They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
— Robert Frost, “Desert Places”
We Religious Naturalists often talk about a sense of awe we experience when contemplating the stars and the vastness of the universe. But religious experience is not always positive, and that is true of the experience of Religious Naturalists too. The theologian, Rudolf Otto, described religious experience as an encounter with the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery before which humans tremble and are fascinated. The holy, for Otto, not only inspired awe (fascinates), but also “fear and trembling” (tremendous).
One such experience is described by Ursula Goodenough in her book, The Sacred Depths of Nature (1998).
I’ve had a lot of trouble with the universe. It began soon after I was told about it in physics class. I was perhaps twenty, and I went on a camping trip, where I found myself in a sleeping bag looking up into the crisp Colorado night. Before I could look around for Orion and the Big Dipper, I was overwhelmed with terror. The panic became so acute that I had to roll over and bury my face in my pillow.
- All of the stars I see are part of but one galaxy.
- There are some 100 billion galaxies in the universe, with perhaps 100 billion stars in each one, occupying magnitudes of space that I cannot begin to imagine.
- Each star is dying, exploding, accreting, exploding again, splitting atoms and fusing nuclei under enormous temperatures and pressures.
- Our sun too will die, frying the Earth to a crisp during its heat-death, spewing its bits and pieces out into the frigid nothingness of curved spacetime.
The night sky was ruined. I would never be able to look at it again. I wept into my pillow, the long slow tears of adolescent despair. And when I later encountered the famous quote from physicist Steven Weinberg – “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless” – I wallowed in its poignant nihilism. A bleak emptiness overtook me whenever I thought about what was really going on out of in the cosmos or deep in the atom.
Goodenough goes on to describe how she found a way to “defeat the nihilism that lurks in the infinite and the infinitesimal.”
I have come to understand that I can deflect the apparent pointlessness of it all by realizing that I don’t have to seek a point. In any of it. Instead, I can see it as the locus of Mystery.
- The Mystery of why there is anything at all, rather than nothing.
- The Mystery of where the laws of physics came from.
- The Mystery of why the universe seems so strange.
The realization that I needn’t have answers to the Big Questions, needn’t seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me. I assimilate the vastness of the distances, the impermanence, the fact of it all. I go all the way out and then I go all the way down, to the fact of photons without mass and gauge bosons that become massless at high temperatures. I take in the abstractions about forces and symmetries and they caress me, like Gregorian chants, the meaning of the words not mattering because the words are so haunting.
Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate.
Have you ever experienced terror or a sense of being overwhelmed when contemplating the night sky or imagining the infinitesimal spaces between our atoms?
Share your thoughts an experiences in the comments below.