For humanity, there lies a deep mystery hidden in the fabric of the universe. Whether that fabric is woven with the strings of modern science’s M-theory or some other substance not guessed at yet, the mystery is still there. The question that haunts us is always one of purpose. Even as science answers more and more of our collective "hows," the why of existence continues to stand aloof, shrouded in seemingly impenetrable darkness. And though generations of the most brilliant thinkers have in their own way, given us this or that kind of "Weltenschaung" or worldview, they all tend to, in their own way, miss a mark hidden in our own fabric, in the deepest yearnings of our hearts.
The Nobel laureate, Leon M. Lederman states in his book Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe that "at ten million years (from the time of the big bang), the universe was formless, cold, dark and apparently, just fading away." Lederman and his co-author, Christopher Hill, a leading theoretical elementary-particle theorist continue:
For reasons not fully understood today, perhaps having to do with one of the mysterious, perhaps as yet unknown species of elementary particles present in the primordial fog, something did happen. It may have been little more than the spontaneous formation of small clumps of particles, stirred by quantum motion, forming tiny primordial seeds of structure, but it was enough to set gravity to work. Within a few hundred million years, a complete transformation of the formless mist had occurred. Large, primitive, blob-shaped galaxies, each containing billions of faint and youthful stars, began to shine. The universe began to bloom.
Here, in accessible and almost poetic language, Lederman and Hill give us the short version of the most current and well-accepted version of the "how" of the universe: That all of the observable galaxies came into being from a pinprick of matter that existed in some very alien kind of form, nearly unknowable to us, before exploding spontaneously with enough force to spin off galaxies and stars and the essence of time and space, throwing into movement the action that would eventually produce our own earth, a kind of Eden where life could take hold, bringing forth multi-cellular organisms that would lay the tracks for plants, and animals and eventually humans.
The "why" that immediately springs from this explanation is one of miraculous catastrophe, or of a "glorious accident" as the late paleontologist Stephen J. Gould put it in his collection of essays, Flamingo’s Smile. What Gould and scientists like him mean is that that there is no "why" to existence. Consciousness is nothing more and nothing less than the sum total of really nice coincidences. And, though it feels thin to us, thinkers like Gould and zoologist Richard Dawkins have assured their readers that any resemblance in life to purpose or design is pure illusion. Like finding faces in the clouds, our desire to see design in even the farthest edges of existence is a function of survival, bequeathed to us by natural selection.
So, then, divorced of purpose and of meaning we are left to soothe ourselves with the balm of consumption, the good news of modern culture that leaves us bereft, with diminishing returns. Mick Jagger summed it up nicely for an earlier generation: "I can’t get no (da da da) satisfaction." And what kind of satisfaction can we have when civilization itself becomes meaningless? Physical pleasure is well-noted for its limitations, and numbing and addiction are the notorious bedfellows of hedonism. Do we lose ourselves to the navel gazing of culture and entertainment, a kind of Seinfeldian universe revolving around deft cultural references and the cynic’s arched eyebrow?
And what do we do about pain? In the Darwinian meta-narrative, pain is the byproduct of the unconscious hand of nature, the convergence of forces both natural and manmade, a struggle towards survival, a function of selfish genetics bent on infinite procreation. Do we dare consider the shark or the spider, the twisting vine on the tree or the cancerous cell in light of some kind of goodness or mercy? Where can we stand in the historic onslaught of suffering? From shifting tectonic plates to atmospheric disturbances, from the brutal clash of ancient cultures to the quiet scourge of depression, pain is written into our very existence. What option do we have but to admit to meaningless, admit to the senseless blindness of natural forces we cower beneath?
The only other option comes clothed in humility; less an answer than it is the action of a personality. We look now to the seeming insignificance of a boy born in the shadows of the Kingdom of Rome, the illegitimate son of a blue collar worker. Born in the hem of a garment crafted by the march of powerful men: Pompey, Gaius Julius, Antony and Octavian, there was nothing in this young man’s background that would betray anything but a life of perfect obscurity. Unless we look closer, to the whisperings of angels and the shining of stars, we can miss it completely.
The other option is Jesus, the Nazarene. A man who came claiming to be God. A man who talked about a new kind of life, outside that thing that humanity had known. He came talking about another kind of empire, not the Darwinian empire of Rome with its own kinds of natural selection, the strongest and most cunning keen for survival. Jesus came talking about a kingdom of the heavens, where love was not a byproduct, but the machinery by which the universe was created; pain the result of a turning away, the consequence of choice.
Jesus took the consequence on himself, the picture of a God willing to suffer: The question of the cancerous cell answered by the crux of crucifixion. And then, as proof of reality beyond what our eyes see, beyond what our ears hear, beyond the pale of electrons and neutrons and the ability of devices to amplify, Jesus comes back from the dead. And in that moment, the mystery of existence is opened to all those willing to jump across the chasm of natural knowledge to the reality of faith. Everyone willing to become an apprentice to the master Jesus, learning from him the new kind of life, gets the spoils of a kingdom where Love is king.