the universe that it’s actually the other way around. (Elsewhere, Adams writes that the shock of the Vortex is enough to burn the soul from your body.) But where Adams uses the Vortex to illustrate how inconsequential humanity is in the whole big scheme of things, I take it as a reminder of how much God loves me. 

Imagine you could project the entire universe on the largest IMAX screen in the world. It’s such a huge picture that you can’t take it in all at once. And up in one corner of the screen, so small you need a magnifying glass just to see it, is the hundreds-of-billions-of-stars galaxy called the Milky Way. In one arm of that galaxy, nestled among all those billions of stars, is the Sun. And circling the sun are some itty-bitty planets. One of the smaller ones is Earth. One of the smaller things on Earth is you. 

The way I think about it, God is looking through the Total Perspective Vortex all the time. He knows precisely how small I am. And yet, he has chosen to reach down through all of those planets, stars, and galaxies, to tap me on the shoulder (or sometimes whack me on the head), and say, “You’re Tyler. I see you. I know you. And I want you to know how important you are and how much I love you. My Son will show you.”

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