I’ve recently read Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel, Submission. Published on 7 January 2015 – coincidentally, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre – the novel tells the story of an Islamic government coming to power in France in 2022. I’ve written more about the novel here.
Houellebecq has been accused of Islamophobia (and has to some extent admitted this), but Submission’s main target is not Islam, but what Houellebecq clearly sees as a spiritually flaccid and morally bankrupt Europe. Indeed, towards the end of the novel, Houellebecq has one of his characters, a convert to Islam, give a rather sympathetic, even attractive, presentation of the reasons for his belief – though, in the context of the novel, even this is something of a figleaf for the rather baser reasons for conversion to which the speaker is more subtly appealing (a restored academic career, high pay, the opportunity to marry two or three nubile young women, etc).
The speaker, Robert Rediger, dean of what is now the Islamic University of the Sorbonne, describes to the narrator how he uses astronomy when starting to talk to someone about God:
Yes, the beauty of the universe is striking, but the sheer size of it is what staggers the mind. You have hundreds of billions of galaxies, each made up of hundreds of billions of stars, some of them billions of light years – hundreds of billions of billions of kilometres – apart. And if you pull back far enough, to a scale of a billion light years, an order begins to emerge. The galaxy clusters are distributed according to a vast cosmic graph. If you go up to a hundred people in the street and lay out these scientiﬁc facts, how many will have the nerve to argue that the whole thing was created by chance? Besides, the universe is relatively young — fifteen billion years old at the most. It’s like the famous monkey and the typewriter: How long would it take a chimpanzee, typing at random, to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays? Well, how long would blind chance to reconstruct the universe? A lot more than fifteen billion years. […] At the end of the day, isn’t there something ridiculous about some puny creature, living on an anonymous planet, in a remote spur of an ordinary galaxy, standing up on his hind legs and announcing, “God does not exist”? (pp.210f.)
Now of course an atheist who has truly thought through their (non)belief is unlikely to find this argument persuasive, but part of the point Rediger (and Houellebecq) is making is that most people in the west have not thought these things through: they have just lazily assumed that “these metaphysical questions” are no longer relevant, even though they are still “exactly what men fight over, not market shares or who gets to hunt where” (p.209).
Anyway, so far this line of argument is one which many Christian apologists and evangelists would find familiar. But Rediger takes it further, to show why he turned to Islam rather than Christianity:
Presumptuous – that’s the word. At the end of the day, there’s something incredibly proud and arrogant about atheist humanism. Even the Christian idea of incarnation is laughably pretentious. God turned Himself into a man … Why a man and not an inhabitant of Sirius, or the Andromeda galaxy? Wouldn’t that be more likely? (p.211)
How are we to respond to that argument? It’s hard not to appreciate that, on the face of it, looking at things rationally, it has some apparent force – even if it does rest on (currently) unprovable suppositions about extraterrestrial life and about God’s dealings with any such life that might exist.
Then, a couple of days ago, I found myself reading Psalm 8 as part of the appointed readings for that morning. It occurred to me that the argument Rediger makes is precisely that set out in verses 3 and 4, except that Rediger is asking the question with a rather different rhetorical intent from that of the Psalmist:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
And it’s striking that it is precisely this text to which the writer to the Hebrews turns in order to explain what God was doing by becoming incarnate in Christ:
Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
In other words: while we should certainly have a full appreciation for the beauty and scale of the universe. the “vast cosmic graph” of the universe; but we shouldn’t allow the resulting vertigo to give a negative answer to the Psalmist’s question, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Because as the Psalmist continues:
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
– however unlikely that may sound to us.